I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, but it’s well off the normal path for this blog, so a little bit of background first.
Some people experience a pleasant tingling sensation in the head when they listen to the right trigger noises: sometimes whispering, sometimes soft clicking noises, sometimes the sound of brushing or of crumpling paper. The effect also seems to have a psychological component and arise most effectively when the listener feels they’re being personally cared for, as well.
Until the internet, presumably people with this response just assumed that they were individually weird and nothing more came of it.
Post-internet, however, the phenomenon has been named autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). There’s an inevitable reddit group dedicated to ASMR enthusiasm. You can go on YouTube and find many, many, many videos of people making ASMR-triggering noises, or whispering into the listener’s ear. Some of these are random whispers — here’s ASMR Glow whispering words such as LOLLIPOP and BUBBLE over and over again.
But because of the personal care aspect, a lot of others actually take the form of detailed skits about scenarios where someone might be looking after you or offering you some kind of assistance. Spa roleplay. Haircut roleplay. Roleplay of having a doctor clean your ears, or a therapist talk about your anxiety. What appears to be an entire subgenre of ASMR mad scientist roleplay. Softly whispered “tutorial” videos on every subject from towel-folding to the works of Carl Jung.
Phoenician Sailor does takeoffs on existing IP, like this Westworld riff or this soothing Voight-Kampf test. A handful of ASMR shows even have a bit of a twist ending: this one (by Gentle Whispering ASMR), the scenario starts out as a generic suit-fitting session, until it becomes clear that the viewer-protagonist has a specific identity.
A lot of ASMRtists are young women, but there are exceptions. asmr zeitgeist is a whispering dude in a baseball hat who has released a video entitled ASMR HIGH SPEED TAPPING. Here’s Rude English Gentleman’s ASMR Haircut Experience. ASMR-Sensei offers ASMR For People Who Don’t Tingle, which runs through a whole series of well-known triggers to try to diagnose the listener.
But my favorite ASMRtist of all is Ally of ASMRRequests, who is Patreon-supported to the point where she’s able to make incredibly detailed and high-production-value videos. Some of these are extremely specialist even in the realm of ASMR desires, such as the video in which she takes enormous bites out of a five-pound gummy bear. Or here’s Herb Shoppe, where she engages in some explicit pestling action:
Now, I’m not sharing all this to make fun of it. I mean, I do find it funny that there are YouTube videos of people intensely whispering the word stipple into a binaural microphone, or performing 45 continuous minutes of paper crumpling. But that’s not to say it’s not valuable.
Thing is, it’s hard to predict what will prove therapeutic. And this stuff is therapeutic: even listeners who don’t experience the ASMR response have reported finding ASMR useful to combat anxiety or to help them go to sleep during periods of insomnia. The crunchy noise of Ally crushing lavender in my headphones has helped me fall asleep a few times.
Ally has invented a wide variety of personalities for herself, such as the interplanetary travel booking agent in Departure:
…or the fraudulent psychic in the Miss Miracle series, in which Brandi Jean Miracle lifts a curse on the user, but only after you’ve brought her an assortment of expensive gifts. Or, if Miss Miracle is a bit too broad a stereotype for your tastes, there’s instead the peculiar character of Salmon, an oddball makeup artist who recurs over multiple episodes.
The other thing I love about Ally’s more story-centric videos, though, is the way she plays with the second person format, in a way that’s familiar from games but surprising to see in a film context. She’ll have entire conversations with blank spots for your supposed responses. She’ll script in such a way that you’re drawn into the sequence, thinking just the response that fits in next. I find Miss Miracle’s humor a bit broad and (as I said) a bit too stereotyping for my tastes, and I prefer some of Ally’s other work — but there’s an ingenious moment where Miss Miracle says something so outrageous it feels inevitable that the protagonist would start to question her good faith — and she immediately reacts as though you’ve just done so. It is really a study in scripting the player.
The fantasy of (almost) all these videos is not a power fantasy, but a fantasy of relaxation, passivity, vulnerability or even weakness. Ally will often ask how you’re doing, then respond with gentle sympathy: the protagonist is expected to be, at a minimum, quite stressed out.
In the worst case, you might be sick or dying — but the ASMRtist is there to look after you. Possibly with a lot of leather creaking noises.