I’ve always found it strange when people ask, “Do you like to be touched?” How do you decide, devoid of any specific context? I don’t like it when strangers touch my hair, but when I visit my mom, I put my head in her lap and ask her to stroke my head until my scalp feels numb to the constant stimuli. I have a long-term partner and sometimes I will press my feet against his back for warmth. I like a good hand-hold now and then, usually during scary movies or flu shots or when walking by sizable groups of teen boys.
But otherwise, I’m not big on physical contact. I’d prefer it to be illegal for anyone to come near me on the subway; I don’t like how close the dentist has to get to my face when she’s tugging on the corners of my mouth with her pinkies; and I often feel a frisson when someone touches one of my pens or notebooks. It’s all too intimate for me to be comfortable with.
And yet, for years, I’ve scrolled through YouTube looking for appealing bursts of intimacy from users who click and tap and stroke their way into the brains of millions of viewers every day.
For more on this story, watch the new BuzzFeed News series Follow This on Netflix.
ASMR — which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response — is a sensation often characterized by a tingling that starts in your brain and trickles down your spine. It’s weird, pleasurable, almost like a brain orgasm of sorts, even though the stimuli have very little to do with sex. Maybe you get pleasantly triggered from the sound of towels being folded. Or maybe you like unintelligible whispering or the crinkle a tea bag’s packaging makes. There are countless videos made for your preferred trigger, whatever it is that gives you the tingles. Do you like back rubs? Here’s “Real Person Back Scratch/Massage! (For Sleep and Relaxation).” Do you like the sounds of crinkling wrappers or paper? There’s “Crinkle Heaven” for that. Is watching someone put on makeup really soothing to you? There are more than 2.1 million results for “ASMR makeup.” Tapping into these gentle desires has become big business, a way for YouTube creators to earn a living from a (quiet) cultural phenomenon.
ASMR videos are intimate. They involve close-up shots of hands quietly and methodically turning an object over, tracing the words on a label, running the pads of fingertips along a candle or a textured pillow. Some of them feature a personal moment between two people, like one woman brushing another woman’s hair, or giving a back massage, or a calming makeup tutorial. Other videos rely on role-play. Vloggers peer into the camera and treat you like a patient in need of some soothing medical care (an ear cleaning, perhaps), or offer advice during a panic attack, or swipe makeup brushes across the camera lens. They talk to you like an old friend. It’s gloriously one-sided, an interaction that requires, at most, a little make-believe, and at least, the experience of being a voyeur.
Face-to-face intimacy inevitably means you have to give something back, even if you’re not in a caretaking role. Getting a real massage might mean worrying about how your body looks to another person or gathering courage to tell the person working on you what makes you comfortable or not. Getting help for a panic attack can feel more daunting than the attack itself because it requires a human interaction that you might not be ready to have.
Enter Whisperlodge. Part therapeutic experience, part living art installation, this hourlong live ASMR experience aims to “work one-on-one with each guest in a series of visual, auditory, and haptic treatments designed to relax the body and mind.” The sessions, which have taken place in New York and San Francisco, usually cost $90. (Alternatively, you can request an On Demand session with one of their co-creators, which is a live, customized session for just $70 for a half hour.)
“What we are doing here,” says cofounder Melinda Lauw, “is in a way trying to combat how everything is being digitized in our lives. By bringing this to a live setting, we are forcing you to try to have this intimate connection with someone.”
I went to a Whisperlodge spa experience in a rented Brooklyn apartment earlier this year, along with three other people looking for an IRL ASMR experience. Two of the other three attendees had been to a Whisperlodge session before, and treated the experience with a religious kind of reverence, quietly awed with their heads bowed as we signed our consent forms agreeing to be touched (within reason).
Once inside, a tiny woman, dressed head to toe in white, approached me to ask if she could blindfold me. It was the first of many questions in Whisperlodge that were necessary but had an eerie edge all the same. “I guess you can blindfold me, but this is a weird question to ask and it’s not exactly something I’m looking forward to” is probably not the ideal response. She smiled and covered my eyes with a white strip of silky fabric before whispering gibberish in each ear. They were a scattering of words that didn’t make any sense together but sounded nice when sliding directly into your ear. The only word I think I recall clearly is “carburetor.”
Afterward, she guided me down a narrow entrance, holding my hands in hers as she led me through a door and up a winding staircase, before taking me into another room and gently closing the door. Blindfolded, I felt like I could die at any moment. I gently panicked as she led me to a chair where I was surrounded by people making inscrutable sounds right next to my ears. They sounded, respectively, like a tennis racket being plucked, a CVS receipt being crinkled, and a broom whooshing around our feet. (The broom brushed up against my feet and I worried, for a moment, that it was a very large rat king.)
Look, there’s no denying this is how you get murdered. Suggesting to yourself, or anyone for that matter, “Hey, I’m going to go to this apartment in a city I don’t live in, blindfolded and confused, so that I can pay a couple of strangers to touch me and hopefully I’ll be into it, but generally speaking, my safety is entirely in their hands” is not usually a good idea. A predictable and poorly plotted horror movie would start out like this and it would end with my wearing a white robe (which they actually did have us wear) and joining a cult through human sacrifice.
Finally removing our blindfolds didn’t assuage my anxiety either. A swell of faux-spiritual music played in the all-white apartment, the only color coming from a glow of pinkish light shining from behind a white sheet, as the woman who blindfolded me sat on her knees facing us. She pulled her shirt down to reveal her back. Two more Whisperlodge facilitators dressed in white approached her with plush makeup brushes, drawing on her back in a choreographed dance. It was wildly precious, like a grad school art installation, except not only was the “art” inscrutable, but everyone around me was having a near-psychedelic reaction to it, leaving me completely alienated. I watched as one of my fellow attendees began showing signs of the ASMR tingle — dead eyes, relaxed jaw, a look of mild euphoria — and was overcome with jealousy.
After our communal triggering session, we had our choice of three rooms where we would be cared for alone. The first was set up to simulate a doctor’s office. This role-play is common in ASMR videos, from cranial nerve exams to naturopaths to gynecologists (NO). The doctor isn’t exactly a calming environment, but maybe the idea around simulating the experience is to subvert whatever anxiety you might have about going by watching a video that shows the doctor as gentle and loving.
To start, I was led into the medical room. My “doctor” at Whisperlodge was a slight, smiling woman who sat me down in the corner of a room dimly lit in blue. She put her hands close to my face and showed me how she put on her blue latex gloves, remarking that they fit her hands so perfectly, rubbing her fingers together and making my brain feel like it was getting a hot shower. “Today,” she said, “we’re just going to do a small sensory checkup.” With Q-tip in hand, she asked me to close my eyes and create a “mental map” of my own ear, which she traced with remarkable care. Almost immediately, my brain let off little fireworks, a feeling I know all too well from watching a video of this exact process. It’s here that I finally gave in and let someone take care of me.
I sank deeper into relaxation when she asked me to lie down on a bed, still warm in my white robe. Using an eyedropper, she dripped water onto my fingertips, my wrists, my forehead, my throat, an act so tender that I forgot momentarily that this woman was a stranger.
But who cares! In that moment, I was a paragon of serenity as her steady voice invented medical problems that she was in the process of fixing. I was zen. I was in a state of meditation and understood why people are always talking about flax seeds and face masks.
While the first room was all cool tones, calming vibes, a peaceful blue ocean, the second room I was brought into, awash in a dim red light, had more of a sex dungeon vibe, led by someone who was so aggressively coquettish, I was wholly convinced she was actually a virgin. “The character in that scene is more flirtatious,” Lauw said. “If it arouses someone, then that works for that person, and I don’t think that we should say that that is wrong.”
Dressed in a lacy white dress, the woman playing host was buxom and beautiful as she walked around with a paper fan, peeking out at me from the top of it. She held out a tray with a variety of makeup brushes for my choosing, then brushed my hand and face while reminding me over and over again that the brush was my choice. I picked it. I did this.
She seemed to be an intentional representation of the sexiness and intimacy that can come with ASMR, namely when hosted by a woman who is actively flirting with you. Some ASMR YouTubers do this already — ASMaRgaritte’s videos focus on her cleavage while she whispers to you, others do “girlfriend experience” ASMR, others still make videos promising a “hands-free orgasm.” (This, I think, reminds me a little of that passage in the latest Jonathan Safran Foer book, where the protagonist gives his wife an orgasm merely by looking at her vagina. My reaction is the same: You fuckin’ wish, buddy.)
Perhaps the glowing red room’s scenario appeals to some, but my heart rate increased not because I was having an asexual awakening but because my host kept asking me questions I didn’t have the answers to — like what I wanted in life — while spraying a half gallon of rose water on my face. I was both confused and sticky. I’m also tragically prone to secondhand embarrassment: Every time she fanned herself and looked at me with bedroom eyes, I wanted to take her hand and say, No, good god, please stop, this is like watching the UK version of The Office in real time, I don’t have any cringe left in my body for you.
Worse, though, was that she kept wanting me to talk about my feelings. What I desired. I wanted to go home and call a Chinese restaurant with an order for enough spring rolls to feed six people and then eat them myself, alone, while watching RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. But I didn’t tell her that.
“What are your desires?” my host asked me again.
My idea of relaxation doesn’t include telling someone about the mundane or profound desires in my life, which include but are not limited to: squeezing out an ingrown hair, falling asleep in the middle of a meal and waking up to finish said meal, and, of course, getting out of this room.
The first few experiences, though not exactly a spa treatment, do lend themselves inherently to some semblance of relaxation. Being tended to by a kind woman is calming. A caring doctor can create a real sense of much-needed intimacy in someone’s life. Sensory deprivation through blindfolding is a good way to heighten your other senses. But despite my affection for ASMR, I can’t see anything soothing about a male teacher. All my male teachers have either been lecherous, or assholes, or mouthbreathers with coffee breath.
Andrew Hoepfner, one of the cofounders of Whisperlodge who acted as the pseudo teacher for one of my last experiences, was certainly none of those things, but I hated him instinctively, the way I hate all orange-flavored candies. This wasn’t his fault, but I couldn’t figure out who would enjoy the intimacy of this particular room, set up to make you a student, and him an educator.
Hoepfner switched from ear to ear, whispering a brief explanation of ASMR to me. A small leather bag was on the table in front of me, bearing different kinds of, frankly, garbage. There was bubble wrap, tissue paper, crepe paper, and I was told to pick one so that he could play with them next to my head while telling me about how he used to be a terrible student.
I hated this. Again, this wasn’t Hoepfner’s fault — much like the Sexy Lady in the red room, he was playing a role intended to give pleasure, but instead, I was resentful of having to play along. I felt like he was mansplaining ASMR to me as he balled up interstitials of crepe paper.
After our personal sessions, we were brought to our final room for a live ASMR show as a group. We sat in a semicircle and were given headphones attached to a binaural microphone with two silicone ears on either side, the very same used by some of the most popular ASMR YouTubers. I waited for one of the organizers to approach the microphone with whispering or tapping or maybe some of the mouth sounds a lot of people online like so much. Instead, a mound of fabric on the floor in front of the mic that I thought was covering a pillow began to rise, and I was sure that, now, this was the time when I was going to be murdered.
Instead, it was Lauw, one of the cofounders, rising from chiffon, ready to recreate the sounds you might hear as you get ready for your day: washing your face, brushing your teeth, changing your clothes, snipping a few flowers in your backyard (and handing one to me, of course). And it was soothing, somehow — I felt like when I was a kid and I’d watch my older cousins rhythmically sweep mascara onto their eyes. Boring, yes, but in this age, monotony can be incredibly comforting.
The flaw of Whisperlodge is clear: Participation is bullshit. Sometimes getting involved with your own self-care is exhausting. When you’re anxious or depressed, seeing a therapist or your friends or just so much as leaving your house can feel too daunting to broach. Similarly, spending $90 on a ticket and dragging yourself out to some haunted mansion to be blindfolded and prodded by a stranger is its own kind of stress, one that might outweigh whatever relaxation you could possibly get from it.
The internet has changed how we live — I think almost entirely in memes at this point — so of course it would change how much or how little we’re willing to give in a social interaction. But Whisperlodge forces you to play along, which is exactly why it can’t really translate into a pleasurable IRL experience. It’s human nature to worry about how you come off to other people, what they think of you, whether you seem foolish or needy or weird to a new person. Online, ASMR works because you can turn your brain off and not worry about any of that other stuff; Whisperlodge takes the tenets of online intimacy — while also dragging along with it all the unpleasant parts of human interaction, like eye contact and small talk — and lets people get oddly close to your face.
Real intimacy requires a kind of leap of faith, one where you either participate in your own comfort or you sacrifice a piece of it, eventually, in one form or another. Whisperlodge seems too risky, too intimate an experience to share even with someone willing to do the face brushing and sensory checkups. We’re forced into the push and pull of social interactions every day — so maybe it’s just nice to have this one small thing, online, all to ourselves. ●