Uncomfortable ASMR

Tactile media designed to feel bad

In his collaboration with Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, Marshall McLuhan writes: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences, that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage … All media are extensions of some human faculty — psychic or physical.” McLuhan may not have anticipated how all the aforementioned consequences would be distilled so intensely into something like online video, specifically something like YouTube, but the new genres emerging on online platforms like YouTube don’t only entertain; they also reach out to comfort us.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, videos have been part of the YouTube video landscape since 2009, but they have received a great deal of attention over the past couple of years. What begins as viewers investigating the strange videos out of curiosity and bewilderment sometimes turns into those same viewers recognizing the calm and soothing quality and seeking enjoyment from them. A person (usually a woman) whispering comforting phrases (“we’ve missed you”) and stroking the bristles of brushes against a microphone creates a tingly aural sensation that people have had an understandably difficult time describing.

Like its more soothing, vanilla counterpart, it’s possible that “negative ASMR” tells us something about how we navigate and seek emotional refuge from day-to-day life

If ASMR video can be considered part of any particular visual genre, then it lives between tactility (strangely satisfying and visually compelling activities involving touch, like slime-squishing, paint-mixing) and wellness or self-care videos. Both genres use attractive visuals, whether colors and textures or human faces and voices, to call attention to the viewer’s own physical body and its responses, and prompt them to consider the degree of the ASMR’s effect on their physical self in their evaluation of the work. By prioritizing an embodied experience of the aesthetic, ASMR videos feel like a radical subversion of how viewers have been engaging with visual content online.

Especially in a culture where wellness and self care have been deemed an individual’s responsibility to practice, tools like ASMR videos can be a free resource for de-stressing and finding emotional reassurance. The various sounds that have become recurring in videos — crinkling wrappers, fingernails tapping lightly on a hard surface, among others — are commonly referred to as “triggers.” The use of the term “trigger” is not negative, only factual; it refers to the tactile gestures that create the inexplicable sensations that those sensitive to ASMR can feel. It’s not necessarily used in the context we’ve become accustomed to — as something to avoid for its potential effect, and warn others of — although they are sometimes designed to mimic the stresses that ASMR videos are ostensibly designed to soothe.

The psychosomatic effect the video/aural content has on the viewer is a large determinant in the “quality” of the video, regardless of the creativity and complexity in the content itself. This makes the world of ASMR content perhaps surprisingly suitable for exploring darker and more potentially upsetting material. “Negative” ASMR videos function similarly to more traditional ASMR, but depict stressful (and sometimes frightening) scenarios and create sensations of anxiety and foreboding in the viewer. They can range from straightforward horror (videos that take inspiration from franchise characters like Pennywise the Clown are common) to more realistic stresses, like an appointment with a dentist. And some are intended to just make you feel lousy: videos where the “host” essentially whisper-bullies you for 20 minutes.

Can something be “self-care” if it is designed to make us feel anxious?

At first glance, consuming negative ASMR content may seem counter-intuitive. Why would someone intentionally subject themselves to something that makes them feel physically and mentally uncomfortable, but typically does not lead to catharsis? The “goal” of these videos is either to create a feeling of sustained anxiety or dread (overhearing violence or a fight in the distance) or a quick rush of anxiety that leaves the viewer with a lingering chill of danger (the sound of another car passing at high speed on a freeway). A quick look on the “Negative ASMR” subreddit shows what sounds and situations to expect. A typical entry will be something like: “[slightly creepy] [leather gloves] [spooky whispering in latin].” Nevertheless, like its more soothing, vanilla counterpart, it’s possible that this form of ASMR tells us something about how we navigate and seek emotional refuge from day-to-day life in modernity.

Many unpleasant ASMR videos that are not directly horror-related are ones in which the creator role-plays social interactions involving financial concerns. A popular one by Amal Dabit (amalzd on YouTube), titled “Negative ASMR Insurance Application Roleplay (Typing Sounds, Soft Spoken),” currently has 155K views. Videos like this one are not necessarily trying to create anxiety, but many experience anxiety around obtaining health insurance and find such a video triggering regardless of the intent behind it. Others are more high-stress, and feature debt collectors hounding the user for money, using aggressive language but still communicating in whispers. The role-playing host thus fulfills two contradictory roles at once: that of a helpful pacifier and that of a capitalistic villain. In a society that subjects its citizens to crippling debt and inaccessible healthcare, and places people in a state of constant precariousness mediated by unhelpful bureaucracy, we can engage with the harm being done to us through negative ASMR.

The existence of this form of ASMR and the perceived impact it has on its viewers complicates popularly-held notions about the ASMR “genre” and the purpose it serves. Can something be “self-care” if it is designed to make us feel anxious? Negative ASMR raises important questions about the politics of anxiety and of our sensitivity to our social world. On one hand, it allows people to engage with fear and anxiety in an indulgent way that relieves tension; on the other hand, like any effective horror film, it increases vigilance. It instructs you to keep your guard up. If negative ASMR videos are generating triggers out of daily obstacles to health and happiness (read: life under a capitalistic social structure), perhaps they are calling out those interactions and affects, signaling them as feelings to which one should avoid becoming de-sensitized. They have the potential to soothe while raising consciousness about the politics behind the trigger.

Stephanie Monohan is a writer, illustrator, and youth researcher for MTV. She is currently pursuing a masters in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt. Her work focuses on the intersections of technology, horror, and capitalism. She resides in New York and can often be found screening midnight movies at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.