“We always begin with a candle contemplation.”
I’m sitting on a futon in a stranger’s apartment with my friend Ashley. In front of us, Melinda Lauw—a slender, wide-eyed Singaporean woman—is crouched in a squat, holding a small flickering candle, and tapping lightly on its glass container. Behind her, a jury-rigged shower curtain doesn’t quite separate the nook we are in from the rest of the apartment. She directs us to blow lightly on the flame, to notice how it moves; her accented voice is soft and kind.
It is a jarring transition to this moment, from the eager introductions made when we arrived, and the awkward small talk in the hallway while Ashley and I took turns using the apartment’s bathroom. I’m now supposed to shed the trappings of politeness, the armor of peppy extraversion that protects me during interactions with strangers. I’m supposed to be small and quiet and vulnerable now, to exist in subtle shades instead of broad strokes. I am supposed to contemplate the candle.
We are at Whisperlodge, which is not really a place so much as an idea—“an ASMR spa for the senses,” the website proclaims. But it’s not a spa, not really. It doesn’t have a permanent location. It’s more of a spa-themed art project, with occasional pop-up performances, by Melinda and her collaborator Andrew Hoepfner, both artists.
ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” the pseudoscientific name coined by the internet to describe a certain feeling. It’s usually described as a “tingling,” a little jingle that starts at the top of the head and arpeggios down the spine. But in a relaxing way. It appears in response to any number of “trigger” sounds, from tapping to whispering to crinkling, and everyone has their own preferred triggers. But the sounds that cause the feeling are uniformly quiet, and close. It’s a feeling that comes from intimacy, from proximity.
“ASMR” is also sometimes used to describe the practice of eliciting these tingles, as well as the tingles themselves. While the feeling can be caused unintentionally, spontaneously, in real life (and indeed that’s how many remember their first encounters with it), a cottage industry of content designed to produce the feeling has sprung up in recent years. “ASMR-tists,” primarily on YouTube, make videos of themselves whispering and making quiet sounds with everyday objects, using high-quality recording equipment that makes them sound like they’re in the room with you. (Triggers are not all sound-based—some people get tingly from having their head scratched, or getting a haircut, or just receiving close focused attention from someone. But sound triggers are obviously easiest to recreate in a video.) Some videos get millions of views. Hundreds of those views are from me.
I think I feel ASMR, lightly, occasionally. My friend Ashley experiences it way more intensely than I do, so when Melinda and Andrew invited me to come to a Whisperlodge performance for an in-person ASMR session, I asked if I could bring Ashley along. Not a problem, I was told—I just needed to fill out a form requesting what sort of triggers we both wanted. I texted Ashley, and she responded within seconds: “accents, soft speaking, personal attention, anything soft to touch.” For myself I added tapping sounds and hairbrushing.
When I was setting up our appointment, Melinda told me they were still “firming up” the location, “but very generally, it’ll either be in Manhattan or Brooklyn.” Very generally. It ends up being held in a walkup in Brooklyn, of course.
Ashley and I show up on a sunny April Sunday. Andrew, clad in loose white garb, opens the door on a dim foyer littered with a broken bucket and other garbage and ushers us up a dingy, rickety staircase. He has a weird energy, gentle but also a little alien, like he has a toehold on another plane of consciousness but just hasn’t committed to hoisting himself up yet. I associate this sort of quiet spacey intensity with artists, but that’s probably not fair since I don’t really know many artists.
Upstairs is a fairly standard, shabbily charming New York apartment, far less murdery than the stairwell, which I’m grateful for. We meet Melinda, also clad in all-white, whose energy is gentle and entirely human. After I shake everyone’s hand, and pee, we’re given minty water and left to wait in the living room alone. There is a positively adorable assortment of objects on the coffee table—a candle, flowers, crayons, colored pencils, a coloring book, a glass full of pom-poms, one of those cardboard kaleidoscopes filled with beads that I haven’t seen since Mrs. Tzortzinis’s second-grade star-chart prize trunk. I pick it up and give it a spin. Still good. There’s also a note that reads: “Welcome, Julie and Ashley. Thank you for visiting Whisperlodge. We hope you enjoy Whispers On Demand.”
Spoiler alert: I did.
I wasn’t sure that I would. I have a hard time fully relaxing in situations like a haircut or a massage where I am receiving a service from someone, because I am very worried about what they think of me. How much small talk is the right amount? Is it rude to look at my phone for a while, or will my stylist be relieved because he doesn’t want to talk either? Should I close my eyes while he washes my hair? I realize he probably thinks of me as one in a massive sea of clients and doesn’t care much about me one way or the other, beyond a professional interest in making my head look good. I also realize that it is probably worse to present as weirdly tense than to just relax and enjoy the experience, but I am how I am.
I can relax while listening to an ASMR video, though, because it’s not an interaction. The videos are painstakingly crafted facsimiles of intimacy, but they ask nothing of you. Whereas actual intimacy requires, you know, participation. And vulnerability.
Once the candle has been well and truly contemplated, we move on to reenacting some mainstays of ASMR videos. Melinda cups her hands over our ears and whispers around our heads; she strokes our faces and hands with a series of makeup brushes. This is unequivocally the best part—the handbrushing leaves my palms tingling. Were my makeup brushes ever this soft? I should wash them more.
Ashley and I take turns then—one person sitting in a chair, the other laying on the futon. The person sitting in the chair gets their hair brushed, and on the couch, well. Melinda takes a—device—with an alarming metal tip, and turns it on. The vibration is not, objectively, that loud, but as the loudest sound that has been produced in this room in the past half an hour, it still startles me.
(“What was that thing?” I ask Ashley afterward. It was an electric toothbrush, apparently, with the bristles removed. For some reason I thought it was a drill? But I clearly wasn’t in my right mind.)
Melinda waves the toothbrush back and forth behind my head as I lay on the couch, and while I can’t say I am 100-percent relaxed on account of how I am alarmed by the sound and confused as to the nature of the object, this is the only time during the session that I actually feel ASMR. I’ve figured out that while I really enjoy the sounds made in ASMR videos, pretty much the only thing that actually causes tingles for me is a sound positioned right at the back of my head, panning side to side. A fly buzzing back and forth behind my head gave me ASMR one time.
The session concludes with a segment I can only describe as… apocalyptic. I didn’t mention this earlier, but the whole time these very quiet sounds are going on inside the apartment, very loud sounds are going on outside the apartment. Ambulance sirens, church bells, children screaming—your typical outside Brooklyn sounds. Another thing that was happening while Melinda ASMR-ed us was that, on the other side of the shower curtain, Andrew was rustling—it sounded like he was moving stuff around out there.
Back in the living room, two camping chairs with canopies are draped in white floaty fabric. This must be what Andrew was setting up. We sit in the chairs, and put on big pairs of headphones, which are connected to a microphone out in the room. Melinda stands at the microphone and starts to tell us a story, while making sounds to go with the story—crunching gravel underfoot, clinking drinking glasses, etc.
Now, look, I know what they were going for here. They were trying to recreate an ASMR video! It’s a good idea, in theory, but the problem is that the outside noises are so loud that they have to turn our headphones up really loud, too. So Melinda’s story sounds are mingling with sirens, and that, combined with seeing the moving silhouettes of bodies through the translucent white fabric makes the whole thing feel like a brainwashing video, and I start to feel actually insane. I have never done LSD, but I have read a lot of books about the Manson family, and so I think I’m within my rights to compare this part to a bad acid trip.
Then it is over, and I try to become a professional again to interview Melinda and Andrew, which is another weird transition. I learn that Andrew’s background is in “immersive theater,” and that Melinda was primarily a visual artist before Whisperlodge, working mainly in textiles. She also made a couple ASMR-style videos, and displayed them in a gallery. He doesn’t have ASMR; she does. (She was first triggered by a segment on Teletubbies.) The two met through a mutual friend, and they think of Whisperlodge as both an art project, and a real sort of spa treatment. The session I did was their most spa-like yet—previous Whisperlodge performances involved laying down and listening to sounds in a church, and a house that visitors explored, finding different ASMR scenes in different rooms.
Barbara Muesing and Shadman Asif have been to all the Whisperlodge performances so far. They attended Whispers On Demand the same day that I did, as a pair. Asif has experienced ASMR since he was a kid—“when my parents would ruffle my hair or something like that,” he says—and Muesing got interested as a result of dating Asif and hearing him talk about it. After watching tons of videos, she, like me, says she now sometimes feels ASMR, perhaps out of sheer desire to feel it as much as anything else.
Both Asif and Muesing told me they think there would be a market for an in-person ASMR spa service like this—even for those who don’t feel the tingles.
“I always find it soothing and relaxing,” Muesing says. “It can just help you forget about a lot of things—the stresses of your life, basically. It’s not like therapy, but someone talking to you and reassuring you is also helpful.”
This, as I’ve written before, is the key to ASMR’s appeal—the emotional labor performed by the personalities behind the videos, the effort and care they put into making you feel comforted.
“I think the role that you’re playing when you’re watching an ASMR video or when you’re experiencing a Whisperlodge scene is somewhat childlike,” Andrew says, “in that you’re receiving something. You’re being allowed to not have any responsibility. You’re being cared for. And there’s these different role-plays that are in ASMR videos and also in Whisperlodge such as the doctor to the patient or the mother to the child or the teacher to the student.” That explains the children’s toys on the coffee table when we came in.
But the videos are a copy of a copy of intimacy at best, and nothing makes that quite so clear as an actual person actually holding your hand, brushing your actual face with an actual makeup brush. Piping the sounds of that experience into your headphones while you lay in bed or read your emails or whatever is a valid and valuable method of self-soothing, but it is not in the same class of experience. It’s a way of feeling nurtured without having to be vulnerable.
“Do you feel like ASMR is kind of a shortcut or a cheat where people want the good stuff without having to give of themselves?” Andrew asks me, when I put this to him and Melinda.
I don’t think that’s it, exactly. I wouldn’t call it cheating to give yourself a little comfort, though I can see how ASMR videos could creep in to fill the intimacy gaps in people’s lives, if insufficiently. In some ways, in-person ASMR is what happens when you take a chance encounter from the physical world—a breath on an ear, a pleasant tapping sound—concentrate it and warp it through the lens of the internet, then try to translate it back into real life. It works, but it’s several steps removed from the original experience. But the intimacy—creepy or caring, awkward or comforting—is only part of it.
“I think for me,” Melinda says, “the central idea is that everyday objects have a latent potential to affect us in ways that are beyond like, this is just a cup for me to drink. We can appreciate things for their sounds and their textures. It’s almost like they are alive. They have this secret life. And we also have this secret part of our brain where we experience all these things with no names. ASMR is just one thing that we have found a name for.”
Lately, I’ve just wanted to become as corporeal as possible, to take every opportunity to exist more in my body and less in my head (and less on Twitter). I’ve gotten really into perfume, and I go to the gym a lot. And sometimes, I must admit, I find myself tapping on different things, just to see what they sound like.
ASMR is a way of being in your body, but quietly. It’s about very small movements and very small sounds, and the subtle ways out bodies react to them. It’s a different way of paying attention.
Ashley and I talk to Andrew and Melinda for just under an hour, drinking green tea out of porcelain cups that clink pleasantly, until they have to get ready for their next guests. It’s nice to talk to people who’ve thought as deeply as I have about this weird little internet thing, and what it means to people. They usher us out, back down the creepy stairs, back to the world of outside sounds, and we pause for a moment on the sidewalk before we return to the broader strokes of living.