What are examples of liminal spaces?
A physical liminal space is something tangible that you can recognize as a pathway, passageway or portal. These places are transitory, meaning you’re supposed to pass through them on your way to something else.
I talked here before about liminal spaces which are places where people transition from one place to another and where no one actually lives. Liminal Spaces are often defined as places where people once were, as they have left their constructs behind, but now are not. These are also places where people normally spend time but may be empty at a given moment. Liminal space is the opposite of a permanent residence like your apartment or your hotel room. It is any portal, door, or corridor between places or any place where people stop for a brief period of time, or travel from one place to another, like a highway or rest stop. Even people can have liminal qualities. Travelers, for example, have such qualities, as they are moving between one space and another and have no fixed position or state of being. Teenagers and those nearing death are people who are also on the threshold of being or entering another state, of being a child or an adult, or alive or dead.
The Overlook Hotel – The Shining (1980)
Here we have a classic liminal space. Hotels are by their very nature places where there can be no real permanent residence, and are often a transitional space between one place and another. Here is a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Danny is rolling quickly down the empty halls of a deserted hotel, a liminal space that exists within a liminal space. Liminal spaces are often portals or doorways between the living and the dead because the walls of reality are thinner where they are not shored up by the mental strength of a permanent resident. This allows spirits, ghosts, revenants, demons, and other beings to enter or inhabit such places. In the case of the Overlook, the hotel itself is a liminal entity that has taken on a life of its own and regularly consumes the travelers who pass through or temporarily inhabit it, like Danny and his parents.
The Open Road – Duel (1976)
America’s highways (and any points along them, like gas stations, and rest stops) are also places of transition from one place to another. The road is not a fixed or permanent residence. Just like many cars, buses, trains, and many public places, it is a place people travel on, or pass through. All kinds of inexplicable occurrences can happen and there are countless unknown dangers on the road, not just from the road itself, but the people, and vehicles that travel along it. This is a scene from Steven Spielberg’s 1976 movie Duel, where a man is pursued by a dangerous truck driver along various highways. This kind of thing happens in road trip horror movies like Jeepers Creepers, and Joy Ride.
The Nostromo – Alien (1979)
Outer Space is itself the definition of a liminal space because of its life-inhibiting nature and because it is, once again, something people pass through rather than truly live in. In the 1979 movie Alien, the crew of the space freighter Nostromo encounter a dangerous life form while traveling through this space. The ship, Nostromo, is full of plenty of transitional spaces where the creature can hide and then leap out at the ship’s inhabitants who are hunted and killed while traveling through the ship’s empty halls and backrooms. In that sense, the Nostromo is reminiscent of a hotel environment. it seems like a more permanent residence except there is too much empty space for it to be considered a home. At its foundation, it’s just a vehicle in which people are moved from one place to another.
The Parking Lot – Fargo (1996)
Fargo is shot in such a way that even the permanent residences of its characters feel like liminal spaces. The feeling of the movie is cold and emotionless. just like its villains. It doesn’t help that the environment in which the story takes place is bleak and wintry Minnesota. Many of the plot developments take place in moving vehicles, places of work, diners, hotels, and parking lots, and the relationships between the characters often feel just as cold and disconnected as the places through which they travel.
The Incursion – Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
The entire movie is about portals, doorways, and traveling the in-between spaces. The film is full of liminal moments of ghosts and demons, and even universes, possessing the living, the dead, and other universes, causing disruption to the natural order. These liminal spaces are places where the normal rules of physics seem to have been completely overturned. Since the little girl in the movie, America Chavez, has the power to travel between universes, it means she has no fixed permanent residence of her own, which makes her a liminal person, a doorway through which others can pass, which is also the ability that makes her so powerful and coveted by the movie’s villain. Here, the Doctor and his friend Christine walk through a world that has been invaded by another world through one such portal.
The Closet – Poltergeist (1982)
Closets are classic portals, doorways to other dimensions, through which other beings can enter this world, or in the case of Poltergeist, the 1982 film by Steven Spielberg, spaces through which people can be abducted. The little girl in the movie, Carol Ann, is abducted into the afterlife through this doorway, and much of the plot hinges on her family successfully navigating the outer fringes of liminal space to rescue her. In this scene, there are several doors through which her family can or cannot pass.
The Swimming Pool – It Follows (2014)
Water possesses liminal qualities since its surface is a barrier that separates the realm of earth from the aquatic realm. In the movie It Follows, swimming pools are set up as liminal spaces in time as well as space, places where childhood innocence and the literal avoidance of death can be maintained. I wrote about this film in another post, about the symbolism of all the bodies of water in the film, and how whenever the film’s monster gets too close in its pursuit of Jay, the film’s lead character, she retreats to places of innocence, symbolized by bodies of water. At the end of the movie, she and her friends hope to lure the monster to its destruction by using her as bait in an abandoned swimming pool, which itself takes place in the liminal space of an abandoned building after the crowds of students have gone home.
The Mist – The Mist (2007)
Based on a book by Stephen King, The Mist is part of the Stephen King multiverse, where different versions of Earth exist. In the Stephen King universe, the various earths are separated from each other by what King refers to as Todash Space, which is something like outer space, a largely empty and dark space between the worlds. Only Todash Space isn’t entirely empty. It’s full of horrifying monsters such as the ones seen in this movie after a military experiment opens a portal between it and this particular earth, very much like the Incursion seen in Doctor Strange’s movie.
The City and People of – Dark City (1998)
I don’t want to give away any spoilers but the entire movie is about trying to live in a space that isn’t really a space of its own. The Dark City of the title is a liminal space where the rules of physics do not apply, and even the people and their relationships are impermanent, including that of its lead character, John Doe, who must navigate his way from the center of the city to its outer edges, while being pursued by mysterious figures, in search of…himself. His journey is represented by the Fibonacci Spiral seen in the title sequence and throughout the film itself.