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In a grassy overgrown field with wildflowers, a wooden door stands without walls supporting it.
Dan Robertson

The best images of creepy liminal spaces in the US

From abandoned pools to eerie houses, these are the best images of creepy liminal spaces in the US.

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman
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Let's start at the beginning. What is the definition of a liminal space? Liminal spaces are those eerie, not-quite-there places where memory is awakened but no accompanying recollection arises. It’s an in-between stage of nostalgia meets revulsion.

Perhaps thanks to the pandemic, we’re more interested than ever in photographs of these ghostless yet haunted places and take comfort in the gut-level feelings they arouse. The phenomenon is also called dreamcore, and it rewards long looking better than a glance.

So what constitutes a liminal space? Often it’s an abandoned place that was once filled with vitality and visitors – like a shopping mall that has closed. Sometimes it is a place where nature has taken back the manmade structure, such as a home with a tree growing through the floor. It can also have a strong connection to childhood, as in a place you might’ve seen as a kid but that doesn’t evoke joy anymore. Because the word liminal has its roots in the Latin ‘limen’ which means threshold, spaces consisting of entries or portals – like staircases and hallways – often qualify as liminal spaces.

Here are some of the best images of creepy liminal spaces in the US. Darken the room and put on some music; here’s your moment of fen (waterlogged spaces like fens can also serve as liminal spaces!)

Best images of creepy liminal spaces in the US

Jazzland Flume Ride | New Orleans, LA
Photograph: Tonya Pope

Jazzland Flume Ride | New Orleans, LA

A shuttered amusement park is liminality at its height. The flume ride leads to an algae-ridden pool while nature quietly begins taking over the background at the former Jazzland, which was owned by Six Flags when Hurricane Katrina dealt a brutal blow. Photographer Tonya Pope says, ‘I know that seeing the park this way makes most people feel sad. However, all I can see is potential. I see this lift hill on the left taking guests into a sugar mill, and I see the smiling faces in the boats zooming down on the right.’ She’s founder and president of Jazzland, a group trying to revive the damaged park. For more, watch ‘Closed for Storm’ on Netflix.

Sixteenth Street Station | Oakland, CA
Liam O'Donoghue

Sixteenth Street Station | Oakland, CA

This once grand Southern Pacific train station is so popular that photographers’ groups go inside to pass an afternoon in its slanting light with dust motes. The allure of the spaces beyond these two doors is uncanny and uncomfortable: one striped in a way we can’t quite decipher, not wallpaper and yet not the building studs, while the other portal shows amorphous gray daubs. O’Donoghue is the host and producer of a popular podcast, East Bay Yesterday, and has visited this terminal many times. Community activists are trying to preserve the station that was operational from 1912 to 1994.

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Abandoned neighborhood | Whitehall, OH
Michelle Gillenwater

Abandoned neighborhood | Whitehall, OH

Gillenwater shared photos of an entire neighborhood that had been abandoned through her Facebook page ‘My Lens Adventures.’ She wrote, ‘As we roamed the site, you could hear the beeps of smoke detectors going off randomly and when the wind blew you could hear the unsettling creaks and moans of the dilapidated structures.’ The neighborhood is known as Woodcliff and over 100 homes have sat vacant since 2019 (many have been empty for far longer). These 1953 homes were once part of a thriving community, but a combination of blight, drug issues and crime led to homeowners just walking away.

‘Unknown Location’ | Roadforks, NM
JB Fitts

‘Unknown Location’ | Roadforks, NM

A motel is supposed to be filled with the happy energy of people on vacation, but here there’s the sense that no one will be passing through ever again (we’ve seen other images of this same pool with tumbleweeds in it). Professional photographer JB Fitts traveled throughout the US to create an exhibit called ‘No Lifeguard on Duty,’ documenting abandoned motel pools. The images were gathered into a book of the same title. This photo called ‘Unknown Location’ provides a nearly tangible sense of loss for the Desert West Motel that seems to have closed sometime in or after 2013.

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Nighttime pool | Sacramento, CA
Don Teeter

Nighttime pool | Sacramento, CA

You get the sense no one has swum here for millennia. The pool’s murky lighting and clods of floating detritus fill your senses with unease, not to mention the coiled tension of the snake-like cleaner heading for the light like Carolann. Teeter says, 'The pool level suddenly dropped while I was out of town because nothing ever happens by itself. I hadn't been able to clean it because you can't clean a pool if it isn't full, plus I was taken by surprise by the warm algae-friendly February weather. I liked the way it looked with the pool light on.'

White Lakes Mall | Topeka, KS
Cooper Olson

White Lakes Mall | Topeka, KS

This mall once had a vibrant heyday, and those of us who were part of the mall scene can almost hear the piped-in music and taste the Orange Julius with its secret ingredient. Now, we can only stand at the fence and sense the echo of long-ago purchases behind that orange and buff facade. The mall is now in the process of being torn down, and photographer Cooper Olson says, 'It will soon be just a crappy parking lot full of potholes, not something people could visit.' A Topeka enthusiast, he's designed a line of vintage Topeka T-shirts including one with the White Lakes Mall logo.

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Donut shop | Marin, CA
Dylan Gibson

Donut shop | Marin, CA

The cooler case glows with an Edward Hopper-like light in this image of a donut shop in a mall at 10:30 at night. The display cases are bereft of donuts and the customers are long gone. The glow from various signage keeps your gaze anxiously moving from neon sign to several reflected signs in otherwise invisible glass. The awry seating and crooked tables against the strict checkerboard of the patterned floor give a vague sense of dissonance, as do the repeated ‘cash only’ signs. Gibson is a high school student with a very sophisticated eye to capture this photo.

Amtrak car | NV
Erika Mailman

Amtrak car | NV

This mysterious interior has the glowing light and damaged sterility of a liminal space. The car’s purpose is unknown and the ceiling’s silvered, reflective shine almost gives a sense of being underwater. I saw this space while on the Amtrak train going through Nevada and took the photo through the window without going inside. I thought the bent metal of both sets of doors looked like some oversized beast was once penned in here and battered its way out, while the thin triangle of light seemed to indicate a door opening and something about to happen.

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Door in field | Yellow Springs, OH
Dan Robertson

Door in field | Yellow Springs, OH

A door hangs crookedly in a field and you can almost hear the bees mumbling their imprecations. It’s a sunny day, but this image is nonetheless disquieting. This is the day when everything will change, when you step through that door – every leaf on every branch is leaning in to see how it will go. Robertson says, ‘I walked by this garden door space many times in all four seasons until it suddenly disappeared. I always felt compelled to take photos of it. Something about it just seemed like a temporary passage to a special place, the garden.'

Tunnel | Suffolk, VA
David O'Donnell

Tunnel | Suffolk, VA

There’s an otherwordly green glow to this photograph, with overtones of THX 1138. The other side’s opening is nearly pitch black, but you can almost scry a shape within it. Most alarmingly, we seem to be hovering at the top of the tunnel without our feet touching the ground. O’Donnell says, ‘There’s something scary but still not clearly defined on the other end... the wired bands of white and sickly green lighting, the ribbed walls, even the little puddles on the walkway. Just really creepy, like something a film crew would spend hours setting up, yet it was just there.’

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Preston Castle | Ione, CA
Angelica R. Jackson

Preston Castle | Ione, CA

This photo lets us into a shadowed hallway with a glimmer of daylight from the transom window in the distance. Although the room is well lit, there’s a strange vibe to one blue door opening into a room whose other door is boarded up; you wouldn’t want the active door to slam shut behind you. Preston Castle is an 1894 boys reformatory crafted in the old ‘asylum architecture’ style and has been out of use for many decades. Jackson documented its decaying rooms and turrets in her photo book ‘Capturing the Castle.’

Overpass | Piedmont, CA
Janna Layton

Overpass | Piedmont, CA

It’s the blue hour, when house lights come on so we can glimpse strangers in their kitchens through the windows, and cars devolve to nothing but their headlights. Birds wheel away under the moon, whose light is replicated in a row of circular lamps on a string. This image is longing personified. Layton says she once lived in this neighborhood and snapped the photograph right before moving to another city. ‘There's the transition from day to night,’ she says. ‘And the car, the flock of birds and I all had different destinations.’

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