Visitors to Shaffer Hall’s basement might find themselves pausing at the odd sight of floor space dedicated to a shallow gravel pit. Some might have moved on without a second glance. Senior Evan Morris, however, stopped to take a picture of the pit, which he generously described in an interview with The News-Letter as a rock garden.
“I remember looking at that and the beige walls and the fluorescent lighting and thinking, wow, this feels like the Backrooms — like a liminal space,” he said.
Morris decided to submit the photo to the Instagram account @jhu_liminal_spaces, which collects images of “desolate or otherwise transitional areas” at Hopkins. Freshman Carlos Gamboa originally created the account for his own photography; during his first semester, he started posting the photos he took around campus of liminal spaces.
According to Gamboa, “liminal” describes a transitional space that is typically unoccupied or abandoned, often producing an unsettling effect. He found this quality in empty classrooms, hallways and pathways where he usually saw other people, which inspired him to make the account to share with friends.
However, he did not anticipate how others would join in.
“I get about at least a submission every day, usually more. I think it's a domino effect; you see other people do it, and then it's on your mind and you're doing it too,” he said. “It was fueled by people just being interested and recommending it to friends.”
After she followed the account, graduate student Pooja Hariharan began noticing liminal spaces in her own life.
“I travel to my lab literally every day, but I hadn't taken a moment to pause and think about these things,” she said. “The rooms, hallways, lifts, elevators, stairs... all of these constitute liminal space. It's basically everything in between, from where you start to where you stop.”
The account immediately appealed to freshman John Liu, who now takes pictures of his own to submit.
“Seeing these buildings in different contexts... almost urges you to want to know more about that place,” he said. “I want other people to feel the same way I did. It's the sense of eeriness but also feeling like I've been there before.”
Morris linked the account’s popularity to the internet phenomenon called the Backrooms. The original viral post, featuring a photo of a bare room with dingy fluorescent lighting, warns readers that if they fall outside reality, they’ll be trapped in the sprawling Backrooms. Morris explained that the meme has evolved into a kind of creative writing project.
“If you're not careful, there are parts of reality where it's really thin and you can accidentally slip into the Backrooms,” he said. “Obviously it's all fictional, but... I just think it's really cool that these mundane places can have this special quality about them where you can accidentally travel between dimensions.”
Both photographers and nonphotographers contribute to the account. Though Gamboa has been interested in photography since he was young, many contributors like Liu and Morris consider themselves newcomers.
Hariharan, meanwhile, enjoys macro photography of natural subjects like flowers and insects. She appreciated how the account gave her an exciting and collaborative new way to document her surroundings.
“I like to take pictures of things and not people, so I think that's the common thread,” she said. “It's not like one person is taking the photos and posting it; you get to look at your space differently, and if you find something interesting, you just send it to them.”
Gamboa speculated that the pandemic increased students’ interest in the concept of liminality. He cited his own fascination with liminal spaces during lockdown, when he took pictures of abandoned malls, streets and schools.
“It created a very eerie effect to see major streets, to see the University completely empty,” he said. “Most people see liminal spaces all the time when they go somewhere at night or if some area has been shut down, but they don't actually put that into words. They just feel a little bit unnerved.”
He suggested that students find some sort of relief or humor in the images when they’re compiled.
“To have a page that collects all those photos that evoke those feelings in one place — I think it's amusing,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh, this is on campus. I can just go find these.’”
Morris identified Wyman Park Building, a former Marine hospital, as the most liminal area on campus based on his experience running a club in its basement.
“Wyman is the Backrooms hub; if I didn’t know better, I would say that the original Backrooms photo was taken in there somewhere,” he said.
Gamboa also singled out the photos of Wyman Park Building as some of his favorites.
“I like those a lot just because of the irrelevance of the building,” he said. “No one ever really goes there, and yet there are so many large, unoccupied spaces.”
Frequently photographed areas include the steam tunnels, owing to their dark, twisting hallways and the inexplicable presence of things like old computers and spray-painted pentagrams. Another is the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, especially when the lights are off or the shelves are periodically emptied.
Both Gamboa and Hariharan agreed that Krieger Hall takes the cake in many respects, citing its checkered floor and diverse architecture.
“Maybe it was built at varying times, but the basement has a very different style than the rest of the building. Even within the basement, there are different areas with different designs,” Gamboa said. “I enjoy how it's a little bit nonsensical in Krieger.”
For those who want to take their own pictures but don’t know where to start, Gamboa shared his method for finding good liminal spaces.
“Make an effort to go out to places that you don't usually go to, at times that you don’t usually go out, and see things from a new perspective,” he said. “Look around, keep your eyes open and really be present.”