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HBO's documentary Tickled takes you into a world of sexual fetishes, catfishing, and internet secrets unearthed

The truth about "competitive tickling" is so much wilder — and darker — than it sounds.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In 2014, New Zealand journalist David Farrier stumbled across a phenomenon called "competitive endurance tickling" and fell headlong into one of the weirdest stories on the internet.

When Farrier’s friend Dylan Reeve alerted him to an advertisement seeking male models willing to be held down and tickled, the two unearthed an ancient internet scandal involving a notorious internet troll. The result, their documentary Tickled, is an intriguing story of internet aliases, money, and power. And after giving the film a short theatrical release last year, HBO will air it on TV and begin streaming it via HBO Now on February 27.

The film will now include a new follow-up short,The Tickle King, which discusses the strange events that have dogged Tickled since its debut at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, when one of the film’s subjects crashed the premiere and police were reportedly summoned. Later, at the film’s Los Angeles premiere, two individuals who make major appearances in the film crashed the event (note the link contains major film spoilers) and confronted the documentarians during the Q&A. This kind of controversy has followed the film throughout its development: The filmmakers say they completed the project amid constant legal threats, and someone has even launched a website claiming to expose the film’s lies.

Since Tickled is finally coming to a wider viewership, audiences can now get a taste of the mystery themselves. But it’s really an internet story, and many of its most fascinating secrets still hide online — for anyone brave enough to do what Farrier and Reeve did and go digging. For the rest of you, I won’t give away all of Tickled’s secrets, but suffice it to say that all of the drama happening around the movie is nothing compared to the drama inside it.

Minor spoilers for Tickled lie ahead!

1) Why should I see — or even care about — a movie about tickling?

Tickled is a documentary, and like all the best documentaries, it’s about a lot more than it appears to be.

The hero of Tickled is Farrier, who uncovers a "tickling ring" of sorts; it conceals a massive secret and a web of lies spanning nearly two decades. The story of what Farrier and Reeve find at the bottom of the rabbit hole they fall into while investigating comprises Tickled’s central drama.

In a nutshell, Tickled tells three stories simultaneously. The first and most basic one is about people who like tickling and being tickled.

The second, deeper story is about catfishing — the kind of systematic, continual deception you sometimes encounter when manipulative individuals obscure their identities online. The catfisher at the center of Tickled may be shrouded in mystery, at least until the film really gets going, but they aren’t the stereotypical lonely human on the internet. Whoever’s responsible orchestrates an elaborate plot involving lawyers, a battery of legal threats and actual lawsuits, a cadre of real minions who willingly helped carry out the ruse, and a host of nubile young men who get paid to be tickled.

And that leads to Tickled’s third and most compelling story, which is a story about power. Tickled is what happens when you put power, wealth, and privilege into the hands of an internet troll with a single-minded goal: to crush his enemies and film people being tickled.

Tickled is a procedural; the process of how Farrier and Reeve uncover their story takes up most of the documentary’s narrative. Unlike Catfish, the 2010 documentary about a similar act of subterfuge that led to the term "catfishing" entering our internet lexicon, Tickled never feels grossly manipulative or condescending on the part of its filmmakers. That’s because for the most part, Farrier and Reeve spend much of the movie’s running time feeling just as confused as their audience will be about what lies at the end of the trail.

Tickled occasionally gets into the nitty-gritty details of confirming the catfisher’s ultimate identity — by investigating website domains, stock photos, and more — in a way that might bore some viewers. But the clues Farrier and Reeve unearth along the way are generally so weird and unique that many people will find it riveting.

2) What on earth is competitive tickling?

Vimeo via Web Archive

"Competitive endurance tickling," or CET, is an event — I hesitate to call it a sport — in which young, strong, male participants compete to see who can stand to be tickled the longest.

Farrier was first introduced to CET in May 2014, when he stumbled upon a tickling casting notice that had been circulating on modeling and acting websites for about two years. "My Current Project is not for everybody," the notice began. "This is a shout out ONLY to TICKLISH MALE ATHLETIC AND FITNESS MODELS (aged 18-25) IN THE USA (all 50 states), CANADA, UK, AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND AND JAPAN."

It went on to promise an all-expenses-paid weekend in LA wherein lucky young men who met certain criteria could earn a tidy $1,500 to participate in a video project for which they would be restrained and tickled on camera. The ideal subject would hopefully hate to be tickled.

The company behind the ad was Jane O’Brien Media, a production studio apparently spearheaded by a perky blonde named — you guessed it — Jane O’Brien. Jane O’Brien Media boasts a professional website that currently describes its competitive tickling enterprise as a "reality TV/video project." The company also maintains a Facebook page with more than 31,000 likes, and a YouTube channel with 6,000-plus subscribers. In many videos, would-be competitive tickling champs discuss the, er, sport.

"This is a very competitive company," a tickling participant identified as Jordan Schillachi says in one video, while describing his past experience with being tickled. "There’s probably 600 guys every 30 minutes sending pictures to want to get in." After a few minutes of small talk, Jordan and another tickler lay out a competitor identified as Cole Smith beneath them on a hotel mattress, straddle him, and get to work.

After more than 15 minutes of tickling, Cole appears onscreen by himself, looking red-faced and wrecked. Filming the video has served as his "audition," but for what — more videos? An actual tickling tournament? We’re never quite sure, but Cole earnestly spends another five minutes talking about what a workout tickling is and how much "core strength" is involved in being tickled for that long.

"Jordan said he’d make me a 10 [out of 10 for endurance]," Cole says. "He definitely made me a 10."

Even though none of the many, many tickling videos on Jane O’Brien Media’s YouTube account actually show a "competition" happening, one thing is clear: There’s no shortage of hot boys from around the world who are willing to be tickled if the money is right.

3) Are you sure "competitive endurance tickling" isn’t just a creative name for a sexual fetish?

If you have your doubts that CET is simply about tickling, you’re not alone. Farrier quickly suspected that the tickling contest might really be about producing homoerotic fetish videos that Jane O’Brien Media could sell for profit.

But the company was quick to insist that nothing even remotely sexual was afoot. The advertisement Farrier found stressed that no nudity was involved and added, "This is not a fetish, or adult-oriented content endeavor." Even in the audition video above, Jordan cautions Cole not to talk about tickling in an erotic or explicit context.

At first, when Farrier contacted Jane O’Brien Media for information, an alleged employee calling herself Debbie Kuhn responded cheerfully by email. But the company wasn’t happy that a gay journalist was asking questions about its work.

Facebook via 3News/Web Archive

The initially chipper Kuhn began sending harassing, homophobic emails to Farrier, who found it bizarre that an all-male tickling event was run by a company that explicitly told him it "desperately [did] not want a homosexual participant base applying for this project."

Meanwhile, Kuhn maintained a Vimeo account that housed more than 400 all-male tickling videos. Some videos contained shirtless tickling; others filmed subjects in "the face-down position," as they were described in their summaries on the site; and one consisted of nothing but close-ups of male arm hair — a "stunning collection of the arm hair and arm veins."

Vimeo via Web Archive

Even if it wasn’t meant to be sexual, there was more going on than tickling.

4) Is tickling a legitimate fetish?

Tickling can be a precursor to sexual activity or a method of sexual arousal. The official term for tickling as a sexual fetish is knismolagnia, and numerous fetish websites list tickling as an act worth exploring.

"Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be tickled relentlessly by a beautiful mistress?" asks one tickling video on a popular fetish site. And Mistress Pip — a professional dominatrix with more than 7,000 Twitter followers — occasionally posts teasers of submissives being pleasantly tortured by feathers or other tickling devices.


In 2014, Vice reported on a tickling film shoot for a fetish subscription service. The directors had very specific expectations for writer Justin Caffier’s performance, zooming in for close-ups of his face and encouraging him to be more vocal.

Tickling enthusiasts appear to be very picky about how they like their tickling. The "About" page for Jane O’Brien Media’s tickling videos on YouTube, for example, cryptically cautions, "Individuals who comments [sic] about ‘feet’ will be banned from this channel and all linked sites."

Meanwhile, a disgruntled viewer named "Tickling Champ" responded to a rare Jane O’Brien video featuring girls, writing, "This totally proved to be FAKE job, proving that Females can NOT tickle a guy ... Try something REAL[.]"

Tickled explores the nature of tickling fetishes and the personalities of the people who wind up monetizing them: The documentary features one film producer who quit his day job after realizing he could make thousands of dollars a month by catering to people with this very specific fetish.

Kinda makes you reconsider your life choices, right?

5) Okay, but how do we get from tickling fetishes to a deep, dark internet mystery?

Because Jane O’Brien Media and Debbie Kuhn were so adamant in their warnings to Farrier not to write anything about the company or competitive tickling, Farrier quickly decided something strange was going on.

"You can’t walk away from people who are constantly telling you there’s no story," Farrier told me during a recent phone interview.

In 2014, when Farrier first wrote about competitive tickling, online commenters noted that the story reminded them of a tale about a legendary internet troll who hadn’t been heard from — with good reason — in nearly two decades. (I’d say more, but it would spoil the impact of watching Tickled.) Farrier and Reeve quickly came to suspect that the troll and Jane O’Brien Media must be the same entity.

"If you Googled ‘tickling videos’ and ‘internet,’ the story came up," Farrier said, "so we made that connection very, very quickly. The circumstantial coincidence of how they [both] operated was very obvious, but going deeper than that was harder for us. To actually prove any of it — that’s the journey of this documentary."

Farrier and Reeve had noticed that the only photos of Kuhn and O’Brien that appeared online were stock photos — more specifically, they were represented with similar images of smiling blonde women playing with small dogs. Suspecting that neither woman existed and that both names were aliases, Farrier and Reeve began investigating.

Reeve located numerous websites associated with the name Jane O’Brien that all appeared to be owned by a single source: someone calling himself Norman VanDerKoos. Like Debbie Kuhn, Norman seemed fond of harassment and had a reputation for sending threatening emails. And "Norman VanDerKoos" seemed to be yet another alias.

While Reeve and Farrier were piecing together facts, they decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to tell the whole story in documentary form — and got a bit of a boost when British comedian Stephen Fry chipped in enough money to get billed as one of Tickled’s producers. Ultimately, Reeve plunged so deep into the saga that he wound up directing Tickled. He and Farrier had one simple goal: to tell the world who Norman, Jane, and Debbie really were.

6) Who were the real tickling kingpins behind Jane O’Brien Media and its aliases?

Believe it or not, this is where Tickled’s story really begins. While Farrier and Reeve were trying to figure out who was behind Jane O’Brien Media, Debbie Kuhn’s initially homophobic warnings to Farrier quickly escalated into legal threats for him to cease investigating the company. These included a bizarre visit to Farrier from three supposed Jane O’Brien Media representatives who flew to New Zealand

from the US. Although they were not lawyers, they were intimidating figures nonetheless — and they swore their employer was a real person with no connection to the real identity of the internet troll Farrier and Reeve were investigating.

"When we had the guys come to see us from the US, they were very insistent they weren’t working for the same person," Farrier said. "So we doubted ourselves at various points."

Farrier and Reeve filmed their initial encounters with the Jane O’Brien reps upon meeting them in New Zealand. The reps' overt hostility the moment they spot the camera is the moment in Tickled when the audience first realizes the film is masking something very unfunny.

However, since Farrier and Reeve have been adamant that Tickled is a dish best served unspoiled, you’ll have to watch the documentary yourself to learn more about the internet troll and the troll’s identity. Then you can judge for yourself whether they found enough evidence to confirm that Jane O’Brien Media has any connection.

"It’s good to go in cold and just let it unfold in front of you, and then, at the end of it, you should spend a little time thinking it all through again and decide how you feel," Farrier said. "That’s what we did experiencing the whole thing, and I think that’s good for you as an audience as well."

7) So what’s with all the controversy?

Since before it opened, Tickled has been mired in legal threats and defamation lawsuits. Farrier and Reeve have been open about battling Jane O’Brien Media’s team of intimidating representatives and lawyers throughout the process of creating the film.

The documentary’s Sundance premiere last year was described as unexpectedly tense due to the appearance of "an associate" of Jane O’Brien Media who appears in the film. Farrier and Reeve confirmed to me that this associate was most likely a man who calls himself Kevin Clarke, the more hostile of two Jane O’Brien Media reps we meet at the beginning of the documentary.

Audience members reported that Clarke loudly and furiously took notes during the screening and recorded parts of the documentary. Before the audience Q&A with Farrier and Reeve, Clarke stormed out, telling audience members to "say hi" to Farrier. Farrier was unnerved but resigned; after all, his life has been full of these veiled threats ever since he discovered competitive tickling.

At another presentation of the film in Missouri, Farrier confirmed that two Jane O’Brien Media representatives were kicked out for attempting to record the film.

"We’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t want to be found and doesn’t want to be made," Farrier explains. "That’s why it took us a couple of years to make this, and to get to a point where we can actually prove the things we say."

After the film's premiere, two reviewers reported receiving emails from one of the film’s subjects alleging that the film is inaccurate. But with HBO now bringing the film to a wider audience, Jane O’Brien Media may have its work cut out for it if it wishes to circulate an alternate version of deep internet history.

Still, the company is doing its best: A new website has appeared that purports to tell the "truth" about Farrier and Reeve and their documentary. Among other assertions, it alleges that Farrier tried to pay some of Jane O’Brien Media’s tickling participants to appear in the documentary.

And Farrier’s nemesis, the mysterious person at the center of the whole documentary, appeared with Clarke to question Farrier and Reeve at Tickled’s LA premiere on June 17, 2016. Evidently delighted by this development, the studio behind Tickled, Magnolia Pictures, released spoiler-filled video footage of the intense, hour-long confrontation on Facebook. As one commenter sagely observed, "This is among the most heated arguments I've ever witnessed regarding tickling."

The man in the video is very clearly fighting to restore the damage being done to his reputation by the documentary — an irony, since the documentary ultimately alleges that he’s spent decades ruining the reputations of people like Farrier and others who’ve crossed his path. But it apparently takes a lot more than reputational hits to keep a good tickler down. Tickled may be rooted in the internet’s past — but the future of the story is still being written.

Tickled airs on HBO February 27 at 10:00 pm EST and will also be available for streaming on HBO GO and HBO NOW.

Watch: The world's greatest internet troll explains his craft

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