On May 12, 2019, an anonymous user contributed to a 4chan thread asking its participants to “post disquieting images that just feel ‘off’.” A single photo of an empty office space with fluorescent lighting, beige carpet and walls decorated with yellow ‘90s styled wallpaper was enough for the internet to lose its mind. Believed to be founding footage of an alternate dimension’s “level zero,” its mysterious nature birthed one of the internet’s biggest sensations in the lore community.
What are The Backrooms?
Defining the Backrooms is a heavy task, since each person has a different interpretation based on their beliefs and personal experiences. At large, the Backrooms are a fictional, internet-based urban legend that involves the creative backstories for liminal spaces. The ongoing lore can be described as a collaborative creative project by dedicated fans and writers with an infatuation for these spaces.
Like the “Upside Down” from Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” the Backrooms are imagined to exist in an opposite realm that replicates certain physical design elements of our world. Some fans imagine them to be the rough drafts of the real world — a sketch of closed-off sections that only some can explore when they accidentally “no-clip” out of reality. This is an adapted term from video games which originally meant that playable characters would encounter some coded programming error and pass through solid objects and surfaces as if they were intangible.
Since the Backrooms entail a long, extensive list of different locations, fans have categorized each area as a separate level with different architectural structures and characteristics. However, it’s impossible for the average person to memorize the infinite amounts of levels since they’re constantly being fictionally generated by any person with internet access. Stemming from algorithms and popular data searches, the imaginary existence of the most notorious Backrooms carry an element of tulpamancy — the manifestation of one’s imagination — to materialize and exist physically in the real world. In a similar sense, the more people direct their online attention towards a specific level, the more traction it gains before it becomes cemented as a legitimate level of this vast fictional world.
Each level is characterized by a place that anyone can encounter on any given day, including office buildings, parks, hotels, classrooms and more. While these deserted places are not inherently exciting, their imaginative counterparts can evoke some universal terror. For many, this idea is appealing as it emphasizes how one’s fear of unknown spaces is not entertained by the idea of being alone but rather by the idea that they are not alone. Despite the element of mystery being what drives this fear, this concept has been controversially debunked by some fans who believe that these areas are actually inhabited by dangerous entities, fictional creatures with unique characteristics that roam each level.
Earlier this year, 16-year-old VXF artist Kane Pixels drew inspiration from the notorious image and created a nine minute video that was stylized as found-footage documenting his exploration of the first level. Now, the project is considered a videographic monument for dedicated fans of the Backrooms community, garnering over 40 million views on Youtube. Since then, other developers have joined the bandwagon and expanded the horizons of this lore-driven community with their own creations of online video games and playable, interactive content.
The popularity of The Backrooms has traversed to TikTok, appearing in fantasy-induced videos curated for one’s immersion. TikTok users would compile compilations and carousels of photos they’ve obtained of liminal spaces, completing the ensemble with an eerie instrumental tune that’s commonly “It’s Just a Burning Memory,” a piece from The Caretaker’s 2016 album on the stages of dementia.
Dementia and the Plague of Capitalism
Since time is uniformly nonexistent in the Backrooms and render each level as some kind of forgotten memory, fans have correlated its sporadic nature with the stages of dementia. What drives this idea further is tying it in with the social and economic role of capitalism in today’s society.
Clark Elieson, an American Youtuber and philosopher is a standout among a crowd of content creators and video essayists analyzing the Backrooms for his combination of political, socioeconomic and introspective ideas.
In an interview with the New University, Elieson revealed that he spent most of his childhood living in his own head. Fascinated by the craft of storytelling, he sought to bring his imagination to life by writing fictional horror stories and attempting to construct his own video games with template websites.
Fast-forwarding to his college years, Elieson hit a wall. He yearned for his own leisure to read and ultimately, to learn more than what he was offered in school. Before he dropped out, his golden ticket came in the form of a video essay that he submitted as a college final. His video, “Liminal Spaces: A Theory Concerning Our Existence,” later spearheaded the rest of his career as a video essayist who uses philosophical ideas to interpret different forms of entertainment mediums and internet phenomenons.
Now, at the age of 21, Elieson draws heavy inspiration from renowned philosophers like Martin Heidegger and writers like Thomas Mann. He also admires the stylistic and musical stitching of melodious narratives in Tyler the Creator’s music. Hoping to replicate a similar effect in his content, Elieson intends for his video essays to carry an overarching theme or narrative that constantly unfolds and evolves with each video.
“One of the great lessons of Žižek, adapted from Lacan, is that the personal is the political is the uncanny. My personal desire, so imminent in nostalgia and melancholy, is in constant conversation with my political ideology,” Elieson told the New University. “Together, they suspend the uncanny gap that makes them possible; our desire itself is uncanny.”
This notion suffices as a model for Elieson’s breakdown of the Backrooms as an economic and mental byproduct of consumer culture, postmodernism and compartmentalization.
“Because the globalization of capitalism is about getting from one place to another, it [inadvertently] results in a process of having a certain kind of enjoyment [for] one’s moment in the past,” he said.
Elieson emphasizes this never-ending circulation of a capitalistic society that discards the architectural designs of underperforming companies and businesses, leaving its decaying presence to subconsciously exist in the Backrooms of our own memories. When these ideas are merged, the Backrooms become a metaphor for the forgotten places of our world like abandoned buildings or facilities that are no longer in business. They’re simply fictional byproducts of an excessively productive yet stagnantly performing capital that rang true to the saying, “out with the old and in with the new.”
This could explain the feeling of nostalgia that many fans experience when they see a photo of a liminal space. Our age of modernity focuses on substituting the aesthetics of many architectural designs for a more simplistic yet lifeless look, leaving the colorful and lively spirit of these places in the past. A picture of an abandoned toy store can elicit some emotional sense of familiarity and somberness, but many don’t realize that they are subconsciously linking its essence with childhood places like Toys “R” Us that cease to exist. As a whole, each Backroom is a microcosm to one’s own mental state and emotions rather than as a physical, tangible place tethered by reality.
“And so if we, from the standpoint of desire, try to replicate the past again, what we get is none of the previous enjoyment of that repetition,” Elieson said. “But we continuously rehash these forms until they become more and more uncanny. These are the byproducts of our own stubbornness and unwillingness to let go of old ideas.”
Raymond Dinh is an Arts & Entertainment Staff Writer for the winter 2023 quarter. He can be reached at email@example.com.