"I hope that you're not really young, watching this. I hope you're able to take this. Because it's going to get really graphic."
"Lets Talk | Getting kidnapped and sold" opens with a standard YouTube "Hey guys," then proceeds to somewhere unimaginably dark. Over 39 minutes, its creator AsiaParisJapan narrates how she was kidnapped and held captive at age 12 in a Holiday Inn outside Las Vegas. Befriended by a strange man who offered her a ride in his car, she was dropped off with a group of pimps in exchange for $500.
Asia was renamed 'Promise,' plied with alcohol and weed, and then asked to "go out and make some money." For three weeks over Christmas and New Year's Eve, they kept her captive.
In the video, Asia steers clear of any explicit details, but says she didn't bring in much money. Occasionally she falters and repeats herself, explaining that talking about this gives her flashbacks. Later she describes being discovered by police in the hotel, and how her kidnapper and pimps were charged with kidnapping, child molestation, and child pornography. "I was so relieved that it was over because... I just felt myself dying on the inside," she says to viewers.
There's no way of knowing for certain what exactly happened to Asia, and whether her story has been embroidered, toned down, or made up completely. (Asia did not respond to requests for an interview.) But maintaining an act for 39 minutes is a long time, and the video is heartbreaking to watch. In the comments, Asia has defended her story and hit back at questions of why she wasn't able to escape. "Yes I left parts of the story out," she writes. "Some things are TOO PAINFUL to speak of... I REGRET 99.9% OF THIS SITUATION."
A seven-figure view count and over 9,000 comments reflect how shocking Asia's story is to viewers: "I was in tears after listening to you, I'm just glad your safe now xxxx," "the world is sick. i'm glad you're okay now and that you got help," "IM 12 YEARS OLD AND IM WATCHING SORRY :(".
Asia's video plays like the tragic side of the infamous Zola story, the 150 viral tweets narrating how Aziah "Zola" Wells' trip to Florida with a stripper named Jess turned awry when they were lured into the world of 'trapping' (prostitution). Though the polar opposite in tone to Asia's story, the two have more in common than their shared theme of sex trafficking. They are survivor stories, and generate a strange mixture of horror and admiration in those who hear them.
Stories about kidnappings are surprisingly common on YouTube. There are so many that typing 'My Kidnapping Story' into its search bar comes up with around 223,000 results. Titles include "I got kidnapped??!", "My Creepy Stalker Story–HE TRIED TO KIDNAP ME!!!!" and "Storytime: I was almost kidnapped." The 'almost' here is important: A vast number of these videos are about 'almosts', with varying degrees of severity.
People go missing all the time and it was almost me! So when they title it that just for views it's not something I think is funny.
Kidnapping stories are one of the more unusual YouTube memes, which are more often concerned with hair routines or lipstick swatches than issues of personal safety. A YouTube tag is about conforming on a viral scale, which makes the kidnapping 'tag' difficult to take part in. After all, kidnappings don't happen to everyone.
This has lead to a plethora of stories about shady men in vans on suburban streets, who pull up and look menacingly at the narrator before driving on. One YouTuber, SimplyNessa15, has proven controversial after posting two videos on kidnapping—"I Was Almost Kidnapped" and "Getting Kidnapped and My Stalker Story"—which turn out to be about street harassment rather than genuine abductions. Comments are disabled, but on one video there are over 3,600 downvotes. She is mentioned again and again elsewhere, accused of seeking attention. A number of videos are titled "SimplyNessa is fake."
But Nessa and her videos have attracted over 908,905 subscribers, leading many to emulate her clickbait style with all-caps titles and thumbnail pictures of photoshopped-on black eyes. One is about being approached by a strange man, narrated by a girl who claims to be ten years old (YouTube has age limit of 13). Another turns out to be about an Uber journey where the narrator simply refused to pay the driver. Another is about not being kidnapped, but about adream the narrator had one time where she was kidnapped (no, really.)
There's something distinctly disturbing about trauma co-opted as clickbait. It's female suffering as entertainment, rendered competitive for clicks. Are they rightly telling a story, or are they crying wolf to an audience of thousands?
For anyone who has suffered actual trauma, this is strange as well as offensive. In Asia's video, filmed in response to these clips, she says: "There's a lot that I don't bring to my channel because I'm healing, and some stuff I just simply want to forget. But I do want to speak out, because I feel a little insulted when people make videos about their fake 'kidnappings' or how they were 'almost kidnapped,' and I was actually kidnapped..."
But tags are also about shared experiences. The kidnapping videos operate as gentle warnings, primers for life in an adult world which can be occasionally frightening. They transform YouTube into a crowdsourced safety campaign, a network of girls looking out for younger girls. Narrated by friendly faces, their message is more likely to be heeded by young viewers than those issued by parents and teachers.
I asked YouTubers Allaray Roo (real name Ray) and KayKayGlam (real name Kaylyn) about the receptions their kidnapping videos received. Their videos address the kind of 'stranger danger' you're warned repeatedly about in school: Kaylyn was chased by two men across a creek, and Ray was pursued and repeatedly harassed by a stranger at the mall as a teenager.
Kaylyn is 19 and based in North Carolina. Besides her YouTube channel, she studies PR and marketing and works at a froyo shop. Speaking in an email, she said that her kidnapping video had received far higher views than usual. In it, she mentions how even now she finds it hard to go out walking anywhere alone. I asked if making the video helped, at all, to get past this.
"In all honesty no, it didn't help me get past it... In a way I am past it, only because I have pushed it so far back into my head," she said. "I don't usually watch other people's videos on being kidnapped, because I don't want to be reminded of it."
She's disgusted by the more obviously fake "My Kidnapping Story" videos and those made purely for clicks. "People go missing all the time and it was almost me! So when they title it that just for views it's not something I think is funny. I think it is dangerous turning something serious into a laughing or joking matter, because I don't want girls to dismiss it and think it could never happen to them."
Ray is 25 and lives in Florida. She makes videos full time, as well as looking after her baby daughter, known on YouTube as 'Roo'. Ray's channel is full of Story Time videos, covering everything from the mundane ("The painful mistake of how I broke my laptop") to the harrowing ("Mass Shooting Threat at My School"). She is one of those YouTubers who fall outside the 'beauty guru' or 'mommy blogger' or comedian archetypes, and has built a fanbase of over 34,500 users.
Ray's kidnapping story video aims for dark humour with a serious undertone, one very consciously included for the benefit of young viewers. She doesn't claim to be a role model or to have dealt with the situation in the most logical manner—she politely tolerated the stranger who followed her rather than turning and running away. But she offers the story as something to learn from. "I was a panicky kid who went with the first thought that popped in my head," she tells me. "A lot of the time, the first thought you have isn't always the best one to go with."
She also points out the inherent morbidity of viewers complaining that she'd only 'almost' been abducted: "Considering that I titled the videos 'almost' got kidnapped, I just tell them to refer back to the title and analyze the definition of 'almost.' I also mention that if I did get kidnapped, chances are I wouldn't even have been able to tell the story, either because of how scarred I would have been from the experience or that I may have possibly never even survived it. And that's a pretty awful thing to wish on someone just for a five-minute YouTube video to entertain you..."
But for all the animosity they ignite, there's something unexpectedly 'real'—for YouTube, at least—about these videos tackling the unglamorous topic of personal safety. "I think it's great," Ray says. "It shows that the people are real and not just a facade, you know? Some people may find it a bit out of place, but I feel more connected to people I've never even met when I see them sharing who they are as a person, and not just things they know and have learned that they want to share (like tutorials, DIYs, etc.)."
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Along with showing a more personal side to their narrators, the videos are 'real' in a broader sense. 800,000 children are declared missing in the US every year—one every 40 seconds—though the number that matches a 'stereotypical kidnapping' is significantly smaller. 74 percent of the victims of kidnappings by non-family members are girls. Similarly, someone in the US is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. It's enough to make you think kidnapping videos are popular not for their shock value, but for their relatability.
YouTube itself is home to a short but murky history of sexual harassment, which broke into the public consciousness last year with the fall of 'prank' vlogger Sam Pepper. In light of the dangers and sexism YouTubers and their female viewers face, these videos become acts of social responsibility. Girls need to be told they don't have to acknowledge catcalls, or feel obliged talk to creepy strangers, even those 'just' asking for a smile. YouTuber Megan Parken gets it right in her own 'almost' kidnapping video, saying "If guys try to talk to you, you don't owe them anything... You don't have to stay if you feel uncomfortable or if you feel in danger in any way."
Some of AsiaParisJapan's beauty reviews only have a few thousand views—her kidnapping one, by contrast, had over 1,343,153 at the time of writing this article. It may be unnerving to see kidnapping stories sit side-by-side with shopping hauls and beauty tutorials, let alone on one woman's channel. But why shouldn't she switch from serious to less-serious subject matter?
In making the kidnapping video, Asia breaks an unspoken fourth wall among YouTube's 'beauty gurus': she has acknowledged that reality isn't pretty. As with Zola's tweets, kidnapping videos—even the ones where an abduction doesn't actually happen—address an unsettling part of life many of us would prefer not to think about, but are made to confront by the force of the narrator's storytelling abilities. In recounting the story in the past tense, the narrator reclaims agency where before she had none. And by viewing, retweeting, or commenting with praise, we feel like we become part of the healing.
A vlog filmed after Asia's video went viral captures the reasoning behind making the video: She feels close enough to her viewers to talk about the darkest part of her past. "I just wanted to share with you guys," she says, looking into her webcam, "because you're my friends... you know?"