Why Do Liminal Spaces Feel So Unsettling, Yet So Familiar?

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
Liminal spaces can be compelling, nostalgic and eerie at the same time. Nadifal/Shutterstock

Key Takeaways

  • Liminal spaces are transitional or transformative spaces that are neither here nor there; they are the in-between places or thresholds we pass through from one area to another.
  • These spaces often evoke feelings of eeriness or discomfort because they are not meant for staying, but rather for passing through, such as empty parking lots at night, hallways, stairwells and abandoned malls.
  • The concept of liminality is important in anthropology, psychology and architecture, highlighting how physical spaces can influence human emotions and behaviors.

Anyone who has been alive long enough is likely wise to the fact that most of life is lived in shades of grey. In fact, for every black-or-white fact or situation, there is vastly more ambiguity or uncertainty to be found and experienced. Perhaps this truth is why liminal spaces have touched a nerve on collective society over time, but especially in recent years.

Not familiar with the term? "Liminal" comes from the Latin word limen, which means threshold.


Liminal spaces in the physical sense are those places that "occupy the spaces between," says Tara Ogle, director of architecture for Page & Turnbull. This can include boundary zones, she says, like the areas between indoor and outdoor, public and private, or even simply here and there. "They are transient spaces created for movement from one place to another — lobbies, hallways and thresholds at a building scale," she explains via email.

Liminal spaces can also refer to emotional "places" a person might experience during a transitional period, at the threshold of either side of a life experience. Such a liminal space can be individualistic in nature, like a woman who isn't sure whether or not she wants a divorce, or fully global, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

University of Missouri professor Dr. Timothy Carson, who teaches liminal studies, refers to the pandemic as an "involuntary social liminality, a time/space that was full of uncertainty and ambiguity, all the landmarks gone, the future undefined." During this and similar situations, "disorientation reigns," he says. It's an all-too familiar feeling for many people. "Most of the people I explain liminality to end up saying, 'Ah! That's what I've been in! I just didn't have words for it!'" Carson says.

However, the fluid definition of liminal spaces has expanded recently to include empty spots, like abandoned shopping malls, corridors and waiting rooms. "These are spaces that are liminal in a temporal way, that occupy a space between use and disuse, past and present, transitioning from one identity to another," Ogle explains. Although both definitions of the term are applicable, she says that the latter is "particularly salient" right now, as "we are standing on a threshold between how we lived previously and new ways of living, working and occupying space."

Actual, tangible liminal spaces are not difficult to find, since stairwells, doorways and hallways are pretty much everywhere. That's because, much like emotional liminal spaces, the physical ones are transitional areas. These physical spaces are usually functional and not aesthetically pleasing. Yet they may evoke emotions in us.


Liminal Spaces in Everyday Life

"When people look at liminal spaces, they may feel a sense of uncertainty, unease or even fear. This is because liminal spaces are often associated with transitions, which can be unsettling for some people," emails Keely Smith, lead interior designer at JD Elite interiors. "They may also feel a sense of disorientation or a loss of sense of place, as these spaces lack clear markers of identity or ownership."

Although there's still a lot of wiggle room around the actual parameters of liminality, popular culture seems to view it as isolationist. The wildly popular Reddit thread r/LiminalSpace, which has more than 581,000 followers, prohibits members from posting any images with "people, creatures and entities ... an absence of people is necessary for liminal spaces, as far as we’re concerned." (The subgroup also notes that "liminal" doesn't have to mean "creepy.")


The fluid definition of liminal spaces can include empty spots, like abandoned shopping malls, school corridors and waiting rooms.
Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock

That said, just because a place is empty doesn't make it a liminal space. For example, a person's home wouldn't be considered liminal by the resident because they traverse it all the time, taking note of their surroundings like what needs to be fixed, cleaned, etc. However, shared spaces like an airport bathroom or hallway are not places where people normally spend much time, so lingering in these areas can feel subversive. This focused attention to "in between" areas, which one typically wouldn't think much about, is arguably what gives liminality its edge.

In an increasingly virtual world, liminal spaces are showing up more and more via gaming platforms. Carson explains that the back rooms in gaming platforms "pick up on the sense of being lost beneath the surface, wandering without direction, feeling threatened without especially knowing why." Hotels and roadways can also be considered a type of liminal space, as they are mere stopping points between destinations.


Why Do People Seek Liminal Spaces?

Although people see and process liminal spaces differently, in general such images engender feelings of unease or uncertainty. So, if the whole vibe of liminal spaces makes people feel untethered, then why do people seek out images and representations in droves?

"In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in liminal spaces in architecture. This is partly due to the pandemic and the general uncertainty of life, which has made people more aware of transitional spaces and the emotions they evoke," says Smith. "Liminal spaces are being talked about as spaces of potential where people can reflect on their experiences and engage with their surroundings in new and meaningful ways."


Well, at least we're not running away from our problems, right?