Being tickled is not funny. I write as a person who hasn’t lifted their arms above 45 degrees in 30 years for fear of a rogue hand sneaking into my sleeve and wiggling.
A new documentary, one of the standout films at this year’s Sundance festival, confirms the dark side of tickling. New Zealand journalist David Farrier, a man who has made a career out of “looking at the weird and bizarre side of life”, noticed ads popping up in his timeline, asking: “Are you ticklish?” He followed them to a series of videos showing scenes of “competitive endurance tickling”. Young men in Adidas are restrained at the wrists and ankles, and tickled until they can’t take it any more.
When Farrier contacted Jane O’Brien Media, the company behind the videos, who advertise for young athletes to compete (if successful, they’re flown to LA and paid $1,500), he received a Facebook message. “To be brutally frank,” it wrote, “association with a homosexual journalist is not something that will [sic] embrace.” They threatened him with legal consequences should he pursue his investigation. Tickling was, they said, a “passionately and exclusively heterosexual athletic endurance activity”. So Farrier bought a plane ticket.
He followed the videos, in his attempts to find out more about Jane O’Brien Media. Their website opens with a recruitment video of the type you’d find when browsing LinkedIn for jobs in world domination and web design. Farrier went deep into the world of tickling. Side note: there is a world of tickling.
He met men who reported being doxxed – threatened with online exposure – after saying they no longer wanted to participate in competitive tickling (some having been told the tickling videos were for the military to test tickling as a torture device). They alleged that Jane O’Brien Media created websites containing their name and address, alongside videos of them tied up and breathless. Jane O’Brien Media denies this. In the film all roads lead to a single wealthy man, shielded by cash and threats of litigation – an ex-teacher called David D’Amato, a man who served time in 2001 after committing cyber crimes as retaliation against a teenager who’d ended their tickle video business relationship. D’Amato went by the name Terri Tickle.
Our most ticklish areas are also our weakest – neck, stomach – where we’re soft and honest. I looked it up. In 2013, scientists in Germany investigated tickling, looking at MRIs of a brain when a person laughs at something they find funny, and then when they’re tickled. They found that tickling activates the part of our brain that anticipates pain. When you tickle someone, you’re stimulating the same nerves that make you want to run away from danger. Which is why you can’t tickle yourself – your body knows there’s nothing at stake.
The film is one of those that ruins nice things for you. The lights go down on an audience that enjoys the intimacy of a sly tickle, that sees the laughter as pure and joyful. They leave with their balloons popped.
I am a guilty tickler. I tickle our toddler with the love that comes from the very unlikeliness of having created a whole other human, one with their own voice and armpits. But like much of my new life, full of potential allergies and heatwaves, it often releases little bubbles of concern. Am I forcing her to laugh, is the pleasure only mine? It’s no surprise that tickling has a sinister side – since we were children we’ve known the torture of being caught. But this film plays it out to a painful conclusion, meaning all innocence is lost. In the film – which the company says contains numerous inaccuracies – tickling is revealed as a means of control and sadism, despite the participants’ consent. The audience returns home, spoiled for ever. I haven’t tickled my child since.
Watching this film, with its scenes of the restrained boy being videoed, its lawsuits and its use of societal homophobia as a weapon against participants, is a disquieting and frustrating experience. The worst thing though, is that watching people cracking up, even against this background of darkness and bullying, really makes you laugh. You can’t help it. Like being tickled, perhaps, the danger bit of your brain clicks in and you hold your hand over your mouth and try to keep control. It’s agony.