The Life-Changing Magic of Virtual Fireplaces

Even without real heat, they make a world of difference

Photo: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

As I write this, my windows are rattling with 30 miles per hour wind gusts. The bright new cold is seeping through the cracks beneath the window frames, and the leaves on the trees outside are green, tinged with yellow, having launched their death drive a couple weeks ago. I am barely staving off my own existential terror, for reasons that scarcely need explaining, but on my TV is a cheerily crackling fireplace, valiantly helping me to reenvision the dropping temperatures, at least, as something to be almost excited for instead of dreaded.

It’s a small comfort, but one I’m clinging to. One of the best ways of getting through this is to lean into it — buried under a heap of comfy blankets, book in my lap, dog at my feet, and a (virtual) crackling fireplace before me. Fireplaces, both virtual and real, are shown to be restorative, relaxing, and can even make you sleepy — and who among us is not currently in desperate need of restoration, relaxation, and sleep?

“The pandemic has heightened my anxiety even more so than usual, and I’m honestly always trying to find ways to multiply the coziness factor in my home,” says Steph Coelho, a freelance writer based in Montreal. “Putting these on in the background is comforting. I think the crackling noise is particularly soothing.” Coelho says fireplaces in her area are no longer very common, and that dealing with firewood deliveries seems like “a pain in the ass” anyway.

The author and the Netflix fireplace, Christmas 2017

Alex Wilhelm, a reporter based in Providence, Rhode Island, has two fireplaces in his home, but he doesn’t use them because they’re old and look like they’d leak. Instead, he and his wife find solace in playing a virtual fireplace on their TV. “It is now cold in Providence, so about three days ago we were like, let’s put a fire on the TV for fun — and then it was actually great. Did one with rain in the background and it seemed to quiet the house in a really nice way,” he says. “It puts a good vibe into the room, like 10% of the effect of going to a cabin in the woods where there is snow outside. And in 2020 I will take all the relaxation vibes that I can get.”

A small body of research shows that fireplaces have a distinctly soothing effect. A 2020 study on 146 Swedes found that the second most common reason that Swedes lit their fireplaces was to amp up the coziness factor (the first being to warm up their homes). In Sweden, this is known as “trivseleldning,” which translates to “cozy fire making.” Study participants also attest that their favorite part of the fire was not its warmth, but rather the “beautiful light” it sends around their rooms. The researchers found that watching a fire made people feel less stressed, more joyful, and more pleasantly sociable.

Fireplaces, both virtual and real, are shown to be restorative, relaxing, and can even make you sleepy — and who among us is not currently in desperate need of restoration, relaxation, and sleep?

A small Japanese study, from 2011, looked at how young men felt when they looked at gas fires, and how it impacted their ability to complete a simple task (clicking a button in reaction to visual stimuli). The participants felt more comfortable, at ease, and satisfied while they stared into the gas fire; they also felt sleepier, though there was little impact, either way, on task performance.

Despite their lack of pleasant scent or heat, virtual fireplaces are shown to have similarly positive effects. In a 2014 randomized controlled trial focusing specifically and solely on virtual fireplaces, the researcher found that a fire on a screen, with sound, lowered participants’ blood pressure. The longer the participants watched the fire, the greater the feelings of relaxation. Without sound, though, the effects were inconsistent, as some people seemed to get bored and restless watching the muted virtual fire.

I find myself gazing into my own virtual fire when sitting on my couch reading a book some evenings. I’m not really processing what I’m looking at — actually, I’m kind of zoning out, letting the scene of the flickering flames and sound of crackling logs erase any thoughts and induce in me an almost meditative state. Over the summer, I watched nature videos (big fan of Netflix’s Night on Earth) on mute, and found I experienced a similar calming feeling, though to a lesser extent than the fireplace videos.

More research has been conducted on nature videos, which can decrease stress and elicit awe in even casual viewers. One study, from 2014, investigated how prisoners behaved on their breaks when there was a television nearby showing nature scenes, including one of a burning fireplace, compared to when the TV was off. “That study showed that nature imagery contributed to lowering violence in the prison block by 26% over a year’s period,” says the researcher, Patricia Hasbach, a practicing psychologist and co-director of the ecopsychology program at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. “Interviews and written surveys with inmates suggested that the images calmed them, quieted their mind, reduced agitation, and they recalled the images when they were back in their cells, calming their mood.”

Matthew Browning, the director of the Virtual Reality and Nature Lab at Clemson University in South Carolina, researches how virtual reality and nature videos can impact people’s psychological states. He thinks that fires, even virtual fires, might be calming because they can partially capture your attention and restore your cognitive resources. “We’re all Zoomed out, you know? And we don’t want to consciously be paying attention to things, it’s just exhausting,” he says. “A virtual fire can still captivate our attention so that we can colloquially zone out and just, you know, chill out.”

Some researchers think there could be an evolutionary component to fire’s soothing effects. For at least 125,000 years, humans have built and gathered around fires; we warmed ourselves, cooked food, conversed and formed bonds, and decompressed after long, hard days in front of campfires and hearths. But the almost fetishized image of the roaring fireplace Westerners know today likely emerged from the early and mid-20th century. According to Lynda Nead, an art historian at Birkbeck, University of London, the fireplace arose from a postwar need to reanchor the traumatized, adrift masses in a comfortable, practical gathering place they could find at home. “The object that seemed to embody the emotional affects of home and its restorative capacities was the open coal fire,” she writes. “Although these associations were present in earlier periods, they had been intensified during the war years, when the domestic hearth symbolised not only the individual family home but the home fires of the nation.”

“A virtual fire can still captivate our attention so that we can colloquially zone out and just, you know, chill out.”

The mythology of the homey fireplace persists today, hence the popularity of the Netflix fireplace and the plethora of fireplace videos available on YouTube. Meghan Kehoe, a digital strategist based in Detroit, considered buying a fake gas fireplace for her apartment, but since she didn’t have a good place to put one, she settled on the virtual fireplace, instead. “For me, it’s just a nice way to feel a slice of home during an otherwise dreary season. The crackling is such nice white noise, and it’s a small, easy joy on gray days,” she says. “I used to start my mornings with it, coffee and fireplace, and then wind down with it at night while reading. But now it’s just on in the background all the time.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve intermittently enjoyed the Netflix fireplace, particularly during the holidays. Now, I, like Kehoe, keep it on for hours at a time, even if I’m not planning to be in the living room for a while. While cooking in the adjacent kitchen, or eating in the dining room, it’s still comforting to hear the distant snap and hiss of the virtual logs; while passing through, I’ll often pause to lean on the arm of my sofa, allowing my mind to release as I briefly gaze into the flames.

Although the Netflix fireplace was my intro to the genre, it is not necessarily the best. It stops after an hour, and the trailer for some other Netflix show that usually follows it ruins the vibe. As a result, I now rely on YouTube, where there are countless fireplace videos, some three hours or more, that I can leave on throughout the day. This one is filmed slightly crooked, which is odd, but it’s pretty and 12 hours long, so I’m not complaining. This video of Nick Offerman with a glass of whiskey sitting in front of a busily burning fireplace may be comforting or strange, depending on your preferences. The late Lil Bub has several Yule Log videos, though you need to like loudly purring cats. I’m partial to this lovely scene, of a cartoon home with a woodstove and wide windows that look out onto a rainstorm, and this one, in which a cat is (quietly) curled on a bed before a woodstove while it rains lightly outside.

Maybe someday I’ll get the real deal, though fireplaces are inefficient, environmentally unfriendly, and bad for your health, so I’m not in a rush. In the meantime, my virtual fireplace is a competent replacement, and since my TV sits near my radiator, I can almost fool myself into thinking it’s emitting heat. But that doesn’t really matter; it’s the sound and the beautiful glow that I love best. As winter bears down on us and we retreat behind closed doors until spring, we should bring out every genuine source of comfort — fluffy slippers, holiday decorations, a pile of cookies, and a crackling fireplace on the TV — and hold on as hard as we can.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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