Netflix’s Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s historical novel of the same name, is a murder mystery revealed through smothering close-up cinematography and the anxious sounds of hands scratching against cloth and feet scraping the ground. As such, the show can trigger the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), a poorly understood phenomenon in which certain gentle stimuli trigger a deeply soothing tingling sensation in the head and neck. While the science of ASMR is still in its infancy, Alias Grace may help clear up what it is and what actually causes it.
Craig Richard, Ph.D., founder of ASMR University, tells Inverse that many scenes in the show bear a striking resemblance to the kinds of experiences that trigger ASMR in many people.
“It has some aspects which are relaxing: gentle dialogue, eye gazing with soft speech into camera, low key scenes, and great audio focused on creaks of chairs, cloth moving, squishing mud, and eating sounds,” he says.
If just reading about things like “squishing mud” and “eating sounds” makes your skin crawl slightly, then you yourself probably experience ASMR. There are many different types of sounds and sights that can trigger the sensation, but ASMR University describes the common thread as “universal patterns of non-threatening stimuli.” One of the few scientific studies on the phenomenon, published in 2016 in PeerJ, identified some of those stimuli as “whispering, personal attention, crisp sounds and slow movements.”
Alias Grace, which explores whether the young Irish girl Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) truly helped a co-worker murder two people in a Canadian home in 1843, is unsettling enough even without its inherent ASMR triggers. It takes viewers through Grace’s life sentence in prison and her interviews with psychologist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) as he attempts to determine whether or not she’s insane, and by the end, even the viewer starts to feel a little crazy. But certain characteristics specific to the show, says Richard, could make it especially triggering for people that experience ASMR.
The best instance of this, according to Richard, happens in one particular bed-making scene. In the scene, the sound of Grace’s actions, set against light melodic music, is the pinnacle of ASMR in dramatic form.
“There was even a bed making scene that was quite similar to the recent ASMR-inspired IKEA ad,” Richard explains about the clip below. “I would say that one bed-making scene was the best ASMR moment in the first episode. It was not ideally done, some scenes were too frenetic, but I could see someone experiencing ASMR via that one scene.”
Similar auditory triggers are peppered throughout the show. It helps, for example, that actress Sarah Gadon delivers a convincing, breathy Irish accent that’s barely louder than a whisper in most of her voiceover narration. Searching for “Irish ASMR” on YouTube yields 146,000 results, by the way, suggesting that Alias Grace fans aren’t the first to have noticed its power.
Another type of ASMR trigger is sometimes referred to as “clinical role play.” In this form of ASMR, a person is triggered by the sensation of being examined by someone else playing the role of medical practitioner. For those that really sink into Alias Grace, the show can feel like a prolonged session of clinical role play between Grace and Dr. Jordan as he analyzes her and she thrives on the attention. The building tension between them does wonders for the drama and even more for the prickling sensation at the back of your neck.
The phenomenon can also be triggered by certain repetitive visual stimuli, which pop up consistently in Alias Grace. As the show progresses and Grace recounts the story of her past, her hands are constantly working. Whether in the past or present, we often see quick shots of hands fidgeting with something or sliding against a surface. Grace spent years in two separate households working as a maid — cleaning, scrubbing, brushing. During her interview sessions, Grace’s hands are constantly pulling and pushing needles as she avoids eye contact with Dr. Jordan, who smiles and scribbles in his notebook.
As in ASMR videos across the internet, seemingly innocuous activities are made sensuous by the intense focus given to them. The brushing of hair, the smoothing out of a blanket, and the scratching of a quill are all potential triggers, though nobody really knows why.
Overall, Richard doesn’t recognize “a consistent incorporation of ASMR or a certain kind of ASMR” but does “wonder if there is a small production goal to try to incorporate ASMR into occasional moments” as a way to establish the mood. It’s hard to deny when such detail is given to the audio and visuals presented, though it’s not clear why the show’s creators would do so deliberately. In their study, the authors of the PeerJ found that people seek out ASMR videos primarily for “positive feelings” and “relaxation.”
Whether it’s intentional or not, Alias Grace is hypnotic and sensual in the same indescribable way that ASMR is. Towards the end of Episode 1, Grace Marks speaks to Dr. Jordan in her head, describing the sensation she feels as he writes:
“When you write, I feel as if you were drawing on me, drawing on my skin with the feather end of an old-fashioned goose pen, as if hundreds of butterflies had settled all over my face, and are softly opening and closing their wings. But underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-eyed awake and watchful. It’s like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night by a hand over your face, and you sit up with your heart going fast and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling of being torn open. Not like a body of flesh — it is not painful as such — but like a peach. But not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting of its own accord. And inside the peach, there’s a stone.”
Are you triggered yet?
Alias Grace is currently available to stream on Netflix.