The Eerie Comfort of Liminal Spaces

Why we’re compelled by images of abandoned shopping malls, waiting rooms, and corridors

A long, dimly lit hallway with a patterned rug
James Leynse / Corbis / Getty

Some of the most enduring images of the past two and a half years have been photos of freshly abandoned public spaces: an empty Times Square, utterly calm Venice canals, a seemingly deserted Shanghai. Their immediate power came from their uncanny postapocalyptic vision: This is what the world would look like without us. But years into a global pandemic, they now strike me as something else: artifacts of a world in transition.

Across the internet, another term for this genre of imagery predates the age of COVID-19. Liminal spaces can be found across Twitter (@SpaceLiminalBot has 1.2 million followers), Reddit (r/LiminalSpace has about 526,000 members), and TikTok (the hashtag #liminalspaces has more than 2 billion views), where users post contextless eerie pictures and videos that attempt to capture a state of being in-between. Liminal spaces are now an aesthetic in online parlance, meaning where like-minded people see compelling images and post variations on them: Think of how cottagecore, a trend centered on traditional values of nature and sustainability, became popular early in the pandemic.

Still, on an internet full of subcultures and microtrends, liminal spaces have a particular resonance with our current moment: They represent the strange solace of being on the threshold of monumental change. Strictly speaking, a liminal space is a place of transition. It is typically devoid of humans and, in some cases, distinctly surreal—its artistic antecedents might be works of art such as The Red Tower, by Giorgio de Chirico, though a true liminal space should contain touchstones that are a bit more recognizable. In fact, the most uncanny contemporary liminal spaces combine the familiarity of, say, a New York City tourist magnet with an unnatural emptiness. Then again, a liminal space can be somewhere you could imagine dreaming about or seeing on TV. It can be tinged with tragedy or just inexplicably sad in its ordinariness. Liminal spaces can be both comforting and discomforting, nostalgic and unsettling, intimate and unnatural.

Do these emotions sound familiar? These moody images parallel a growing sense of dissatisfaction and paralysis in the world: a feeling that although systems of labor and public health and politics are broken, ordinary people can do little to change society’s course. For many, this stasis reflects a collective inability to imagine a future that is alternately presented as utopian—self-driving cars, the promise of debt forgiveness—and dystopian.

Liminal spaces seem to acknowledge that the world is in a state of transition, dragging us along with it. The pace of modern life seems impossible to keep up with, yet our lived reality does not change. So as society waits for the breaking point to come, liminal spaces make the anticipation of those fears visible, and reaffirm that other people are looking at the world the same way. If limbo is all we know, perhaps we take some comfort in the banality of its ubiquity.

The concept of liminality, which has been around since at least the early 20th century, commonly refers to the psychological condition of being on the threshold of a new life stage. In the fields of ethnology and anthropology, scholars such as Arnold van Gennep and, later, Victor Turner introduced liminality to describe the periods of ambiguity during rites of passage. Such theories might explain the significance and persistence of traditional coming-of-age rituals such as the journey that 11- or 12-year-old Inuit boys take with their father to learn to hunt and survive frigid weather, or the celebrated quinceañera of a teenage girl in Mexico. Liminality was subsequently adopted by academics from other fields to help make sense of, for example, the sociopolitical problems and transformations wrought by globalization.

Today, though, liminality is a vibe: a strong feeling with loose definitions. In 2019, users on 4chan, Reddit, Tumblr, and other social platforms began posting a blend of images that instill nostalgia and uneasiness. A year later, liminal spaces featured regularly in the news—and can still appear today.

Of course, people will contest what makes a true liminal space. Memes and posts across the internet question the definition of the term. As in any online community, adherents squabble over ownership of the concept, committed to controlling the sanctity of the aesthetic—sure, your grandma’s basement is empty, but is it unsteady? The liminal-spaces subreddit’s rules are very clear: “Liminal doesn’t mean creepy,” nor does “surreal” or any sense of “nostalgia” too personal to be understood by anyone else.

Yet the inability to nail down a definition of liminality also speaks to the slipperiness of the emotion it tries to represent. In 2018, the artist and writer James Bridle described our contemporary stuckness as the “New Dark Age,” in which we struggle to understand a world that technology is making ever more complex, leaving us alone and confused. He explains the crisis, though, in almost hopeful terms: “Through acknowledging this darkness,” he writes, we can “seek new ways of seeing by another light.” The online passion for liminal spaces, then, may be another method for embracing the darkness of the future. Images of liminality may never fully satisfy us, because our contemporary predicament is fundamentally a temporal threshold that these posts try to capture spatially. Still, even if they don’t illuminate a better future, they can at least remind us that we’re not alone in how we see the present.