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‘1300s A.D. ASMR~ Nun Takes Care of You in Bed {You Have The Plague}’via YouTube

The increasingly niche, Lynchian intimacy of YouTube ASMR

Serial killers torturing victims, demonic possessions, and witches reading tea leaves are just a few of the off-beat ASMR performances pulling in fans

Most of us have pretty much never lived our adult lives without the internet. It’s affected us in innumerable ways – some good, some very bad – and despite not really knowing what a world without it looks like, it still continues to surprise us. In our Extremely Online series, we explore the apps, trends, subcultures, and all the other weird stuff the internet continues to offer.

Piano keys twinkle. Rain drops plink-plonk on the glassy surface of a lake.

A nun in a black and white habit stares searchingly into your eyes.

“Oh you are sick? With the bubonic plague? Soo sowwy.”

With a title like ‘1300s A.D. ASMR~ Nun Takes Care of You in Bed {You Have The Plague}’, you might think that this 10 minute-long YouTube video is a sign that we’ve hit peak niche content –  you’d be wrong.

Angelica has over two years’ worth of similarly risqué, tongue-in-cheek, historical roleplays on her ASMR channel. She uploads two videos a week to satisfy her growing fan base, and gained 5,000 subscribers in the last week since her performance as a bogus, money-grabbing plague-era nun became a meme. In the comments: “I got the plague but I’m living for this”, “the church could never” and “I got so many tingles while she was blessing me”.

It’s a common misconception that ASMR is some kind of fetish. It’s not. It’s a booming industry home to millions of subscribers and creatives, with a whole world of content organised by incredibly specific tags. The acronym stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, coined by enthusiasts in 2010. Not everyone is sensitive to ASMR, but those who ‘get’ it usually report feeling tingles – another term created by the community that describes the intensely relaxing sensations that are experienced around the head and neck. Triggers might be audio, physical or visual, and include things like pointy acrylic nails tapping on a surface, watching (and listening to) hair being brushed, or a whispering voice – ASMRtists often use binaural microphones for a kind of 3D recording that makes it feel as if they’re whispering right in your ear. Earlier in 2018, the University of Sheffield published the first scientific study to attempt to verify these responses, concluding that ASMR content may have measurable “therapeutic benefits”.

You’ve probably already seen some unintentional ASMR: Bob Ross’ hypnotically therapeutic painting, beloved by stoners, has made him an inadvertent grandfather of the genre. Any of those strangely ‘satisfying’ videos of elaborate marble runs, crayons melting or huge cakes iced with delicious precision could qualify, too. But when it comes to intentional ASMR content – that is, created specifically to trigger tingles in its viewers – roleplay videos are the most popular.

An ASMRtist might spend hours researching the exact language and procedures of care used by a beautician, doctor or masseuse, and then they elaborately perform this role just for you. Often tagged as ‘personal attention’ videos, they offer the feeling of receiving undivided attention, the sense of being cared for, of really being seen… but this is fiction, right? The performer’s loving, unwavering gaze feels incredibly intimate, but, obviously, it’s directed at their camera. You can see them, but they will never really see you. So why does this digitally mediated intimacy feel so good?

“Being dead is the most relaxing thing ever honestly”

Dr Emma Bennett, a researcher at Leeds University, describes ASMR roleplay as “a mutual performance” between the viewer and the artist. She details that there is a heightened intimacy in “the sense of colluding in a fiction”, even if it’s extremely clear that the ‘you’ behind your laptop can’t possibly be the same ‘you’ that the video’s creator had in mind. With your head cradled between the L and R of your headphones, Bennett writes that you “could be anyone or no one” – which, honestly, sounds pretty appealing.

More than most ASMRtists, Angelica stretches the already strange relationship between the performer and the viewer. She injects a black humour and creepy surrealism into the roleplay format, merging ASMR triggers with the pacey plot of a podcast. As the aforementioned nun, she briskly demands cash and recoils at the supposed proximity to your plague-ridden body; “Don’t touch me!”

In a recent upload, Angelica plays a bespectacled British mortician. You, as per the video’s title, are a decomposing corpse requiring make-up for your funeral. Below the line, one viewer, Melissa, comments: “Being dead is the most relaxing thing ever honestly”.

A video from last year, set in Peru in the year 1100 and titled “Stick and Poke Tattoo”, begins with Angelica coolly announcing, “I’m going to be tattooing the goddess Mama-pacha onto your forearm. Is that all right? Cool. I thought it would be.” As if you have a choice.

“Dissecting history for its more relatable content makes the past this dreamlike world that existed once, but has been erased”

Elsewhere, Angelica morphs into a witch, a renaissance beautician gossiping about Da Vinci, a nihilistic ‘90s era life insurance sales-woman and a poofy-haired psychologist. In the latter video, viewers realise, all too late, that the client she’s treating – the ‘you’ that she’s speaking too – is serial killer Ted Bundy. The twist is sharp and intricately revealed, but it still feels weirdly intrusive and unsettling. This is definitely not Bob Ross territory.

We talk via Instagram DM, and Angelica tells me that her unusual plots are influenced by David Lynch and Luis Buñeul (the iconic Spanish filmmaker behind gruesome Surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou). “Dissecting history for its more relatable content makes the past this dreamlike world that existed once, but has been erased,” she explains. I ask if she feels any kind of responsibility toward her viewers  – comments often say things like “the end had me spooked why did you do this” – but she rejects this idea. “I don’t think responsibility exists on a YouTube platform unless you’re creating informational content. It should feel like a break from reality and responsibility for both the creator and the audience.”

While ‘you’ could be anyone in her videos, Angelica uses her real name to publish her work. Most artists use screen names, which she describes as “understandable, considering how spiteful an anonymous audience can be and how an employer could fire someone if they post content either too strange or political.” She wanted her friends within the community to call her by her real name, but this willing vulnerability leaves her open to “internet creeps who spend their lives lusting over little details about ASMRtists”. It seems this vulnerability goes both ways: many viewers are eager to surrender their sense of self, but some demand to know everything about the ‘real’ artist behind the camera in exchange.

ASMR communities are still negotiating the power dynamic between artist and viewer, but, either way, distanced intimacy that treats you like you’re dead? Maybe we’ve found our generation’s ultimate ‘it me’.