He tried bungee jumping, scuba diving and riding the biggest, fastest roller coasters in the country. Thrill-seeker Adam Phillips was looking for his next adrenaline fix. After sky diving, “I was kind of at wits’ end as far as what I could do,” he said.
Then he recalled an old episode of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” on suspension — the practice of hanging in the air from hooks that have been pierced through the skin. He wanted to try it.
Like tattoos and piercing, suspension is rooted in religious rituals or cultural traditions that have slowly moved into the secular world. While it’s by no means as common in the United States as the tattoo parlor, suspension is practiced by a small, passionate group who trade momentary pain for a euphoric rush of endorphins that comes from stretching the body to its limits.
Some do it for spiritual reasons, tapping into the practice’s history among Plains Indians or Hindus. Some to cast off anxiety, stress, even chronic back pain. Some go for the feeling of bliss produced by the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which is triggered by the physical trauma to the body. And some do it simply for the thrill of accomplishing something that appears too painful, too impossible.
Although suspension makes the news every now and then, as it did here recently when a deadly domestic violence case involved two suspension hobbyists, it remains a relatively underground practice popular among people who are comfortable with body modification — and the stigma that comes with it.
Most states have suspension clubs; in Minnesota, fans number in the low hundreds. Participants come together in small groups at invite-only events in piercing parlors, barns, even over the Mississippi River.
Phillips had to ask around to find Verno (full name Vernon Musselman), a piercing artist in St. Paul who hosts suspension events. Phillips signed up for the first event he could. In a Minneapolis record store warehouse, he watched about 15 people go up before it was his turn.
Two piercers stuck thick-gauge hooks into the skin about 4 inches below the tops of Phillips’ shoulders — three on each side, pierced two at a time. The pricks weren’t too painful, he recalled, like getting blood drawn. But the hooks were much thicker than a doctor’s needle; in fact, they were about three times the girth of standard earrings.
Verno then connected the hooks to cords, then using a metal rack-and-pulley system over the roof supports, slowly lifted Phillips. An inch at a time, Phillips’ feet rose, till he was just on his tippie toes, and finally, off the ground.
“My friends told me I went a little white,” he said. “It’s not a feeling that’s normal. Your skin is pulling away.”
But once in the air, “a calming wave” came over him, said Phillips, a retail manager. “I felt amazing.”
Risks and rewards
Throughout history, spiritual practitioners of suspension reported reaching altered states of consciousness, said University of Minnesota anthropologist William Beeman, who studies ritual and performance. “And in human society, we tend to seek out” such states, through drugs, meditation, even running or listening to music, which can bring on a rush of endorphins, or feel-good natural chemicals akin to morphine. Those endorphins provide a “direct contrast to the kind of plodding everyday experiences we might have,” he said. “We are strange little creatures that like to do these things.”
Arielle Overby doesn’t know what first compelled her to hang upside down from hooks through her knees six years ago. But she quickly found a reason to string up from her knees again and again, letting her hair hang down and the blood rush to her head.
“You feel kind of weightless, and I always just feel so happy,” she said. “Just elated. It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
Though the practice is relatively safe — and licensed by the state — there are risks. Infection is one of them, just as it is with any piercing. Tearing, scarring and risk of damage to underlying muscles are others. It’s safe to say the practice is not for everyone.
“The skin is your protective barrier,” said dermatologist and U Prof. Dr. Ronda Farah. Though skin is “very resilient, and can stretch and recoil just like a rubber band,” Farah said, “it is your shield from infection every day.”
For some first-timers, butterflies can lead to nausea or fainting. And for seasoned practitioners, suspension can get harder with age.
“I’m 40 now, so it hurts a little more the next day,” said Shane Post, a piercer who suspends people in his St. Cloud shop, Wingnut. “It feels like if you’ve gone to the gym after you haven’t worked out in a while, the next day you’re achy and lethargic.”
Verno calls himself a suspension “Sherpa.” He studied microbiology in college, and talks enthusiastically about the science of suspension — finding the balance of piercings that can enable one’s skin to hold his or her body weight. He has been helping people off the ground for almost 15 years, since he first tried it at a suspension event in northern Minnesota.
He’d gone to the event as a piercer, but soon he was hanging from a tree horizontally, with 12 hooks sticking into his back, thighs and calves, so that he looked like he was flying like Superman. He stayed up there for three hours.
“I was instantly hooked,” he said, in earnest.
Verno started doing live public demonstrations at tattoo conventions, hoisting himself and others up every few weeks. He also hosted art shows — performances of “silly people tricks” that show what the body is capable of. A couple of years ago, he rigged up a tree that stretched out over the Mississippi River in St. Paul and suspended people above the water. He dreams of some day renting a Ferris wheel, removing the buckets, and suspending people all around it.
In 2005, Verno opened the Holy Mackerel, a piercing and tattoo studio in St. Paul’s West 7th neighborhood where he occasionally invites small groups of people to suspend in the parlor’s lobby after-hours. One session in the air could last 45 minutes to an hour. The fee of around $125 includes the laborious sterilization process and post-suspension bandaging by on-site staff certified in first aid.
A mystery to others
Suspension fans know that the details can make people squeamish, as talk of needles, blood and pain often do.
“When I say I participate in suspension, everyone’s response is, ‘Omigod, the meat hooks?’ ” said Overby, a lab scientist. “Sometimes they are totally bewildered by it, and will say, ‘My opinion of you has changed.’ ”
In the 15 years since Shane Post first suspended, he has watched the visibility of the practice grow. A big contributor is the rock band Jane’s Addiction, which brings suspension artists on tour.
“It’s become more open-minded over the years, more publicized,” Post said. Still, “it’s something a lot of people will never understand.”
But neither physical ramifications nor outsiders’ disapproval stops devotees from using their skin to fly. To them, it is more than an extreme hobby on the fringe; it’s a blend of art, biology, physics and psychology.
“Mentally, you feel like you’re walking on Cloud 9 for a long time, because your physical self is constantly telling you you shouldn’t do this,” Verno said. “And then the physics come into play: how much do I weigh, how many hooks are we using, how do we balance it? So then the logical side of your brain takes over, and it’s like, ‘That’s easy.’ But there is always that fear.
“It’s kind of like going to the end of the diving board for the first time,” he said, “and looking off the edge.”