The hum of aged, yellowing fluorescent lights reverberates from your surroundings. In all directions, a maze of endless hallways lies ahead – an expanse of hundreds of millions of miles. Drab carpeting matches the stark walls, and the stench of mildew floods the air of this dungeon. There’s no one around you, and certainly no sense of direction or way out. If you’re here, you may have just found yourself in the Backrooms – an internet myth born out of 4chan forums that has evolved from creepypasta into a booming ARG community.
First, what is an ARG?
Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are notoriously eerie and puzzling games that blur the boundaries of reality through the gamification and fictionalization of real-world locations and events. Fantastical lore blending with life’s mundane beckons and captures the eventual commitment of curious minds in search of new experiences. Popularized by a marketing campaign released in conjunction with the 2001 film Artificial Intelligence: AI, ARGs can be a powerful advertising strategy, community-building tool, and subcultural topic of interest that binds groups together.
We’ve seen ARGs built by organizations like the University of Chicago and Microsoft to accomplish a variety of goals, but the Backrooms is a grassroots ARG with no owner or agenda. Its crowdsourced nature reflects the purity of the roleplaying aspect of any ARG – you have to get imaginative and buy in to really make it work. If you commit hard enough, you might even convince passerby that this faux-reality is truly real.
Learn about Liminal Spaces
Liminal Space can be a physical location or a state of mind that sparks feelings of transition, nostalgia, and mystery – a threshold between “here” and “there.” Liminal spaces have been an object of fascination for some time and attained a massive spike in popularity following the spring of 2020 (Now at around half a million members, the subreddit r/LiminalSpace is in the top 1500 most popular Reddit communities). With a plethora of streets, office buildings, and shopping centers emptying out, it’s no question how so much content was generated around the subject.
Spend some time on the subreddit, and you’re sure to feel some goosebumps induced by either strange beauty or shuddering discomfort. There’s a level of communal sharing in the feeling of loss that comes with gazing into liminal spaces – loss of direction, loss of familiarity, loss of humanity occupying the space. In a way, liminal spaces highlight the potential for beauty in isolation.
The Backrooms tale is like the horrific evil twin to the uneasy, yet satisfyingly consistent world of liminal spaces, taking its basic qualities and upping the ante to an inescapable corporate maze from hell. It’s a different type of experience that the pandemic also induced – feelings of doom, panic, and isolation. With the Backrooms, it is less about the space depicted, and more about the fear and mystery of what exists out of sight.
The rise of the Backrooms
Google Trends data shows that interest in the term “The Backrooms” grew exponentially between November 2021 and March 2022 after about two years of relative obscurity since its inception. Today, interest in the Backrooms is at its peak, and the community surrounding it is producing a massive amount of lore, discussion, and original content across internet platforms.
This boom in interest comes during a time where COVID-related policies are being reconsidered, and the world is collectively trudging through the “new normal.” The comfort-food types of entertainment (think Animal Crossing and John Krasinski’s Some Good News) that pulled many through the early horrors of the pandemic are fading memories at this point, and post-COVID art is beginning to take center stage. We’re in the era of the microinfluencer; equipped with smartphones and ring lights, independent content creators and grassroots movements are defining a new popular culture. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the Backrooms community reflects how our society is processing COVID-19, highlighting a new era of creative storytelling.
Encounters with the Backrooms
Seekers of liminal spaces may scour their local communities or comb the internet for material. But how exactly does one fall upon the Backrooms? Well, within the context of the lore, the infamous 4chan post that started it all reads,
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 flourescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped inanonymous 4chan user
God save you if you hear something wandering around nearby, because it sure as hell has heard you
I slipped into the Backrooms not by noclipping out of reality, but by being served a TikTok showing mysterious Google Maps content at remote coordinates. I’m a sucker for low-rent conspiracy theories and creepy Google Maps finds, so it’s no surprise the algorithm performed this match made in heaven. I, along with millions of others, was served Backrooms-related content across social platforms, creating an awareness that eventually became a deeper curiosity.
Why are the Backrooms so popular right now?
A majority of this recent flood of content is echoing from the latest stunt to capitalize on the Backrooms. It comes from a French YouTube channel called Billy le Robot. This curious flying robot has a backlog of content exploring fictional universes like the SCP Foundation and Squid Game. Using the crowdsourced capabilities of Streetview on Google Maps, the anonymous creator(s) behind Billy le Robot posted 360° images that resemble Backrooms imagery to four unsettlingly remote locations around the world.
The creepy images have since been flagged and removed from Streetview, but it’s still easy to slip into the rabbit hole of screenshots, TikToks, and long-form analysis videos that break down and contextualize them.
Where to find Backrooms content
The Backrooms ARG grows more influential when content creators publish their own takes on the theme in the form of original art. Filmmaker Kane Pixels has released an astonishing collection of found footage-style short projects that have raked in over 2.5 million views. The entire subgenre is incredibly thrilling and offers a refreshing break from the pile of 10+ minute dopamine bait videos that seem to work better on YouTube’s algorithm. The essence of the Backrooms is perfectly captured through the dingy, yellow lighting, and the lo-res, shaky 1990s videocam aesthetic.
Kane’s choice to depict the scenery from a ’90s perspective is part of a greater meta-commentary on ‘90s/’00s nostalgia that is dominating pop culture. As Gen Z-ers and young millennials are coming of age in a pandemic-stricken society, they’re seeking familiar visual and sonic comforts that are reminiscent of childhood.
Find community on Reddit
With a low barrier of entry and easy-to-use tools, online forums are a major breeding ground for Backrooms content, with Reddit being one of the most popular.
- r/Backrooms is the most “mainstream” community, which toes the line between participating in the ARG and commenting on it.
- r/BackroomsStories is a space for users to post in-game stories from a first-person perspective
- r/BackroomsWriting offers a more concentrated space for fiction writers to gather
- r/GoogleMapsBackrooms houses discussion that follows Billy le Robot and other creators’ Backrooms contributions to Streetview
- r/BackroomsRetreat is a very small sub dedicated to a more hardcore community of players, formed in response to the main subreddit becoming “cringe”
Explore the (un)official wiki
The largest repository of theory, writing, images, lore, and organized content surrounding the Backrooms can be found on the wiki. Here, you’ll find hundreds of pages of user-submitted content, categorized neatly. Hosted on Fandom, the Backrooms wiki has eight main categories:
- Levels: details the “blueprint” of the Backrooms
- Entities: characteristics of the monsters that occupy the Backrooms
- Tales: original stories written by community members
- Groups: fictional groups exploring, or related to the Backrooms story
- Theories: applying psychological, philosophical, or pseudo-scientific theories to the phenomena
- Canons: deciphering main plotlines, or canons, that Backrooms stories may fall under
- Objects: various items present in the Backrooms
- Guide Hub: tutorials and rules to help new users contribute to the wiki
Collective participation in the Backrooms ARG begins blurring the lines of fake and real for those who may have only stumbled upon the Google Maps screenshots. This movement is incredibly accessible because of the social networks that proliferate it. Beyond the millions of views on individual pieces of content explicitly labeled “Backrooms,” there are millions more interactions happening as people come across derivative content containing references to the phenomenon. The culture of share and re-share that TikTok has bred is shifting the tools necessary for culturally impactful art consumption and creation away from a few gatekeepers, and into the hands of any average internet user.
The internet’s next subcultural creative movement
Fascination with the decay of capitalism was a part of popular internet culture not too long ago when vaporwave rose as a dominant musical and visual subculture. Dead malls, empty forests, and the newly categorized community around liminal spaces all recreate a similar essence as looking at a car crash on the side of the road; it’s unsettling in the best way. The Backrooms community finding its home on the corporate servers of behemoths like Google is fittingly ironic. How the Backrooms differs from vaporwave is its implementation of nostalgic imagery. It’s an instant loss; instead of the pleasant dreaminess of vaporwave, which reminisces on an era lost to time, the Backrooms is a horror-infused story of grief and fear reflecting the era we’re trudging through – told by the everyday internet user.
As we as a global society collectively cope with the impact of major life changes the pandemic has caused, widening interest in liminal spaces and the Backrooms ARG reflects the process of grieving and overcoming. Now more than ever, wireless connectivity has proven to be an essential tool for engaging and participating in global culture. The virality around the Backrooms is a testament to the powerful nature of ARGs. These games have use cases outside of entertainment – they can be orienting, community-building, and therapeutic tools.
- On Reddit, the subreddit r/Backrooms has over 52,000 subscribers, whom create an average of 12 posts per day.
- Google Trends data shows that interest in “the Backrooms” spiked in June 2019, March 2020, and is at its peak as of April 2022.
- These spikes align with its inception, the start of COVID lockdowns in the US, and its current viral streak respectively.
- the top query on Google for this topic is “the backrooms real”
- the top query on YouTube for this topic is “roblox backrooms”
- the Backrooms fan-made wiki has over 2,900 pages.
- the most viewed YouTube video about the Backrooms has over 25 million views.
Terms to know
A genre of user-created stories in which subject matter contains paranormal, absurd, and horror elements. These stories are typically shared in online forums like Reddit.
A forum focused on a particular topic on the social news/forum website Reddit.
The backstory and explanation of events/history within a game. Typically not explicitly communicated within the source material itself.
A social media user who has approximately 3000-40000 followers, typically posting content focused on a highly specific niche.
A microgenre of music characterized by sampling smooth jazz, r&b, and elevator music from the 1980s. The design aesthetic associated with vaporwave takes cues from ’80s-90s commercials, anime, and computer software/hardware.