It’s a weird move to make your go-to party movie a documentary about identity theft and young boys being sucked into the world of competitive tickling, but that’s a cosmic shift that has completely rebuilt the very foundation of our home. If you haven’t taken the time to fire up Tickled, get an HBO Go login (or rent it on Amazon) and take care of that right now. It’s an otherworldly trip that shifts the focus of a true crime investigation to a new subject, and almost completely different movie, every ten to fifteen minutes. I’m genuine in that suggestion: there’s almost nothing I can recommend as highly as this film, and the less you know about it, the better.
David Farrier is your guide through Tickled, because he’s the investigative journalist from New Zealand who found himself inserted into the story, and later, attempting to resolve the mystery before he could be obliterated by a lawsuit. The film thrives because of his charm and unending curiosity, and so it makes sense that his next project would transpose this same dynamic into a format that would allow Farrier to have more genuine fun. Which is easy to do when, you know, the subject you’re documenting isn’t threatening your life.
That brings us to Dark Tourist: Farrier’s new Netflix series where each episode he actively seeks out a new way for his life to be threatened. Ah. Okay. I see how that’s very similar. Classic Farrier. That’s good by me.
The show came out on Netflix today, and yesterday I got to chat with Farrier, which was a big deal. The way Farrier looks to comedic documentarian Louis Theroux is how I look to Farrier, and I made it super weird by opening the interview by letting him know that. After he brushed off my gushing we got down to a discussion of what Dark Tourist is all about.
Dark Tourism is the rising international trend of seeking out places and experiences that put the adventurer in or around danger. For Farrier, that takes the form of visiting irradiated sites, taking part in tribal rituals, befriending assassins, and touching a dead body. If it sounds like some of that is exploitative White People Nonsense, that’s because it is, and Farrier is aware. Because the show doesn’t just capture the experiences of this self-endangerment, it captures the nonsense of the type of person who is a dark tourist, and how that draw makes people act terribly.
“No matter where we were in the world, even in places where you do not see anyone having access to the sort of technology or services the rest of us are used to, there was always like six people streaming the event on Facebook Live,” Farrier says. “It’s not always easy to tell who the dark tourists are. And when you’re dealing with the morally bankrupt world of people who want to pay to be in a warzone, not to help people but just to experience being shot at, well there are places where we had to decide whether or not viewers would even want to spend time with these characters. There’s a mix of showing you something you probably don’t know about and having worthwhile people to meet, but also not getting ourselves killed in the process.”
Not that everyone here has the worst of intentions. Farrier says it’s difficult to spot a dark tourist from a distance, and it does sound a bit like he’s talking about the ability to spot a serial killer, like Dexter’s dark passenger. But while there’s a diverse group of motivations for dark tourism, Farrier says their commonality was an open-mindedness:
“They were often open minded in that they brought no set of beliefs or preconceived notions,” he tells me. “They’re driven by curiosity and they aren’t sure how they feel about this place. Some of these people spend a lot of time thinking about death and they wanted to explore their own feelings about this. They want to explore and talk about these things and there is something that—I’m terrified of death. But to get this close to it made me reevaluate everything I think about it.”
So, what is it like to touch a dead body? Farrier explains that the village they visit during this episode actually digs up their ancestors as part of a ritual and updates their clothing, gives them money and cigarettes, and that touching is encouraged. “I’d been taught culturally that you don’t touch a dead body,” Farrier says, “but these people were letting me know that I was helping and they wanted me to take part in it. I had a lot of internal conflict about it, obviously, but I listened to the community on this and what they were telling me to do.”
I’d been waiting to discuss this segment with Farrier because YouTuber Logan Paul was crucified earlier this year for filming himself with a dead body he found in the Japanese suicide forest, Aokigahara. So what makes Farrier’s documentation different, other than, you know, the entire vibe of what you’re seeing?
“People want to document the places they are and the adventures they’ve had, and I get that. But also I see Justin Bieber take selfies in poorly thought out situations or Logan Paul barging into an area with absolutely no cultural sensitivity,” Farrier says. “Social media plays into this stuff and there’s no clear lines, but you should be able to get a feeling of what’s appropriate when you see it. We were in an area of Japan that had been devastated by the tsunami and people were taking smiling selfies there. That felt insensitive to me, but then I’m 35 years old and they’re younger and we all have different beliefs.”
That said, it feels like Farrier comes off younger in this production, because unlike Tickled, he isn’t having to call a lawyer every single day of production, and he has the space to get a little more technical with production. The stories also get the space to expand in a way that the team figured out with Tickled in its little known expansion. Buried in the HBO Go special features is a half-hour follow-up to the events of the documentary called The Tickled King which expands on the ever-evolving story. (Incidentally, the film is available for free on YouTube in some parts of the world, so Farrier invites you to Tweet at him if you’re having trouble finding it in your region.) But that expansion also opened the door to ask, when is a documentary finished? Especially with the recent death of the film’s main antagonist, there’s some question of whether Farrier will be a dark tourist back into his own story.
“We hear from people,” he says. “We just got hundreds of letters from someone Terri [DiSisto, a major subject in Tickled] was corresponding with. People watched the film and realized their teacher was doing this stuff, so we’re… We get to provide closure to a lot of people who wanted to just know what the fuck was happening with them. Our goal was to meet the person behind this. We met the person behind it and, honestly, it was underwhelming. When we knew that we had a movie was when had that phone conversation at the end, which is one of the least filmic things imaginable, right after the slowest car chase in film history. But we were talking to someone who actually knew him and we learned why he was how he was, and that’s when we knew we had an ending.”
“We stopped covering this after [Tickled subject] David [D’Amato]’s death. It was about moving on to something else, because we spent so many years in this world of competitive tickling. And also this man had died, and had a heart attack, and maybe that means it’s time to put a hold on it. But one of David D’Amato’s insiders, a man named Louis, is keeping the organization running now. The Tickled empire is still running. We’re keeping an eye on that character. If the story requires that we do more, we’ll do more.”
Dark Tourist is available on Netflix now, worldwide.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.