The Backrooms began as an image. Posted on April 21, 2018, a small thumbnail picture appeared on 4chan’s /x/ board showing a yellow room, its walls all in the wrong places, with gold-yellow carpets and fading yellow flock wallpaper. It was at once entirely innocuous, and somewhat unsettling. And it just sat there, for over a year.
Five years on, it has spawned its own subreddit, a rival subreddit, a wiki, 46 different games on Steam, part-inspired the hit TV show Severance, started a trend on TikTok that’s had over 2.9 billion views, received the most astonishingly good YouTube series created by teenage wunderkind Kane Parsons, and this year has been announced as having a film adaptation written by DMZ creator Roberto Patino, and with producers from Stranger Things.
The Birth Of The Backrooms Creepypasta
The Backrooms’ growth into one of the most inspired internet-born creepypastas has been slow and steady. After that initial image board posting, it was over a year before it would appear again, this time once more on /x/, but as part of a thread asking for “disquieting images.” According to Know Your Meme, another anonymous poster then responded with a short narrative describing the image. It read,
If you’re not careful and you noclip out of reality in the wrong areas, you’ll end up in the Backrooms, where it’s nothing but the stink of old moist carpet, the madness of mono-yellow, the endless background noise of fluorescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in. God save you if you hear something wandering around nearby, because it sure as hell has heard you.
A couple of days later, another user posts the image and quote together, which was then pasted to Reddit. It does the rounds over there, then onto wikis, and then after a week receives an animated video posted to Twitter (on an account that has since been deleted). By this point, the idea is embedded in the internet’s consciousness, but remains pretty obscure. In March 2020, a Tiktok video that seemingly just uses previous animated footage and the same 4chan quote goes viral, currently sitting on 2.1 million views. But it’s not until January 7 of 2022 that the creepypasta becomes a phenomenon. That happens when Kane Pixels (aka Parsons) posts his first video set in the Backrooms.
It’s fair to say that The Backrooms stepped out of obscure internet corners and into more mainstream channels thanks to Parsons’ video. Between 2019 and 2022, Steam saw a total of four games released based on the meme. Come May 2022, following the video’s viral success, the floodgates opened, beginning with The Backroom Project, followed by at least another 41 games in the year since.
Why Are The Backrooms So Scary?
So why? What is it about this yellow, empty office space that is powerful enough to motivate such creativity?
“For the general population the Backrooms instills the fear of the unknown,” says James Karagiannis, the developer behind indie studio Mistcloud Games, and creator of the excellent Backrooms Exploration. “[It] sparks their curiosity as it’s something so simple yet very unsettling. The Backrooms are also comforting to some people, including me, as I love the feeling of liminal spaces.”
In a genre filled with overtly horrifying figures, like Momo, Slenderman and Jeff the Killer, or urban myth staples like unexplored roads and videos that curse the viewer, The Backrooms stands out for its apparent innocence. Where just still images of Momo could give a child nightmares for weeks, a bland yellow space could be scrolled past without even being noticed. But it seems it is its very emptiness that gives it so much power. It is sometimes claimed to be the origins of the recent #liminalspace meme, the latest name given to the eerie aesthetic of abandoned locations.
Liminal spaces, named for their appearance of being transitional, in-between places, are scenes observed out of context of their visual narrative, without beginnings or endings. Empty, stretching corridors, or abandoned hotel foyers, creating an uncanny valley sensation when viewed. The Backrooms achieves this so well, not just because its void offices represent a space we’re used to seeing in the context of business, with furnishings, equipment, and most of all, people, but because everything about it is slightly wrong. The walls are wallpapered, not painted; the doorways have no doors, and are too wide; some walls don’t reach the ceiling while others do; and the fluorescent ceiling lights are spaced incorrectly.
There is, in just that initial image, a wrongness. But at the same time, unlike Momo or Slenderman, The Backrooms aren’t the punchline. That liminality, that space between spaces, implies something ongoing, incomplete, and ultimately that gives our imaginations so much more to work with. Sure, Momo’s scary as fuck to look at, but that’s the scare. In The Backrooms, the scare is still to come.
The Backrooms YouTube Series
That certainly proved to be the case in Kane Parsons’ first YouTube video. Astonishingly, the sole-creator was only 16 at the time he used Blender to create the photorealistic depiction of a first-person journey through the Backrooms. It’s a cunningly slow build, showing off directorial chops well beyond his years, introducing not only the liminal space, but then daring to add something to it. Something that’s only glimpsed, and yet in its scribbly, intangible form, possesses everything that makes online horror memes so compelling.
Parsons, under his Kane Pixels moniker, has gone on to create a whole series of videos that develop the mythos of this space, creating a narrative that begins in 1988, where scientific research appears to be exploring methods to create access to the Backrooms through some sort of portal. By 1990, government researchers are entering the Backrooms to begin investigations, resulting in Parsons’ next longer video, an internal informational video about what has been learned so far.
Watching through the current total of fifteen videos (some just a couple of minutes, others as long as a quarter of an hour), the influence of both Half-Life and Portal is very clear. In the 14-minute-long Pitfalls, there’s a very deliberate nod to Half-Life’s omnipresent mysterious figure, G-Man, staring down from an observation window at the facility’s entrance to The Backrooms.
Over the course of the videos, there’s a very subtly introduced colonization of the yellow corridors, as the researchers build their own facilities within the formerly liminal space, carrying through not just equipment, but creating far more tangible rooms within, seemingly oblivious to the monstrosities that exist beyond.
What’s so spectacular about this series is the restraint. The videos are all compelling, but more for what they don’t deliver. The very first showed what might exist in the floors above and below the yellow office space—a subject that has literally caused schisms in The Backrooms’ subreddits—but then this is entirely ignored for the next handful. Indeed, the monster doesn’t appear again for a tantalizing number of entries. Parsons is enormously brave for this, showing a maturity missing in most adult directors. Of course, this means when we do get to see more, it means vastly more to us, and is seventy-thousand times more scary. And oh wow, does that come to fruition in Found Footage #2:
The Backrooms Movie
With news that a movie is set to be made, set in The Backrooms, this year, that’s perhaps something to be deeply hesitant about. Creepypasta tends to work online because of its unfixed state. There are no time limits, no fixed locations, and it sits alongside all the other information in the universe. Attempting to capture such things, and confine them to 90 minutes of film, more often than not defies the very reasons the fiction was ever effective. 2018’s Slender Man might have been a terrible film for any number of reasons, but it also might never have been able to not be a terrible film. (Meanwhile, 2018’s The Rake, and 2019’s The Soviet Sleep Experiment slipped so far under radars that neither has received a single review from any major site.)
However, when it comes to The Backrooms, there’s more cause for hope. While it certainly has origins in that same nonlinear online space, it’s a myth that came into its own via Parsons’ YouTube work. It really found its feet as film, and so does seem more likely to lend itself to the format. And in a more peculiar detail, despite the serious names attached to the project, the 17-year-old YouTuber is set to direct.
This a film coming from A24, who are currently riding high on the Oscars success of Everything Everywhere All At Once, alongside production companies Atomic Monster (M3gan, Mortal Kombat), Chernin Entertainment (New Girl, Luther: The Fallen Sun) and 21 Laps Entertainment (Shadow and Bone, Stranger Things). Stranger Things producers Shaun Levy and Dan Cohen are on board. Saw writer James Wan is also producing. And as previously mentioned, DMZ’s creator and writer, Roberto Patino, is set to script it. Should the production successfully go ahead, this is a movie from a who’s who of horror, giving a teenager a chance to direct his own creation.
If the film could be presented similarly to the YouTube videos, as a compilation of found footage, scientific archival tape constructed into something suggesting a narrative, then there’s every hope that The Backrooms could survive the transition that few creepypastas have before them.
Beyond The Backrooms
The joy of creations like The Backrooms is they don’t “belong” to anyone. Beginning in the anonymity of the internet’s most fetid image boards, then leaking out in various directions via Reddit, YouTube, Tiktok and so on, there’s no outright owner to start imposing restrictions, flinging copyrights, or perhaps most interestingly, dictating the direction in which the myth can head. Like a playground rhyme, such memes spread virally, maintaining their core elements while expounded upon by whomever may pass it on next.
The Backrooms is especially interesting in this respect, given how many directions it’s taken. Dozens of games, with inevitably dozens more to come, are one channel. Another is Parsons’ video series leading to what seems inevitably to be a movie franchise. Then there’s the so-called “liminal spaces” movement, where the concept of uncanny reality, empty transitional spaces, is its own phenomenon.
Tiktoker THIS IS FRANK is creating their own peculiar take on the potential of The Backrooms, while ChildhoodDreams takes the concept more broadly, pairing uncanny photographs with distorted music to excellent effect.
And The Backrooms’ influence is spreading into the wider public consciousness, with TV shows like Severance citing it as a source of inspiration for its unsettling office spaces.
While Slender Man may have far greater public recognition, and creepypasta-adjacent horrors like Poppy Playtime may have inexplicably found their way into children’s toy stores, The Backrooms is likely having a far greater influence overall. It’s just, until you accidentally fall into it for yourself, you might never know it’s there.