a statue of Mary in a cemetery in Venice
Reading Time: 10 minutes The hemicycle building of the Cimetero di San Michele, which is one of the weirdest Google Earth walkabouts ever. (La Wiki. Abxbay - Own work, CC-SA.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! As we approach the most important Christian holiday of all, Easter, I want to dive into the way that liminal spaces affect us–and how they’ve impacted humanity’s view of religion ever since we realized what they were. Often, they’re at least partially responsible for those sometimes-spooky, mysterious experiences people have that they can’t explain: That One Weird Thing That Happened Once (TOWTTHO), which they often attribute to the supernatural. But they’re not supernatural. They’re perfectly natural. And today, I’ll show you how they work.

a statue of Mary in a cemetery in Venice
The hemicycle building of the Cimetero di San Michele in Isola di San Michele, which is one of the weirdest Google Maps/Google Earth VR walkabouts ever. The whole island exists in liminal state. (La Wiki. Abxbay – Own work, CC-SA.) (But this restaurant is neato.)

(Previous posts about psychology stuff: Evangelical Hatred of Psychology; The Demons of Psychiatry Don’t Exist; How Positive Thinking Backfires; The Bible Doesn’t Talk About PTSD Either.)

(Posts about That One Weird Thing That Happened Once (TOWTTHO): Open-Mindedness; The Hand on the Mirror; Cat Edition; The Zebra Rule and Occam’s Razor; Reconciling Christian Experiences with Deconversion.)

The Places That Freak Us Out.

Stop and consider for a moment:

What is the creepiest place that you’ve ever personally encountered?

Lots of places might fit that bill (part of this list comes from here):

  • Stairwells and elevators
  • Large empty spaces like art galleries and parking lots
  • Hotel and hospital halls, late at night
  • Schools and malls during times when nobody’s there
  • Lighthouses that don’t operate anymore
  • The lighting section of hardware stores
  • Abandoned or empty houses
  • Airport lobbies, waiting rooms, crossroads
  • “Natural” seeming bodies of water in suburbs
  • Crossroads and rooftops
  • Your own home very late at night when you’re alone
  • Rest stops on highways
  • A room full of fancy dolls arranged in rows
  • Any place containing a clown
  • Twilight and dawn, as well as midnight, equinoxes, solstices
  • All Saints’ Day (November 1), the cusp of zodiac signs, Leap Day

These places all share a certain creepy quality. They’re not-right — eerie — foreboding.

And they possess these qualities for a reason.

On the Threshold.

Guildenstern, on the coin flips only landing heads-up: It must be an indication of something besides the redistribution of wealth.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Something liminal exists on the threshold of two states, places, emotions, or existence. It’s not just one or the other thing; it’s both at once, and yet neither at the same time.

Long ago, I wrote about how hospital waiting rooms exist as a both-and-yet-neither space. Indeed, these sorts of rooms are liminal spaces. They exist only in relation to us moving from one place (outside the hospital) to another (the operating room — or a patient’s room — or the grief counselor’s office).

These places lack a real identity as themselves, per se. In a real sense, they are transit spaces. We utilize them only to get from one real place with its own real identity to another similar place.

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1990’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, opening scene.

The first scene of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern establishes that this movie takes place in a purely liminal state. We’re unsettled from the first moment. Anything could happen!

And that’s how people usually react to liminality.

The Context-Free Zone.

Maybe a place had an identity at one time, but right now does not. It’s not being used in the way originally intended, not right when you encounter it.

Or a place contains elements that are markedly out of place for the space.

Thus, they are context-free zones.

In horror movies, we know that we could see anything in the villain’s living quarters: bizarre collections of newspaper clippings, writing in blood on the walls, even human body parts festooning altars in hidden closets. Even if the tour includes nothing gory, villains’ homes often suggest the mental instability of their owners. The heroes very sensibly want to get out of there NOW.

If we enter an abandoned shack, we might find similar weirdness. Like consider the video for the song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” In the video, an adolescent boy (himself in a liminal state) wanders around in such a shack, picking up and playing with various detritus there. He can’t react to it like he would an inhabited house; it lacks those contextual cues. So he’s adrift there.

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The reality of adolescence meets the surreal nature of the liminal space.

In liminal spaces, context gets shredded and La Machine-ed into unrecognizability.

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If you even recognize the name of this gadget, you’re probably old.

Also, since these spaces often presage very bad news for us, they can inspire feelings of dread and ominous portent. Just entering one can stress people out — like my husband experienced when my gallbladder tried to kill me last fall.

Liminal States.

The Netflix version of Good Omens contained a lot of those kinds of states. When Adam Young wilds out toward the end and starts talking about ruling the world — even magically sealing the Them’s mouths shut to stop them from crying and arguing with him — they all freak out, even Adam himself. The children’s context just got ripped to shreds: a child should not command such power, and Adam and his friends know it. The sheer unsettled feel of this liminal state roars through that scene.

When we lack fitting contextual cues in a given situation, we can enter a liminal mindset. It’s often quite confusing and off-putting, even frightening to be neither here nor there.

At such times, we rush through emotions, past one to another because none fits the situation.

When I talk about Christianity’s oogly-boogly feelings, that’s what happens during one of these states. If context gets broken, nobody’s totally sure what’s going on or how to react. Anything can happen, even violence or something completely and totally wackadoodle. Effects no longer follow causes. If and then get hopelessly jumbled. We’re off-balance as a result.

Why Liminal States and Places Unsettle Us.

As a Tumblr denizen explains:

[W]e like things to belong to a certain place and time and when we experience those things outside of the context our brains have developed for them, our brains are like NOPE SHIT THIS ISN’T RIGHT GET OUT ABORT ABORT. Schools not in session, empty museums, being awake when other people are asleep – all these things and spaces feel weird because our brain is like “I already have a context for this space and this is not it so it must be dangerous.” Our rational understanding can sometimes override that immediate “danger” impulse but we’re still left with a feeling of wariness and unease.

And another Tumblr-ite in that thread expands on this idea of discomfort with neither/nor states:

An anthropologist named Victor Turner [also see Arnold van GennepCC] developed the idea originally to describe the space in the middle of rituals where a person is neither what they began as, nor what they will end as – an initiate going through an induction ceremony, a person in the middle of their wedding ceremony, etc. It’s a space of total ambiguity existing between two named states, and it freaks us the hell out.

It’s one of the things that led to wedding parties, to pick a solid example – because a couple transitioning from single to married are vulnerable in the middle space and need protection. [. . .]

Adulthood ceremonies are so prevalent in most cultures because of this idea as well – someone vulnerable, in the transition, no longer a child, not yet an adult, needs to be guided through the shift. We’ve lost a lot of these sacred moments in modern western culture (I had a bat mitzvah, but sweet sixteens have vanished from a lot of places, I think, as have debuts… the line between childhood and adulthood in the secular west has gotten reallllly blurry.) and I have a hunch that’s one of the reasons why things like wedding showers and baby showers now take on a whole new level of meaning / annoyance. Because we’re missing the other markers of transition.

I couldn’t possibly have stated it better than these two did, so I just blockquoted all of it.


When we talk about liminal states in people, of liminality itself, we can refer to a single moment (like the moment before you find out a loved one has died), or a period of time (adolescence), or even an epoch (modernity). These states can affect a single person, a particular group, or an entire society. We’re talking here about a starting state, a sudden shift, and then an ending state that’s very different from both the first two states.

That time of shift is the liminal state, a sort of limbo.

In a liminal state, people develop, change, and grow, some psychologists think. We don’t usually like or enjoy change. And yet it occurs whether we like it or not. In a liminal state, we’re thrust into a new situation that all but forces us to change somehow. When it’s over, we’ll be different people.

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Case in point: the 1985 movie Ladyhawke.

In the above Ladyhawke scene, we see what happens when a good storyteller makes magic by combining a whole bunch of liminal states. In this case, the liminal-state transformation happens very literally for the tragic couple at the heart of the tale.

(Raise your hand if you cried the first time you saw this scene. Make a frowny face if you shouted “Dammit, lady, HUG THE GODDAMNED WOLF already! You’re RIGHT THERE!” Me? I’m raising my hand and frowning right now.)

At such times, in such places, during such states, the unexpected can easily occur. We actually expect it!

That’s where false beliefs come in.

The Hijacking of Liminality.

Those selling woo (and those purchasing it) seem to love liminality as a concept. And one can’t blame them. It’s woven into religious beliefs and probably has been ever since the first moment that we came up with the concept of religion.

Many of us learn as children in Christianity that we might encounter any number of supernatural beings or situations in liminal places or at liminal times. On All Saints’ Day (November 1), many Christians believe ghosts wander the earth. During liminal states (like childbirth, adolescence, and even death), Christianity teaches, we’re especially vulnerable to supernatural attack.

And don’t go near that empty, abandoned house — it’s got ghosts infesting it! Definitely don’t perform weird rituals at a crossroads either — it attracts supernatural attention! And hey, check out all the religious rituals that create and then resolve liminal states (baptism, marriage, last rites — see this paper, section 2).

The Effects of Liminality on a Group.

We gloss over many thousands of familiar sights and experiences every single day. Our minds will even helpfully “fill in the blanks” if we expect a familiar thing and it doesn’t actually appear. No, it’s the weird stuff that attracts our attention and holds it, then writes it to our memory. (See these cognitive biases: Bizarreness effect and isolation effect.)

People’s awareness seems greatly heightened when they’re in liminal states, then, perhaps because they’re unusual. As hypochondriacs do all the time, people in a liminal state pay way more attention than usual to minor cues and their odd flutters in pulse, heartbeat, and skin reactions. They notice all of it. And why not? If the situation is out of the ordinary, then all of it becomes worth noticing. Thus, so must be all of those moment-to-moment shifts our bodies make all the time.

Audiences also seem way more suggestible then, especially if they’re already friendly to the woo on offer. They’re ready for something weird to happen. They want to see something that’s way out of the ordinary. Their guard is down.

They’re not thinking critically during these events, if they ever were at all.

After the experience ends, most importantly, the community feels closer to the person officiating the state. Not only that, but they also feel closer to each other. They feel a more intense allegiance to whatever drew the group together. They now share an experience that others outside the group won’t understand.

The Neverwhere of Easter Sunday.

As we approach Easter Sunday, I’m struck by how much it applies to today’s topic. What could possibly be more liminal than the supposed death, burial, and resurrection of a godling?

From start to finish, the Passion represents an exercise in liminality.

Jesus was alive, but now he’s dead. He’s dead, but not really. He’s buried, but the tomb turns out to be empty. Where is he? (Someone spot the Jesus! Jesus, Jesus, who’s got the Jesus?) Is he in the clouds? Or is he teasing his followers by pretending to be someone else they meet on the road to Emmaus? He’s supposed to be dead, but here he is all resurrected ‘n’ stuff!

And now he’s floating into the clouds, where he rules the whole universe in a state of not-dead-yet-not-aliveness! Hooray Team Jesus!

Sidebar: The Neverwhen of Rapture.

For that matter, the Rapture, which many Christians think is a literal future event that will happen during their lifetime, also represents a liminal state. It used to unnerve me that it was absolutely impossible to tell the Rapture from death. The Christians who bought into it did so because it literally is a Get-Out-Of-Death-Free card. They were terrified of dying.

But Rapture involves all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ flying into Heaven. Going to Heaven is what happens after you die. You lose out forever on Earthly living. That part of your life is over; a new part now begins.

So what, will the Raptured Christians look different from the regular denizens there? Or do they just arrive in Heaven before all the other people who sleep in their graves until the end of the world?

You know, I can see the Heavenly hipsters now:

Ugh. You should have been here BEFORE it got all crowded.

Seriously, it’s so gross now.

[rolls eyes]

Watch Out for Liminality Hucksters.

It’s interesting to watch preachers in action. Through music, intonation, gestures, and storytelling, they deliberately create a state of liminality in their audiences. You can literally see them doing it. Listen to their sermons, and you’ll get a master-class in group manipulation.

During an altar call, you can hear an organist play a soft, mournful tune as the preacher begins his spiel. It’s so contrived. Here, for example, is a call-out video decrying that very quality:

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An annotated altar call. “We all wanna be BIBLICAL!” [citation needed]

I love this video for so many reasons, not the least of which is that the video’s speaker assumes that he totally understands how to fix the problem: just Jesus perfectly! Jesus the right way! THEN it’ll be okay! But he’s not kidding: the art of issuing an altar call is very earthly in nature. You can absolutely bet that church leaders study and learn how to successfully manipulate audiences.

Everything in Christianity works like that, though. It’s all manipulation. And this weekend represents the Big Kahuna of all manipulation attempts, because it sits at that juxtaposition between normal everyday experiences and bizarre WTF weirdness.

And there’s a good chance that a lot of the folks warming pews tomorrow won’t have the knowledge needed to arm themselves against a well-honed psychological onslaught 2000 years in the refining. I can bet pastors absolutely count on it, in fact!

NEXT UP: The Problem of Wingnuts crops up in a very Easter-related way. What, d’you think you know where Jesus’ tomb is? We shall see if you were right on Chocolate Bunny Day tomorrow!

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Found this while researching. Thought you’d like it!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...