Election memes, bedsheet ghosts and whipped coffee: 2020 was a surreal year for TikTok trends.
TikTok — or the app that lets users share short videos with original or repurposed audio — is known for being especially popular with Gen Z, with around 18 million U.S. users being 14 or even younger. It’s where users go to unwind and pass time by endlessly scrolling and watching the 60 second or less video clips.
My favorites are the cute animal videos, do-it-yourself projects and Disney travels. But recently, I stumbled upon another TikTok trend, one less expected, that gets less airtime: a video illustrating the Appalachian Gothic aesthetic.
The Appalachian Gothic – sometimes used interchangeably with Southern Gothic – aesthetic focuses on the desolate or run-down parts of Appalachia and pushes them to the forefront by highlighting their beauty. Southern Gothic is described as being prevalent in literature from the early 19th century on, and some sources even cite Appalachian Noir as a subgenre. The TikToks created in this style focus on forests and meadows, abandoned mansions and plantations, empty churches and small rustic towns, adding a dark, mysterious edge to them while also making them picturesque and interesting. The music and filters added to the videos contribute to the ominously ethereal vibe.
From that one video, I was hooked. I found myself in a rabbit hole of an Appalachian TikTok community I had never seen before, despite living in the region. But I had more questions than just why I hadn’t seen this genre of videos before. I found myself asking what Appalachia as a TikTok trend means for the region: It’s not just a way of illustrating beauty, it’s a means for Appalachians to tell their own stories.
As someone not born in Appalachia but who has lived in this region for the past five years, I have grown to see the beauty in this often disregarded region. My small town in southern Virginia boasts numerous farms and fields that seem like a rolling ocean. The charm that can be found on Main Street is endless. The local library, coffee shop, antique store and weekend farmers market brings the community together in a way I’ve never known prior to moving to Appalachia. Seeing the beauty of my Appalachia reflected on TikTok — not a poor coal mining and moonshining community, but one that’s complex and beautiful and nuanced — made me think others see what I see too.
TikTok users are being exposed to a region that for too long has been shut out and isolated, but instead of being presented even more narratives about a region of people who are “poor” and “useless,” they’re seeing a region that offers serenity, even in abandoned places.
Beyond the aesthetic trend, young Appalachians are also using TikTok to educate people about the region. User @appacat creates videos on her account that explain commonly used words and phrases in Appalachian culture and occasionally stories from history that are glossed over in our educational systems. That historical education is what user @daniellekirk731 focuses on too. Prior to Black History Month, @daniellekirk731 created videos explaining Appalachian colloquial words and phrases as well as the rich coal history of the region and how it grew to be problematic. Last month, they celebrated the Black history of Appalachia with a video series focused on Swift Memorial College, the first college for Black Americans in Appalachia. User @appalachiaapril uses her account to promote Appalachian folklore, like the symbolism of the ringing of bells in the region. One example: If a couple hears bells during their wedding ceremony, either the bride or groom will pass away soon.
Young people in Appalachia are using this social media platform as a way to share first-hand accounts of life in the region, beyond the stereotypes we typically see in the media. They are reciting their own truth to the viewers, rather than relying on outsiders, teaching the complicated yet inspiring history of Appalachia. Appalachia is a beautiful and culturally diverse place that for too long has been overlooked by Americans elsewhere and young people using TikTok to promote Appalachia can allow society to see a new perspective of the region and her people.
While using social media platforms like TikTok as an educational tool is not a new concept, Appalachia being represented accurately on them is. In the long term, TikTok could influence viewers to travel the region and to learn more about our culture and history. It has certainly done that for me. I have learned more about the diversity and rich history of Appalachia through TikTok over the past year than I even learned at the collegiate level. It is at least part of what has inspired me to pursue a masters degree in Appalachian Studies this coming fall in the hopes of educating and promoting the region more in the future.
Mary Stoudt is a senior at Ferrum College in Virginia majoring in history. She has followed her passion in studying Appalachian history and has worked for her college at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum for the past three years. In the fall, she will be continuing her education at Shepherd University, pursuing a masters degree in Appalachian Studies.