A Journey into the Backrooms

On the endless universe of the web, you may find some theories that are both interesting and obscure. Today we are going to explore the meaning of “Backrooms” within the digital world.

Inexplicable events usually form part of human existence. We claim to own the key to the reality that surrounds us, to know it with no doubts or to be able to provide an explanation to what happens around us and inside ourselves. However, our rationality usually loses the control of some elements by submerging our mind into an uncertain and bewildering atmosphere. One of the best examples of such a confusion is Backrooms’ concept. Some of you may have already heard of it; others, instead, may have unwittingly found it. Undoubtedly, the features of this phenomenon are strangely familiar to all of us. But what really are the Backrooms?

Backrooms’ theory has found its origin on the ephemeral and immaterial world of the Internet. On 12th May 2019, a 4chan’s anonymous user published a creepy and yet weirdly familiar image, followed by this very description:

On the original post, you can notice the term “noclip” which is usually related to first-person videogames, and it refers to that ability of moving through walls, backgrounds or characters due to glitches or cheat codes. It is not a case that a great part of Backrooms’ aesthetics was born from videogames. As a gamer usually ends up alone in empty spaces without even realizing how he reached them, you can unexpectedly enter a Backroom. Many are the videogames that perfectly embody the essence of Backrooms, such as The Stanley Parable, Portal or Superliminal.

The Stanley Parable

Backrooms are places, or better still “non-places” considering their recurrent nature, which go beyond the traditional notions of time and space. Countless hallways, identical rooms and the absence of windows immerse those who arrive in an alienating condition, where is likely to lose the regular perception of space and time.

According to the theory, there are three different levels inside the Backrooms. It should be remembered that we are referring to an abstract and undefined concept, so its followers do not entirely agree on the exact amount of levels. Some of them claim that only three levels compose the Backrooms, others think that they are likely to be a hundred and there are even those who believe in an infinite quantity of levels. The three-level theory is, however, the most spread throughout the fandom. The first level, the Level 0, corresponds to the 4chan’s post that we have previously seen: a maze of similar, quiet and motionless rooms, where the absence of furniture catches the eye.

Through elevators or stairs, one can reach Level 1, that is basically like the previous except for some far more creepy details: cracks on walls, mold, buzzling lights alternated by moment of complete darkness. If sounds were almost absent in the previous level, now is possible to hear screeches, mechanical sounds and even screams far away.

Suddenly you reach Level 2, without having taken any stair or elevator. On this level, the scenario changes dramatically as the subject starts being surrounded by a dark and eerie setting. This level takes the form of a long and barely illuminated tunnel with air ducts and pipes lining the walls. An increasing terror overwhelms those who cross it, and the more you go ahead, the more unbearable the heat and the sound of machines become. Something is hiding through the shadow, you can feel it, and the only urge is to escape. From this level you may suddenly exit as it occurred in the previous one. The next stop can be Level 3 and the following levels or, in the worst-case scenario, one can unconsciously return to Level 0 by restarting everything again. An alienating endless cycle.

What is the meaning of all this, though? Where are these Backrooms? Do they really exist or are just a fictional creation? The function of these places is mostly allegorical. They are related to metaphorical representation of specific events of human existence, so they have no tangibility in the real world. Nonetheless, we can all reach them while dreaming, which would explain why many people find the characteristics of Level Zero so familiar. They claim to have seen similar places during their unconscious experiences.

But there is a specific event that Backrooms seem to epitomize so accurately: sleep paralysis. This could happen due to a contrast between mind and body, where the former is awake while the latter is basically asleep. Such a divergence can provoke sinister hallucinations in which subjects perceive the presence of someone in the room and those who are affected by this disorder can start to panic when they realize to be mentally conscious but physically petrified.

According to some theories, Backrooms would also be a metaphor of the progressive disintegration of the mind caused by Alzheimer. As in the Backrooms’ levels reality becomes more and more unclear and unrecognizable, Alzheimer’s mind can undergo the same dreadful process of slow decomposition of reality, memories and self-awareness.

Regarding this, I would like to mention one of the most interesting and upsetting musical projects of the recent years: Everywhere at the End of Time (2016 – 2019) by the British artist Leyland James Kirby, a.k.a. The Caretaker. This album is a monumental work that tries to represent the state of mind caused by Alzheimer and other types of dementia through music. Melodies gradually degenerate while passing from quiet, melancholic tunes to a disturbing, disconnected and almost cacophonic ambient. The Caretaker aims to put the audience on dementia patients’ shoes, so as to understand the mental disorientation caused by this neurodegenerative disease.

Among the several samples used by The Caretaker stand out some ballroom songs from Shining (1977), the Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Such a choice is not accidental, especially if we analyse it through Backrooms’ perspective. In fact, the Overlook Hotel’s iconic hallways that seem to recur inside a suspended time are considered by Backrooms’ community as one of the best examples of that creepy circumstance. The places that work as unsurpassable limbos are a narrative commonplace, especially in Cinema. Besides Shining, there are many other movies that applied such settings to their plots, such as the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks (1990), the interminable baroque rooms in Last Year in Marienbad (1961) or those surreal and alienating places in the recent I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020).

The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks

Although Backrooms’ phenomenon is recent and quite disturbing, we cannot deny how frequently its features recur in traditional narrative and collective imagination. The idea of a limbo place transcending the conventions of time and space has a huge role in representing the metaphysics of human existence. Each of us can experience moments of bewilderment or stagnation throughout life, as if we were blocked inside an undefined waiting room. You can choose to keep on walking through doors, walls and levels or standing still, but only the inevitable passing of time will tell you if you are destined to a hopeful way out or, on the opposite, to another empty room: doomed to live in an eternal cycle of redemption or witnessing the slow crumbling of your own perception.

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