The Backrooms of the Internet Archive

Like many bits of Internet Culture, this simple image of an empty series of rooms represents a deep-repressed or recently-remembered memory of a common Internet Legend, or it’s just a shot of nothing.

If the answer is that it’s a shot of nothing, let’s get you up to speed.

This image floated around message boards in the 2010s, posted with commentary or as a general use for a slightly off-putting photograph of a less-than-well-maintained location, and was, by most standards, rather indistinct. The internet, after all, is filled with odd images and weird drawings that cause a reaction, often after many different attempts to achieve the effect. Survivorship Bias for memes, one might say. So if one more image of an indistinct indoor landscape was out there, not much was going to happen of it.

That changed in 2019, when the image was given a legend and history, made up out of the air, that it was a rare photograph of The Backrooms. The phrasing of the original declaration speaks for itself:

“If you’re not careful and you noclip 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, the endless background noise of fluorescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in
God save you if you hear something wandering around nearby, because it sure as hell has heard you”

If this writing strikes you as some sort of odd, rather dramatic addition to the image of a room, then you’re being introduced to creepypasta, or as some might call them, urban legends and campfire stories. It’s part of the overwhelming need for humans to tell tales that excite and frighten, to compose meaning or horror out of the darkness, and even the mundane.

The concept of the “Backrooms” also touches on a very frequent theme of many different horror and science-fiction movies – that there are service tunnels and hard to access areas woven throughout life, known only to a special few. Movies such as The Matrix, The Adjustment Bureau, Us, Beyond the Walls, Dark City, The Cube, and many more have explored this theme – or used it as a jumping off point to tell another story.

The difference, here, is nobody really knew where that very first image came from. For a very long time.

This extended period of not finding the original source of the image left an unfinished tune, a half-written poem, about where it came from and what it meant. And the lack of information in the image as it showed up on these image boards seemed to ensure the mystery would never be found.

So people filled in the blanks.

A Subreddit called /r/backrooms, an extended web video series called Backrooms, and endless CGI models and creations meant to extend the legend and the origin story became years of effort by thousands to draw the missing pieces of a puzzle that was never a puzzle.

A constantly shifting set of games with titles based off The Backrooms were created and presented for a willing and happy audience; it’d be unfair to choose one or even a few to highlight – there are dozens.

All of them represent the efforts to bring you into a state of heightened fear or paranoia as you lurked through a series of dark hallways, overlit carpeted spaces, and a growing dread. There’s no question there was a huge audience for this, and it is sometimes thought that this entire legend brought mainstream attention to liminal spaces, a perception of the in-between geographies of less unsettling locations. It is now enjoying life as an aesthetic movement.

Supporting this explosion of creativity and storytelling was the continued fact that nobody knew where the photograph came from. This situation, of a core image having a completely shadowy and unexplained origin, is arguably the foundation of its power.

That changed, recently.

This appears to be the origin of the Backrooms Photograph.

In March 2003, there was a former furniture store called Rohner’s Home Furnishings in Oshkosh, Wisconsin whose second floor was being renovated by the (somewhat) new tenants, HobbyTown.

Renovating the space from the sale of furniture to a new remote-controlled racing car track (among other aspects) meant pulling down partitions and ripping out carpet. This inspired taking photographs of the process, one of which, DSC001561.JPG, was the legendary “Back Rooms” image.

18 times in the last 20 years, crawlers affiliated with the Internet Archive moved through this page and grabbed portions of it, speculatively, to store for future research and reference. As the whole image was grabbed, reading the metadata of the original image reveals the date it was taken (June 12, 2002), and the camera used (a Sony Cyber-Shot model). The great unknown image, the unsettling photo of a mysterious place and time, was revealed.

However the original, anonymous user stumbled onto this photograph, it appears it was taken from either the Wayback directly, or the Wayback Machine crawled the same site the user had found, and kept that webpage’s preservation for over 20 years.

Emerging, Blinking, Into the Light

Naturally, as news of the Backrooms being “found” travels throughout the world, responses have wildly ranged.

For some, this is a proof that “with enough eyeballs, all problems are shallow”. While we might argue about the relative worth of a given effort, the fact that it is possible for word to travel about a mystery to the point of being solved means that the world is a hair less intimidating and scary. Our shared efforts and cooperation can find the answer to a seemingly impossible-to-answer question. The fact that an image with basically no information and a blurry set of components could be tracked down and revealed is a miracle.

For others, the mystery being solved removes a little bit of magic and wonder from the world. It says that there’s no kayfabe, no holding of mystery in our hands without peeking further to tear out the secret. In this perspective, something special has been lost.

But there’s another lesson as well.

The Internet Archive’s crawlers moved through the pages of a hobby store multiple times over the years, capturing HTML, photographs, and time-stamping the process, with the equivalent care of an at-risk website, a politician on the national stage, or a legendary and obvious moment in history provided via a PDF file.

This agnostic, wide-ranging crawl likely represented both the original source of the image, and a persistent, dependable URL to reference back to it, as thousands are doing at this very moment.

This is the mission of the Wayback Machine – be the dependable, accessible connection to web history, and therefore all history. Give the Internet its Memory, which would otherwise be lost.

If you mourn the loss of legend and mystery in our quest to keep the truth transparent, available and persistent, don’t worry – the process of internalizing and analyzing the image to give the Backrooms history its full and complete story has already begun:

Here’s to the next mystery, and the next unsettling information being brought into the light and presented for the education, research and entertainment of the Internet, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

4 thoughts on “The Backrooms of the Internet Archive

  1. Annoymus

    I can see the pair of images are the only images that were successfully saved to the wayback machine. All others are blank images because they weren’t saved (properly).

    I know that webpage and when it was saved is extremely old, but it highlights an issue of the incapability of saving “hotlink-protected/redirected/serve-alternative-content” images/file downloads today.

    Any posts using WordPress free version, including tumblr, will serve up a webpage instead of an image, when you are on the image URL and refresh. Notice the interactable elements on the page (buttons, selectable text, etc.), that cannot exists in an image file. There is a forum post on their help forum explaining this: ) Imgur and Reddit have gone harder at preventing viewing only the image itself. I had to resort to saving alternative front ends as a detour (can’t mention their names in fear they’ll block them).

    And then we have JS-heavy sites like Notion and Bsky that will cause the archived page to just simply be a blank page. If this becomes a trend on the world wide web, and the WBM not adopting to this, it will become useless.

    1. Ruby

      A simple way to circumvent this anti-feature is to make a blank html file with an tag and place the image URL into the src attribute.

Comments are closed.