Liminal Time

"What was supposed to be so special about a full moon? It was only a big circle of light. And the dark of the moon was only darkness. But halfway between the two, when the moon was between the worlds of light and dark, when even the moon lived on the edge...maybe then a witch could believe in the moon."

Whatever a character or a place or a thing or a time changes from one state to another, there is a time in between, a liminal state — from the Latin limen, or threshold.

Because this is a time of transformation, it is story gold and widely used, such as the elegant simplicity of a Fairy Tale, where the son or daughter leaves, or is torn from, the parental home, entering a liminal state, and then, at the end of the tale, marries so as to form a new household, this time as husband or wife. Liminal times — such as midnight, sunrise, sunset, or even noon; solstices, equinoxes, and the beginning of the year — can be used to signify that the events are important.

This can also include times when contrary states draw near each other. Ghosts are mostly likely to walk when the realms of the dead and the living draw near, which is often but not always an otherwise liminal time, such as year's end.

Liminal times are notoriously dangerous for people, even when they are merely transitions from one time of day to another, such as midnight, or one year to the next, and still more so when they change status, as when an unmarried couple become those liminal creatures, the bride and bridegroom, finally to reach the state of husband and wife. They are eerie and uncanny avenues for strangeness and magic to appear, out of control, unleashed until the time ends.

They are also notorious for Loophole Abuse and No Man of Woman Born, particularly for the Impossible Task. If a task can be performed by neither one thing nor the other, it can often be done by someone who is changing and so half one and half the other. Duality Motif may appear.

On the bright side, they are, by definition, not permanent, unlike Liminal Beings.

A Super Trope to:


Examples not otherwise covered

Ballads

Fairy Tales

Folklore
  • Chime children are said to be born while the bells are ringing the hour, which gives them magical properties.

Literature
  • Tom's Midnight Garden also uses this, with Tom discovering a new hour that isn't midnight or 1am when he can move between the past and present versions of his aunt's house.
  • In the Labyrinths of Echo, liminal states of any kind are Melifaro's magical specialization. His primary purpose to guard the border between the real world and the Dark Side whenever his colleagues cross it into the latter, but he also displays the ability to stay in-between his normal state of mind and succumbing to Mind Control, etc..
  • In the Goosebumps Horrorland book "My Friends Call Me Monster", Michael only eats enough eggs to turn himself halfway back from monster to human. He is in humanoid form with claws and some scales.
  • On the Discworld, this moment of acute and painful existential angst, usually perpetrated by the Wizards of Unseen University, is called the thlabber state. Nobody knows why it is called this. Witches have a similar moment of vulnerable uncertainty at the moment where they cease to "borrow" the mind and body of an animal and return to their human form. For instance, when Granny Weatherwax returned to her human body after occupying the hive-mind of a swarm of bees, she was uncertain as to how many legs she had, wanted to suck up sugar syrup with her proboscis, and tried to leave the room via the closed part of a window.
    • In Witches Abroad, Granny Weatherwax believes that the half moon is a more occult phase than the full or new moons, for this reason.
      • The notes on Lilith indicate that she is vulnerable on the last day of Carnival, which is between the living and the dead.
      • When they are trapped in the mirror, both Granny and Lilith ask whether they are dead. Death answers, both times, that the answer is somewhere between No and Yes.
    • Thief of Time and The Discworld Almanack both state that liminal time is an important part of witchcraft, and witches are naturally drawn to liminal events. It's called "edge magic".
  • In The Dresden Files, times of renewal often have powerful magical effects. For instance, sunrise will destroy all but the most powerful spells. And there exist special times and places in which certain rules are suspended, and it becomes possible, for instance, for a mortal to become immortal or an immortal to die. Halloween is one of these. Harry's being born in such a time puts him slightly outside of the normal world and gives him protection against a certain class of supernatural beast.
  • In Seanan McGuire's October Daye books, dawn will disintegrate fae spells.
  • In Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor, Maia regards himself as being between states between his father's death, particularly during the coronation ceremony where he thinks on how he is released from his old life to take up a new one.
  • In John DeChancie's Castle Perilous, Kwip can walk through walls. In Castle for Rent, he pauses half in and half out, and the text comments on his paradoxical state.

Live-Action TV
  • In an episode of Eerie Indiana, Marshall discovers that he can move from the present time to an alternate timeline when he sets his watch back one hour.
  • In one episode of The Incredible Hulk David is stuck mid-transformation between regular David Banner and the Hulk form. (This has happened a couple of times in the comic book too.)
  • Each season of Babylon 5 started and ended on the (Earth standard calendar) New Year in-universe (as each season represented one year in real time). Since transitional or "cliff-hanger" events often ended the seasons, these events occurred on New Year's in universe.

Myths and Legends
  • In Hindu Mythology, the demon Hiranyakashipu bargained with Brahma to attain conditional invulnerability: he could not be killed inside or outside a building, during day or night, on the ground or in the air, by anything living or nonliving, or by man, god, or beast. Vishnu ended his ensuing reign of terror by manifesting as the tiger-man Narasimha, who killed the demon in his courtyard at twilight by placing him on his lap and skewering him with his claws.
  • In Egyptian Mythology, Ra cursed Nut to be unable to give birth on any day of the year. Thoth, therefore, gambled with Khonsu, the moon god, for his light, and used it to create five more days to the year, where she could give birth. These were known as the "Demon Days" and regarded as unlucky.
  • In south Tyrol legend the dwarf King Laurin used invisibility to hide but was betrayed to those searching for him by the motion of his roses about him as he danced with glee. He cursed them: "Neither by day nor by night should anyone again glimpse this lovely sight." But twilight, being neither, allows them to be seen, which is offered as an explanation of the Alpenglow.

Tabletop Games
  • Chaosium's Stormbringer supplement Demon Magic: The Second Stormbringer Companion. Mordaga's Throne gives anyone sitting in it the chance to contact the Lord of Chaos named Arioch. The attempt must be made at twilight, when the world seems to be both dissolving and reforming.

Video Games
  • Towards the end of Beyond: Two Souls, Jodie becomes stuck between the world of the living and the Infraworld (essentially, a world populated by the spirits of the deceased), and has to decide between going back to life or moving on (leading to different endings).

Real Life
  • Every fifty-two years, the Aztecs performed a fire-rite at a time where there was great peril of the world ceasing to exist as they transitioned from one bundle of years to the next. This period took place on the day that the Aztecs' two calendars (one yearly, the other seasonal) converged.
  • The Golden, or Magic, Hours are the liminal times between day and night, or vice versa, that are most coveted for filming or photographs due to their indirect soft yellow/orange hues creating gorgeous lighting on principal subjects.
    • And all but necessary if your film involves vampires, or other creatures who are weakened/destroyed by the rising (or, more rarely, setting) sun.

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