You may be familiar with the feeling. Perhaps you remember it from visiting your school at night, and seeing the classrooms empty?

Perhaps you’ve encountered it walking down a hospital corridor at night?

Maybe once, after leaving a group of friends in the city on a Saturday night, and turning from the busy street and into a quiet subway station - you felt its presence

In all of these situations, a certain feeling may have washed over you. A feeling of slight dread, uneasiness, and displacement. That’s because you’ve just entered a Liminal space.

The term “liminal space”, from the latin limen, meaning threshold,  was first used in the early 20th century by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner whilst studying the rites of passage that help humans move from one state of being to another.

However, in our modern urban environment, the term has come to mean certain physical spaces that cause a sense of unease and dread.

They are sometimes referred to as ’transitional places’, because so many liminal spaces appear to be in buildings that are designed as ‘in-between’ places, designed to get people or products from A to B, but never somewhere you would stop, have a chat, or ‘hang around’ in.

To create a `liminal space you need four things:

  1. A large, indoor space.
  2. Strong Vertical lines that seem to trail off into infinity
  3. A use for the space that is neither private nor public; for example a school, hotel, subway station or castle.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, the space must be devoid of people, despite being designed to normally have people in it.

    …4.5.  Often (but not ALWAYS), an absence of windows, or view to the outside world.

It’s important to point out what the feeling of being in liminal space is NOT. It is not the ‘spooky’ feeling you get walking around an old house for example. The feeling of uneasiness experienced walking around Liminal spaces is almost never felt in buildings constructed before the 20th century; It appears to be an emergent property of a lot of the architecture built for the ‘third spaces’ from the 1920s onwards.

The use of liminal space can be both unintentional and deliberate, physical or virtual. When the computer game Super Mario 64 was released in 1996, players soon started complaining of a sense of uneasiness, particularly in the main castle area. By sparsely populating an otherwise vivid world, the designers had unintentionally created a virtual liminal space within the game.

In horror, liminal spaces to be used to add a subconscious sense of dread within a film, without resorting to monsters, chainsaw murderers or ghosts. There is perhaps no better intentional use of liminal space in film than in Stanley Kubrik’s 1980 masterpiece, The Shining, in which the protagonist slowly goes insane trapped inside an empty hotel. The entire hotel can be described as one big liminal space, and meets all four of the criteria we described previously.

So why do liminal spaces make us feel this way?

By being the only person in a normally busy space,  They instill a  ‘last person in the world’ syndrome - causing a sense of existential dread.

When removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, these spaces reveal themselves to us for what they are; Cold; artificial; and devoid of natural patterns. To our brains trained to deal in a world of ‘roughness’, these smooth empty spaces feel unnatural.

They symbolize the false promises of modernity and the modern era, and showcase the loneliness of utilitarian architecture over more traditional forms.

Hopefully next time you find yourself accidentally wandering into a liminal space, you’ll take some comfort in knowing why. We’ll leave you with the words of Nancy Levin; “Honor the space between no longer and not yet.”.