For Gen-Z, Liminal Space Photography is a Haunting Form of Nostalgia

Amid the constantly changing online whirlwind, the uncanny phenomenon of eerily stagnant pictures deemed “Liminal Space” photography has provided a strange solace for the world’s first Internet generation.

backrooms collage

Photo by Scarbor Siu / Unsplash

Arts & Culture

From abandoned shopping malls and classrooms to uninhabited office spaces and living rooms, there is something eerie about places stripped of human presence. Once considered run-of-the-mill and uninteresting, such areas take on a whole new meaning through their lack of human influence: evoking a feeling of striking familiarity and even nostalgia, but with something just slightly off. Liminal space photographs attempt to capture this aura, captivating the internet on platforms like Reddit, where r/liminalspace has over 550,000 members. Users post unnerving images devoid of explanation or context, whether a Kubrick-esque hallway or an abandoned bowling alley, to capture a state of transition, a feeling of being in-between spaces.

The Backrooms: considered one of the most famous examples of digitally-rendered liminal space imagery, The Backrooms were first introduced on Creepypasta and are described as an unending network of empty office rooms.

For some, liminal space photography can evoke a sense of nostalgia, their slightly blurry feel, poor image quality, and moody lighting perhaps resembling a brain’s recall of the past—or the strange feeling of loneliness that can occur in dreams. Through the lens of Generation Z, such images may be striking on a more visceral level because they reexamine places from childhood through a context-less lens. When scrolling through Reddit, one may come across photographs of empty playrooms or fluorescent-lit cafeterias, areas once inhabited and lively, now simply exist stagnantly. They are places the viewer has been before (or eerily similar), but separated from the context of their specific recall—creating a strange tension between vivid memories held in such spaces and the emptiness of a given photograph. 

The photographs contain the atmosphere of places considered ‘uninteresting’ or ordinary by default, which we often ignore or generalize because of their average nature. However, a strange feeling occurs when stripping scenarios from such places, leaving them bleak and perhaps foreboding in a horror-like way. The lack of human presence touches on a common childhood fear: of a monster around the corner, of an ominous, impending doom. Some of the most compelling examples of liminal photography feature a feel of surrealism or uncanniness, an element not necessarily impossible but quite bizarre considering the given place. For instance, a series of images by u/liminalcraft on Reddit are tangibly possible but have an unnerving, dreamlike feel. An empty and sterile hallway is captured, with faux fish hanging from the ceiling by strings. The hallway, a place often associated with transition, is tinted by blue lighting—resembling the inside of a fish tank or the ocean’s depths.

Liminal spaces have become an aesthetic niche on the internet— gaining traction amid the start of the pandemic in 2020. When considering the eerie emptiness of gathering places due to COVID, the overall feeling of uncertainty, and daily isolation, it makes sense why young people have adopted a fascination with ‘liminality.’ As Merriam-Webster defines it, liminality is “ of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold: barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response.”  For Generation Z, many milestones have occurred in a strange, liminal-like space due to the pandemic—graduations, proms, and get-togethers with friends—all dampened by COVID.  The places once inhabited sat empty: areas where young people should have been experiencing an ordinary high school or college experience if not for the pandemic. Perhaps this partially explains the appeal of liminal photography for Gen-Z, photos that actively acknowledge the feeling of limbo sparked by global unease. 

Despite the eeriness of some liminal spaces, there is something strangely beautiful for the Gen-Z contingent. A generation engulfed by the internet and constant social occurrences, tragedies, and shifts: the places of childhood remaining stalwart as they were through these images, untouched by all the chaos that has occurred since. It feels as if the past waits to be revisited through liminal space photography…once-stagnant memories coming to the surface.