It came as something of a relief one recent Saturday when a man approached me on a street corner in Bed-Stuy and asked if he could blindfold me. I’ve been in my head a lot lately, and I wanted out. Though my eyes were covered, I could still hear people passing me on the sidewalk, but I decided they weren’t really staring if I couldn’t see them. Do you feel the wind and hear the street sounds? the man whispered into my ear. He told me it was the last time I’d be experiencing the outside world for a while, and that sounded just fine.
I was then led up a set of steps and into another realm.
The realm was Whisperlodge, an immersive theater experience that officially opened in September and calls itself “an ASMR spa for the senses.” Whisperlodge is the creation of three artists who are fascinated by Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is the term for this exquisitely good feeling some people experience in response to certain triggers — often slow, intimate, deliberate things like whispering, gentle touch, tapping, and page-turning. The feeling of ASMR is often described as a mix of relaxation, euphoria, and a tingly sensation along the head or spine, and it has launched countless YouTube videos with titles like “Relaxing Towel Folding Tutorial” and “ASMR Pillow Talk Loving girlfriend.” Whisperlodge’s creators wondered whether they could transfer that vast, infinitely customizable, impersonal-yet-personal online experience to real life.
“We wanted to see if live ASMR was possible,” says Melinda Lauw, a grad student at Sotheby’s Institute of Art who is one of the three creators of Whisperlodge, and who says she’s been triggered since childhood by “the sound of skin.”
It’s a question lots of people have pondered. In-person ASMR is something of a holy grail for people who are into it. Craigslist is peppered with ads looking for willing strangers to perform ASMR (though it’s not always clear that’s all they’re asking for). Whisperlodge wants to be an oasis from the rest of the world, so over the course of two hours, guests are pampered, petted, and passed from one gentle guide to the next, wandering through a warren of rooms inside a brownstone as though following a series of YouTube “up next” videos. The journey is filled with the trappings of an online medium that, at its best, functions as an art form: the role-playing, the soft voices, the gentle, deliberate movements, the focus on sensory play. The difference is, when the woman in white says she’s going to stroke my inner arm with a makeup brush, she actually does.
It feels good. My shoulders slump with relief, and I start talking about my childhood. She moves the brush up toward my face and says softly, “People always forget about the backs of their ears.” They do, don’t they?
The brownstone in which the event takes place has several floors, and I didn’t get to see all of them because guests are guided from one room to the next along a predetermined route that’s different for each person. You might wind up talking to a guy sitting in a bathtub, or be invited to take part in a fitting-and-tailoring role play, or be invited to sit at a kitchen table and touch a piece of Wonder Bread. You don’t tell your guides in advance what you like, and this can be good and bad; the suspense is magical, and there’s something freeing about being told exactly where to go, but the price is that you may have to experience the cacophony of spices ground next to your ear with a mortar and pestle, when what you’d really like is to have someone brush your hair.
Whisperlodge was started in September by Lauw, Steph Singer, and Andrew Hoepfner, who does not experience ASMR but became interested in the topic after he launched a previous immersive show called Houseworld. At that show, Hoepfner says, members of the audience were taken to meet a “healer” who “would first offer you some homemade kombucha that we’d made, and then anoint you with tee tree oil, and then lay you down in a cot and whisper assurances to you.” Afterward, guests kept asking him, “Was this scene intended to be an ASMR scene?”
It wasn’t, but it got the formula right: experimental, a little New Age, and a lot indulgent. Hoepfner, Lauw, and Singer have expanded on that formula at Whisperlodge, where guides actually remove your shoes for you when you arrive, as if you’re a small child. They did 11 shows for about eight guests each on a recent weekend, at $60 a ticket, and plan to do more in coming months. The show is technically still in workshop mode. Eventually, they imagine a permanent location, where guests might come in and pay for ASMR on demand.
The weird and compelling thing about ASMR is the way it invites strangers into other people’s intimate experiences. I’ve watched thousands of these videos over the last few years, but I’ve never felt as aware of how strange that is as I did in that Bed-Stuy brownstone. Online, no one can see you relaxing to the sweet whispers of ASMRtist Tony Bomboni demonstrating his makeup techniques, but at Whisperlodge, the very stranger brushing your ear is also watching you, and asking you questions. Why ASMR works, and why in-person ASMR made me feel not just awkward but also warm and fuzzy, I couldn’t exactly tell you. There’s been little peer-reviewed research into the phenomenon, but Craig Richard, a professor of biopharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University who’s been building an extensive database of people’s experiences with it, says he suspects that whatever triggers ASMR “elicits the same neurotransmitters and hormones associated with intimacy and love.”
ASMR is “this slow, comforting, perfect thing that humans can do for each other,” says Katya Stepanov, 25, who, like many of us, had experienced ASMR since she was a kid, particularly when her mom drew on her back with her fingernails. But she never knew there was a word for it, or that others felt it, until she stumbled into Whisperlodge in September on a last-minute ticket. She had her hair brushed, and it took her back. It was as if someone had peered into her heart and seen its secrets.
But even when the rooms didn’t quite hit their mark, I found them playful and fun. When else in your life have you been invited to stroke an orange, or explore the sound of charcoal on paper? Whisperlodge encourages a sensory mindfulness that has the effect of taking you out of your head.
You get to “turn your mind off for a while,” a fellow guest named Greta Mansour told me afterward, explaining that she’d felt profoundly relaxed at Whisperlodge despite the fact that she’s never experienced the tingles associated with ASMR. She’d been having constant thoughts about the outcome of the presidential election a few days before. But inside the brownstone, she’d made shapes in sand with a cookie cutter, and run her fingers through baking soda, and a lovely stranger had played with her hair.
And for two hours, she told me, she was free.