(or, Metaversal Liminal Backroom Radicalisation)
The date is 21st April 2018. On image-sharing platform 4chan, an anonymous user - or users - begin sharing a series of so-called “cursed images” on the ‘Paranormal’ message board /x/. Amongst these was the following photo:
The photo depicts an empty, neon-yellow-lit space. Staring into this image makes you feel strange, nostalgic, lonely, anxious, calm, lost, grief-stricken, empty. It conjures complex emotions like anemoia, nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced, or kenopsia, the ominousness of a usually-inhabited empty space. The image is emotionally confusing. It’s like staring into a hole.
Despite a near-total lack of information surrounding the image, particularly its location, we can estimate it was taken in North America or Japan due to the two-pin plug socket found on the nearest dividing wall. Other observations indicate that the space extends beyond the image’s frame: the backmost wall features a shadow cast on its upper rim by a far ceiling light, on the right are shadows evident of two further dividing walls, a tan-coloured carpet spreads throughout yet a small side passage on the right seems tiled or carpeted green… The exact dimensions of this room, space, corridor - whatever you want to call it - remain unknown.
A few unknowns: the far-central shadow on the carpet must be cast by a distant overhead light but due to the central space’s overall brightness, there must be an additional ceiling light just out of frame. If that is true, it would cancel this shadow. So how is this shadow being cast? Additionally, a small black form is barely noticeable on the ceiling. On a first glance it seems like some sort of alarm, but upon zooming in, we can see light distorts the shape into something talon-like.
How and why was this image even captured in the first place? By analysing the image metadata we can see it is encoded with a chroma subsampling of 4:2:2 being used, most commonly found in digital video formats between the years of 1982 and the late 2000s. Could this image be a still frame rather than a photo? It would partly explain the off-kilter framing of the image which feels voyeuristic, creeping, like peering around a corner into a space that is not your own. Yet what happens before or after this frame? Who is the camera operator and what are they filming? Why could it have taken over 20 years for the image to surface?
Despite the rooms themselves appearing abandoned, there’s one blindingly obvious fact we have so far omitted: the lights are on. Is the space still in use? If so, by who? Is the camera operator trespassing? If so, just what is this space we - through the eye of the cameraman - are trespassing into ourselves?
12th May 2019: the image surfaces again. On a separate forum again posted anonymously, it is accompanied with the following caption:
“If you're not careful and you noclip out of reality in the wrong areas, you'll end up in the Backrooms, where it's nothing but the stink of old moist carpet, the madness of mono-yellow, the endless background noise of fluorescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in…
God save you if you hear something wandering nearby. Because it sure as hell heard you”
The “maddening mono-yellow” harkens back to American author Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s short-story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. It tells the story of a woman diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ and forced to rest by her husband and the male medical state. The room she is confined to is another disused yellow-wallpapered backroom, this time of their lavish 17th Century country house. In her lifeless isolation, she spies an entity moving within the pattern of the wallpaper, and what follows is one of the earliest feminist revenge tales against the (pharma-)patriarchy from North America. The “flourescent yellow lights” are mostly seen on shop floors or office blocks, prompting some internet users to falsely believe this image was taken in the back room of a US-department store, Sears. The caption extrapolates the horror embedded in Western capitalist working environments; the agoraphobia of infinite work, infinite space, infinite resources maintained by a menacing boss-like being - the “it” of the caption - at any cost.
The caption happened to fashion a complex lore. An online horror story (a ‘creepypasta’) was written by user ClayKid12345 depicting a child slipping from his reality, a banal medical check-up, by curiously floating through the walls into these yellow-wallpapered Backrooms to be stalked by an “inhuman” being with a “gurgling snarl”. This story inspired an entire Backrooms mythos created by hundreds of anonymous users, taking similar-looking images of deserted corridors and spaces not meant for dwelling - so-called ‘liminal spaces’ - and imagining new Backrooms levels out of them with unique qualities: size, survivability, temperature, objectives, bespoke entities or survivors, custom laws of physics… . You can find remixes, recreations and renderings of the original Backrooms image (also known as ‘Level 1’) on platforms like TikTok and YouTube, mythologising and gamifying the image even further. In-fact, the word ‘noclip’ used in the caption is a video-game cheat mode enabling the camera or user to defy physics, to float through walls or fall through the floor. It is a physics for environmental dysfunction, taking the player out of their simulated reality to expose it as a world not meant for dwelling. Through the fictions of Perkins-Gilman and ClayKid12345 we can see how dwelling in the liminal for too long can lead to deadly consequences on the body and mind.
North America and Japan: a shared abjection
The plug socket in the original Backrooms image functions like a portal, holding the liminal space quantum-entangled between North America and Japan to reveal a shared cultural abjection charging within its connective wiring, its technocapitalist sinew. The descriptions of entities within the Backrooms - ‘haunted girl’ stereotypes, grotesque creatures or shadowy forms - take root in Japanese patriarchal culture, are lacerated into the country’s horror cinema, and have been ripped out of cultural context by subsequent Hollywood remakes. The archetype of the ‘haunted girl’ can be found throughout mainstream Japanese horror, also known as J-Horror, where vengeful female spirits are defined by their trauma to predominantly haunt men or endanger a patriarchal reality. Due to J-Horror’s marked use of suspense and surrealism, these movies were a breath of fresh air for Western audiences. They spawned the first of many US remakes turning J-Horror into a cinematic factory-line for the West, killing the industry in the process as it descended into abysmal parodies due to a self-hatred born out of its deal with the devil, Western cinematic capitalism.
Isolate this female revenge narrative from the supernatural and we spy deep-rooted traumas in Japanese masculinity. Takashi Miike’s ‘Audition’ functions completely without supernatural undertone, following a twisted femme fatale preying on a sex-starved male misogynist ending in one of cinema’s most notorious scenes of dismemberment. The popularity of films like ‘Audition’ highlights a cis-male desire to explore nihilism, present in the sad corners of the country’s culture as Hikikomori. The word describes a growing and aging group of men opting out of society to live alone or in their parents' basements as internet-addicted modern-day hermits.
Their abjection towards traditional social living is traceable back to the economic crisis and rapid industrialisation of 1980s and 90s Japan. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film ‘Kairo’ (Pulse) feels like solemn responses to this feeling. It imagines a formless spirit that reaches through nascent dial-up-modem technology to elicit characters into committing suicide. It also features many shots reminiscent of Backrooms-like liminal spaces. The economic crash affected the country’s independent film industry with the vast majority of less wealthy companies forced into another liminality, cheaper career paths producing less aggrandized material - pornography or direct-to-video B-movies - that forego traditional film networks or censorship schemes in the hope of returning to their industry in a brighter economical future. Japanese cyberpunk was born out of this DIY angst in the face of the post-industrial, with Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s infamous ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man” depicting an office-worker struggling with his physical, emotional and sexual self as his body grotesquely morphs into a bloody human-mechanical hybrid. With a powerdrill for a dick the anonymous character symbolises the straight-cis-male Japanese insecurities brought about by the post-industrial world, along with an inability to relate to the female outside of misogyny and (sexual) violence.
A relationship of sorts can be spotted between the socio-political abjection of Japan with a similar abjection emerging in North America. Japanese cyberpunk and particular Miike’s ‘Audition’ has been credited with partly inspiring the North-American-led horror genre ‘torture porn’. Director Eli Roth said the films of Takashi Miike greatly inspired his film ‘Hostel’ where American 20-something backpackers are kidnapped and tortured by wealthy sadists in an overgeneralisingly nondescript Eastern European location. Victims at the hands of sadists in lonely torture rooms with rusty industrial tools or killing machines built from gears, blades, chains and bolts (see the Saw franchise) as company presents a parallel with Japanese cyberpunk: America’s ‘torture porn’ genre also harbours a relationship with the violence of industry on the body.
Yet the American body versus the foreign other’s relation to torture has particular resonance in the context of post-2001 America – a post-9/11 mid-‘War on Terror’ America – where much real-world gore porn became accessible via ‘shock sites’ like LiveLeak, Rotten and Ogrish. Henceforth, ‘torture porn’ as an MPAA-appropriate genre has been said to allow Americans, particularly white American males, to indirectly feel history and be confronted with their country’s responsibility in overseas torture. Under the glow of the bedroom desktop PC, we can see that the US and Japan’s horror cinema of the body radicalised a generation of cine-civilians now staring at images of empty rooms and writing disturbing stories about what could live there. Yet when the screen turns black and the bedroom light turns on, they might see themselves and their lonely bedroom reflected in the screen they are staring into.
Irony and 4chan
It was within these lonely bedrooms, sort-of liminal spaces, that the image-messaging-board hosting the Backrooms image was created. 4chan was created in 2003 by white American adolescent male Christopher Poole in his parents’ basement, his bedroom, by modding the Japanese messaging board Futaba Channel. As a community, it began as a very small group of mostly young white male adolescents meeting once-a-year at an Anime convention in Washington D.C.
Currently around 22% of 4chan’s messaging boards are dedicated to Japanese culture. This mainly focuses on Anime, particualrly its pornographic subcategories like Hentai and Yaoi. 18% is dedicated to other pornography, whereas 12% is dedicated to gaming. The rest varies across other mostly masc-orientated subjects like “Weapons”, “Extreme Sports”, “Professional Wrestling”, “Auto” and “Outdoors”. The NSFW category lurks with prominence: “Politically Incorrect”, “Cams & Meetups”, “Random”, “Shit 4chan Says”... the mind of the adolescent male is plainly noticeable.
The liminality of pornography and gaming
By focusing on the popularity of pornography and gaming on 4chan, we can see how the radicalisation of cis-males into violence is a virtual, liminal experience. Visiting the homepage for 4chan, one is greeted by a banner ad for “Worlds Best HD Porn Site!” hardcore pornography site Brazzers located slap-bang in the centre of the webpage. Brazzers is itself part of the 31-company ‘pornglomerate’ MindGeek, whose track-record as a business is shady to say the least. In 2011 they were forced to rebrand to MindGeek from their previous identity - ‘ManWin’ without a shade of irony - due to lawsuits of tax evasion. In 2021, current CEO Feras Antoon’s 19-million dollar mansion situated in the ‘Mafia Row’ neighbourhood of Montreal was burned down in a suspected Arson attack. Even more sinisterly, in 2020 a lawsuit deemed the company as knowing bystanders in the operations of owned company ‘GirlsDoPorn’ where sex trafficking and coercing women into non-consensual sex was commonplace. MindGeek have previously described themselves as “one of the top five bandwidth consumption companies in the world”.
The entomology of ManWin to MindGeek conflates themes of information technology, masculinity and victory, unarguably pointing towards the known overlap of pornography and gaming. Both industries offer anonymous, interactive and immersive content; both link to escapism and isolation; both can display hyperreal scenarios; both are overwhelmingly male-oriented; both offer goal-orientated reward systems (the cis-male orgasm and level completion;) and both can harbour misogynist meaning. It can be argued that the liminal journey through these industies’ products - on towards masturbatory or victorious ‘completion’ - both question the self-worth of the cis-male.
Self-worth is problematised by 4chan’s distinctive interface. 4chan operates as a rapidly-changing, anonymous interface seemingly devoid of meaningful interaction. Users are not required to make an account to post content. They refer to one another as ‘Anonymous’ or begin messages with ‘hi anon’, removing any sense of personhood from the site. Furthermore, any content quickly becomes ephemeral, disappearing minutes later as it is pushed aside and into oblivion by new threads so on and so forth ad infinitum 24/7. This all questions the value of a single post, and the worth of an individual user.
Irony is an important part of 4chan culture. Like the Backrooms levels 4chan also has ‘rules’, the first of which is ‘Don’t talk about 4chan’, an ironic reference to David Fincher’s macho wrestling movie ‘Fight Club’. The rule would preserve 4chan’s secrecy in its fledgling years when the community would (and still do) organise or take part in “raids”, bouts of terrorism against organisations ranging from an inaugural mobbing on the Church of Scientology in 2008 to the infamous attack on democracy itself in the Capitol Hill insurrection of 2021. Even in these moments everything on 4chan had at least a twinkle of irony. It is an escape route to never having to talk about your feelings, always posting “for the lulz” (lols).
Like its parent site 2chan frequented by Christopher Poole with boards titled after hybridisations of Anime and sexual abuse tropes, 4chan defined itself on being insensitive to suffering in the way only those who have never really suffered can - young white men protected by a cloak of anonymity. It morphed into a pseudo-libertarian ‘Free Speech’ space where anything goes, even the posting of Swastikas, the use of racial slurs, revenge pornography and posts calling for the harm of other people. But our Hikikomori-adjacent bedroom-dwelling men are not six-pack-ripped Brad Pittians like those in ‘Fight Club’. They invented the term “beta male” to distinguish themselves from the dominating - or bullying - “alpha male” ‘Fight Club’-machos of the world, and speak of a time where the digital natives of the “manosphere” that reject conforming to alpha tropes will finally leave their liminal existence and have their moment to shine, the “beta uprising”. <<A chance to do what?>>, you may ask. With beta-male and it’s nearby incel (involintarily celibate) culture irrevocably linked to public shootings, school murders and other acts of terror, we can but grimly speculate on how their world of self-abject liminality exacerbated by near-sole digital existence can be seen as a psychological radicalisation machine.
What lurks within?
We might therefore extrapolate the ‘liminal’ of ‘liminal spaces’ to encompass pornography and gaming. They are both hyperreal, often experienced in isolation out-of-hours, within real world equivalents to the deserted empty-but-not-empty Backrooms. Neither are universes built for dwelling in, but dwelling within them people do. In doing so, one creates a dark portal or sorts enabling noclipping, phasing out of reality into a sticky, sweaty, addictive cross-platform metaverse with links to historical misogyny, the political alt-right and grotesque body horror normalised by the encroachment of subcultural cinema. The virtuality of these industries affords both emotional distance and anonymity, accentuating short-term goal-orientated reward systems of male orgasm or level completion. This as a liminal emotional state not meant for dwelling in makes way for irony and insensitivity brought about by distance from the analog, from emotional transparency, from reality. We can therefore view virtuality or liminality as theoretical anterooms where inhabitants - first-person shooter-like colonies of self-assured survivors of the outside ‘alpha’ world - are susceptible to radicalisation. In the hunt for ‘free speech’ colonists of liminal spaces have destroyed their own access to safeguarding, resulting in terrifying downward spirals of depression and abject masculinity. To answer the question of what lurks within these backrooms, you can find darkness, and you can find snakes eating their own tails.