‘Skinamarink’ is the First Backrooms Movie

John Brown Spiers
John Brown Spiers is a former academic and lifelong overthinker. He’s written many short things and abandoned many long ones. He grew up in the Midwest, currently lives in the South, and would get lost in a different forest every day if he could. He is trying very hard.

It’s not a stretch to say that Skinamarink is a divisive film. Nor is it too broad a generalization to say that it divides more or less into halves: one that finds it captivating as hell and one that has seen drying paint with more going on. And there is a great deal happening in the film, though you need to be intrigued enough by the premise to pay attention to the details that move the thing along.

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Because it’s almost a disservice to say that Skinamarink doesn’t have a plot, or that it has a super-thin plot, or anything else of the sort. It would be more accurate to say that the film tells a story not about characters, but about an occurrence. In that sense, it’s already out on a fairly thin limb (on which paint waits to dry): stories about things are harder to get invested in than stories about people and the things that happen to them.

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I submit that in this case the difference is in the telling. Skinamarink is not interested in the reactions of its characters to the horrors unfolding all around them; its purpose as a cinematic experiment and a semi-crowdsourced idea is to capture the feeling of childhood nightmares from an adult perspective.

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Which is also part of the reason why, other than in instances of physical pain, Kaylee and Kevin never respond to the dark inexplicable setting with screams or gasps or any noises of terror. An adult, with a lifetime of nightmare experience to draw from, falls into the expected role of shrieking victim more quickly and more comfortably than a child, who hasn’t yet developed the muscle memory that makes assuming such a posture second nature.

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This response is one of the bridges connecting Skinamarink to the Backrooms, in concept if not in appearance. There are by now, four-plus years after it first went viral, any number of different Backrooms settings: the classic moldy yellow hotel sub-basement; the poolrooms; the playrooms; the endless hotel; endless suburbia; the forever staircase; the run-for-your-life nonsense and more. What most of them share (and what the worthwhile ones all share) is a devotion to liminality.

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And what liminality requires is a familiar place made strange by its inexplicable emptiness.

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The number one thing that makes interesting Backrooms videos interesting is their ability to rely on familiarity. It’s why Kane Pixels is making a Backrooms movie with A24 and YouTube is overfull of creators treading water in his wake: a story that unfolds in a place just a little bit off, just a little bit unnerving, is a story that chooses to emphasize Why over What.

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That invests its energy in the reason strange things are happening instead of which strange thing will happen next. This might actually be too broad a generalization, but think about it in terms of jump scares. How many are too many? Enough that it’s clear the video was made with them in mind – that the story exists to reveal.

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Which is also not to come down hard on all jump scares; my point here is that even when they’re scary they can be cheap. Kane Pixels’ mega-viral Backrooms video is not without them; neither is Skinamarink. But in both of those examples, the scare works because it’s unexpected. These stories keep us so focused on apparent mundanity and inexplicable isolation that we manage to forget there are any frights beyond being generally and thoroughly creeped out. If you’ve been staring into a microscope all day, even a friendly face is a shock.

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And there are, of course, multiple shots in Skinamarink that, stripped of context, look enough like odd-angled views of those infamous dank corridors that they could have been lifted straight from a proper Backrooms feature film.

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To that extent, Skinamarink also prefigures another, more niche creepypasta: the heavily modded Doom map My House, which eliminates almost all of the flesh-and-bone demonic FPS thrills of the original game and instead nudges the player through a world-shifting hellscape that has more in common with Mark Z. Danielewski’s legendary House of Leaves (and complete with a fictional backstory reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project).

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But the through-line here is that Skinamarink‘s physical setting – the actual house where its filmmaker, Kyle Edward Ball, grew up, and where his parents still live – is, in its familiarity, just as ho-hum as that of the Backrooms. The engine driver isn’t “Where are we?”; it’s “Why is this?” And it isn’t until the very end of the film that we finally, slowly, and dreamily float off into a specifically otherworldly place, one so obviously a haunted ethereal that it could only ever exist in the architecture of the mind.

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Until then, the surface of Skinamarink is all cartoons and legos; hallway lights that flicker like campfires and boob lights as immutable as a mother’s absence; darkness and a swirl of rainbow-dark shadows as full of potential as an inkwell.

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And the occasional actual face.

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There are also shots that are so dark, so all-consumingly devoid of anything even remotely close to the possibility of a pseudo-Rorschach that you have to wonder whether Ball is, if only for a moment, having a quiet chuckle at his audience’s expense.

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Because it’s one thing to wonder about the dark when there’s even the merest light against which it’s contrasted. It’s something very different to grope about for a possibility in the total void.

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Skinamarink‘s grainy palette does, however, beg the question of what it is we find meaning in when we watch a film. If you’ve ever had the experience of sitting through a movie so dull or predictable or outright lame that you would welcome a knife to the eye just to have something fresh to think about, you can understand the comparison. Just because there are clearly visible people, places, or things in the shot of a movie, and just because those people, places, or things are saying or doing or having things said or done to them, that doesn’t mean that the resulting motion is something worth watching. All it means is that there is something more clearly visible to be clearly seen.

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Or, to put that another way – if your response to a movie has ever, at any point, been “Why am I watching this?”, then you’ve had the exact same experience with the same things Skinamarink‘s detractors deride it for lacking as those same detractors had here. True, a lot of this film can be literally difficult not to watch, but to see. But this begs another question: how many movies feature how many shots that aren’t worth watching in the first place?

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One very interesting experiment would be to watch Skinamarink for the first time while wearing a blindfold. I suspect that the film is largely intelligible and almost as frightening and potentially just as scary if you can only hear what’s going on (and if you can keep an open mind). This is not to say that the film’s images, its child’s-eye point-of-view, are unnecessary. Rather, its commitment to perspectives that are unorthodox both visually and metaphorically, plus the fact that huge chunks of the film are by design damn near impossible to “see” in the conventional sense, may well combine to grant the listener the sort of extrasensory perception you almost never experience outside of dreams.

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Getting an audience to focus its attention and then sustain that focus is maybe the most demanding trick any storyteller can pull off. Skinamarink raises all sorts of interesting notions about the boundaries of horror (as in, where and when scary things stop being scary), not to mention intangibles like engagement and fixation and good old standbys like setting and plot. Someone should arrange a screening, start up the projector – then lock the theater doors.

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