The Horrors In-Between: Four Boundary-Pushing Directors Discuss Their Latest Liminal Horror Projects [Interview]

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

If you’re drawn to creepy and unsettling imagery like I am, odds are you have likely come across and fallen down the rabbit hole of images online known as “liminal spaces.” These images often portray typically bustling places—streets, malls, schools, sprawling corridors—in their most desolate states, uncharacteristically empty and isolated to the point of being unsettling. The public’s fascination with liminal spaces has been growing in recent years, but the term liminality itself first surfaced in the field of anthropology through the early-to-mid 20th-century work of scholars like Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner in their study of rituals. Put as simply as can be, liminality describes a state of transition, where someone or something is neither here nor there, connected to what was before and what is to come, but not fully planted in either.

It’s probably no surprise then that liminality has played a prominent role in the horror genre (and beyond) for some time now. Whether we’re talking Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, or David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, the genre has explored the disquieting nature of physical spaces of transition, as well as those that are emotionally, psychologically, and otherwise symbolically liminal. Recent years have further introduced a host of modern genre films that have explored liminality in inventive ways, including Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, Jordan Peele’s Us, and Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium.

While genre films of this nature aren’t new in their approaches by any means, the recent buzz around films like Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters and Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink suggest that a revitalized and experiential brand of liminal horror is on the rise.

As projects of this nature are right up my alley, I sought to pick the brains of several filmmakers whose recent projects explore liminal horrors in unique and creative ways, including Ball, Banfitch, Paul Owens (writer/director of LandLocked), and Zach Donohue (writer/director of the experimental web series The Unknowable).

Historically, found footage horror has often been one of the most effective mediums for exploring themes of liminality. Banfitch’s The Outwaters—set to be released in select theaters on February 9th and sometime later in the year on Screambox—is a prime example of this format used to the fullest effect. Citing The Blair Witch Project, Willow Creek, Session 9, Event Horizon, and the films of Terence Malick as inspiration, Banfitch’s film begins unassumingly enough as it follows four friends preparing to embark on a trip to the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video.

Like many found footage films that came before, The Outwaters is grounded in a real-life scenario from the outset. The film features mostly improvised dialogue, was shot on location in the Mojave Desert, and stars Banfitch and his actual family and friends (“I think my friends are cool!” he gushes)—all elements that serve to establish the comforting “reality” that the audience is meant to settle into before the familiar spirals into the outright horrifying.

“I just wanted complete, slice-of-life normalcy and then… chaos,” says Banfitch with a laugh when asked about his approach to the film’s narrative. “I hate it in found footage movies when there’s all this dramatic tension going on and [characters are] having conversations that you would never have on camera. So, I basically didn’t want ‘drama’ in [the film], which I think is why some people find the first half really boring. I wanted all the drama to be hanging in the air.”

Indeed, the film’s early moments suggest familial tension and potentially troubled relationships, but nothing is quite explicitly laid out, and we mostly get to know the film’s characters through naturalistic interactions. However, as The Outwaters tailspins into a surreal back half characterized by unsettling sound design (courtesy of Banfitch himself) and a host of disturbing images, the film becomes a largely sensory experience that feels like a fever dream. Viewers are given glimpses of what’s “real” amidst the chaos, but nothing is ever quite explicitly laid out in the film’s hellish landscape, eliciting a sense that the viewer is indeed trapped in a waking nightmare on a camping trip gone wrong. In this sense, the film’s use of psychological, geographical, and temporal disorientation to communicate the horrors the friends face in the Mojave makes for a liminal horror experience at its most chaotic.

While the film’s imagery feels organized in its ultimate chaos, Banfitch himself admits that his visual choices just flowed from him naturally: “When I got the idea for what the threat [in The Outwaters] could be, I didn’t really write much. I just started exploring it with whatever visuals came to my head.” When asked if any of his personal fears influenced the film, he responds after some thinking: “Darkness is scary. Swimming in the ocean at night is scary. I just explored visual ideas as I went along, and I don’t even know where they came from other than just thinking of what the threat was and what that would look like if it were captured on someone’s home movies.” Banfitch is quick to note that the choices around what he represents on screen are not arbitrary, however. “For me, everything in it feels important in some way.”

One might be inclined to look at Banfitch with morbid curiosity and wonder what exactly is going on in his head if the imagery in The Outwaters is any indication. As someone with a long history of recurring, seemingly inescapable nightmares that have more than once made me question reality upon waking, the film made me feel as if I had seen one of my darkest dreams put to film in the most chillingly accurate way. Moreover, I’ve been genuinely surprised to hear this sentiment shared by a few others who have also seen and connected with the film on the festival circuit. It’s as if Banfitch has unconsciously channeled a true-to-life human experience firmly planted in psychological liminality; at its most effective, The Outwaters functions as a visceral simulation of what it might be like to be trapped between two warring states of consciousness or mental clarity. “I just hope that people feel like they’re seeing something that’s actually horrific,” Banfitch states of his final product. “Even though [the film] is experimental in some ways, I hope that audiences feel that they’ve seen something unique that stirs a feeling of genuine horror.”

That such disturbing content could seamlessly flow from the mind of a filmmaker without any advanced visual plan in place is not a scenario that Banfitch alone describes, suggesting a creative process by which unconscious horrors manifest for some only as filming is underway. Kyle Edward Ball reported a similar process as he discussed his much-buzzed-about Skinamarink, which was recently released in select theaters and will hit Shudder later this year. The film, which has garnered a wide range of strong reactions thus far, follows 4-year-old Kevin (Lucas Paul) and 6-year-old Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), who awake to find that their father is missing, and all the home’s windows and doors have vanished.

“I just felt compelled to make this movie… this exact movie,” Ball states. “And the more I leaned into it, it felt like it just sort of happened. As I got going, I made it more and more personal. I filmed it at the house I grew up in. I made the characters basically me and my sister, and it just sort of evolved.”

Ball initially saw the seeds for Skinamarink planted in his work on a YouTube series in which he recreates people’s nightmares. Of this project, he states, “I discovered that the most common nightmare that people would describe would be: ‘I’m between the ages of 6 and 10, I’m in my house, there’s a monster, and my parents are either dead or asleep or missing, and I have to deal with the monster.’ And I kind of built a movie around that… it just sort of evolved into something.” Ball cites Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, master of liminal horror David Lynch, and more as his primary inspirations for Skinamarink. Filming took place in his childhood home over seven days (he winkingly referenced The Ring when this was revealed), and Ball replicated various facets of his childhood experiences for the film. “When I was little, the basement was scary, so I wrote that into it,” he explains. “The parts with the kids’ pictures on the walls… that’s me and my sister. And when I was about 4 or 5, my mom picked up a tape of public-domain cartoons from a bargain bin. I actually found all of the ones from that tape, and they’re shown in the movie.” With this knowledge, Skinamarink carries an even more unsettling air, as if one is viewing an authentic home video somehow composed of fragmented (and no doubt skewed) childhood memories projected in real time. The film’s cursed tone is heightened by persistent, grainy shots of the home’s interior—dark hallways, looming stairwells, and walls that seem to extend to towering heights—that slowly transform a once-familiar childhood safe haven into a horror house of endless liminal spaces.

While Ball insists that the more autobiographical aspects of the film are the ones not necessarily played for scares, one key prop written into the script fell serendipitously into place in a way that shook even Ball himself. “A toy phone plays prominently in the film. I wrote it into the script thinking, ‘How am I gonna track down this phone from the ‘90s?’” he explains. “Before we made the movie, I went to my parents’ house to look through these bins of toys so that we could use them as props. We got to the bottom of one bin, and that fucking toy phone was staring up at me! I was like, “Mom, I wrote this into the movie, but I didn’t know we had this!’” Ball laughs about this synchronicity but acknowledges that his unconscious and personal mental health journey are likely to credit for the film’s scares. “I’m sure all of it comes from [my own fears], but it’s hard to pinpoint where I consciously constructed something and where I subconsciously constructed stuff. […] There are obviously fears of abandonment and being alone [represented]. I have schizophrenia, so having a monster with this voice that tries to control you and tells you to do things and maybe hurt yourself… I don’t know if that was a conscious decision I made at any point, but it was something that seeped into the script.”

Whether consciously or unintentionally, the use of personal content in low-budget horror projects often serves to elevate a sense of temporal and psychological liminality to disquieting effect. Like Ball, LandLocked writer/director Paul Owens also filmed his feature debut in his childhood home. The film, which was released earlier this month on streaming platforms, follows Mason (played by the director’s real-life younger brother Mason Owens) as he returns to his soon-to-be demolished childhood home and discovers a video camera with the ability to show past events in the places where they originally took place. As Mason begins to record and immerse himself in the memories he rediscovers, his sense of reality is threatened as the past begins to take on a life of its own in the present. Speaking of his personal attachment to the narrative, Owens states, “Kind of similar to the character in the movie, I had moved back home at one point and was living there with my dad, brothers… It wasn’t really the same place anymore. It was kind of that feeling like you can never go home again, and trying to capture that, wanting to tell that in a way that was different from other movies.”

While Owens utilizes traditional filming techniques to document much of Mason’s journey, he notably also integrates actual home video footage from his family’s archive throughout the film. “Discovering the home videos at my dad’s house and watching them… that kind of blew my mind,” he states. “I was like, ‘I gotta use these somehow.’” The footage highlighted in LandLocked consists of a wide range of family memories, including lively clips of his parents entertaining guests and Owens and his brothers enjoying summer days on the property. Yet, while Owens asserts he never intended to make a “scary” film and the footage itself is not inherently dark for much of the film, LandLocked is tinged with a haunting, often wistful tone. “[The idea for the movie] sort of just occurred to me while watching a videotape of a happy family on TV and then looking around and seeing everything in disrepair and having everyone scattered in their own locations now. It seemed to just make a ton of sense to me. [The scariness] seemed to be naturally embedded. There was a creepiness to the idea; there was a spookiness.”

In discussing the exercise of filming on the family property for no less than four years, Owens describes a surreal quality to the process. “It’s a really old house, so, growing up, it was always very strange-feeling compared to other homes,” he states. “It was built in the 1830s, I believe. It had multiple additions, like taking a window out and making it a door or adding on this section and subtracting that section. […] It was kind of like [Mark Z. Danielewski’s] House of Leaves, where there was just so much weirdness to the house that you could imagine a place underneath where all of the vents converge and someone could be living down there.”

The long-running history and temporally linked structural shifts of the home described by Owens are of note in the discussion of liminality. In fact, in some parapsychology circles, it is believed that liminal spaces—such as those heavily trafficked at one time of day but essentially desolate at another—tend to attract inexplicable phenomena. To this end, Owens also states at one point that “people were kind of in and out” of the home regularly, and footage of his family’s gatherings showcased in the film indicates that the house saw heavy social foot traffic over the years. Whether recognizing the connection or not, Owens’ accounts of his experiences in and relationship to the home certainly elevate the sense of liminality both explicitly and implicitly represented in LandLocked as a personal project. “There were 100 years of people living in [the house] and working on it, changing and adapting it. As a kid, your imagination is like, ‘Oh shit, what’s actually going on here?’ I feel like so much of the movie came from childhood fears, wonderings, and imaginings of what’s behind the walls. There definitely was a weirdness I always felt in the house.”

While Owens’ art-imitates-life approach appears to be born of practicality in many ways (he cast his immediate family and filmed in his childhood home because “it just seemed like the most obvious way to do it”), there’s something about LandLocked that ultimately feels like a therapeutic exercise for the filmmaker. The film certainly explores grief in unique ways, juxtaposing the comfort of nostalgia against the reality of having to make peace with the past and move forward in life, all amidst an increasingly dilapidated childhood backdrop. Owens himself explicitly discussed these themes and how they spoke to him as a creator and human alike. “That’s probably why I made the movie… to maybe remind myself that [living in the past] is a bad thing. I do tend to focus on the past and the better times that we’ve seen and people that aren’t around anymore,” he states. “It’s a problem I have for sure, so I can’t be too critical of other people for doing that same thing. But it has been interesting to make the movie sort of in the shadow of these really nostalgia-driven properties. It’s been interesting to see it as a response to all those things and go in the other direction.” With LandLocked officially released to the public, it appears the chance to finally move on to the next thing is finally here for Owens, who stated that “doing anything different will be great” when asked what’s next for him. Given the decade of labor LandLocked required of Owens, you certainly can’t blame him. “I feel like I’m living in the past, continuing to talk about this movie and working on this movie, and I do feel like the themes of this movie are telling me to stop,” he says with a laugh. “So, it’s probably good that it’s out.”


Where LandLocked and Skinamarink represent similar genre fare that has utilized autobiographical influences, friends and family of their creators, and pre-existing media to deliver liminal cinematic experiences, Zach Donohue’s (The Den) new web series The Unknowable uses similar resources to very different ends. Currently available in its entirety on YouTube via Jackalope Studio (first episode embedded below), The Unknowable uses a bricolage of over 250 different black-and-white public domain films, select silent footage filmed with hired actors, and narration (courtesy of Sean Burgos) to spin its twisted tale. Donohue and producer Kyle Cooper (creative director of Jackalope Studio) ultimately deliver a truly singular audiovisual experience that explores liminality on a cosmic level. Like The Outwaters, The Unknowable takes us to the Mojave desert as it follows World War II veteran Thaddeus Wilcox (Chris Voss) as he leaves San Francisco with his wife Fanny (Ally Voss) and her sister Mabel (Sarah Eisenberg, Donohue’s wife, and recent Emmy winner) to a remote property known as Silent Creek. Compelled by visions of a strange alien species, the Wilcox family spends the year attempting to make contact, but, in the process, draws the unwanted attention of other more malevolent and unspeakable forces.

“The process of making The Unknowable was one of discovery, planning, and intense revision,” Donohue states. “It was built out from a core set of unique and creepy characters I wanted to weave the most bizarre series of true crime events around.” Speaking of the prominent use of public domain footage in the project, Donohue adds, “The careful selection of clips became an integral part of the writing process. Sometimes the found footage would complement the story I had in mind, and sometimes it would naturally lead the narrative to new and incredible places. The challenge of tying all these bizarre threads together by the end became the biggest and most satisfying thrill as a creator.” Given the wide array of media and creative approaches utilized in creating the series, it feels as though The Unknowable itself lies somewhere in the liminal space of the creative process. The final result is a project that’s equal parts historical fiction, true crime case, high strangeness tale, and cosmic micro-horror exercise.

Though the story of the Wilcox family ultimately goes into full cosmic horror territory, much of The Unknowable taps into the same liminal realm between perceived fact and fiction that makes the best creepypastas effective. “Liminal horror transports the audience to a place that is seemingly real or familiar but which also has a dark, dreamlike quality. I think that’s why we’re discovering that some Unknowable viewers are believing that it’s a real documentary,” Donohue says of the blurred sense of reality inspired by the series. “We’re showing them things that have a sense of place in their mind, whether they realize it or not. They might not have lived in the 1940s, but they’ve seen and experienced enough cultural and historical touchstones to feel a sense of verisimilitude via the old grainy footage. It’s when things start to shift into the strange that they become unsettled—again without even realizing why. And that, to us, is what makes the show special and uncannily creepy.”

It may be unsurprising then that Donohue, like Ball, also cites David Lynch as one of the creative inspirations for The Unknowable. “Films by David Lynch, especially Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, were north stars for me—not just for crafting a liminal horror experience in general, but for helping to create a tone that balances reality with a surreal eeriness that occasionally borders on absurdism and even outlandish comedy.” Donohue further describes a famously unnerving Lynch sequence that spoke to him personally: “The diner scene in Mulholland Drive is one of the best examples of a high strange moment that plays with reality and dream world logic, and then takes you to an other-worldly space when they go behind the dumpster. We constantly tried to explore similar creepy moments [in The Unknowable] that start from familiar, conventional beginnings that then take on a warped dream logic of their own.” As Donohue also cites inspiration in Chris Marker’s seminal film La Jetée, Monty Python, and the work of Guy Maddin and Craig Baldwin, to name a few others, one can expect The Unknowable to be an unpredictable ride both narratively and as a genre experience.


In the overarching discussion of liminality as a landscape for thematic and artistic exploration in horror and related genres, there’s something to be said for projects that dare to defy categorization and filmmaking or genre tropes. Whether you are ultimately a fan or not, The Outwaters, Skinamarink, LandLocked, and The Unknowable all dare to buck expectations and current horror trends in favor of subversive approaches to otherwise well-worn territory. They certainly don’t feel constrained by what Banfitch referred to as “film school screenplay beats and dramatic tension,” which no doubt may put some less adventurous viewers off. Yet, there’s no denying that liminal horror films—those terrifying stories that place the viewer into a forced, often uncomfortable dialectic between the familiar and the unknown—make for a novel viewing experience like no other for those willing to lean into the curiosity required of them.

“Really, I just want people to feel like they’ve seen something special and be scared in a way they haven’t been scared before,” says Ball when asked what he hopes audiences get out of viewing his film. This is a similar sentiment echoed across all my discussions with the creators who contributed to this piece. Given the influx of recent projects taking fresh approaches to genre filmmaking—to the point of expanding our current subgenre taxonomy at times—it’s worth celebrating this time in which promising filmmakers can both be inspired to push the boundaries of horror and actually find support across genre fans and industry figures alike. And for some, even just being able to get these peculiar stories out at all is cause enough for celebration.

The Unknowable was put together for under $1,000 with a limited cast and crew,” Donohue reveals. “Yet we’re able to tell a sprawling story that incorporates true crime, aliens, serial killers, witchcraft, LSD cults, and at one point we take audiences to the edge of a new dimension. Which I think, all in all, is pretty fucking cool.” As someone who’s always open to finding new and challenging ways to be scared, I’d have to agree.

The Outwaters will be released in select theaters on February 9th and will hit Screambox later this year; Skinamarink is currently screening in select theaters and will premiere on Shudder later this year; LandLocked is currently available across streaming platforms; and The Unknowable is currently available on YouTube via Jackalope Studio.

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