June 8, 2016 9:00 AM EDT

Competitive endurance tickling sounds like a quirky amateur sport dreamed up by either a six-year-old or some college kids with temporarily impaired judgment. It’s neither. But the less you know about it, the more you’ll get out of Tickled, a documentary opening June 17 that explores the underworld behind an online video empire. The tale begins innocently enough, with New Zealand culture journalist David Farrier thinking he might wind up with a fun story if he can witness the tickling action for himself. But it gets dark—and frankly, frightening—before you can cry uncle.

In this exclusive clip, Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve stake out a competitive tickling video shoot, attempting to get closer to a group of subjects from whom they’ve been frustratingly kept at a distance. They eyeball their targets and watch from the wings as the ticklers enter the building. Laughter pours from the vents, they come out for a smoke, then return for some more. Finally, the filmmakers prepare to meet their subjects face-to-face, or as the case may be, camera-to-face.

The tangled web of threats and exploitation plays more like a conspiracy thriller than a documentary, as the filmmakers get drawn into the world on the other side of the lens. Not all tickling, as Tickled hammers home, is as innocent as it seems.

Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com.

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