The first-ever ASMR horror film, aptly titled TINGLE MONSTERS, is upon us— but this effective 10-minute short film from writer/director/star Alexandra Serio has much more on its mind than auditory relaxation triggers.
Any woman who has produced any source of content on the Internet (myself included) has had to face harassment and vitriol from toxic male readers/viewers/subscribers at one point or another. And no, not constructive criticism of the content at hand— instead, aggressive name-calling and misogynistic rhetoric that bleeds from the tech screens into real-life situations that can be tangibly and physically threatening, in worst-case scenarios.
In “screenlife” format (akin to last year’s Searching and 2014’s Unfriended) TINGLE MONSTERS takes place entirely on a computer screen, in which the camera is so purposely angled towards the backdrop of the protagonist’s apartment. (Pay close attention to the doorframe in the background.) The lighting is fairly bright, with no trope-y darkness to hide behind— creating a sense of authenticity to how it feels when a woman thinks she is safe in the comfort of her own home.
We meet ASMR video creator Dee (Serio) who is live-streaming her first video in quite some time, as her subscribers comment frequently on. “Where you been, Dee??” She never explicitly reveals the details, but we’re led to believe she has recently escaped an abusive (or, at least, very unsupportive) relationship and is moved into a new apartment, alone, attempting to get her life back to order. As the many comments start to roll on the right side of the screen, Dee ignores the inevitable few bad apples (“I’ve seen hotter girls at my local Dairy Queen”) and reiterates her goal to create a “safe space” for her viewers to enjoy her content.
However, as anything on the Internet goes, things spiral out of control, as Dee gets up from her desk to shut her closet door and creepy comments from toxic, hetero males turn into “Would smash fo sho,” and she has to block one particularly awful viewer. When you see this closet sequence unfold, and its lack of “monsters,” you’ll appreciate its use of foreshadowing for the events to come.
From this point forward, with the most blink-and-you-will-miss-it subtlety, panicked viewers note that they just saw something move in Dee’s background. But Dee, who has decided to take a break from the chat, is blissfully unaware, as she continues with the video. Without giving anything away, I was startled by the blunt visual of what lurks behind her, and I praise Serio for not resorting to an unnecessarily cheap jump scare to do so. (Think of the shot in The Strangers in which the burlap-sacked man just lingers in the background.)
The all-viewing chatroom spurs into insanity, and sadly, some of the commenters actually begin to doubt the authenticity of the very real possibility of violence happening against this woman. “Cocktease slut deserves what she gets.” Victim-blaming, accusing Dee of seeking attention— you name it, it occurs— just like so many of the comments that real-life women receive under their pictures, videos, articles, etc. on a constant basis. Serio doesn’t hold your hand by giving you a completely hopeful conclusion either, with a typical final girl and a sense of strong optimism that one may expect. Instead, she begs you to ask the question that women who frequent the Internet have been wondering for years: When are we going to create a completely safe space for women to not feel threatened by toxic masculinity? I’ll allow you the curiosity, but I’ll leave you with part of Serio’s statement about her film: “I firmly believe that through gender parity and telling women-driven narratives, we can begin to change the world. But we must start by taking a sobering look at where we currently are. TINGLE MONSTERS aims to do that.”
You can (and should) watch TINGLE MONSTERS when it premieres on September 14 at the FilmQuest Film Festival, which runs from September 6-14 in Utah.