A few weeks back, I was in the midst of one of my regularly scheduled YouTube ASMR K-holes when I came across a video called “Maura Murray (Whispers, Rain) True Crime ASMR.” I did a double take — I’d binged my fair share of pickle-eating and head-massage ASMR videos in my day, but true crime? That seemed like the opposite of what ASMR was all about: relaxing spine shivers, brain tingles and the delicious feeling of melting into yourself. In fact, as I know from rigorous R&D, ASMR is something people use to very successfully treat mental health issues like anxiety, depression and insomnia. So how was a story about kidnapping or murder whispered into a super-sensitive microphone supposed to calm my existential dread in the same way a video of long tails tapping on random household objects could?
Curious, I smashed the play button and was immediately greeted by shewhispers, a 24-year-old YouTube “ASMRtist” named Shelby Osbourn whose channel is filled with gently whispered tales of mysterious disappearances and murders. The mic crackled deliciously, and my ears filled with the sound of fake rain as Osbourn began to whisper in the customary, hushed tones of ASMR: “On the internet, Maura’s disappearance is the perfect obsession, a puzzle of clues that offers a tantalizing illusion. If the right armchair detective connects the right dots, maybe the unsolvable can be solved.”
I’m listening, I thought, suddenly on the edge of my seat as Osbourn listed every haunting detail of Maura Murray’s mysterious disappearance in breathy crackles that sent intoxicating shivers across my scalp. Though I was listening to what would otherwise be an extremely disturbing story, I felt relaxed and tingly in the exact same way traditional ASMR made me feel. Suddenly, my allegiance to pickle-eating ASMR seemed passé. I was into some new relaxing shit now: Sinister stories relayed in feather-soft murmurs by hot girls with ring lights.
As has become evident from the staggering amount of similar videos uploaded to YouTube in the past few years, true-crime ASMR seems to be the internet’s latest obsession. Coinciding with the recent explosion of true-crime podcasts and TV shows, ASMRtists like Osbourn have started reading chilling tales of vanishings and killings in hushed, crinkly whispers to swarths of adoring fans who consume the harrowing details with as much glee as they do “lotion-squishing” or “hair play” videos. There are retellings of classic cases — your Jon Benet Ramseys; your Ted Bundys — but people seem to be particularly taken with strange disappearances and cold-case murders like that of Maura Murray, Mitrice Richardson and the Jamison family. Videos like these are extremely popular, and increasingly so — some, like this one about the Delphi murders, can rack up hundreds of thousands of plays and comments from devoted viewers who are quick to weigh in with their own theories about the crime.
All of this raises an interesting question, though — why are people using ASMR, a medium that’s been shown to be calming, depression-relieving and even sedating, to consume disturbing tales of abduction, murder and mystery?
Osbourn, who originally started both watching and making ASMR videos to treat her own anxiety and depression, tells me she made the switch to true crime after realizing she and her audience shared a passion for cold cases and the theories around them. “It’s something I’m genuinely interested in when it comes to my personal life and hobbies, so I figured I’d share that enthusiasm with my audience,” she explains. “I was happy to discover that most of my followers really enjoy that content, too.”
Osbourn believes people are drawn to true-crime ASMR for the same reasons they’re drawn to podcasts and TV shows like Serial, Sword and Scale and Making a Murderer: They like playing detective. “Most of the interest in my true-crime videos is due to the mystery and learning about the life of someone who mysteriously disappeared or passed away,” she says, explaining that the ASMR lens simply gives people an opportunity to interact with their existing interests in a slower, quieter, more digestible way. “It’s a challenge to learn about these things and to discover what could have happened to them. People like hearing the stories and coming to their own conclusions.”
In rare but notable cases, the conclusions true-crime fans come to can actually influence the outcome of real investigations, which can make watching and participating in this brand of ASMR all the more tantalizing. “I know it’s highly unlikely I’ll be the next Michelle McNamara, but the smallest likelihood that I could crack a case like she did is enough to keep me interested,” says 30-year-old grad student and true-crime ASMR stan Alex Royce. “The fact that cases are presented with my favorite ASMR triggers like whispering and crackling makes it that much more thrilling — it’s like getting a promotion and finding out your crush likes you back on the same day.”
It’s also a surefire way to focus and settle his mind. “The slow, methodical nature of a true-crime investigation, layered on top of the already relaxing sounds of ASMR, kind of acts like a filter for my thoughts,” he says. “I find that the combination cuts out the static and background noise of my anxiety or the stresses of daily life and lets me just concentrate on the story. Putting together the puzzle pieces of a mystery is kind of like Xanax for me.”
That makes sense — we already know that fucked-up stories about kidnapping, missing people and murder can have a relaxing effect. As criminology professor Scott Bonn writes in Time, this is because true crime allows us to “experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real.” With its calming tones and sedative triggers, it’s possible that ASMR dilutes those threats even further than a podcast or a TV show by taking unnerving stories and transforming them into mild, relaxing “brain orgasms.”
A commenter on a video about the mystery of the Death Valley Germans confirms this (sic): “i’m studying forensic psychology currently and i love hearing these cases in a relaxing environment!! you allow me to fully envelope myself in the details with security, while in daily life, it’s casual and blunt!! although it’s the same content, the conviction is different and i appreciate and enjoy it deeply.”
Perhaps that’s why Osbourn says many of her viewers use her true-crime videos to fall asleep — though the content is actually horrifying. Processing it via one of the internet’s most pacifying mediums is enough to lure some people’s frazzled nerves into blissful unconsciousness.
Another theory floating around is that ASMR fans share similar personality traits to people who are attracted to crime, and that combining the two provides an outlet for them to interact with their darker selves in a controlled way. In fact, one 2017 study found that people with stronger ASMR reactions tend to rate much higher on scales of neuroticism and openness to new experiences than the general population, two traits that also seem to be shared by criminals.
That’s not to say that true-crime ASMR fans are criminals — just that it might appeal to some subconscious, risk-taking or thrill-seeking part of their brain. This ASMR bank robbery video, where an innocent-looking girl tells viewers to “get on the motherfucking ground” in a gentle, angel-like voice, paints a pretty fitting picture of how that might play out.
Osbourn, however, isn’t so sure that the connection between ASMR and true crime is so dark. “Most of the time, my followers just enjoy my whisper and less of what I’m actually saying,” she says. “I don’t believe there’s anything insidious behind it.” Quite the opposite, actually — Osborn believes that, instead of appealing to people’s darkness, true-crime ASMR gets at their sense of humanity. “Sharing stories about victims’ lives, passing or disappearance with my audience brings light to what happened to them,” she says. “There’s the sense of spreading information to help a family either get further along in the investigation or support from the community. It helps us all realize our shared humanity and desire to do some good in the wake of such a terrible occurrence.”
Of course, it would be easy to post non-ASMR videos about these cases — and people do — but given ASMR’s massive cultural zeitgeist, combining it with cases that need more attention creates a more populous and interactive platform to get the message out than a whisper-free video might alone. That’s actually exactly what Lilliana Dee of Lily Whispers ASMR has been trying to do with her “Unsolved Mystery” series, a combination of cold cases and missing persons investigations often submitted to her by fans who are looking to bring awareness to the unsolved tragedies that have affected their own lives. “I want to bring closure and peace to the victim’s families,” she writes on her website. And while she’s unaware of her videos leading to any sort of break in a case, she still wants to use her platform for good.
Not everyone, though, sees it that way. Many of her fans have called her out for using real people’s tragedies to get views. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about the series, some really good and some very bad,” she writes. “People have told me that I’m F*&^% up to mix ASMR and tragedies and other similar comments. It took me a lot to get over those types of comments too – I had to disable commenting on my Kenneka video and others since I didn’t want to deal with the negativity.”
Fair enough, but again, it cuts both ways. As one commenter wrote on Dee’s Caylee Anthony video (sic), “Your videos have helped me out so much with my anxiety and depression. when i saw ur first video of this series i was so excited. this subject needs to be talked more about. i know people who have been taken and killed, their cases were never solved and were declared closed with evidence to continue investigating. this saddens me. i watch videos on unsolved crimes and forensics. my dream is to become one of the people that investigates and helps to solve crimes like these to bring justice to these people’s families.”
Also, as Dee writes by email, the landscape of ASMR is changing. Yes, it’s historically been a warm and fuzzy world, but new types of ASMR like “bitchy roleplay” or “people eating glue” are popping up all the time with great success. “ASMR is supposed to promote feel-good emotions, but something that’s relaxing to one person might not be relaxing to another. Who are we to judge that?”
As for me, I now know more about missing people and unsolved mysteries than ever before, but because of ASMR’s gentle delivery, their psychic weight feels more empowering than creepy. Not only do I feel more grounded and relaxed from watching hours of this stuff, but thanks to the level of detail ASMRtists go into about each crime, I also feel more equipped to protect myself if I’m ever attacked. And while there’s nothing relaxing about that thought, I can always lean on pickle videos if it ever stresses me out too much.