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Monday, April 15, 2024

How to 'No-Clip' Reality and Arrive in the Backrooms

You are alone and disoriented, waist-deep in pool water. Wading aimlessly around the interior room with wall-to-wall tile, your memory evades you. After making your way through a doorway bathed in light, the next room is a pool and the following room. Shit. Your anxiety is swelling, but you soon find a small ledge to get out of the water.

There’s no time to relax. A shiver goes down your spine as you hear a mysterious splash off in the distance. While trying to get a clear look, something disappears behind the corner. You continue walking along the ledge. The splashing sounds closer. A walk turns into a jog which turns into a sprint. You slip, fall, and hit your head against the wet tile as everything goes black. When you awake to the chlorine stench, it all starts to rush back. You are trying to escape the Backrooms.

What Are the Backrooms?

The Backrooms are not a real place. According to Vice, the concept originated on 4chan in 2019 with a single eerie image of a fluorescent-lit interior. The original photo elicited a strong reaction from the internet, and capturing its essence is difficult. Often described as an office space, the image shows no furniture or people. The viewer looks through an entryway covered with mismatched, yellow wallpaper and at an empty room coated in cheap, brown carpet. You can partially see another open passage, but the view is obstructed.

In response to the photo, online posters envisioned a place beyond our world, an abandoned maze filled with moist carpet only reached by slipping through the cracks of reality. In video game culture, this reality breaking is often referred to as no-clipping. The unreal place is divided into levels with different environments, potential monsters, and survival ratings.

The Backrooms are considered to be a creepypasta and follow in the long, long footsteps of Slender Man circa 2010, but the concept predates that. Throngs of people on the internet become obsessed with a scary core idea. They write reams of fan fiction expanding the horror story, stretching it to their own vision and venturing far from any original intent. Viral videos from amateur filmmakers ignite further public interest.

I first encountered the Backrooms creepypasta during a bout of insomnia last month. A YouTube video titled “The Pool Rooms (Found Footage),” from Jared Pike’s channel,  was recommended to me. In the video, a camera operator wades through shallow water. My first two paragraphs above are an imagined encounter set inside his creation. The New York City–based artist’s Instagram page is a bastion of partially submerged interiors.

In the video description, Pike gives credit to Kane Pixels as an influence. Pixels is the online pseudonym for a 16-year-old visual effects artist from California. His most popular video, from earlier in 2022, “The Backrooms (Found Footage),” has over 26 million views on YouTube. A celebrated figure on the active r/backrooms subreddit, the praise Pixels receives is well deserved. His recent “Backrooms – Pitfalls” video is genuinely terrifying with a slick, high-value production that includes use of motion capture from the Rokoko Smartsuit Pro II.

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TikTok dominates today’s social media landscape, and the Backrooms creepypasta has found another welcoming home on the short-form video app where segments of users eagerly consume various conspiracy theories and spooky lore. The Native American legend of skinwalkers trended on the platform in 2020.

A viral TikTok showing edited footage of Google Earth zeros in on Japan and reveals an otherworldly sinkhole inside a large building with a nearby, flying robot. Insider reports that the Japanese building featured in the video is real and from an old water park, but Google Earth does not let you peek inside.

The Lonely Gamer Effect

What sets the Backrooms apart from Slender Man and other previously popular creepypasta is what I call the lonely gamer effect. The expression of alienation is more complete. A person no-clips into the Backrooms, fully severed from reality, and they’re all alone. The Slender Man was a towering figure of the imagination layered on top of the real world. You could try to run for help if pursued by Slender Man, but you’re cut off from society and face monsters alone in the Backrooms.

Pent-up feelings from a multi-year pandemic that incentivized social isolation likely contributed to the public’s fascination. Dan Erickson, creator and showrunner on the workplace thriller Severance, told Input that the Backrooms were one of many sources of inspiration for his television series.

During the height of Slendermania, the creepypasta affected video game culture with YouTubers like Markiplier playing through Slender: The Eight Pages around Halloween in 2012. The Backrooms are having a similar impact on video games with a free title on Steam and dedicated Roblox experiences, but this creepypasta has video game culture woven into its core lore. Structural elements of the Backrooms, with crowdsourced levels and monsters, are the product of a culture fascinated by video games en masse and searching for additional creative outlets.

Now that you have a little more context about where the Backrooms came from, you really ought to keep searching for an escape back to reality. Finding the way home is almost impossible, and the shadows keep inching closer.

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