Liminal Space (noun): A state or place characterized by being transitional or intermediate in some way. Any location that is unsettling, uncanny, or dreamlike.
For several years now, the phenomenon of liminality and liminal spaces has been a subject of much intrigue among various internet circles. More recently, the phenomenon has seen an explosion in interest, in part, no doubt, by urban legends such as the infamous Backrooms. This increasing interest has driven many to seek out liminality and liminal spaces within their own lives.
Liminal spaces can fall into both literal and aesthetic contexts. Spaces can be literally liminal when they are places of transition. Take for example a hallway or airports. These are areas that you move through on a common basis, but they are not areas that are meant to be dwelt in for extended periods of time. Spaces can also be aesthetically liminal. While not necessarily being places of transition, aesthetically liminal spaces are areas that can be described as strange or eerie. An abandoned mall or your high school late at night can be areas that are aesthetically liminal, as something just isn’t right. Perhaps it’s the lack of people, or perhaps it’s the strange way the building looks when there’s nothing else to distract us.
So, what causes these feelings of eeriness in aesthetically liminal spaces? Perhaps it has something to do with the physical layout of the space you are in, especially if the space feels strange or uncanny. In a 2022 article for the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Alexander Diel and Michael Lewis write, “The present research shows that built environments can cause a sense of eeriness or uncanniness if they sufficiently deviate from familiar, expected patterns and structures.”
Additionally, the feeling of liminality might also stem from the questions that arise in our heads when we enter a liminal space. In a 2021 article for PULSE: The Journal of Science and Culture, Peter Heft writes, “…a myriad of questions arise: “where is everyone?” “why have they left?” “is there somewhere else they might be?” etc. These questions, with their speculative answers, drive us further into the unknown—another characterizing feature of the Eerie. We cannot (and indeed, ought not) find out the answers as “when knowledge is achieved, the eerie disappears.” Instead, the unknowns, especially coupled with “a sense of alterity” arising from both the social context of the place and the lack of inter-subjectivity, go further to produce the Eerie.”
It should be no surprise that Sewanee is rife with both literal and aesthetical liminal spaces. Being such an old school, many buildings have been renovated countless times, producing anomalous areas that might be considered strange, or perhaps drastically different from other parts of the building. Being such a small school, too, contributes to liminality. It’s not uncommon to get the feeling you are alone in a space since people tend to be more spread out on campus, especially late at night.
Late one night, Beylie Ivanhoe and Mitch Shakespeare went out around campus to capture some of these spaces on camera. While a lot of an area’s liminal feeling is from the physical layout, what can’t be captured are the sensory details: the echoing of every sound in All Saints’, the hum of the fluorescent lights in the Bishop’s Common, or the growling of the air conditioning vents in the basement of Guerry. If you are interested in exploring these spaces further, or perhaps discovering new ones, we encourage the reader to find a time when no one is around to get the full experience. Of course, make sure to not be trespassing anywhere you shouldn’t be and stay safe.
All Saints’ Chapel
Here’s the church, here’s the steeple. Open the doors, and there’s… no one?
McClurg Dining Hall
From the center of civilization at 12:15 during the school week to a ghost town.
The third floor of the Bishops Common is a hotbed for feelings of liminality.
Words cannot describe how much I hate this space; the basement at night is simply terrifying.
Walsh-Ellet (Room 210)
Almost everyone has had a class in this room, so seeing it completely empty can be strange.
An example of the combination of both literal and aesthetic liminal contexts.