Every woman who creates video content online shares a certain understanding that they are, on an innate level, being judged differently than their male peers.
This is the reality that every female YouTuber, Twitch game streamer or news personality comes to face: They’re going to deal with an undercurrent, and sometimes an outright downpour, of misogyny both intended and accidental. The comments on their videos will be directed at their faces, at their bodies, or at their clothing and its intention, rather than at the subject they’re discussing. People will be cruel, for no good reason at all—and maybe even dangerous.
That’s the online world that director Alexandra Serio captures in her new short horror film Tingle Monsters. Being billed as the world’s first “ASMR horror” film experience, Tingle Monsters is streaming online now, and its unique premise caught my attention immediately, both as a horror geek and a writer who has several times gone down the rabbit hole of dissecting YouTube’s uniquely strange ASMR culture. In just 10 minutes, Serio deftly manages to distill a sense of both the toxic environment that breeds in the recesses of a site like YouTube, and the horror of how that influence can quickly metastasize into real-world violence.
Serio isn’t some film school kid fresh out of UCLA, looking to make a name for herself. In fact, she has a background in neurobiology, but then fell into media, working in digital marketing at Vice in the early 2010s, which first exposed her to branded content and online video production. She later founded Nameless Network with two Vice colleagues, specializing in video, and in the course of surveying her company it was impossible not to notice how vastly different the tone was between male and female-hosted videos.
“I was really struck by the difference in the comments that female and male-hosted videos received,” said Serio, speaking by phone with Paste. “It was the same no matter what the content happened to be. We did these explainer videos that were very matter-of-fact, with a neutral host. The host for this one series was a botanist for the New York Botanical Garden, and she’s the most amazing host, but just seeing the type of vitriol she would get for the way she holds her arms, or what she chose to wear, was wild. The same type of video with a male host, meanwhile, would generate all comments focused around the actual topic of the video and the information he presented. No one was talking about the guy’s appearance.”
Thus, the idea for Tingle Monsters was born—a short horror film that would explore that phenomenon of directed misogyny against women making online video, welded to what had become a personal online fascination of Serio’s—the wild world of YouTube (and beyond) ASMRtists. As someone who spent great swaths of time on YouTube in particular, Serio was struck by the counterintuitively calm presentation style of ASMR, finding herself attracted to the combination of serenity and entertainment generated by these ASMRtists, whether they were producing videos intended as sleep aids, or using the format as a vessel for long-form storytelling.
“I first came across ASMR around 2016,” she said. “We were curating a video channel on internet oddities, and I was struck by the creativity that was happening in the genre, and how up to date it tended to be on current events and social interaction. I was really transfixed by what was happening in this genre, even before I realized how much it could help in something like falling asleep. So I’ve been a big ASMR aficionado since then. It’s a unique, multidimensional sensory experience.”
Serio plays an ASMR performer who comes face to face with the ugliest nature of online commentary.
But in ASMR fandom, as in her day job, Serio immediately noted the comments thrust upon female hosts, who would be accused of using their appearance or sexuality as tools for attention, whether or not their videos had any kind of sexually suggestive connotations. This isn’t to say that blatantly sexualized ASMR videos don’t exist, but the genre’s “simulation of proximity,” as Serio put it, inherently creates an intimate vibe that male viewers are all too likely to misinterpret.
“The tenants of ASMR in general have often been a traditionally attractive woman producing or simulating physical intimacy via whispered conversation,” Serio said. “There’s a huge misappropriation of sexuality because of this. You have to take into consideration the population that is watching ASMR videos. I believe there’s an alienated male population where this is potentially one of the only forms of intimacy with women they have access to. Is there a glamor aspect to it for some ASMRtists? Certainly, some people embrace that side. But the most basic aspect of being an ASMRtist is usually assuming the role of caretaker in some way.”
All of this is present in Tingle Monsters, which casts Serio herself as “Dee,” a vlogger who logs back on to address her fandom after an alluded-to period of silence. We get the sense that Dee is perhaps on the run from something, or someone, having recently uprooted her life and moved across country, deleting social media profiles along the way. The layout of the room is sparse, but somehow subtly sinister … as is the open doorway at Dee’s back. It’s fixed almost dead center of the frame, drawing the eye with inevitable anticipation of something terrible. Despite Serio’s soothing cadence, the tension steadily mounts.
Serio has seen first hand the hazards of merely being a woman in an online creator’s space.
The real “meat” of Tingle Monsters, though, is in the expertly reconstructed live chat running along the right side of the frame, the writing of which ultimately took far longer than the film’s minimal, whispered dialog. Truly, Serio manages to hit the nail on the head here, which makes sense given her background—the live chat captures the exact rollercoaster of tones present in most YouTube or Twitch livestreams. It’s a carefully calculated mix of gibberish, over-the-top adulation toward the performer, randomly bitter invective, boorish catcalling and commenters trying to somehow steal the spotlight for themselves. And in its own way, the live comments even manage to drive the plot forward, as Dee’s choice to mute the commenters deprives her of valuable information and provides the film with dramatic irony. In particular, the refrain from the commenters that everything they then see is “100% staged” is the master stroke of Tingle Monsters, as it rings with truth that is undeniable in an age where denial is the nation’s second language.
“I think the way Instagram is set up, the way YouTube is set up, they revolve so much around corporate personalities with no fact checking,” Serio said. “That has obviously bled into the highest halls of the government, so it was an aspect that had to be introduced into this narrative in a very meaningful way. And also, I didn’t want it to be entirely clear cut what had happened to this woman. I wanted the viewer to not quite know.”
Tingle Monsters ultimately accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, being not at all hampered by a budget that was less than $3,000 in total. It’s Serio’s first project in front of the camera in addition to behind it, and as a performer she steps comfortably into a role she’s seen performed by so many other YouTube ASMRtists, articulating what is very likely one of their greatest fears: the retaliation of their male fanbases. We look forward to seeing what corners of American culture Serio’s bold feminist voice might be applied to next.