The Soft Bulletins
Could a one-hour video of someone whispering and brushing her hair change your life?
Ilse’s rise to prominence in what she calls “the whisper community” has been exceptionally brisk; she only discovered in 2011 that there was such a thing as ASMR, and started her channel and website less than a year ago. Before that, she was always looking for what she now calls “triggers”—aural influences that made her tingle in a certain way that she didn’t quite know how to talk about. “In high school, I failed a few aural exams because of it. The voices on the tape speaking French or whatever were just so relaxing that I would kind of lose all ability to focus.” When she discovered that there was an online community of people who experienced the same sensations, she was elated; very shortly afterward she started making her own videos in order to give back to that community.
The fact that most ASMR whisperers tend to be young women who speak in a very calm and reassuring way inevitably brings to mind idealized notions of infancy. There’s something about the typical ASMR video that seems to address itself to a desire to regain some prelapsarian state of mother-child unity. (When I watched Ilse’s performance in the “Let me take care of you” video, I couldn’t help thinking of the lethally addictive film at the center of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Part of this film, known as “the Entertainment,” involves a “crib’s-eye view” shot of a beautiful young woman staring down and whispering apologies to the viewer for a very long time.) I mention this mother-child theory to Ilse, and she acknowledges that she has thought about the idea; from a personal perspective, though, it isn’t something she says she finds convincing. Her relationship with her mother was extremely cold and difficult, she tells me, and she was never given the kind of soothing reassurance that most children are provided with. “I was never cuddled and hugged, so I can’t relate to that. I don’t have those memories. The memories I do have are of watching Bob Ross on television.” (Ross, it turns out, is basically a patron saint of the whisper community; his show The Joy of Painting seems to have functioned for a lot of people as a kind of gateway drug into ASMR’s larger nexus of compulsions and pleasures. As the British journalist Rhodri Marsden put it in an article on ASMR in the Independent last year: “[Ross] clearly ticks all the ASMR boxes: expertise, precision, reassuring speech patterns and gentle sounds, from which that characteristic 'tingling' inevitably follows.”)
I ask her how a beginner, and someone who does not himself experience ASMR, might go about making one of these videos. She suggests I try something in the line of tapping or crinkling, something that uses my hands rather than relying on talking—a polite way, I suspect, of telling me that I don’t have the vocal chops to make it in the whisper racket. I tell her I’ve come across some videos of people just crinkling crisp packets, and sometimes slowly munching their way through them. This, she tells me—reassuringly, gently—sounds like an excellent idea. “The key thing,” she says, “is not to crinkle too fast or too hard.”
In order to get the lay of the land, I watched a few bag-crinkling ASMR videos. I sat through several recordings of people palpating packets of noodles, pretzels, popcorn. These aren’t role-plays, and the spoken word element tends to be less central—often to the point of being completely absent. There’s usually a kind of rough-hewn verité immediacy to these videos; they bypass the imagination and go straight for sensory payoff. (If the ASMR community is looking for a name for this genre, by the way, I’d suggest “Crinklecore.”) Having crinkled a few packets in my time, this was something I thought I could probably make a go of.
The video I ended up making is, I would guess, exceptionally boring even by the standards of ASMR. Basically, I crinkle a crisp bag for three minutes, and then spend a further five or so very slowly and deliberately consuming its contents. When I stopped the recording and played it back, I was surprised at its relatively short running time, which had felt more like 20 minutes. I find it hard to imagine getting into the kind of trancelike state it would surely take to brush your hair or pretend to be a whispering dermatologist for an hour. During the latter portion of the shoot, I’d started to doubt whether it had been such a good idea to actually get into eating—whatever about crinkling, I somehow find it hard to imagine anyone deriving pleasure from the spectacle of me munching on crisps. But while making the video, particularly during the crinkling stage, I definitely felt a kind of low-level meditative detachment and relaxation. There is obviously something about doing things quietly, slowly, and gently that is inherently calming and relaxing. I don’t want to compare my eating a packet of flame-grilled-steak-flavored snacks to, say, a Buddhist monk raking swirling patterns in the pebbles of a Zen garden, or to the formal protocol of a Japanese tea ceremony. But the combination of slow, deliberate physical movement and close attention to a mundane activity is one I probably don’t encounter frequently enough. Who’s to say eating salty potato-based snacks can’t be an occasion for transcendental experience?
If my Crinklecore video above makes you feel only embarrassment on my behalf, then it’s possible that you, like me, will remain stubbornly resistant to ASMR. But if, while watching me meditatively crinkle and munch my way through a packet of crisps, you somehow find yourself slipping into a blissful state, let me just assure you that you’re very welcome. And you’re in luck, because there are hundreds more hours of similar experiences waiting for you, out there in the whispering online ether.
Mark O'Connell is a staff writer for the Millions and an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellow in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.