Dirt: Liminal dust-up
Fighting for the future of The Backrooms.
Samantha Culp on a war between world builders and purists on r/creepy (and off).
In the early seasons of the pandemic, I, like millions of others, found odd comfort and inspiration in the communities dedicated to photos of "liminal spaces". Even as they stretched Victor Turner’s original anthropological concept to its breaking point, the young and extremely online who were redefining it in realtime were also breathing new life into the term, responding not only to quarantine, but a host of anxieties and longings about the real but ephemeral, everywhere-and-nowhere digital space we dwell in.
However, I was even more intrigued to discover a new form of youth-driven internet folklore surfacing from the “liminal space” phenomenon. "The Backrooms" was originally a meme that has, arguably, evolved into a mythos. Since May 2019, it has spawned stories, comics, fan art, video games, and increasingly high-production value viral videos on YouTube (and maybe a cinematic prodigy or two). As it bubbles up through mainstream culture, it's even been cited as an influence on AppleTV's recent series Severance.
Along the way, it’s been characterized by a schism that seems to parallel other tensions within art, entertainment, and fandom today: do we want lore, or do we want the sublime? Does a strong, clear singular fable lose its power when it can constantly be open-sourced into extended universes?
For the uninitiated, the Backrooms originated in a 4Chan post on May 12, 20191, on a thread calling for “disquieting images” that “just feel off”. An anonymous user posted an off-kilter photo of an empty interior (office? basement?) space with mismatched yellow wallpaper, extending to unknown dimensions in the background, and another user replied with the following…
This image macro was essentially a "creepypasta," a bite-sized type of digital horror fiction that also spawned “Slenderman”. More than most creepypasta, however, this one seemed to tap the mainline of cosmic horror, channeling much more ancient traditions of uncanny geography, existential dread, and inferno art from Lovecraft to Lynch, Sartre to Tarkovsky — even the Minotaur’s labyrinth. While creepypasta are inherently collaborative, perhaps this one, with its mythic charge and the fact it depicted and described a speculative "space" (instead of a discrete character or artifact), issued even more of an irresistible call to "fill" it.
Fans responded, soon developing not just art, stories, 3D visualizations, and Roblox games that fleshed out the original space and staged dramas against it (often tales of individual characters who had fallen into this cursed maze) — but also EXPANDING its conceptual borders. Soon, this open-source world-building had sprawled into aesthetic anarchy.
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On the main wikidot, for instance, the original Backrooms image became known as “Level 0,” so that a series of open-sourced new levels could proliferate — eventually including everything from “skin-stealers,” to giant spiders, to an old Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant, to the notion that the Eagles’ 1976 soft-rock hit “Hotel California” refers to a specific floor of the Backrooms (because "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave," naturally.)
These expanding levels spawned new art and animated videos exploring them, including a thriving sub-genre of YouTube videos (in languages from Arabic to Korean) dedicated simply to explaining the Backrooms ecosystem as an iceberg of lore, the headphoned hosts like so many Gen-Z Virgils, guiding the viewer through the circles of crowd-sourced (and often hilarious) hell.
Obviously, many of the additions to the Backrooms are designed for a laugh — Shrek, Doge, and even Saul Goodman have all have made their cameos — but the more straight-forwardly "scary" levels and entities could be seen as a process of domesticating the true cosmic horror of the original post — of making the "unheimlich" more "heimlich". If nature abhors a vacuum, maybe the human mind abhors an endless, empty labyrinth of beige carpets and would rather fill it with multiplying entities that range from plausibly frightening (fast-moving, faceless mannequins) to silly (flying bagels).
Then came the backlash. “You guys ruined the Backrooms” began a Reddit thread in July 2021, continuing, “the original concept of The Backrooms was the idea of isolation, and the idea of slowly going insane from seeing the same walls, rooms, and halls everyday without change. Many posts capture a similar sentiment: "…The back rooms was such a cool and creepy concept at the beginning but 12 year olds decided to make it not creepy anymore by adding monsters and shit into it. It’s gone from slow burn eeriness to jump scare low effort creepypasta schlock."
For much of 2020 and 2021, this dichotomy continued, the same debate repeating in countless threads between what could loosely be called "purists" versus "expansionists". This is an issue that seems endemic to digital-native storytelling and fandom in general, and many have compared the Backrooms to the earlier creepypasta/narrative ecosystem known as "SCP Foundation" as one that similarly spiraled in all directions and that many lost patience with.
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The Backrooms might have just continued this way — a singular, minimalist vision of dread, and its ever-expanding maximalist spin-off. But in early 2022, another narrative strain emerged. In January, a 16-year-old filmmaker called Kane Pixels (aka Kane Parsons) began uploading a series of YouTube videos set in The Backrooms with his own twist on the mythos, rendered entirely in Blender but with insanely high production values (the first installment has already racked up over 30 million views). Besides showcasing a possible baby Spielberg on our hands (I would be shocked if Parsons is not fielding calls from agents right now), the series is fascinating for being expansionist yet auteurist (as opposed to collectivist).
For the ultra-purists who want the Backrooms to remain as “mysterious” as possible, Parsons’ worldbuilding, slowly clarifying over the 10 non-chronological episodes (and a handful of unlisted easter eggs) posted to date, will disappoint, as there is a suggested “origin story” for the Backrooms. But while Parsons’ output wears its influences on its sleeve (including Stranger Things and Jeff VanDerMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, among others), it’s also vibrantly original in look and feel, and committed to the subtlety and pacing that retains some of the cosmic horror of the OG Backrooms — so much so that it has now triggered a league of imitators adopting his aesthetic and storyline into new videos (which reverently cite “inspired by Kane Pixels” in their summaries).
In a mainstream entertainment landscape dominated by IP franchises and their sequels, prequels, and reboots, aggressive worldbuilding is increasingly the norm. What better way to keep extending those extended universes than ensuring there are enough deep wells of lore to be fracked as needed? This tendency has strange effects on storytelling itself, often producing shows or films that “contain both too much plot and not enough” (as Kyle Chayka put it), when narratives stretch like taffy to cover the necessary number of episodes/installments, or push exposition off-screen with the expectation that fans will fill in the blanks for themselves (and become more invested in the franchise in the process).
Against this backdrop, the Backrooms phenomenon and its various camps illuminate this same struggle, between narrative excess and the longing for mystery, for an artistic encounter with the truly unknown. Even Kane Pixels’ work demonstrates the strength of the Backrooms central mythos to accommodate new stories, and maybe even absorb them back into its genuine strangeness.
For instance, on another thread lamenting how the Backrooms have become overly explained, one Reddit user recently posted this provocative new twist: “I like the idea that the ‘new lore’ is just a fake roadmap created by the makers to inspire false hope. There are no rules. There is no knowable answer. You are simply: trapped.” Another quickly replied: “Ohhhh that’s fucked up, I like it.” — Samantha Culp
The Dirt: Rage, rage against the Marvelization of creepypasta.
The photo had been posted about a year earlier on another 4Chan thread about “cursed images” but the text only came in 2019. The actual location of the photo has never been identified despite much armchair sleuthing (though metadata suggests it was taken in 2009). The meme properly took off after being reposted to Reddit’s r/creepy board on May 29 2019.