A niche community of YouTube filmmakers mix the pleasurable sounds of ASMR with the creepiness of horror films.
Late at night, you click on "☼ ══╣♥♥ The ULTIMATE ASMR MAKEOVER!!! ♥♥╠══ ☼". It's hosted by a man called "Phoenician Sailor." He has greying hair, a pale and narrow face, and the calmest grey eyes you have ever seen.
This man whispers to you, telling you everything will be all right. You are beginning to feel very relaxed. The video cuts abruptly to a masked figure shrouded in darkness, then the camera moves to a new setting. That same man is leaning down from above you. "I'm reasonably certain you're not in any pain," he says. He produces a syringe. He is wearing surgical gloves.
This is not very relaxing anymore. And yet his voice makes you calm, so calm, enough that you continue to watch as he probes, and scratches, and cuts, and suddenly his white gloves are stained with red.
Phoenician Sailor is one of the stars of "ASMR horror," a niche community within the already-niche world around the "ASMR" sensory phenomenon. Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, also simply referred to as "that unknown feeling," creates tingles and pleasurable shivers in susceptible listeners. It is induced by "trigger" sounds like tapping on glass and crinkling sweet wrappers, or soft, whispered words.
The makeover video is a common ASMR trope, usually featuring a speaker who reassures you that you look beautiful along with the sound of makeup brushes on skin. Phoenician Sailor's makeover starts out every bit as calming as mainstream ASMR, employing binaural sound effects and whispered dialogue. But after lulling the viewer into passivity it takes a menacing turn.
What makes ASMR horror so interesting is its diversity and spirit of invention. This is the land of the creaky door, the soft-spoken demon, and the benevolent cryptid. Where else could you meet a heavily-accented plague doctor or take breakfast with Patrick Bateman? (Tributes to well-known games and films appear frequently—another great example is this "ASMR Kidnapping" tribute to Stephen King's Misery).
Names like Phoenician Sailor draw hundreds of thousands of viewers, but some of the genre's most experimental voices are on its fringes: haunt ASMR Horror YouTube for long enough and you'll find the likes of Henrik Paavo Nilsson, whose videos are creepy in the way that only things you find on the internet late at night can be. "There's absolutely a subset of video creators doing more quirky and strange, experimental stuff," Nilsson tells me over Skype. "I really like that people are trying out the crazier things. There's only so many ways you can tap on a piece of plastic."
In one video, Nilsson appears as a scarecrow with a skeleton face. In another which he's currently working on, he's a broken robot left on a shelf. "I want to be a bit silly and expressive. I've strayed further and further from focusing on the triggers," he said. Monster masks and rambling narratives are backgrounded with shots of dark, empty streets. One clip shows Nilsson speaking breathily for 15 minutes about how "onions are aliens," until language breaks down and his words become just another sound amidst the crinkling and scratching.
Some ASMR horror videos have a DIY aesthetic, while others are high-concept, featuring character arcs and "multiverses." Others still could pass for arthouse cinema at its most abstract and disturbing. Try this one alone with your laptop before bed:
Another creator I speak with is EpicASMR, who makes videos as well as moderating the Negative ASMR subreddit. He started the community after coming across the term in a blog post, and seized on it as a way to describe the distinct combination of tingles and chills. A voice actor by trade (though currently working in marketing), he produces sprawling, ambitious YouTube narratives including the 50-part "Cyberpunk ASMR" series.
Though the Negative ASMR subreddit gives fans a place to belong, EpicASMR has encountered occasional resistance from the mainstream community. "You still you have the purists, people saying 'that's not ASMR,'" he said. "There's a little tension between us and the old guard, who are either completely hostile or prefer to act like it doesn't exist entirely."
"The feeling I'd compare it to is when a car drives past you, very fast and very close, and you get that adrenaline chill."
Wilfully strange as it might be, this genre has the potential to grow and draw in new listeners. ASMR horror may be a niche-within-a-niche, the weirdest of Internet Weird, but it fuses one of YouTube's fastest-growing video genres with two already long-established communities: the horror and sci-fi fandoms.
YouTube's audio horror community has also developed alongside an increasing popularity of ASMR-like techniques in mainstream culture. 3D audio has been used in games like Papa Sangre and Zombie Arena: Audio Defence to give players chills, and even national broadcasters are tapping its potential: in October of last year the BBC produced a binaural audio dramatisation of The Ring. A text already rooted in our distrust of media, in 3D the experience is disarming. The infamous "Ring tape" becomes a malicious earworm: "You will die in seven days" sounds so much more convincing when it comes from right beside your head.
Speaking to creators, it becomes evident that there is no "script" for ASMR horror success. ASMR in general remains misunderstood, brought into being on instinct and tingles alone, and its technical elements of composition lack a universal formula.
"I can't even say I arrived at any 'plan' for my videos," said Anica of AnicaWhispers, who has recorded around 60 videos in which she reads classic horror novels like Dracula and The Haunting of Hill House in ASMR style. "I discovered ASMR while up late, trying to relax and fall asleep." She links the videos back to the horror tradition, to vintage films and radio shows: "There was usually a host who spoke in a low, slow, creepy voice...I suppose Vincent Price is the best example. He seemed so sophisticated, yet he was (for the time) scary as hell. Was he creepy because he was so smooth, or in spite of it? No idea!"
Although Anica plans to shoot role-play videos sometime soon, right now the horror fiction series is working well for her, and is enjoyable to make. "Reading videos are way easier: I can pause if I need a drink or something, and editing is basically just 'stitching' the pieces together."
While Nilsson studied sound design, he stresses that anyone can make the videos: "I think people worry too much about the tech-y part of it. People get scared off, and they shouldn't–most things you can learn by looking them up, or just by doing. Not having a high grade camera or microphone isn't that important. Just use what you have."
It's a very YouTube ethos, and the community has even given back, in the form of an open binaural mic given to him by a viewer who is now a friend. "A guy named Carlos contacted me around six months ago saying that was studying audio engineering, and said 'I made this as a project in school, would you like one?' I've done three or four binaural videos with that mic already."
But the genre also benefits from technical showmanship: recording software and equipment can bring a haunted house to life, or make the zombie hoards of the undead sound somehow more alive in your ears.
EpicASMR created a proprietary binaural algorithm for his videos, creating 3D sound which moves around the head of the listener. "I record it all in real-time, using a holophonic, binaural algorithm to emulate it, or I actually record it holophonically," he explained. "The sounds tend to be emulated, but the voices are actually recorded. The best way to do it is to get a holophonic algorithm, but the problem with that is that they tend to run around $15,000 and up per year." He's currently working out ideas for cyberpunk VR videos with accompanying sound, and predicts a shift in the greater ASMR community to VR once it becomes more popular.
If standard ASMR romanticises the everyday—a visit to the hairdressers, the metallic crinkle of sweet wrappers—then horror ASMR exposes its weirdness
Horror ASMR raises questions about a medium we are only beginning to understand. Are the triggers the same as with regular ASMR, or do the two work differently? EpicASMR says that he experiences both standard ASMR and Negative ASMR, though making the videos has somewhat inured him to them (this seems to be common among "ASMRtists," almost like our own inability to tickle ourselves). He says of Negative ASMR, "The feeling I'd compare it to is when a car drives past you, very fast and very close, and you get that adrenaline chill."
If standard ASMR romanticises the everyday—a visit to the hairdressers, the metallic crinkle of sweet wrappers—then horror ASMR exposes its weirdness. The medium becomes a canvas for viewers to explore memory, trauma, and personal kinks. Monsters converse with you. Mundane objects come to life in tapping and creaking. They return as the abject, a familiar thing now turned disturbing ("Onions are aliens…"). Sometimes the disembodied trigger sounds make it seem like your laptop is breathing, an effect only several steps removed from the live, pulsating television in David Cronenberg's horror classic Videodrome.
Where the caring voices of ASMR once instilled trust in technology, horrorASMR reflects our distrust. It reveals a creepiness to ASMR in general, perhaps most of all in the times when the screen tries its hardest to be your "caring friend." Many of the creepier videos highlight this eerie relationship with tech by parodying familiar ASMR tropes: the overly attached hairdresser, the "What's in My (Medical) Bag," and the makeover which turns messy, then violent, then worryingly bloody. They expose the strangeness, and perhaps the true horror, of relying on machines for human kindness.