Human Suspension & the Soul's Quest for Peace

As a writer with an eye on culture, I thought I was not easily disturbed. Then I saw something about human suspension. "Suspension" is one of those extreme hobby-pastimes, but you wouldn't call it a "sport." Suspension is when a person allows himself to be pierced with large hooks and then lifted off the ground from a rigging of ropes and pulleys attached to the hooks. Kate Shelton, a London-based filmmaker who does not suspend but loves all things weird and macabre, explored the phenomenon in On Tender Hooks. I watched the trailer in stunned disbelief. Then, after steeling my nerves, I watched the full-length film.

Suspension Explained

Every suspension is an elaborate undertaking, both for the person suspending and the practitioners facilitating it. Rigging masters must have a good working knowledge of physics so that the anchors, ropes, and pulleys are accurately placed to put the body in position and hold it there. The three most common poses are the "suicide," so called because the person appears to have hanged himself from hooks in the upper back; the "Superman," which looks like Superman in flight—face down, hooks running the length of the back and legs; and the "coma"—face up, with hooks running down the front. Suspensions can get more complicated, with multiple people hanging from something like a chandelier; or a layered tandem, where one person is suspended from another suspended person.

Setup can take an hour or more. The person suspending lies on a table while piercers mark the flesh, pinch it into folds roughly one-half-inch thick, and then stab large sterile hooks straight through. There's a knack to it—hook too deep and you may nick a nerve; too shallow, and the skin may rip on lifting. Some piercers wear facemasks because the wounds can spurt. Meanwhile, rigging is set up, plastic is usually spread on the floor to catch blood, and ropes are secured, usually by double figure-eight knots, which have the lowest failure rate.

Then comes the lifting, which is usually done slowly and gradually by a team of three to five or more individuals, depending on the particulars of the suspension. At least one person will keep a close eye on the suspending person's face, as the pain is most intense during this stage. Occasionally someone passes out. If the person wants back down, the facilitators may gently coax him to press through the pain—It will pass. I'm sure it will pass. If he can press through this stage, the endorphin rush will override the pain.

Onlookers usually cheer and applaud when the suspender is successfully lifted. "When you pass that, there's bliss," said one woman. "And that's what appeals to people. I want to reach that point because it looks so pleasant. They're looking completely comfortable and happy." The suspender may hang, or even swing, for an hour or more.

Each suspension is a community affair. At conventions, the camaraderie runs late into the night as people tell stories of the day's suspensions and their effects on one another.

Suspension in History

Suspension actually goes back thousands of years. According to Wyatt Marshall, author of "The Therapeutic Experience of Being Suspended by Your Skin," a lengthy 2012 article in The Atlantic, the most ancient suspensions likely occurred in India, where suspension was a sort of religious penance, both an act of appeasement and an expression of devotion to the war god Murugan. "The level of pain the worshipper feels correlates with the level of devotion—the more pain, the more sincere the worship."

Closer to home, Native American Mandans suspended young warriors as a trial of endurance. Cries of agony were considered cowardly, but if the warrior fainted and then resuscitated, it was taken as a sign of the spirits' approval. Marshall traces the modern revival of suspension in America to Fakir Musafar, who was born on a South Dakota reservation in 1930. Musafar coined the term "modern primitives" to describe the subculture of body modification and other "ecstatic body rites" now being imported into Western culture.

Making Sense of Suspension

The question crying out for an answer is, Why would anybody want to do this? Suspension enthusiasts themselves give some answers. As we've seen, for many it's a test of endurance, or something to do just because of the radicalness of it. Some suspend simply for the spectacle aspect of it. One performance suspender said he likes to see the reactions it provokes in spectators, comparing himself to an artist watching people view his work.

But for a lot of people, there's more to it. Many speak of suspension as a spiritual experience. What could be going on with that? There are two dynamics I think may be in play:

(1) Physical pain as a distraction from emotional distress. One man who hosts gatherings says many people come to suspend because they need some emotional cleansing. "They do really intense suspensions. . . . For them it's like a personal ritual. It's a way how they deal with the pain they have, and it really helps them to get over it." Cere Coichetti, a facilitator in New York, reflected on his first suspension:

Once I got into the air, once they lifted me up, it was the most peaceful, serene, blissful experience I've ever had. . . . Throughout life, you tend to take on negative energy—by energy I could mean stress. . . . And this was just the ultimate stress release. Everything bad that had built up, it was just resetting it back to zero. . . . The second I came down, I knew I wanted to go back up.

One piercer has the message, "Pain Solves Everything" tattooed in large script across her chest. The endorphin rush probably plays a big part in this release and reset effect, but maybe not all of it. Which leads me to the other speculation.

(2) Self-inflicted pain as a form of self-punishment. Recall that the ancient suspension rites often sought some spirit's appeasement or approval. One man searched for words to explain his experience. Finally he settled on, "It made me clean." Could a suspension be a misguided attempt to do penance and free the soul from guilt? I don't think that's too far-fetched a question to ask.

A Better Peace

Dealing with guilt is a central theme of Christianity, too, but according to the Christian faith, it's a settled matter, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ being the all-sufficient atoning sacrifice that reconciles believing sinners to God. The Cross, too, involved piercings, blood, and a kind of "suspension" in mid-air, but unlike these suspensions, it was a once-for-all, substitutionary sacrifice.

Christian theology offers a better way to deal with emotional distress, too, in that the Cross is held to have opened up access to God. Rather than look for release by engineering an endorphin rush, anyone today can have 24/7 access to God through prayer.

The suspension community is to be commended for inflicting pain on themselves, rather than others, in their emotional distress. I would counsel them to look to a different Suspension, and to the suspended Man who offers a more thorough, comprehensive cleansing. Christianity tells us that his was the pain that actually does solve everything.

is a freelance writer and blogger on apologetics and matters of faith.
This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #34, fall 2015 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |