Dee is an ASMR vlogger returning to livestreaming after an extended absence, much to the delight of her devoted fan base, who log on in the thousands to welcome her back and find out why she was gone for so long.
Dee’s livestream starts off with a calm, friendly but slightly weary update, followed by the intimate, soothing sounds of her ASMR magic. But just as Dee finds her footing once again, her livestream spirals out of control — and to her fans’ horror, a nightmare scenario plays out in real-time right in front of the camera.
Writer-director Alexandra Serio’s horror short is notable for its exploration of the world of ASMR, the lively and unique online female-dominated self-care community, devoted to sounds that stimulate the tingling and relaxation characteristic of autonomous sensory meridian response. Set in this milieu, the story feels particularly contemporary, capturing a grassroots phenomenon specific to the YouTube generation.
The film, too, keeps its approach to craft contemporary, using the evolving visual language of vlogging and YouTube in general as a central tool of its storytelling. Essentially it’s a one-take film, featuring the static video set-up typical of a vlogger, alongside a constantly streaming chat screen and the vlogger’s home in the background for everyone to see.
The set-up seems static, but the direction creates a lot of dynamism and tension. A terrific performance by Serio brings to life a disciplined script that fits many story and character beats within its short format. But there’s also great synchronicities between all the craft elements at play that the film uses masterfully to create narrative chills and thrills.
The empty home behind Dee is used to stage key events of the film’s narrative, literally moving danger and threats in and out of the frame. Sound, of course, plays an important role, and the soft, feathery ASMR sounds contrast with the evolving threat creeping in the room, ramping up dread and fear.
But the key element may be the constantly streaming chat screen anchored on the side of the image, which is both a counterpoint and commentary of the action on the “main screen,” as well as a powerful plot device in and of itself. The chat screen is key to the Dee’s narrative and to the meaning of the film itself. It begins with warmth and adoration as Dee returns. But then comments focus on Dee’s body and appearance. And then it escalates to harassment and hostility — and finally to threats, which soon collapse the barriers between online, offscreen and real life in a dangerous way.
Clever, suspenseful and smartly provocative, “Tingle Monsters” is ultimately about how violence through words is intimately linked to violence in real life, especially against women and other historically vulnerable groups. The demands of short-form storytelling handle the link in a compressed, dramatic way, but the deft use of the horror and thriller genres also stings audiences into examining the connections between anonymity, technology and violence.
This is the world we live in, the film seems to say: one that brings people together to share something deeply healing and comforting, but also one that is exploited in ways that have real-life deadly consequences. What is our responsibility and how do we create and enforce that, especially as the line between online and offline spaces blur? The questions linger well after the tingling tension dissipates, much like a shadow lurking in the background of an increasingly crowded frame.