Content Warning: Dissociative imagery and ideas
Think back. What can you remember from childhood? Say, for example, a birthday party. The images are vague, relatively meaningless. Grainy video of empty plastic tables, semi-deflated slides and more. Tiny fragments that are both eerie and comforting. You remember this place, but you are unsure if you were ever there.
This is the concept of Dreamcore, a reasonably popular aesthetic on TikTok. It centers around abstract images that prompt associations from the viewer. These associations are often nostalgic, something we may have encountered in the past but cannot recall where. These images are often connected to dreams, as there is no better explanation for their origin — hence the title of the aesthetic.
This subject has interested me for a long time, primarily due to the reactions these images elicit. For me, it is a knot in the stomach that simultaneously radiates fear and warmth. Sometimes the scariest thing is comforting also, as it goes with dreams (and with life). The complex emotions elicited by these images warrant exploration, and it will be a journey both external and internal.
The places in these images have a specific look. There are little to no people present. The picture quality is low. The sites feel empty. These are liminal spaces — spaces of transition, spaces that are unfixed. These areas do not have distinctive identities but are purposefully set between them. Their lack of identity leads observers to perceive them differently.
Dreamcore predominantly depicts liminal spaces because dreams are inherently transitional. They have no beginning or end but rather serve as bookends to one’s days. One usually forgets dreams as soon as they happen, only recalling specific details. The absence of memory associated with dreams asserts them as an abstract idea rather than a concrete moment. Like dreams, liminal spaces are molded to whatever the viewer may feel due to their inconstant nature.
Liminal spaces are an unknown, and that unknown can induce panic. Many humans prefer a precise reality. Their grasp on the world must remain firm. It is a need that Dreamcore and liminality contradict. This separation from the external world into internal isolation becomes a fear that even pop culture has recognized. However, others find comfort in the isolation. They are open spaces rather than empty ones and can elicit comfort. The critical question is: Why do these perceptions vary?
An essential subject taught in psychology is schemas. Schemas are smaller concepts or objects that trigger a larger picture or memory. They help determine how people interact with the world around them. For example, imagine that you see a particular chair. This chair may be precious to you, triggering all sorts of memories upon viewing it. Maybe you sat in this chair when you got your first college acceptance letter. It is just an ordinary piece of furniture, but its connotations are profound.
Dreams function similarly. They are, by nature, fragments. Little things we think about during the day appear as vital pieces to grand sagas or psychedelic trips. That one test you have the next day becomes the subject of a gripping thriller. Like the chair from before, this test is granted a more significant meaning within a liminal context. Liminal spaces are open enough for interpretation. Any details are general and allow plentiful blanks for an observer to fill in. It is the ideal environment for schemas.
Overall, Dreamcore is based on liminal spaces and schemas that allow interpretations of those spaces. However, this reverts to the central question: Why are emotional reactions to the aesthetic so polarizing? Why can something that uplifts one individual trigger another? Liminal spaces are polarizing, which has been outlined, but they are but one key aspect. To answer these questions is to examine the schemas within Dreamcore’s most fundamental element: childhood.
Dreamcore relies upon nostalgic imagery, which harnesses emotional schemas and liminal thinking. Consider this image, for example. Do you recall this old arcade? Perhaps it was a friend’s birthday party or a family outing. The imagery present allows space for customization. Childhood memories are inherently liminal. They are based on a transition from birth to adulthood. Critical changes in development mark the most important memories. However, these marks are fragmented and require prompting for recognition, just like a schema. Of course, these schemas can vary.
For some, dreams represent comfort or escape. The reality for most is a difficult one. Dreams prefer to reject the concept of reality altogether. The logic is twisted, relying upon emotion over intellect. One cannot quantify the complex feelings produced by liminal imagery, a rarity in the 21st century. The schemas in the arcade image are positive. Perhaps that raggedy floor straight out of a crime scene reminds you of a spilled drink that your friends need to clean up. It is something you all laugh about now. This strange sight now carries the connotation of friendship, like the chair from before epitomizes accomplishment. The nostalgia is nurturing, representing an escape. However, not everyone’s past was a pizza party.
For others, dreams are nightmares. As stated before, many take comfort in reality. To reject reality is to reject one’s foundation. The emptiness within liminal spaces is isolating rather than liberating. Perhaps that arcade reminds you of when you were left alone by family, lost and afraid. A moderate trauma you would prefer to forget. Maybe the chair is where you learned about a divorce or a death in the family. Nostalgia can turn into trauma at the flip of the coin. Schemas are as damaging and as uplifting. It is this juxtaposition that motivates such complex emotion in reaction to Dreamcore. People take a different interpretation depending on their memory, and liminal space gives the platform.
Overall, Dreamcore mixes nostalgia and a dream-like lens to create a purely emotional experience. Both nostalgia and dreams rely upon vague recollection concentrated into schemas, and obscure transitions presented by liminal spaces. They elevate some of life’s most joyous and most horrendous moments. Its emotionality is haunting. The popularity of it makes perfect sense, as its schemas appeal in an era where many require liminal spaces of their own, as reality grows increasingly less bearable. An uplifting trend for sure.