Like the seasons, Internet aesthetics come and go. As the days get colder and nights longer, the aspirational cottagecore of earlier months, with its sun-drenched wicker baskets and billowing dresses, is being rightly pushed aside for something grittier that we’ve all been feeling lately: goblincore.
Cottagecore dominated the first half of 2020, when states began mandating stay-at-home orders and the country was on hold. Unless they were essential workers, Americans found themselves newly confined to their homes with the expectation that life would return to normal sooner rather than later. Cottagecore is characterized by a deep desire to escape a metropolitan life for a slower, pastoral one. The cottagecore aesthetic has its faults, and has been criticized for romanticizing a colonialst mindset of homesteading, but the desire for a less frantic way of existing permeated American homes throughout quarantine. A cottagecore lifestyle involves waking up to sunlight streaming through lacy curtains, tending to your chickens, and if the day is particularly exciting, perhaps picking berries for homemade jam. The greatest appeal of cottagecore is that nothing really happens.
Many of us buried ourselves in nesting. I coped by planting a small garden of mint, basil, spinach, and other leafy greens on my balcony. I picked up knitting again, and my roommate, armed with a flourishing sourdough starter, baked bread almost every day. I watched the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with alarming frequency. Being confined indoors for a few weeks was more manageable when I convinced myself that I was spending it in some countryside manor instead of my tiny two bedroom apartment in the heart of Los Angeles.
As the pandemic rages on, returning to the before times feels like more of an unattainable fantasy with every passing day. A few months in, I realized that in the event of an apocalypse, I probably couldn’t live off my little victory garden of scallions and herbs. Whatever survived the rough move to a new apartment died in brutal summer heat waves, anyway. My knitting project is stuffed into the highest shelf in my closet. There it will probably stay, unfinished for a few more years. The enchanting aesthetic that once drew me in became tiresome a few months into this new reality.
Enter goblincore. If cottagecore is Snow White singing to the birds while she bakes a pie, goblincore is honoring the lives of those birds after they die by turning their carcasses into wall art for Baba Yaga‘s hut.
Goblincore, which is adjacent to cottagecore, is also referred to as gremlincore, dirtcore, crowcore, feralcore, or cottagegoth. (Given the discourse over J.K. Rowling’s problematic depiction of goblins as greedy bankers in the Harry Potter franchise, at least one Tumblr user is pushing to call the aesthetic by one of its other names, so it’s not associated in any way with anti-semitism.) Like its more presentable sister, it was born on Tumblr, found a home in LGBTQ circles, and hit the ground running on TikTok. Both aesthetics share a desire to escape, but goblincore is distinctly gritty, chaotic, and more often than not, a little bit occult.
Amanda Brennan, Tumblr’s meme librarian and expert on the platform’s trends, described goblincore as distinctly feral. She attributed the spike in popularity to the fact that being stuck at home would drive anyone into a wild state.
“Having to be isolated by yourself, you really learn who you are at your core,” Brennan told Mashable in a call.
According to Tumblr’s data, the site saw “record engagement” on the #goblincore tag when stay-at-home orders began in March. The trend only grew from there. Engagement spiked 87 percent from Jul. 4 to Aug. 4, and 94 percent from Aug. 29 to Sept. 29. Goblincore is also popular on TikTok, where the tag has 125 million views.
It’s a reverence for the dirt the mushrooms sprout from, to the earthworms that call that soil home, to the crows that hunt those earthworms to feed their babies.
Goblincore, like cottagecore, is characterized by its reverence for nature. Goblincore, though, takes a slightly different approach and finds beauty in traditionally undesirable aspects of nature. The reverence extends deeper than the mushrooms reblogged by cottagecore accounts — it’s a reverence for the dirt the mushrooms sprout from, to the earthworms that call that soil home, to the crows that hunt those earthworms to feed their babies. Goblincore often overlaps with witchcraft in both aesthetic and ideology on both Tumblr and TikTok, which is why it’s also referred to as “dark cottagecore” or “cottagegoth.” Cottagecore romanticizes running away for the trappings of rural agricultural life. Goblincore romanticizes descending into the trees to become a chaotic forest entity.
Brennan noted that cottagecore tends to be unrealistic. The neat, presentable lifestyle often romanticized in cottagecore blogs, fashion, and Pinterest boards contradict the realities of existing in the shitshow that is 2020.
“I think cottagecore can be very performative in some ways. You’re showing off, like, this is the space I’ve curated. I’m living this beautiful life,” Brennan said. “Goblincore is just like, I’m doing this for me. This is what I want, and I’m living without the trappings of a mortal coil.”
Marie Kondo’s infamous method of tossing everything that doesn’t spark joy is ineffective because everything has the power to spark joy.
It’s no surprise that goblincore’s rise parallels the resurgence of maximalism, a design trend that marries garish prints, bright colors, and lots of stuff. There is no clutter in goblincore and maximalism, as everything has its own importance and a story behind it. As a direct rejection of the minimalist design trend popular in the late 2010s, maximalism is all about excess; Marie Kondo’s infamous method of tossing everything that doesn’t spark joy is ineffective here because everything has the power to spark joy. It’s a celebration of clutter, of building a little hoard of treasures. Like the Tumblr-popular aesthetic dragoncore, goblincore and maximalism inspire a desire to collect.
The longer this pandemic stretches on, the more drawn I am to decorating my apartment like the inside of Baba Yaga’s hut. It’s now overrun with houseplants, potted and propagated. Shelves are cluttered with candles and shiny rocks and thrifted knick-knacks that are most certainly haunted. To top it off, I built a shrine to my dead cat in the living room.
Goblincore’s appeal, from an aesthetic standpoint, is finding comfort in your stuff. Minimalism anti-consumerist ideology ironically inspired a mass production of minimalist products. In a maximalist goblincore home, decor is found or built, not bought. Like a crow building its nest, or Howl’s crystal-laden bedroom in Howl’s Moving Castle, every object is presented with care because every object matters.
Eden, a 17-year-old art student, felt similarly. His affection for goblincore lies in a childlike affinity for grime; aesthetic accounts he found on Instagram reminded him of childhoods spent collecting rocks and splashing through mud. Eden has used the seven or so months since school went online to focus on decorating his room like a “magic cave,” stringing fairy lights, vines, and other small objects he’s found into garlands. There is comfort in retreating to this otherworldly nest of his things.
In a viral TikTok from August, Eden sums up the heart of goblincore by bringing his friends gifts of crystals, shells, and handmade earrings. The video is set to AWOLNATION’s “Sail,” and features the lyrics, “This is how I show my love.”
“Something that I see a lot of in terms of goblincore activities is playing in the mud, which is a very childlike activity, or running through the forest with absolutely no direction,” Eden told Mashable in a FaceTime call. “Just the most feral type of being that you can imagine, but it also brings up the inner child in us and it’s really wholesome.”
Aspiring to anything presentable, much less perfect, right now is out of the question. Amid a tumultuous election cycle, a pandemic with no end in sight, and the ongoing restlessness of being inside all of the time, there is nothing more I want to do than traipse around a swamp and screech at anyone who crosses my path. Cottagecore may have been what I wanted to present to the world when this year began, but goblincore is what’s attainable right now. Presentation is meaningless when I’m not inviting anyone over amid strict social distancing regulations, so why not turn my home into the cozy hoard of my favorite things I’ve always wanted it to be?
Self care, especially in such unprecedented times — a phrase I genuinely do not want to hear again after this year is over — isn’t always soothing bath bombs or scented candles. Sometimes the ultimate form of self care is allowing yourself to give into your most base instincts and existing as a feral being. Call into your meeting wearing the hoodie you slept in, and don’t beat yourself up for skipping a hair washing day. The greatest joy of goblincore is letting yourself exist without worrying about how presentable you look and enjoying your magic little cave in peace.