The Backrooms: how A24 turned creepypasta into cinema (2024)

The Backrooms: how A24 turned creepypasta into cinema (2)

The Spring 2024 Issue

When a meme about architectural dead space went viral as lockdown bit, Kane Parsons knew exactly what to do: here, the teenage YouTube star turned A24 prodigy takes us down to The Backrooms, his nightmare vision of a ‘no-clipped’ world without end

This story is taken from the spring 2024 issue of Dazed. Buy a copy here.

You can spend whole days lost in the salt mines ofPortal 2. In bedrooms across the world when the first-player launched in the early 10s, millions of gamers roamed mazes of destroyed office space, reverberating boiler rooms and chemical bunkers. They kicked past sodium-lit offices that had been quickly abandoned, coiling trees, half-used chambers and the rubble of an AI glitch. In lieu of end bosses and side characters, the baddie of the game – which today has a near perfect score on Metacritic – was its eerie, undefinable menace, the strange feeling that disaster and insanity lurked somewhere nearby. It was a blockbuster environmental horror game with no actual horror in it – just endless corridors of nothingness.

When he wasn’t learning how to ride a bike or trapped at Kindergarten, they were corridors a six-year-old called Kane Parsons would spend hours exploring. “It got me thinking about the feelings that spaces can evoke in a person,” the now 18-year-old tells me one evening in December. “It took over my life.” Parsons was drawn to sliding between cracks in the walls, the areas of the game that served no obvious function. One evening, he placed his avatar’s ear to a corner and registered a faint, pained voice. It wasn’t just a moment of nagging terror for Parsons, but a kind of creative awakening, as if the wall he was pressed to was a blank canvas and it was up to his imagination to fill it with paint.

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Today, Parsons has the cracked baritone, self-annihilating wit and bookmarks of someone 30 years older – the mind of a 90s cyberpunk filmmaker trapped in the body of a Gen Z gearhead (or if you like, David Cronenberg’s brain on Ninja’s shoulders). It would be a downstroke to call him an overachiever (or, grosser, an ‘early adopter’), especially now he is A24’s youngest-ever director. His upcoming feature-length debut The Backrooms – which was successfully bid on by the film studio last year – is based on a short that Parsons made on his home computer in Northern California. Parsons was just 16 when his nine-minute clip went from one million to seven million views in one 48-hour stroke. Today, it has over 55 million views on YouTube, and Parsons has turned into a post-truth plaything for hype farms, with Deadlineclaiming that “little is known about the young director” and, even better, that A24 was “waiting for his summer holiday” to start shooting.

Set in 1995, the short film opens on a group of friends making a kind of James Whale monster movie, until the person filming steps through a portal and onto the carpet of a faceless office concourse. Shot POV, eerie and glitched out, evoking the found-footage fugue of The Blair Witch Project or Chris Cunningham’s Rubber Johnny, you follow the filmmaker’s journey through half-constructed firewall and empty landings of horrifyingly variable heights. He searches and searches for escape – through holes in the floor and cracks between pillars – until signs of a blurred-out creature starts a chase sequence through the labyrinth.

His route, which occasionally feels like it might start tinkering with gravity in the style of an Escher painting, was created on an open-source 3D software called Blender. It’s so rich in detail and design you quickly forget it’s animated. “The main reason the series is set back then is that the analogue appearance goes a long way in selling that quote-unquote, ‘liminal feeling’, or making it feel far away in time,” says Parsons, who is a fan of the grainier end of 90s films. Logic dictated that he couldn’t set it in a time of ‘Find my iPhone’ and geotags, either, as it “it would be far easier to uncover the nature of this place,” and offer too many possibilities for the protagonist to connect dots back to the real world.

Parsons slots the word ‘liminal’ very intentionally into the early part of our conversation. In 2019, the word started being thrown around Reddit and 4Chan to describe pictures of urban places empty of people but pregnant with a kind of eerie, glowing hum. “It's not like a living room or a library, but a gas station that you park at momentarily while you're going across the country," Parsons explains, “...spaces that are just there to conjoin other spaces.” Redditers would share overexposed digital camera shots of MOT parkups, dried-up urban rivers and emptied airport terminals and others would follow up with their take on what might have happened there, detailing any number of janky scenarios you wouldn’t want to get caught up in.

The Backrooms is not – and never has been – something that I think about as an internet trend or a meme. It’s just a story I genuinely care about, with characters I genuinely care about” - Kane Parsons

The liminal spaces touchpaper was first lit on 4chan, after an anonymous user posted a photo of connecting yellow office space, a keyhole into what they described as “approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms.” The post also came with a warning. “If you’re not careful and you no-clip out of reality in the wrong areas, you’ll end up in the Backrooms, where it’s nothing but the stink of old moist carpet, the madness of mono-yellow…”. (‘No-clipping’ is a gamer term to describe slipping through a hole in the real world into a fictional or fantastical one, just like one of Parsons’ childhood adventures on Portal 2). As COVID hit and people were forced to find their excitement online, the Backrooms post sparked the biggest Reddit creepypasta since Slenderman, with hundreds of horror fictions and images of lonely locales flooding r/ pages each day. Beyond the internet,Severence’s Dan Erickson said the posts were a key influence on his surrealist sci-fi serial.

Surprisingly, Parsons isn’t too keen on picking through the lore of creepypastas and liminal threads, and is much more interested in where he can take the story next. As the phenomenon tore through Reddit in 2020, he saw the content people were posting dipping in quality, and an opportunity to turn the Backrooms into a well-developed piece of entertainment. “There was definitely no real presence of high fidelity content being made,” he says, reflecting on the speed at which the internet can suck the meaning out of movements like these. “I would see videos of Peter Griffin from Family Guy running and falling into the background… Nowadays the label gets applied to any image that looks vaguely uncanny and nostalgic at the same time – like flash photography from the early 2000s of, like, your grandmother's house.” He also saw it as a chance to adapt an idea he’d been quietly chewing on for years, about an MRI research lab that makes a discovery that could upend the laws of reality.

Parsons chooses to talk camera-off so he can collect his thoughts, and not accidentally say something that will piss off his 2.33 million YouTube subscribers, who often get impatient waiting for the next instalment in his Backrooms series, of which there are now twelve. After the A24 deal was signed last year and Parsons was paired up with the screenwriter Robert Patino (a writer on Westworld, DMZ and Sons of Anarchy), he chose to keep making sequels to the original short film, expanding the universe while production began on the feature length.

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Nowadays, he talks of The Backrooms as if it’s hisStar Wars, the starting pistol on a long saga that will hopefully grow across mediums and influence future generations. “I certainly have no interest in letting this story die, and I don't care how many decades it takes,” he says firmly, “I’ll do a ten-episode series to tell the story the way I want to.” In fact, after the first short went viral in January 2022 and Parsons started being approached by studios about adapting it, he had initially pitched it as a full serialisation rather than a single feature, in the style of a comic franchise. “Really, the YouTube film is only a small part of it, I think of it as a prologue or sort of a teaser,” he says. Parsons can’t reveal too much about the A24 film yet, but says that the studio have allowed him to expand on its core philosophical quandaries without much interference (or pressure to explore wider social themes). “The story at large is not pulled through a footage medium, and it goes to places with characters that we haven't seen before and explores things that I haven't really touched on yet,” he says. “The Backrooms is not – and never has been – something that I think about as an internet trend or a meme. It's just a story I genuinely care about, with characters I genuinely care about.”

Another reason why Parsons wants to steer the conversation away from the creepypastas trend and towards the future is that he was never that into the movement in the first place. While many people his age were interested in following the Reddit entries like a daily soap, the phenomenon spoke directly to Parsons’ other, much louder fascinations.While he is very much a child of world-building sandbox games like Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet, he is just as drawn to desolate spaces in the real world. Parsons was eight or nine when he started watching Go-Pro clips of people walking through abandoned historical sites, and in his early teens when he sought them out for himself.

“The places I’ve always been most fascinated by are the ones that see little (or ideally) no active foot traffic,” he says. “Industrial back corridors, storage rooms, crawlspaces, emergency exits, vacant offices, dead malls, or just plainly bizarre and outdated architecture hidden out of view from the public. Areas that rarely see use, but haven’t yet completely rotted away in abandonment.”

“The places I’ve always been most fascinated by are the ones that see little (or ideally) no active foot traffic” - Kane Parsons

One day when he was 13, Parsons and his friends travelled to LA to visit a film festival he’d entered into. They stayed in a hotel called the Millennium Biltmore, an ornate 1920s relic that seemed to want to cling onto the past, as if Gloria Swanson’s richly red and goldSunset Boulevardmansion had been left to rot in the Hollywood sun. The friends broke into the building and onto a deserted upper hallway that he recalls having a distinctively Backrooms feel to it, “especially given its scale and overwhelmingly yellow tone.”

Via a maintenance door, the friends seemed to step through a prism and into one of the ruinous games they were usually plugged into. “It looked exactly the same as all the other stairwells, however this one was completely devoid of colour and got progressively more dilapidated with each of the 13 or so floors we descended,” he remembers. “So much so, that by the time we reached the ground level, the space had transformed into a nightmarish area out of Silent Hill or one of my own films.” The group returned to the Millennium Biltmore a few more times, fascinated by its audacity. It seemed impossible that something as haunted and vast as those stairwells could still exist in the heart of a wipe-clean metropolis, as if the friends had no-clipped out of LA and into some rotten, off-white version of modern life.

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If Parsons’ original short feels punchdrunk and dreamlike, it’s because he constructs a lot of its architectural detail in his sleep. Many of the Backrooms’ stranger details were taken from nightmares he had of the Millennium Biltmore. He can remember his dreams from as far back as he can remember, so doesn’t even feel the need to write them down when they happen (“I store them all,” he says). One night, he had a dream in which he broke into an area of public swimming pools below ground floor, a layout he half-remembers seeing at the hotel. He refers to a scene in the first sequel, in which the protagonist finds a secret door and moves through a tunnel into a bigger spa area littered with metal frame trays. Like something Terry Gilliam would have imagined forBrazil, the trays contained, he recalls, “objects that don't exist in real life, things made out of metal wire bent into little figures”, comparing the scene to something out of a 60s psych ward.

Another time, Parsons dreamt he was the Backrooms character Ivan Beck, the vice-director of ASYNC (an organisation that studies the Backrooms), and had to convince himself that he wasn’t even after waking up – “The confusion I had written into the character was sort of bleeding into my experience while I was dreaming of him, so I genuinely was worried I actually was him for a little bit in the dream.” It rattled the director, who says he has the ability to make lucid decisions in his sleep.

I’m often surprised Parsons isn’t freaked out more regularly, sitting as he does at the crossroads of internet fame, an indie movie career and cult interest. He talks calmly and methodically when I ask him about the ambient soundscapes he created for the series (“I spend a lot of time scoring scenes to films that don't even exist”), his fascination with building design (“I'll obsess over the look of a concrete panel”) and his filmmaking career, which he launched when he was three (“It was mostly just me turning on the camera while I ran around the house trying to get my brother to pretend to be an alien”). He describes his creative process as a blur, and his most productive spells pass him by in a flash, similar to a fugue state. His latest YouTube film,The Rolling Giant (The Oldest View Part 3), a 46-minute found-footage thriller, took three painful months to complete, but he only remembers three hours of every day of it.

The film follows a character’s journey down a darkened stone staircase lit by a hole in a wooded area, presumably somewhere north of San Francisco. In what at first looks like an urban explorer’s video posited somewhere in the near future, when he finally reaches the base his route opens into an abandoned cinema complex complete with bubblegum dispensers and ads that pose, “Can you name eight veggies that start with the letter B?” As the details of the space start to form in the dark, you get a sense of the scope of Parsons’ ambition now, and just how far his storytelling designs have evolved. “This is massive,” the character says to himself, as mall muzak cranks to life in the distance. “How do you build something like this?”

As we fold up the conversation and turn to a few lighter topics, a calm glow seems to reverberate across my computer screen as I stare back at Parsons’ pixelated avatar. The young filmmakers’ wheels are locked into a route that only he knows the destination of, and they seem to be turning faster, and with more ferocity, as each year. I’m reminded of the original Backrooms’ 4chan post, because I can’t help but spot the metaphor. Throughout our conversation, Parsons' calmness seems to derive from some kind of deep intellectual anchor, as if he is at once no-clipped from the reality that most of us know, and firmly clipped into his. “I've been doing film for quite a while, but it took me a minute to really call myself a director,” Parsons admits. “But then again, I don't follow traditional cinema culture or anything. The internet has filled the space in my life where Hollywood would be.”

The Spring 2024 IssuespaceKane ParsonsYouTubeliminal spacesRedditthe Backrooms4chanA24 films

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The Backrooms: how A24 turned creepypasta into cinema (2024)
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