Have I Been Here Before? : an Exploration of “Liminal” spaces

Lily Ives, Editor in Chief

Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve been somewhere before?

Walking into a restaurant or a school building that you’ve never set a foot in before, but you’re immediately hit with a sense of familiarity,  an almost unnerving sensation, chilling your bones. The air feels thick with nostalgia, goosebumps creep up your neck and arms and you feel frozen, trying desperately to search for when you’ve been here before, like the moments directly after a dream, when one is still clinging onto the subject.

Courtesy of u/Fatal3rr0r on r/liminalreality

Now, I raise you, have you ever felt this about a photo and not a location you are physically in? If so, you are not alone. 

Often called liminal spaces, which are locations that represent a sort of mid-ground, transitioning location or mindset, all throughout the internet, people have been spreading images of locations that they claim have a familiar sense to them, even being unsettling at times. These have been seen on compilations on sites like YouTube or TikTok, often set to odd or atmospheric music to help build the setting for the viewer.  Users on the site Pinterest have made entire boards made up of these pictures. 

There was a certain image that went semi-viral online in the past few years that is called the “backrooms” that helped kick off these trend. This photo, unlike others of the same feeling, has an entire story and history attached to it, much like an urban legend.

Courtesy of backrooms.fandom.com

Personally, this concept fascinates me–the idea that this many people feel the same thing when looking at a still image on their phone screen. This kind of psychological phenomenon has always been a huge interest of mine, so seeing something that I directly relate to is super exciting. In writing this, I hope to understand why this feeling is present for so many people and how a photo can create it. 

One reason for the deja vu has been proposed by a number of internet users, including a YouTuber by the name of Solar Sands in his video essay about the topic. The idea is that these images make us feel nostalgic for our childhood. Most of the people who feel this sense of deja vu when looking at these pictures are people who were born in the late 90’s or early 00’s, which is exactly the aesthetic that most of these locations have. The scenery and the objects and the buildings are all things from this era that most of us only have vague memories of. I was born in 2002, and many of these places feel like locations I would have gone to when I was little. There pictures of malls, and houses, and bedrooms, and birthday centers that Generation Z, most of the current high schoolers’ generation, all remember going to or seeing.  

The eeriness of these images is even easier to explain. What do all these images have in common?

Courtesy of u/tristoncosgrove on r/liminalreality

A dullness to the quality and a lack of people. One feels uneasy looking at them because they feel off, because these places that should be bustling with life are empty, dead, hollow. It’s almost an innate feeling of wrongness. It makes us feel afraid to see these rooms and places so desolate and dark and empty. 

In spite of the dark emotions felt by viewers, this phenomenon is fascinating, leaving many, including me, somewhat stumped as to why exactly all of these emotions are stirred by pictures. There’s almost a horror-like element attached to these photos and just keeps drawing me and many others into them. Hopefully, you got some semblance of understanding through this article. Go out and explore these pictures for yourself. See if you have any lurking in old photo albums that are laying under piles of dust. I would recommend visiting the subreddit r/liminalreality found at https://www.reddit.com/r/LiminalReality/ for starting your exploration.