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The internet is a master at creating and enabling obsessions, pointing anyone with enough rigor and free time down the oddest and most surprising informational wormholes. A simple quest to learn the name of a fictional character long forgotten can lead you down a path of warring fandoms, personality cults, and factions of obsessives who were once as innocently curious as yourself.
Such is the lesson of Tickled, the festival darling documentary of last year, which debuts Monday on HBO. The gripping thriller began when filmmaker David Farrier stumbled upon the world of competitive endurance tickling—a community largely composed of grown men holding one another down and tickling them for as long as they can take it.
Having an interest in bizarre and niche (though apparently harmless) subcultures, Farrier reached out to Jane O’Brien Media, the legal entity which owns and distributes the tickling videos. Instead of being warmed by his honest interest, Jane O’Brien Media replied with a host of homophobic slurs (Farrier is openly bisexual) and legal threats, insisting competitive endurance tickling is “passionately and exclusively heterosexual athletic endurance activity.”
Soon, Farrier finds himself confronted by lawyers flown in to his native New Zealand by O’Brien Media who soon threaten his inquiry into their tickling-based company with threats of defamation suits, blackmail, and even implied violence. The film spirals away from its curious beginnings and into an investigation of a shady organization that uses extortion and obscure financial tricks to satisfy the desires of the mysterious man at its source.
Tickled is precisely as bizarre as it sounds. Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve approach the subject professionally and without irony. The specificity of Jane O’Brien Media’s videos—supposedly innocent but clearly verging on fetish—is merely a commodity used to enrich the trust-funded founder. Tickling is certainly the hook, but this investigation of obsession and corruption would be no different or less titillating if it were about drugs or stock bonds.
Because Tickled is about tickling, however, Farrier and Reeve’s investigation leads them to the community one would imagine to find at the center of any online-based subculture. Jane O’Brien is apparently rooted in a star of ‘90s tickling chatrooms, “Terri Tickle.” Terri was evidently quite the star of that digital subculture which, yes, is primarily fetish-based.
Farrier interviews a tickling-based filmmaker who openly sports the homoerotic nature of the films, even intercutting a high production sequence of a shirtless man, willingly tied to a chair, and tickled with the expertise and specificity of an experienced tickling master. Despite the underwraps nature of Jane O’Brien Media, Farrier and Reeve find the human heart that lies at the center of most obsessions.
The famed “Rule 34” of the internet reads “if it exists, there is porn of it.” One of the reasons this holds true is the internet is used by most people to find honest connections with fellow humans. Masked by anonymity, digital citizens are more likely to not merely confess their most bizarre obsessions but find others who are willing and eager to indulge them in those same obsessions. It’s an environment that encourages fetishization—a hypersexualized focus on not merely a sensation or image but an idea.
Tickled respects this and never attempts to “kink-shame” the real people who practice and consume what is inherently a safe and harmless practice among consenting adults. Instead, it seeks to discover the ways Jane O’Brien Media exploits the passion of those who consume its content and victimize many of the young men who tell Farrier tales of blackmail and extortion. Tickled is not an attempt to shame anyone—it’s instead an exploration of what happens when shame is weaponized.
Since the film’s widely positive reception at festivals last year, David D’Amato—who Farrier argues is Terri Tickle and the founder of Jane O’Brien Media— has gone past legal threats and filed actual lawsuits against Farrier, claiming much of the film is full of lies and distortion. Farrier and Reeve build a reliable case grounded in real evidence—including D’Amato’s previous arrest for manipulation of computer systems to hide his relationship with a 17-year-old.
The film’s mystery narrative brings to mind a different tale of digital unmasking—2010’s Catfish and the ensuing TV series of the same name. Catfish begins as a documentary about a burgeoning online relationship, but takes an overly heated turn when one of the romantics at the heart of the story is not the person they claimed. The documentary has been assailed for its lack of believability and the ways it apparently attempts to capitalize on the role-playing of one woman.
The bridge between Catfish and Tickled is one of empathy and understanding of the weird and inexplicable. It takes little effort to find strange people online and even less talent to then gawk or deride them for something that is both harmless and private. Though Tickled often overplays the extent of the corruption and threatening nature of its subject, it treats the subculture at its center with delicacy and respect—and the mystery that propels it with journalistic energy.
Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.