Liminal spaces – fascinating thresholds

A shimmering view off the west coast of Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Apparently “liminal spaces” are having a moment.  

I’ve been aware of them for a long time after reading a lot of Celtic mythology. The ancient Celts believed that there were many liminal places, thought of as ‘thin’ spaces, where the veil between worlds was fragile and we could sometimes get in touch with those beyond. They were mystical places in their culture, meant to be treated with respect.  

The entire British Isles feel like one big liminal zone – so many places, once you get away from the cities, that seem to be thresholds to the Otherworld. I remember when my hubby and I were driving through the countryside at dusk towards Bath in England, and a mist was creeping down the hillsides between thickets of trees. It felt like a faerie would surely come traipsing out of the woods to dance on the grassy slope.  

In Ireland we walked through a green-shrouded woods that looked straight out of the land of Faerie – so much so, in fact, that I used one of those photos to represent a liminal place in my novel, Faun Forest.

Forest in Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

I’m not as interested in liminal states of mind as I am in liminal spaces and times – when two different states of matter/being meet and we stand at the threshold, like the shores of a lake, with water lapping up onto the beach. Along the water’s shifting edge, any spot on the sand or pebbles could change from moment to moment, almost like Schrödinger’s Cat. Your feet could be either dry or wet within seconds depending on where you’re standing.  

I love foggy days. They’re perhaps the ultimate liminal condition, blurring the lines between reality and the fantastic as the fog shrouds what’s visible and turns the landscape into the boundaries of Faerie, or a land of spectres or monsters. Reading a good novel is best done on a foggy day, when the indistinct landscape gives the mind’s eye much more room to roam. A hot cup of tea is an unobtrusive accessory to a perfect afternoon, and if rain starts to fall softly, even better.  

I also love dusk, that far-too-brief transition from day to night, when the harshness of daytime is softened, the edges removed, the shadows extended and with them the possibilities. When sunlight is bleaching out all the hidden spaces, nothing can exist outside of it…but when the light begins to fade and the shadows grow, all the magickal creatures we love to imagine could be waiting to come out.  

Liminal places are where the magic lives, where strange creatures lurk, waiting to enchant us, trap us, terrorize us. They’re where a lot of authors live, imagining crime and seduction in the growing darkness, ghosts and ghouls straddling the worlds of the living and the dead, unicorns and hydras meandering just within sight if we only look hard enough.  

View from a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, at the top of the world – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Like airplanes, trains and boats are also intriguingly liminal spaces. Interesting dynamics happen on them because of that time-pocket feeling that ensues over several days instead of a few hours. Temporary friendships, fleeting romances, maybe tension that explodes into murder – all become the perfect fodder for novelists.  

The classic murder mystery on a train is Agatha Christie’s’ Murder on the Orient Express, where the train is in double-limbo: as a liminal space itself, travelling from Istanbul to Vienna, and when time stands completely still while the train is blocked by an avalanche. Hercules Poirot has a very short space of time in which to decipher whatever clues are on the train before the mountain pass is cleared, while the murderer surely feels just as trapped – they can’t escape from the site of the murder, and are aware that every moment in the brilliant detective’s vicinity exposes them to unwanted scrutiny. They must behave in a way that throws Poirot off the scent while trying to hold their nerve. If you’ve never read the book or seen one of the movies (I highly recommend the version with David Suchet as the inimitable Poirot, as part of the Masterpiece Theatre Mystery Series), I won’t spoil the ending for you.  

Cemeteries are icons of liminality – resting places for the recently departed, and many people continue to visit their deceased loved ones for years and decades as if the grave or mausoleum is a conduit to the afterlife. A lot of people find cemeteries very spooky, a crossover point for the shades of the dead after dark. There’s something about darkness and liminal places that makes for a potently creepy combination.  

Centuries-old cemetery at Glendalough, Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Storms also make great liminal scene-setters for mystery and horror novels because they completely alter our world for their duration, whether it’s a passing thunderstorm, crashing and flashing all around us, a blizzard that cuts us off from the world for several days, or a hurricane that can leave a wake of destruction behind it. People react to storms very differently, and apart from all the storm’s dramatics, the characters may do outrageous things.  

Labyrinths are very liminal. In ancient times they were considered to be paths for ritual dances, helping participants commune with higher dimensions, or alternatively traps for malevolent spirits that couldn’t navigate the twists and turns. It was believed that sometimes tricksters or demons would live inside a labyrinth. In more modern times, people usually walk labyrinths to enter a place of calm and perhaps reach a higher stage of consciousness. They can often be found inside or around churches, although very conservative Christians consider them to be too pagan. Whatever one’s reason for walking a labyrinth, it’s meant to be enable transition or transformation of some kind.  

Grassy labyrinth in Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Liminal places can be multi-dimensional, which is what makes them so fascinating to me. Recently my hubby and I were crossing a bridge over a set of railroad tracks that ran alongside a harbour. As we stood on the bridge, we could see the threshold between land and water, and between us and the sky above, as well as the highly transitional tracks below us. When a train went by underneath us, we were partially drawn into the space of the train as it crossed the threshold between the station it had left from and its destination somewhere beyond, where the tracks disappeared into the trees farther ahead. All we would have needed to catapult us into a crazy metaphysical realm is for someone to have jumped (or been thrown, if this was a murder mystery) off the train onto the tracks.  

Watching a train go by, along the water’s edge, from a bridge – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Why do liminal spaces make many of us uncomfortable? It’s the uncertainty. Sometimes, even when we should feel safe, as when we’re inside during a storm, the sensory impact still bothers people, removing that sense of protection.  

Phobias are the extreme end of uncertainty in the face of situations that don’t normally present a threat. My best friend during university had a snake phobia, and couldn’t even step inside a lab with a snake inside a terrarium, even though the possibility of the snake getting out and bothering her was essentially zero. However, because her brother had once thrown a snake at her, his act psychologically removed the ‘safe distance barrier’ and engraved into her psyche that no place with a snake anywhere in it was secure.  

Psychologists have noted that we move through many liminal spaces throughout the day and generally don’t notice them – hallways, empty rooms, stairwells, elevators. But we notice when something about such a space becomes abnormal. The example they give is one of walking down the same city street, but after dark, when no one else is around, and you can hear your own footsteps echo eerily. We find ourselves struggling to keep going because the uncertainty about what might now be lurking in the shadows becomes overwhelming and exhausting. In the darkness we no longer ‘fit’ into the same space we did in the middle of the day.  

Colourful winding corridor in a convent in Peru – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Is it any wonder that such a change of a space’s psychological texture has become a classic device in suspense and horror novels?  

Cultures can view what’s liminal/transitional differently, and how we should approach these spaces, which often are not to be taken lightly. Think of a parent’s warning to a young child to be careful around a rushing stream, or a swimming pool – or talking to strangers. Liminal places can be dangerous to the unprepared.  

Hence the long-standing practice of preparation rituals – initiations into the unknown future. In decades past, for example, a couple getting married likely were given the ‘honeymoon sex’ talk by each of their parents. Even when I got married, our church had a panel of married couples discussing arguments, finances and other things we’d be facing as newlyweds – a ritual of information-sharing.  

Thresholds are places to watch and guard. Doorways are kept locked in this day and age (in my childhood they weren’t) and along with alarm systems people now have electronic spies at the door, watching and recording everyone who comes near. Churches, shrines and temples have entrance ‘rituals’ – in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. and farther eastward, shoes are considered unclean and must be either left at the door or, as my hubby and I found out in a mosque in Cairo, covered up with little rented slipcovers.  

The entrance to Bilbo Baggins’ house, Hobbiton, New Zealand- photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Sacred places are extraordinarily liminal – they’re our connection to the divine. They are the quintessential ‘thin’ space, where people often feel very close to their belief system. But there are many ‘thin’ places in the world, sometimes where we least expect to encounter them. An article I was reading, Thin Places and Liminal Spaces, posed this question “Have you ever been in a geographical location where you felt inexplicably close to the divine presence?”, and I was startled to be able to answer that in the affirmative.  

A number of years ago, when my hubby and I were in the remote Samburu region of Kenya, we’d gotten out of the safari vehicle with the others and were walking around a clearing of sandy reddish ground surrounded by palm trees and thorn acacias. As far as the eye could see, an arid plain moving with giraffes and elephants spread before us, and bluish-lavender mountains rolled away to the horizon. There wasn’t any sound other than the wildlife and the light wind, and overhead an impossibly vast blue sky sheltered us.  

Standing there, I was overcome by a feeling of having stepped back in time, thousands to perhaps millions of years, to when the world was newly formed and God walked the earth checking His handiwork. I’m not overly religious – don’t go to mass on Sundays or read the Bible – yet this was one of the most profound moments I’ve ever experienced. The writer of the article would say I’d encountered a ‘thin’ place, and I have no other explanation for it.  

The wide, ancient spaces of Samburu Reserve in Kenya – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

For novelists, when humans are in a state of flux, they’re out of their comfort zone, perhaps floundering in waves of uncertainty, and they might and can do anything to survive. Liminal areas and situations are such great places to put our characters into, to see how they react.

Special liminal places are always quiet – no transcendence to be found in the noisy city, but maybe on the shores of a nearby lake that few other people go to, or a night spent camping under the stars. On a recent trip to New Mexico we found many places that felt liminal, and the Indigenous people would certainly back that up; to them, the world has many more thresholds to other ‘worlds’ than we think it does. I liked their philosophy.  

Hiking ethereal White Sands National Park in New Mexico- photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Liminal places may not be easy to get to, and sometimes should be approached with caution, but they can be places of wonder as well as terror. Storytellers like me will continue to explore how they get into our characters’ heads, and should you decide to explore a few in real life, just make sure you’re prepared, both physically and emotionally.

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