Liminality 101

Leaping Hall Rabbit


With the growing attention to George P. Hansen’s work on the trickster and the paranormal, more paranormal researchers are grappling with the concept of  liminality and it’s relationship to paranormal experiences. Recently I’ve come across researchers who are completely flummoxed by what does and does not constitute liminality.

While liminality does take many forms, there are a core group of human life transitions which will always be liminal, across time and space. These four transitions are birth, puberty, death and the beginning or end of a marriage. If you are new to the concept of liminality and are unsure about it’s boundaries or definition, start by looking for the presence of these four transitional states. You will be certain they are liminal, and by studying these core liminal states you’ll gain a deeper understanding of liminality in it’s myriad manifestations.

The concept of liminality was developed by an anthropologist after doing comparative analysis of many different cultures. Arnold van Gennep published his book The Rites of Passage in 1909, and the concept has been further studied and elaborated since then. What do these four liminal states – birth, death, puberty, and marriage – have in common?

These liminal states occur when an individual’s status changes in relationship to their larger community, and as a result the community as a whole takes actions to respond to or acknowledge this change in status.

It is tempting, especially in our ‘more rational’ Western society, to focus on the physical changes taking place in an individual as central to liminality and it’s capacity for paranormal occurrences. Puberty is famously the crucible for poltergeist phenomena, and how can you have ghosts without death? Both puberty and death involve striking changes to the physical body (sexual maturation, decay and dissolution). Pregnancy and birth are also very physically impactful.

Weddings are also liminal periods. Yet no one in the bridal party need undergo any physical changes at all for marriage to occur. Marriage involves profound status changes to the married couple, as well as for the family on both sides – who are newly related to one another. Marriage endows the couple with rights and responsibilities to each other, both social and legal. Society at large has many mechanisms for acknowledging and enforcing these rights and responsibilities between spouses, ranging from social pressure to legal remedies.

Interestingly, though many rituals surrounding death, puberty and birth have fallen out of favor in the USA, rituals surrounding weddings still flourish. There is an explicitly liminal period prior to the actual wedding (the engagement), with months to years of planning, saving, and preparations for the wedding feast and ceremony. Brides will recruit a group of young women to act as a society of their supporters in this period. Brides and grooms both will have pre-wedding single-sex parties.

Various taboos may be observed – the groom isn’t supposed to see the bride in her wedding gown prior to the ceremony, couples may practice sexual abstinence prior to the big day, and some degree of fasting and increased exercise is common. Couples might just want to look good in the wedding photos, but I wonder do the gods recognize the motivation or the action?

The wedding itself is characterized by explicitly religious and/or legal ceremony, dancing, music, is attended by a large portion of the couple’s community and features feasting. All of these elements are typical of rites of passage throughout the human experience.

My point in emphasizing weddings is to underline that liminality is a property of groups as well as of individuals and does not depend on anyone undergoing a physical transition. At the same time, the physical transitions classically associated with liminality all involve social groups. A birth involves at the least a mother and baby – father, grandparents, siblings of the baby or parents, midwives, nurses and doctors- all these at the least may participate in the liminality of birth. Families and friends may all be bereaved in the event of a death. Parents of teenagers are notoriously bound up in the liminal state of their offspring.

I will point to two examples here on my blog to illustrate ways these four liminal states can manifest around people experiencing paranormal events. Claudia Ackley has had a number of bigfoot encounters, including filming them and witnessing them with other people. One of these encounters occurred while Claudia Ackley was hiking with her daughters, one of whom was pubescent at the time. Claudia Ackley works in the hospice field, caring for people who are actively dying. Ms. Ackley also went through a divorce during the years in which she has seen bigfeet and been actively researching them.

Drew Beck encountered a strange owl and experienced missing time one night as a child. Drew was ten at the time of this experience and his parents were divorcing. His mother had begun dating the man she would later marry, who would become Drew’s stepfather. This example captures the ‘betwixt and between’ feeling of the liminal state nicely, as Drew’s mother was between two marriages – one of which hadn’t quite ended, and the other marriage just gaining momentum but still in the future.

Drew’s example also casts the community or social aspect of liminality into relief. Drew, at ten, was way too young to be married. But, as a child, the marriage status of his parents affected him deeply. Similarly with Claudia Ackley, the liminal status of her daughter and the patients with whom she works affects her and may be a factor in her bigfoot encounters.

The presence of birth, death, puberty, or a marriage transition will always indicate liminality.

I hope this helps you to get a clearer understanding of this complicated, many faceted concept. While I never earned a degree, I studied anthropology in the early 1980’s at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. So I was trained in the ideas of structural anthropology, including liminality and rites of passage. If you have any questions about liminality after reading this piece, or in future, I would be delighted to discuss them with you.

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