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Life Exploring TikTok’s uncanny corners and the strangely therapeutic aspects of weirdcore

Oct. 25, 2021

There’s something strange happening on TikTok. Grainy shots of abandoned hallways, glitching figures, and rumbling creatures with large eyes—so many eyes—flicker in and out of sight. In one video, a goat-headed man with a clipboard welcomes us to a meadow garden. He notes that “reality feels too harsh for us to handle.” A shaky old camera pans around an empty mall as children shout and piano music rattles from headphone to headphone. A warning for “derealization” flashes as a red caption, allowing viewers susceptible to anxiety attacks to scroll past. 


Terms associated with these videos include oddcore, weirdcore, liminal space, backrooms, and traumacore—but these are far from new. Liminal art and horror have always had a place in the digital plane. Led by similarly shifting spaces seen on TV shows such as Twin Peaks, this kind of art has also found a home on platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. 


According to Urban Dictionary, weirdcore is “an aesthetic that contains red eyes, text, black boxes, and surreal images.” In TikTok’s growing weirdcore community, videos center on nostalgic childhood locations, such as play places and parks, or feature elements of cottagecore, featuring sun-dappled forests and cardigan-clad figures with eyeballs for heads.


Thanks to TikTok, creators are able to bring their visions to life in a new format. Easily accessible short videos have introduced this niche to fresh eyes through the app’s rabbit-hole algorithm. With elements of creepypasta—online horror stories that gain notoriety by being copied and pasted on forums and websites across the internet, such as Slenderman—and urban legends thrown into its visuals, this section of TikTok feels like folklore for the modern age: the weird stuff you mention off-handedly to friends late at night.


Weirdcore is highly stylistic, building on low-quality liminal images usually hearkening back to the early 2000s and earlier. Videos of parks, dreamlike landscapes, blurred shadows, and stark text mesh together to create something that feels familiar but not immediately recognizable. Synth-laden soundscapes and crackling static pepper the hashtag, switching between upbeat and jarringly slow tracks. By playing on nostalgia with distorted sounds and visuals taken from the mid-’90s and early 2000s, the effect ripples across the senses—sometimes invoking an “off” sense of deja vu. Confusion, discomfort, and reminiscence are all key qualities of this genre, intersecting with aspects of brightly-colored kidcore (an aesthetic highlighting childhood imagery) and blisscore (an aesthetic focused on dreamlike themes). 


While not outright terrifying, the unease created by these atmospheric videos can mean something completely different for each viewer. Some users find weirdcore strangely fascinating or even comforting, while others feel a sense of dread or foreboding. The exact origins of weirdcore are up for debate, with guesses putting its internet debut as far as ten years ago or as recent as 2019. These murky beginnings only add to the aesthetic’s oddly timeless nature.


Perhaps the popularity of TikTok’s new wave of weirdcore and all its siblings can be attributed to the videos’ anxiety-inducing properties. In the same way someone gradually introduces themselves to their fear when trying to get rid of a phobia, weirdcore could be another way a generation frequently exposed to stress through social, political, and global issues is coping. At the same time, weirdcore’s basis in nostalgia seems to genuinely comfort other viewers. In the comments in one of dozens of weirdcore compilations on YouTube, one person writes, “I have extremely bad anxiety and weirdcore is one of the things that comforts me and makes me feel like everything will be okay again… it makes me feel like I'm in my childhood.” 


Many of these videos take recognizable elements of everyday life and make them feel somewhat alien, causing their viewers to feel a lingering tension. Footage of abandoned shopping malls and eerily empty spaces are key in weirdcore imagery. These unnerving visuals yield a range of different emotions, with many viewers’ reactions stemming from deeply personal experiences. As one commenter mentioned, “This aesthetic fills me with so much anxiety—almost like something is going to jump out and scare me… but it’s oddly comforting when nothing happens. At the same time, however, as a kid, this was the type of thing that would terrify me.” 


While one viewer might see a video of a long hallway with a multitude of blinking eyes as unpleasant and scary, another may find solace in having seen something similar in a dream once. As one user says, “The warnings of derealization and triggered anxiety are needed, with some videos alluding to more difficult themes." Potentially distressing subjects like abuse or assault can appear in weirdcore videos, as the result of an overlap with yet another subgenre, the aforementioned traumacore—wherein creators use the medium of TikTok to deal with upsetting personal experiences usually experienced in childhood.


Traumacore, when combined with visuals specifically made to feel “overly familiar” to the subconscious, showcases another draw of weirdcore: it’s aggravating and sentimental all at once. 


The beauty of weirdcore—and all its odd offshoots—is in the sheer scope of content. From creators exploring this genre to help digest their own deeply-rooted experiences, to artists simply exploring how far they can push the envelope of strangeness, the genre is deeply experimental. Through TikTok, a new space has enabled the aesthetic to flourish, and for uncanny, sickly horrors to linger in viewers’ brains—long after the app is closed.