An unmistakable power dynamic fuels the age-old act of tickling, or controlling the involuntary behavior of another person’s body until they’re red in the face from laughing against their own will and begging for the gleeful torture to end.
We’re reminded often of that perverse tickler’s pleasure in Tickled, the fantastically bizarre docu-mystery that begins as an innocent-enough query into the world of competitive tickling by journalist David Farrier. But as it swiftly nipple-twists its way into more sinister terrain, wholly unexpected revelations forge a far darker path and Tickled, co-directed by Farrier and Dylan Reeve, transforms into one of the strangest and most utterly engrossing documentaries of the year.
It could have been any run-of-the-mill fetish that caught the eye of Farrier, an Auckland-based journalist and on-air personality who’s interviewed every curious subject that’s crossed his desk, from donkey trainers to Justin Bieber. But it was a Facebook ad casting strapping young athletes to compete in “Competitive Endurance Tickling,” on camera and for sizable cash fees, that he discovered—along with a host of accompanying tickling videos.
What was this odd, obscure sport in which handsome and fit young men in athletic gear were bound hand and feet and then straddled by one, two, four, or more other handsome and fit young men who proceeded to tickle them as a camera filmed the giggles? Who was behind the Jane O’Brien Media Company that hosted these competitions, recruited “players” from all over the country, and offered them $1,500 and trips to Los Angeles in return for videos they promised would never go public.
Farrier, a handsome brunette Kiwi in hipster spectacles, left a comment on the open Facebook post thinking he might interview one or two of the young “athletes” for his beat covering “the weird and bizarre side of life.” What he received instead was a series of aggressive and threatening messages from a woman claiming to work for the Jane O’Brien Company—as well as similar venom from Jane O’Brien herself—hurling homophobic insults at him (Farrier is out and proud) and claiming that Competitive Endurance Tickling, or CET, is strictly “a heterosexual athletic endurance activity.”
That’s really just the prologue to Tickled, a film that began in earnest when Farrier and his quieter collaborator Reeve probed deeper into CET and the Jane O’Brien Company. They discovered several linked tickling videos and websites, suggesting a much greater online tickling video network at hand—and started receiving a barrage of daily threats from the company behind them. When Jane O’Brien sent a team of bulldog legal reps to New Zealand to intimidate the filmmakers from diving any deeper, the pair dug in their heels and started filming before they had any inkling of what insane discoveries lay ahead.
Much of the fun of watching Tickled comes from joining Farrier on his personal quest to get to the bottom of the tickle video conspiracy and find out just who, exactly, is pulling the strings. He’s got a droll sense of humor and a keen awareness of the ridiculousness of his situation as he’s attacked and harassed by a shadowy group of unverifiable internet tickle video kingpins, and litigious ones at that. Like Louis Theroux turning the tables on Scientologists earlier this year in My Scientology Movie, Farrier manages to keep his calm even as he finds himself thrust into the story, playing sleuthing journalist while his own elusive subjects put him on the defensive and threaten legal action as the cameras roll.
By the time Kiwis Farrier and Reeve travel to Los Angeles to confront Jane O’Brien on her home turf, they’ve committed to the chase. But the overwhelming majority of mostly young men who’ve starred in these tickling videos are too spooked to talk. Only one former Jane O’Brien model, a football player named TJ, shares the first of several alarming stories about the mysterious company with an endless cash flow, who enticed him into getting tickled on camera with the promise of $2,000.
“I don’t know what it’s for but hopefully it never gets out,” TJ remembers thinking before he was filmed, clothed but in restraints, being tickle-banged by four other men. He wasn’t proud of it, but he didn’t mind it either—until a year later, when he says he discovered a video of himself had been posted online.
When he had YouTube remove the video, he says, Jane O’Brien flipped out. She retaliated viciously, posting all of his videos online and mounting a cyberbullying campaign to shame and smear him to friends, family, and potential employers.
Farrier’s investigation of the elusive Jane O’Brien leads him to another notorious name in the online tickle game: Terri DeSisto. A young blonde coed notorious for posting a wealth of amateur tickle videos two decades earlier—videos of young men being tickled, mostly by other men—Terri Tickle, as she was known, also had a penchant for hiring strapping young talent with the lure of a huge payday and zero exposure.
True crime hounds with sharp memories might remember that name. In the late ‘90s, “Terri Tickle” was discovered to be the online alter ego of New York high school assistant principal David P. D’Amato. Posing under his female nom de net, D’Amato created a massive empire of tickling videos—that is, until he was convicted in 2001 of committing cyber crimes by mass-spamming and attacking Drexel University’s computer systems as retaliation against a 17-year-old boy who’d ended their tickle video business relationship.
But even damning evidence of extreme emotional harassment inflicted on his employees didn’t land D’Amato a sentence commensurate to the trauma of the cyber-intimidation tactics Tickled lays out: He was fined $5,000 and sentenced to six months in a halfway house. His light sentencing drew criticism from the frustrated journalists who covered the story at the time, like Deborah Scoblionkov. “He got off so easy for somebody who had done so much damage,” she laments.
Farrier and Reeve piece together the puzzle: They come to believe D’Amato is Terri Tickle and Jane O’Brien, meaning even his soft jail time did nothing to stop him from resuming all of his tricks, according to Tickled. The filmmakers get eye-opening evidence from Terri’s onetime “casting” agent, Dave Starr (who D’Amato sued), who’s kept some of the nastiest evidence of Terri’s abusive harassment.
But more alarming updates come from Jordan Schillaci, a Muskegon, Michigan, man who tells Farrier he’s been recruiting new tickle talent for Jane O’Brien… from the region’s Mixed Martial Arts community. There are tickle “cells” all over the United States and the world, he says, sharing his own concerns over his employer’s erratic behavior and threats.
“This tickling empire is way bigger than we’d ever imagined,” Farrier intones in a gravely serious voice-over, long after he and Reeve have both stopped laughing. As they play intrepid private eye/journalists, they snag key last-minute interviews that must have sent D’Amato over the top when Tickled premiered in January at Sundance. Those final encounters complete the suggestion that there are much deeper psychological needs at play driving these campaigns of intense online harassment over something as LOL-worthy as a tickle video.
It took a few more months, while screening the film at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, in March, for Farrier to get served with a defamation suit over the film.