Every now and then a photo pops up online that creeps out the internet. Slender Man had his day in 2009, his lanky limbs grabbing our attention from the back of a photoshopped image, sparking memes, movies and attempted murder. A decade on, a new horror is haunting the current gen, but this time it’s not a person: It’s a place.
In May 2019, an anonymous 4chan user asked members of the /x/ paranormal board to post “disquieting images that just feel ‘off’” – one of the replies was a photo of a bleak office space with dingy, yellow walls and fluorescent lighting.
A later comment posted by an anonymous account named it “the Backrooms”, going on to describe it as an area with six hundred-million square miles of old, moist carpet, and a badly wallpapered maze. There’s only the constant hum of cheap bulbs for company and the vague threat of something lurking in the distance.
Chris Frewerd spotted the photo in 2019 when he was 16, and it stuck in his head. It seemed to keep popping up on 4chan, so one morning soon after, he hopped out of bed at 5AM and became one of the first to write a short story about it. “Something about that original 4chan post really resonated with me, as I’m sure it did with the millions of other people who love the Backrooms concept,” he tells VICE.
He posted his story on Reddit’s r/CreepyPasta and got a couple of upvotes. Then many more began sharing their own odes to the space, from photoshopped images to interactive games. Frewerd thinks this fascination with the Backrooms stems from a specific nostalgia felt by his generation.
“So many people grew up in the odd transitional period of the 2000s, where things from the past sat almost completely unchanged, unmaintained, buildings unrenovated,” he says. “It’s just one of those odd shared experiences.”
The Backrooms reminded Frewerd of the library in his hometown in Kansas, his old school, and those weird play-areas in the middle of shopping malls. Often described as liminal spaces, these desolate locations sit on the precipice of new and old, both familiar and strange.
“A lot of the common locations in my life up to that point were these older, slightly run-down buildings with dated interior design and very odd auras surrounding them,” Frewerd says. “The Backrooms is the perfect culmination of this.”
The subreddit r/backrooms currently has over 157,000 members who discuss the space in great detail alongside memes, maps and mockups of different rooms. Just like Slender Man, the concept has grown exponentially from a single image. Threads are filled with talk of new levels that could sit above, below or beside the Backrooms, including pitch black tunnels and an abandoned hotel. These fan-made spaces have their own design and background stories, but they’ve caused a split in the community.
Litbeep, 24, was one of many who wanted to keep things simple and ditch the additional lore. They launched a newer forum r/TrueBackrooms where 15,000 members focus solely on the look and feel of the original 4chan image. They embrace the fan interpretations that show what the yellow corridors or adjoining rooms could look like from a different angle, but they don’t get involved in the spin-off fiction.
“When I first heard of the Backrooms and saw its accompanying image, I was taken aback,” Litbeep says. “Viewing these images of barely furnished, or many times unfurnished yellow, tinted rooms, it elicited this feeling of longing and nostalgia. Sometimes those feelings even gave way to a bit of anxiety.”
For Litbeep there was no need for extra layers or hidden monsters, the strangeness of the place was more than enough. It brought back childhood memories of spaces they felt they probably shouldn’t have been in.
“For instance, maybe a parent was working late at the office one night and left us to our own devices in a big, empty building full of winding, maze-like corridors. Maybe we got stuck after school for one reason or another and wandered the empty halls of a place that was usually bustling with activity.”
Tama Leaver is a professor of internet studies at Curtin University in Perth and the current president of the Association of Internet Researchers, which takes an academic approach to understanding what’s happening online. He thinks the popularity of the Backrooms could be down to its otherworldliness which allows for a seemingly endless discussion.
“The supernatural has always held appeal, and these sort of memes work so well because they invite you to interpret what’s not shown,” he says. “They work best because they don’t explain themselves, basically inviting groups to engage with the scraps of material found or created, and can be a lot of fun for people to talk and think about.”
Leaver says the eerie feeling of familiarity also helps bring fans of the Backrooms together, as they can unite in this sensation while they explore the mysterious space. “Any persistent meme has the potential to draw people together as they have a form of shared knowledge, and that’s even more the case with these sorts of memes which encourage collective discussion, searching and discovery of new material.”
Earlier this year, YouTuber Kane Pixels found himself at the centre of the Backrooms phenomena when he shared a found-footage style film set in the liminal maze. It has since gained over 20 million views, with his similar follow-ups reaching a combined total of well over 33 million. Not bad for a self-taught 16-year-old juggling homework and middle school.
“This is the sort of thing that I’ve been wanting to do as long as I can remember,” he says. “Seeing these internet mysteries pop up, and watching people break them down, that’s always something I wanted to contribute to.”
It took Pixels one month to create the first video, using Blender editing software and After Effects to recreate the sprawling 3D space with hyper-realistic VFX. He admits to being spooked by his own creation at times – working deep into the night, a clip would sometimes lag and he’d jump at unexpected shadows on the yellow walls.
For Pixels, the Backrooms is a physical manifestation of a poorly remembered past, appealing to those with a cloudy recollection of the late 90s and early 2000s. “I mostly remember that time through little glimpses of memories here and there and then family photos,” he says. “The flash is always on, the lighting is gross looking, there’s yellow walls, the white balance is all off.”
David R was aware of the original 4chan post, but it was Pixels’ videos that made him enter the Backrooms. The 24-year-old – who asked that his full name not be published to protect his privacy – says he’s frightened at the thought of getting lost in those wallpapered corridors, but is drawn in by the mysterious familiarity. He thinks the Backrooms appear differently for each person who enters, the wallpaper based on a place they’ve visited but can’t remember.
“Everyone has a memory somewhere in their brain of being somewhere like the Backrooms,” he says. “Most people went to some weird place when they were young and have just forgotten about it.”
Later that evening David sends me stills from a VHS tape taken during a family holiday when he was four-years-old. He’d forgotten about it until his mother showed him. He’s riding on a scooter, alone, in a desolate sprawl of endless corridors.
“Being lost somewhere hasn’t really been something I’ve had to worry about in a long time,” he tells me. “If I got lost in another country, I’d be worried, but I could eventually figure out how to get home by using my phone or someone else’s. But if I woke up in the Backrooms, what would I do?”