In Defense of the Backrooms
News & Opinion, Culture & Community
On March 15 2022, noted confic author “qntm” tweeted the following:
This off-the-cuff thought triggered a wave of responses, some agreeing, some disagreeing, whilst others were befuddled by the premise by itself. We in the Society for Containment Fiction mostly fall into the latter category. How qntm, someone who has a deep understanding of the genre and has been writing within its confines for well over a decade, could fail to understand the appeal and potential of the Backrooms is puzzling. It is an uncharacteristically wrong statement from a man who clearly chooses his thoughts carefully, given the breadth and depth of his body of work within the space. But this is a tweet so we can hardly expect it to be the final culmination of his thoughts. The use of the word “very” is a dead giveaway that this was not fully thought through.
Qntm’s skepticism is the typical attitude amongst SCP writers, who cannot fathom why there would be alternatives to their style of confic or what could possibly be appealing about them when they have SCP right there to write for. This speaks of tunnel vision burrowing its way into the heart of the SCP writer community. From atop their perch at the apex of the community, it’s easy to say the mountain is climbable. After all, from their vantage point, it’s an easy downhill stroll to the bottom. Elites of all stripes cannot possibly understand the difficulties of common people in achieving things in crowded spaces with no oxygen for the little players, or that these days it almost takes a sell-out style marketing campaign to push through the canopy. To take power and to write their own way, they will inevitably be striking out on their own.
Nobody is ever satisfied with there only ever being one type of thing. If there is any truly universal human experience, it is that desire to want more than we already have. The Backrooms are the next step in the evolution of containment fiction (aka "limfic") and their place within the genre’s pantheon of communities is inviolable. They simply are, and the value judgments of their premise can only come from a place of subconscious jealousy, or fear from the older generation seeing the young’uns coming up into their own. The future is now, old man.
Sincerely saying the premise of the Backrooms is thin is a failure to comprehend the purpose of a framing device. The stories aren’t being told through the broad spectrum of rooming in the uncanny valley, it’s about what you might find once you get there. It is a near-universal shared experience to have entered an unfamiliar room with the creeping feeling that one really ought not be there. This can happen anywhere from decrepit abandoned buildings to disused office space long forgotten by the march of progress. Places once inhabited and used by humans now left to rot, sometimes out in the open. The creepiness of these rooms is there to provide a venue for greater storytelling. It’s why the SCP Foundation is so much more than an artifact collection agency, itself "thin, conceptually", and a trope so cliche’ it has its own TVTropes page. Your framing device is not the be-all end-all of a collaborative fiction project, especially one with the intellectual roots of containment fiction.
Is the premise of the Backrooms thin? That is entirely a matter of opinion, in my opinion, qntm is as wrong as can be. The premise is so much more than being about empty rooms that might have spooky monsters in them, a take so reductionist it can hardly be assumed to have been made in good faith. But for the purpose of argument we shall assume it was, that qntm was innocently ignorant of the wider storytelling potential rather than maliciously so. The horror of the Backrooms doesn’t come from the potentiality of monsters or running into something that went bump in the night. Rather, the core horror of these liminal spaces is the idea of being trapped within something which may be ephemeral.
The Backrooms are not permanent spaces, but rather the idea of these otherworldly domains which may only exist for the blink of an eye. These spaces which should not exist, which at any moment may be snuffed out by a universe which detects an aberration and corrects it. Bubbles go pop. Being trapped in a world before later on, within these impossible rooms wherein anything could happen, whether quickly or forever. Being on the outside of space and time in a place where it’s the same forever while at the same time never existing in the first place. A circle made impossible to complete. You can’t fit round pegs in square holes. But the Backrooms persist. They exist whether they’re supposed to or not. That is not only what makes the horror work but it is also what makes them so compelling. For they play not only upon our fears, but also upon our hopes.
Human desire for exploring is an intrinsic part of our nature. Why would anyone want to go into the Backrooms, a place forgotten by time and corporeal reality, a place which merely entering might seal your fate to a lifetime of wandering aimlessly in the void? Because it’s there. Space is an endless void but we still make big metal tubes to shoot people in. The deep ocean will crush the life out of any human brave and lunged enough to make it there without sufficient protection. Mount Everest is so littered with human remains that modern climbers use them as marking points. But yet, we still have astronauts, deep-sea divers and mountain climbers. Just because something is dangerously unknown and unfathomable to humanity doesn’t mean we fear and avoid it. Quite the opposite, we say without fear “Challenge Accepted”. This same instinct makes the Backrooms ripe for exploration, storytelling, and compelling narratives.
The idea of rooms that are wrong is a relatable concept which anyone living inside of an industrialized society can relate to. With the decades of urban decay within these societies, there are an endless spectrum of crumbling concrete buildings within which urban explorers are searching for relics of a not-so-bygone age. These are the spaces like a friend’s relative's house you only ever visited once but of which the vivid smells, the ghastly lights, and the wondrous uncertainty stick in one’s mind forever. It is like Hillary Clinton’s reaction to seeing how the other half lives. Rooms can be uncanny and horrifying even when there is nothing spooky inside of them. It’s not about empty rooms with monsters inside, it’s about the monsters inside you having free rein inside your own head where you created places which should not be.
If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss also gazes back into you…
— Samuel Clemens
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