The Surreality of Liminal Spaces

By Ben Arzate

To my great dismay, I’ve been spending more time on social media lately. However, I have come across several accounts dedicated to posting what are called “liminal spaces.” You may have seen these. Some reoccurring images are abandoned malls, empty hallways, barren parking lots, and parks after dark. Later, I’ll go into a similar phenomenon that appeared in Surrealist paintings. Before that, I want to talk about a popular variant of this called “The Backrooms.”

“The Backrooms” began as a creepypasta that accompanied a picture of an empty location which appears to be an office building in which the walls and carpet are all a sickly yellow color. The original creepypasta reads as such:

“If you’re not careful and you noclip out of reality in the wrong areas, you’ll end up in the Backrooms, where it’s nothing but the stink of old moist carpet, the madness of mono-yellow, the endless background noise of fluorescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in[sic]

God save you if you hear something wandering around nearby, because it sure as hell has heard you

This little piece of flash fiction caught on very quickly and has resulted in several variant creepypastas, alternate reality games, and even a video game on Steam. While several offshoots focus on the final sentence,  the idea that this place is filled with horrible monsters,  the vast majority focus on the creepiness of the location. You would think that what is essentially an old office building, a location familiar to many, wouldn’t be so scary but it would likely not be comfortable to some, as it would remind people of jobs that are often unfulfilling. You could read an underlying anxiety about the modern workplace into it, and this may be a part of it. However, I believe there’s a deeper psychological phenomenon that goes beyond that. 

The term “liminal” comes from the Latin word for “threshold.” It’s often used in religion and anthropology to refer to a state of transition. For example, sunset and sunrise could be considered liminal times between day and night as could the hypnagogic state between being fully awake and fully asleep.  One could also see the current state of our culture in the midst of a pandemic as a “liminal” time between what was before and what will be after. This is an appropriate term for things such as empty office buildings and abandoned malls. They bear evidence of human interaction by just existing, but they are between the states of being occupied again or being either torn down or falling into full decay.

Conditioned as we are that these places should be full of people, to be alone in one gives us a sense of unease. It makes us question why no one else is there. It feels wrong to be there at all. How did I get here and how fast can I leave? 

These types of anxieties may also be present in the fear of being alone in a place someone expects to be such as a forest, a field, or any other form of untouched nature. However, because one is aware that places of nature have fewer to no people, they don’t evoke such strong feelings of unease. The idea of sitting alone in a field is appealing to many who would find the idea of sitting alone in an abandoned mall disturbing.

Despite the sense of unease, many also report feeling nostalgic looking at images of liminal spaces. Of course, this is because of the familiarity of them. The most effective images of liminal spaces have an almost “generic” look to them, like they could be from almost anywhere. Most remember going through the mall as a child or playing at the park. To view these things in an abandoned or dilapidated state is a reminder of a space that was once visited regularly and is now distant. 

Of course, this idea is nothing new. Many artists have recognized the power of abandoned and empty spaces. One could point to something like the empty rooms and hallways of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as an example. However, I want to focus on the Surrealists’ use of such spaces. 

Probably the most famous Surrealist painting is Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Immediately recognizable for its melting clocks, it’s mostly a desert landscape without any recognizable human figures. While a desert is a liminal space, being outside of cultures and, seemingly, time, a better example to compare to the modern online version previously discussed would be the work of Giorgio de Chirico.

“The Song of Love” by Giorgio de Chirico

De Chirico, an important precursor and inspiration to the Surrealist movement, is best known for the paintings of his “metaphysical period.” Most of these lacked any human figures. Even the statues in the works looked more like odd mannequins than actual people. His most famous piece is The Song of Love. The panting depicts a ball, a rubber glove, and the head of a Greek statue,  all of which are of unusual sizes and angles,  in an outdoor cityscape. The only indication of human activity is a train in the background which may or may not be moving. The overall effect is eerie and off-kilter not unlike the sickly yellow office space of The Backrooms.

“The Red Tower”

Likely the best example of liminal spaces in de Chirico’s work is The Red Tower.  The focus of the painting is a distant, wide tower with homes around it. From the viewers perspective, there are buildings on both sides casting shadows. It’s strikingly, hauntingly empty of people. The closest thing to a human figure is an unusually large statue of a man on a horse, the man being completely hidden by one of the buildings and the horse shrouded in shadows. The effect is one of uneasy isolation in the viewer. One which was likely much stronger in de Chirico’s contemporaries. 

René Magritte was another Surrealist who made heavy use of liminal space. He often exaggerated this effect by presenting these spaces in a way that was “off.” His Empire of Light series is a good example of this. Each of the paintings is a depiction of  an urban street at night with the sky above being daytime. The familiarity of the dark street is contrasted with the impossible sky, creating an even greater sense of disquiet in the viewer because of the difficulty in discerning the actual time and place. 

The Hereafter is probably one of Magritte’s most spot on examples of a liminal space and probably the most disquieting of his paintings. The painting is simply of an unmarked tomb in what seems to be a barren field. The only other details are the landscape disappearing to a hazy horizon and the sun shining above. It leads one to ask several questions. Why is this the only tomb here? Where are the markings? Was this person so special that they deserved this single grave, or so forgotten that they were thrown in an unmarked tomb to never be visited? It’s a stark depiction of loneliness and a reminder of ones mortality. The message is clear: life is a liminal space between birth and death. 

In our unconscious, we struggle between the image of liminal spaces as we knew them when they seemed alive versus how they are now in their transitional period. The same struggle is present in Surrealist paintings where we can comprehend what we’re seeing, but, at the same time, we know that what’s being presented to us is impossible. The images, like abandoned spaces, are both recognizable and completely unfamiliar at the same time. This is why it creates both a longing and an unease to return to the places where we once were and often are unable to return to. 

Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, IA. His articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various places online and in print. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures and is the author of two poetry books (the sky is black and blue like a battered child and dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, feel bad all the time), one book of short stories (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, NihilismRevised), and two novels (The Story of the Y, Cabal Books and Elaine, Atlatl Press). Find him online at