Discover more from Fiction for the Cosmically Disturbed
The Horror of Liminality
A Love Letter to the Empty
NOTE: This essay was previously published on the Patreon for my podcast. Because I have a much larger audience here, I decided to republish it. Enjoy!
Earlier this year, a movie called Skinamarink made quite an impact on the horror audience. Not only was everyone seemingly talking about it, but the movie lacked a critical consensus—something that seems to happen less and less frequently these days. I love works that divide the audience. Whether we’re talking about the work of auteurs like Eli Roth, Ti West, and Rob Zombie or big budget flawed masterpieces like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, if a movie has a split score on Rotten Tomatoes, chances are I’ll appreciate it a lot more. It’s not because I’m a contrarian or I have terrible taste; rather, if a movie (or book or song, etc.) doesn’t catch on with everyone, then chances are it’s a more honest artistic expression. We aren’t monoliths and not everyone is going to like us, so why should our art be any different?
The way it polarized audiences alone would have been enough for Skinamarink to capture my interest. More than that, however, were the whispers I heard that it was the first feature film to fully embrace the liminal space aesthetic, as well as the tropes (some might say trappings) of analog horror. These are rabbit holes I’ve been plumbing for the past two years or so.
When I got a night to myself in early February, I fired up AMC+ and hit play on a movie I’d seen no trailers for and knew very little about beyond its audience reactions. Like many of its detractors, I initially found Skinamarink’s approach jarring. It’s full of low-angle shots and has very few on-screen moments with characters you can physically see. Instead, we’re put in the perspective of a child who’s up late one night when their house seemingly turns against them. Things like doors and windows simply disappear. Toys and other household items defy gravity, sticking to the walls and the ceiling. A hallway extends past its constructed length, stretching to an uncanny distance while every item within the house piles itself on the ceiling above a doorway that gets farther and farther away.
I felt vulnerable watching this movie.
People say my generation never grew up, but can you blame us? We came of age with Columbine, then watched over 2,000 people die on national television in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. From there, nothing (at least on a macro level) seemed to get better. Extreme weather events. Recessions. Mass shootings. Escalating racial tensions. A pandemic. The widespread embrace of totalitarianism (of which fascism is only one skin it wears).
Is it any wonder we cling to nostalgia like a child to their mother’s leg on the first day of school?
Skinamarink doesn’t explicitly say any of this. Instead, it’s all relayed in the subtext.
I deeply appreciate Skinamarink. It’s experimental filmmaking in the truest sense, and once I adjusted to its techniques, I had an impossible time looking away. It’s a fine experience on a television screen, but an even more effective one if you watch it on your computer with all the lights out and some noise-canceling headphones over your ears. However, while it’s an example of fully embracing the concept of liminality at a time when a wider portion of the filmgoing audience knows the term and its meaning, it is far from the first time this idea has been exploited whether consciously or unconsciously on the filmmaker’s part.
Before I go into any examples, I first want to define what I mean when I say a liminal space. A lot of people hear those words and think they simply describe an empty room. While an empty room can certainly be liminal, not all liminal spaces need to be empty. Liminal simply refers to the transitional or initial stage of a process. That sounds an awful lot like, “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/In dark woods, the right road lost.”
It also sounds like the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Hotels in themselves are filled wall-to-wall with places you go when you’re trying to go someplace else. In fact, a plethora of liminal space images are often simply photographs of hallways in hotels. But in The Shining, the entire hotel is a transitional space. It’s the off season, so there are no guests, only the caretakers—a man transmuting into a monster by either literal ghosts or personal demons brought to the surface by alcohol and isolation, a woman who must transform into a protective figure when her child is threatened by the man she loves, and a little boy who learns a life-altering lesson about the evil that men do. While Stephen King has never been shy about bemoaning the differences between the film and his novel, even he cannot deny the staying power of those dizzying hallways with the promise of horror around each corner. The Shining is a nightmare committed to celluloid, and it embodies the unease and derealization of being trapped in a transitory space.
Though it doesn’t explicitly come to mind when considering liminality in horror cinema, the suspicious emptiness of the streets in John Carpenter’s Halloween has a similar uncanniness as the hallways in The Shining. Remember, this is Halloween night in the suburbs; those streets should be packed! And yet, we see very few people on them, especially after nightfall. You could perhaps chalk it up to budgetary constraints, but Carpenter would again prove his mastery of horrific emptiness just two years later with those opening moments of The Fog. After Mr. Machen tells the story of the ghost pirates who would soon exact their vengeance on the town of Antonio Bay, we’re treated to shots of streets at night, devoid of people, when suddenly, gas pumps and car lifts start operating on their own and unseen dogs go berserk.
I believe the vacancy of Halloween is intentional. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode is about to meet the living embodiment of masculine violence in Michael Myers. For this confrontation to take place, they must meet on neutral ground. And try as she might (with tools commonly used in home abortions, no less), it is Dr. Loomis, the alchemical other half of Myers who ultimately puts a stop to the violent onslaught (at least for now).
The final confrontation could be read as an interesting statement about men taking responsibility for taking their uglier impulses, but it also illustrates the film’s minimalist approach to character, which only enhances the effective use of emptiness in Halloween. Aside from Laurie, there’s Michael and Loomis (who I argue are the same character), three victims who shirk their responsibilities (be they babysitting or schoolwork), and a kindly but unhelpful sheriff. The streets must clear for the confrontation to take place, for Laurie to survive and for Loomis to lay Michael to rest. Seeing the setting of Halloween as a place for archetypes to wage war also makes the revelation in the second film, that Laurie is Michael’s sister, even more interesting from an occult perspective. The writers of the 2018 Halloween retconned this plot development as non-cannon, and that’s a shame.
A recent example of horror leaning into the concept of liminal space is last year’s Barbarian, in which a vast tunnel system lies beneath a short-term rental house located in a rundown neighborhood of modern Detroit. Horror awaits in those tunnels, in the form of the Mother, an apparent monster made this way by someone far more sinister than her. Interestingly, this film weaponizes nostalgia as a horror device—something liminal space enthusiasts know all too well. The flashback showing the home’s original owner, a serial rapist, is pure Lynchian: a 1980s dreamscape that calls to mind the opening of Blue Velvet where behind white picket fences, beneath the freshly manicured lawns, malignant insects writhe and breed and feed.
In a liminal state, the passage of time is not as clear as it is inside a regimented routine, such as driving to and from work or attending scheduled events such as college courses or Jiu-Jitsu lessons. The Covid lockdowns placed us in a seemingly permanent state of liminality. Of waiting. Of nervous anticipation. Of permanent vigilance. It is a state crucial to storytelling, a concept that even recent, but pre-Covid works of horror seemed to fundamentally understand. The coming-of-age, sex-and-death drama It Follows plays out in a space and time impossible to determine. Its emphasis on the empty brings a subliminal unease to the viewer. The Tethered in Jordan Peele’s Us live in underground tunnels until rallied by their leader to take bloody revenge on their topside counterparts. It’s a film about the uprising of the marginalized and the silenced, and it’s Peele’s most unhinged and horrific film to date.
Liminal space is nothing new to horror and surreal cinema. It exists in David Lynch’s Hollywood, in the labyrinthine corridors of hell in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and in The Exorcist III’s hospital halls after visiting hours where a killer lurks, wielding garden shears. Audiences and creators are now simply more aware of the concept, and with this awareness comes works that more explicitly engage with the it, such as Apple TV’s Severance with its nondescript office hallways, clearly inspired by the widely circulated “backrooms” meme.
Speaking of which, arthouse film studio A24 recently announced the development of The Backrooms, a movie based on the image, which was first posted to 4chan in 2019 by an anonymous user. The image has already been the source of a found-footage webseries, several games, and a lore that, in true creepypasta fashion, continues to be regularly expanded by various users. It says a lot that A24—a studio determined to tell anyone who will listen that they don’t follow trends, but aim to set them—has set their sights on a movie based directly on this internet phenomenon. They’ve even tapped 17-year-old Kane Parsons, creator of aforementioned webseries, to direct. It’s a curious decision, and it raises questions about who owns a piece of media posted to the internet, especially when posted anonymously. For a deep dive on these issues, I would point to YouTuber In Praise of Shadows’ excellent video “Slenderman, Analog Horror, and the Rise and Fall of Marble Hornets.”What I can say is that this move is testament to the power a singular image can have. In particular, it speaks to the emotions these images of transitory spaces can evoke.
What it would be like to be trapped in such a place?
What might happen if you discovered you were not alone?
Or what if there was no immediate threat? How quickly would your sense of comfort and sanity unravel if you were simply unable to leave?
I adore the liminal space aesthetic. I’m fascinated by thresholds, the pre-ritual state, and the evocative power of emptiness. The fascination with liminal spaces gained widespread popularity during the Covid pandemic for reasons that should be obvious, but it’s always been here, in our art and in our lives; only the vernacular is new. And if the infamy of Skinamarink and the forthcoming release of A24’s The Backrooms are any indication, liminal space will remain in the horror zeitgeist for years to come.
That’s from Dante’s Inferno.
This is a creator I no longer wish to support due to how he treated a friend of mine. However, this essay was published months ago, and I would prefer to keep it in its initial form.