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TikTok users have a new ‘creepy’ method for re-living their childhoods: ‘I hate the fact that I'm growing up’

·5 min read

Whether you know it or not, you’re probably already familiar with “Dreamcore TikTok.”

The TikTok hashtag, which has drawn more than 340 million views, is massively popular — especially for something so unsettling. Dreamcore videos often feature old, grainy footage, with a soundtrack of creepy electronic music.

And the images on Dreamcore TikTok aren’t just familiar because you’ve seen them on the app. More likely, they’re familiar because, in some way, you’ve seen them in real life.

Confused yet? In many ways, that’s the point of Dreamcore TikTok — and similar TikTok aesthetics, like “Weirdcore” and “Nostalgiacore.” The #dreamcore hashtag is true to its name: Its videos hinge on a sense of vague familiarity, like having a dream based on a memory. 

Often, these dreamlike videos hinge on generic childhood memories — like attending a birthday party, or visiting the movie theater. They depict places that, depending on your age, you certainly could’ve been before. 

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Why does Dreamcore TikTok make the past feel so creepy?

2000s-era nostalgia is pervasive on TikTok. Creators have used the app to bring back Y2K fashion trends, reveal the meaning of classic pop-punk songs and revisit their favorite childhood restaurants. That all makes sense, given the fact that almost 50 percent of the app’s users are under 30, meaning many grew up during the first decade of the millennium.

Dreamcore TikTok is something different, though. Its sense of nostalgia is creepier, darker and much more bizarre. Videos using the #dreamcore or #nostalgiacore hashtags aren’t just looking reminiscing — in some cases, they seem to be trying to scare viewers with their own memories. For that reason, some videos even come with trigger warnings.

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In some ways, this association is counterintuitive. Dr. Donna Novak, a psychologist based in Simi Valley, Calif. who specializes in anxiety therapy, told In The Know that, generally, nostalgia is rooted in warm, comfortable memories. 

“Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing for the past; times in the past usually associated with feelings of warmth, security, and love,” Dr. Novak said. “We as humans are always looking to stay within our comfort zone to feel that comfort.”

Still, the feeling isn’t always as straightforward as a fond memory. Dr. Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, told In The Know that nostalgia can at times be a “mixed” emotion, depending on the context.

“[Nostalgia] can sometimes be triggered when things are not going well in the present and can cause you to be convinced that life was better in the past — or that something you did in the past caused something bad to happen in the present,” Dr. Wind said. “Ruminating about the past can be counterproductive and has been associated with stress, anxiety and depression.”  

In the comments of the most popular #dreamcore videos, you’ll find a range of emotions that seem true to Dr. Wind’s analysis. Often, users will reminisce and mourn their childhoods in the same sentence. 

“I wanted to grow up so bad [back then]. Now I hate the fact that I’m growing up,” one user commented on a popular video

“I just wish I knew how much I was gonna miss my childhood when I got older,” another added

“I want this back so badly,” another added

So why does Dreamcore TikTok feel so familiar?

It’s possible, though, that Dreamcore TikTok is only simulating nostalgia. Dr. Elliot B. Jaffa, a behavioral psychologist and consultant based in Arlington, Virginia, told In The Know he likens the videos more to “directing a movie.” Like any good period piece, the vague, semi-familiar settings of a birthday party of bounce house might just remind users of an era, not a memory. 

“Is that nostalgia? I wouldn’t say so. I would say it’s a place in time — like if Spielberg wants to do a movie [set in the past],” Dr. Jaffa said. 

So why do the videos feel like memories? For one, they take advantage of so-called “liminal spaces,” an aesthetic term that applies to the transition, in-between places we pass through on the way to something else. 

A hallway, for example, is a liminal space. So are hotel lobbies, movie theater entrances and shopping mall atriums. Many of these places look relatively the same, no matter where you are in the country — and for that reason, entering them can spark a sense of uncanny familiarity. 

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Additionally, Dreamcore TikTok often shows these unfamiliar spaces as being abandoned, which, depending on your memories, might have a jarring effect. According to a definition from the online therapy site Better Help, this has everything to do with context. 

“With liminal space, time can have an impact,” the site’s definition reads. “An elevator may feel normal during the day when it’s crowded, but certainly not late at night.”

Writing on the subject for Dazed, Günseli Yalcinkaya pointed out that on TikTok, many liminal spaces focus on locations “that were formerly occupied and have since fallen into unuse and decay.” Movie theaters and malls, for example, are closing en masse nationwide: For TikTok’s younger users, this may be a new experience. 

That’s where nostalgia re-enters the picture. Gen Z and millennial users might see an empty, lonely mall and think immediately of the past — which suddenly now feels so distant. This is a natural part of aging, according to Dr. Jaffa.

“As you get older, you’re now taking nostalgia a little bit more seriously,” he said. 

So really, the appeal of Dreamcore TikTok is probably more complex than just reminiscing. They combine fear, memory, vagueness, loneliness and more — all into one. As Dr. Jaffa puts it, that’s actually pretty normal. 

“We also define nostalgia to suit our brain, our mind, our heart — and whatever you’re looking at,” he said.

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The post The ‘#dreamcore’ aesthetic is TikTok’s unsettling, nostalgia-filled obsession appeared first on In The Know.

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