The Backrooms, a liminal space so internet-famous it spawned its own canon, has been found in the real world by 4 sleuths on a Discord server

The original backrooms image.
(Image credit: Anonymous 4chan user)

The origin of the Backrooms, a photo of a liminal space deemed so eerie it earned internet and gaming stardom, has been uncovered by four image-savvy detectives scrubbing 4chan, and a chance encounter with an archived internet page from 2003. 

In case you're unfamiliar with what the Backrooms are, here's the rundown. In 2019, an image was posted to 4chan displaying an eerie set of rooms devoid of natural light—capturing people's imaginations so vividly that it spawned its own lore. 

It's considered a liminal space, which is loosely defined as an area that's not quite surreal, but getting close. It's the manmade equivalent of the uncanny valley, a building or a space crafted from normal parts, but arranged in an abnormal and unsettling way. Hallways that lead to nowhere, rooms serving no natural purpose, brutalist interiors with flickering lights or, in some cases, swimming pools. There's no exact criteria for what comprises a liminal space—you know one when you see one. Also, maybe there's a spooky little monster that'll jump you and steal all your bones.

That last bit has been the origin of a lot of indie horror games including (deep breath) Escape the Backrooms, Inside the Backrooms, Backrooms Rec, The Backrooms 1998, and many more derivatives that don't quite mirror the Backrooms, though quoteth its vibe. 

There's even an SCP-style wiki page documenting heaps of levels, ranging from accursed farmsteads to a roller rink spanning hundreds of miles. References have also made their way into other games—in Remnant 2, for example, you need to access the Backrooms to unlock a secret archetype. 

What scaffolding underpins this sprawling labyrinth of internet culture? Turns out, a humble racing hobby shop that was having some renovations over two decades ago. Speaking with 404Media's Jason Koebler, the sleuths said their investigation into this uncanny space spanned multiple years, inspired by a 2022 video from liminal aficionado Virtual Carbon. Taking to the YouTuber's Discord, they set to work.

These demystifying musketeers go by the names of Semilot, Serrara, Leon, and Xaft. The team revealed to Koebler that they'd used a tool to scrub 4chan for the image's exact dimensions ("62kb and 640x480") and discovered, by running old threads through a different archive, perhaps the oldest shared version of the backrooms image—a 4Chan snapshot from 2011 with the filename "Dsc00161".

Turns out that someone might have cracked the case back in 2019, connecting the Backrooms to Hobbytown Oshkosh, a chain store in Wisconsin that sells "hobby-related merchandise including model aeroplanes, remote-controlled cars & games", though the link in said tweet is broken. 

Fortunately, the Internet Archive is a thing—and it just so happened to have a version of the page from 2003. In an extremely fitting twist of fate, every single picture on the page except for the Backrooms is broken. 

The page has (or had, rather) before and after pictures of the store's renewal. Below the images, the site reads: "Above is the original view of the East (Oval) room. Notice no windows are visible? You can not see in the pictures the extent of water damage, but it was there requiring all of this material to come out."

"The owners were really cool too, they pretty much instantly helped out and provided information about the photo," Leon tells Koebler.

It's a revelation that surprised Hobbytown Oshkosh's staff and owners most of all. Heading to the store's facebook page, an announcement reads: "Your Oshkosh building, come to find out, is weirdly and awesomely famous on the internet for a picture that was taken there a long time ago. A genre of photos called 'liminal spaces' and 'back rooms' that are both nostalgic and a little weird. It's fascinating stuff and pretty fun." Here's a picture of the Backrooms in 2017, as shared by the store.

(Image credit: Hobbytown Oshkosh on Facebook.)

So there you have it. The Backrooms, images that spawned an entire Wiki's worth of lore, several games, and a resurgence of interest in liminal spaces, were humble photos taken during renovations of a chain hobby store which now has a cool RC race track in it. 

Honestly, this is one of those behind-the-curtain-peeks that just adds to the mythos. A 'level' of the Backrooms can be just about anything from an arcade to a coffee shop, so the Hobbytown Oshkosh could cosily nestle into the current canon. The detail sticking in my mind, however, is that 2003 Wayback Machine page. What are the chances that the two most liminal images from the store's history would survive the test of time? The internet has been strange this week.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.