|Injecting venom is like your immune system doing the Jane Fonda workout video.|
Injecting snake venom will make your flesh melt off; it'll make you bleed through your eyeballs, your dick and your gums. You'll turn into a fucking zombie." Coming from Steve Ludwin, a 40-year-old Californian rocker who's about to inject 18ml of deadly venom collected from six snakes - including a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, whose haemoxtoxins can cause severe tissue damage, circulatory failure and death - this warning comes with a nod and a wink.
Steve, who used to be the frontman of bands Little Hell and Carrie, and recently wrote 'Ashtray Heart' for Placebo, is one of just a handful of people known to regularly inject venom from the world's most dangerous snakes, in the belief he'll become immune to it. Steve's been shooting up every week for the past 20 years, and met five others like him in America for The Man Who Injects Snake Venom, a Channel Five documentary about him that aired a year ago.
An estimated 100,000 people worldwide die from snakebites each year and another 250,000 are permanently disabled. Yet Steve believes that what can kill you can also save you; by gradually increasing the frequency and quantity of venom he puts into his body, his blood has built up antibodies that fight off the poison - and illness. "Injecting venom is like your immune system doing the Jane Fonda workout video," he says. "When a cold or any of those pussy swine flu things enter my body, my white blood cells laugh it off." Does he have superpowers like Peter Parker in Spider-Man? "Yeah, I have an amazing ability," he jokes. "I can swallow a rat whole."
IN COLD BLOOD
Reaching for a bottle of Evian from the fridge in his cosy north London home, Steve is well-groomed, healthy, and surprisingly relaxed given that in a few hours he'll be injecting a cocktail of haemotoxic snake venoms - or as he describes it, "highly evolved reptilian saliva" - designed to immobilise and kill its prey.
Sunlight pours in through the windows, illuminating luscious green foliage draped over the fireplace, and an iguana called Fiji who's camouflaged against a wooden branch in a tank in the kitchen. Eminem's Relapse album plays quietly in the background, and a framed poster for the 1971 film Carrie reads, "If you've got a taste for terror..." Steve does, and an inconspicuous white door in the hallway leads to a dimly-lit lair, which houses his 28 potential killers in heated glass tanks furnished with tropical plants and fresh wood chippings.
Steve's bursting with excitement. He's expecting two new snakes later today, including a desert horned viper - the species that Cleopatra used to kill herself. A self-confessed snake geek, Steve scours Europe for the rarest creatures and goes to a huge reptile exhibition in Germany every year. "It's like being in a room with 10,000 Star Trek fans," he quips.
But for now, Steve's working with the serpents he already has in his collection. It's injection day, and he starts extracting yellow poison from the fangs of his most dangerous slitherers. With careful precision, he brings out his demonic, slit-eyed North American Copperhead. Expertly gripping the snake's head with his fingers, Steve forces out the fangs from its stretched mouth, and places them through a piece of cling film sealed over a shot glass. Several drops of poison fall into the phial, but Steve notices that a fang has dropped in there, too. "Shit, I gotta shoot that venom up later," he says, before calmly removing it with a set of tweezers.
Later, Steve'll travel to his weekly meeting with immunologist Dirk Budka at the Immune Clinic in London to inject most of the toxic cocktail into his body - 3ml will be retained for medical testing. Within minutes, the muscles in Steve's arm will quadruple in size for around 24 hours as his white blood cells fight off the poison. "If it's a new reaction, I'll look like Popeye," he explains. But while anyone else would subsequently die a gruesome death, Steve's going to an Ash concert shortly afterwards.
Looking over his snakes, Steve quietly expresses his love for them: "I admire them for their design and cold-bloodedness. I admire their strength and success as a species, but I can't explain my obsession - I've loved snakes since I was born."
Steve first squared up to a serpent when he was six. His family had moved from Long Island to Connecticut, due to his dad's job as a Pan Am pilot, and he spotted a garter snake at the school bus stop and instinctively grabbed it. The snake turned and bit Steve on the thumb, but he couldn't let go, and walked down a dirt road, crying in pain, still clutching the snake.
Two years later, Steve's father took him to Miami Serpentarium where he met Dr Bill Haast, the first Westerner to inject snake venom in 1948, who now, aged 100, is a 'picture of health' according to local newspaper, the Miami Herald. Bill blew Steve's mind and fuelled his obsession with danger. When Steve was 17 he vowed to follow the doctor's example. "I was alone at home, listening to AC/DC, and I suddenly felt as though a lightbulb or an atom had exploded in my brain," he says. "Something told me I had to inject snake venom. It was a feeling I can't explain."
But Steve didn't get going straight away. After dropping out of university in 1987 with "no musical ability," Steve took up the guitar. Following terrible advice from a friend that London was cheap, Steve packed his bags and arrived 48 hours later. "I had this card that my father had given me and as long as I was wearing a tie, I could board any plane and fly first class anywhere in the world for free," he says. After deciding in less than two weeks that learning the bass guitar was too hard, he became a singer and auditioned for My Bloody Valentine. "I was fresh off the plane in London and I rocked up with a backwards baseball cap on. Amazingly, I got a callback," he laughs.
Still searching for access to the venom he wanted to inject, Steve took a £1.60-an-hour day job at a lab in Walthamstow, which sold reptiles to zoos and universities. He started taking snakes home at night to experiment with. "It was as natural as discovering masturbation," he says. "It felt like instinct. I started with small amounts, although I can't say I wasn't afraid. I prickedmy skin then rubbed venom on to it. I felt the corrosive burning immediately and washed it off." But even these small quantities of venom made his skin swell and turn purple, brown and green for two or three weeks. "It was like learning to drink booze," he says. "I'd have a little bit more until I fucked up and had to back off."
Around 10 years ago, Steve's reaction to venom become less dramatic, so he drastically upped the amount and frequency that he injected. But two years ago, his weird science went wrong. After milking three of his most deadly snakes - a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, a Pope's Tree Viper and an Eyelash Viper - he loaded a syringe full of the undiluted poison and tried to inject a small amount into his left arm. When the syringe plunger got stuck, Steve accidentally pushed the lot straight into his body. "It felt like a shotgun went off in my arm," he remembers.
Within 15 minutes his hand had doubled in size and "looked like a baseball mitt". Soon his lips and tongue were numb as the corrosive haemotoxins attacked his internal organs. Convinced he was immune enough to fight it, Steve refused to go to hospital and instead - suffering and unable to ignore the irony - watched David Attenborough's TV series on reptiles, Life In Cold Blood.
Snake venom contains toxins that calm down bite victims, helping them to accept their impending death, and that night Steve conceded that he'd pushed himself too far. "I felt I'd had an amazing life and was happy to die," he says. The next morning, after a night of indescribable pain, drifting in and out of shallow sleep, he woke up to find that his arm was black with a sagging sack of fluid at the elbow. He gave in and went to hospital, but medics there didn't have enough anti-venom to cover all three snakes. Venom expert Professor David Warrell from Oxford University issued Steve with a death sentence, saying, "You're going to lose your arm, and you're going to die."
After three days in intensive care, fully conscious and aware of car crash victims around him, Steve ripped out the IVs in his (still attached) arm and discharged himself against doctors' orders. Steve recently underwent medical testing to find out whether he'd damaged his internal organs and was given a clean bill of health.
Steve's blood was recently tested against a number of infectious bacteria including MRSA and E.coli, with staggering results. Initially sceptical of Steve's claims, Budka - who met Steve at London's Hale Clinic during the making of the Channel Five documentary - was stunned when the blood, in most cases, destroyed 70-100 per cent of bacteria. "He's amazing," said Budka. "His immune system may be strong enough to develop a medicine for the future."
The pair are now working together, and although Budka hasn't published their findings yet, some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies have asked for first dibs on the research paper when it comes out.
But Steve has some detractors. He doesn't sterilise the venom before he injects it, and Dr Robert Harrison, head of the Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit at Liverpool School Of Tropical Medicine explains that "bacteria could be delivered into his bloodstream with the venom, potentially causing many adverse medical conditions, including septicaemia."
Harrison explains that someone could develop immunity to venom by taking it into their blood stream. Antivenom is manufactured from the antibodies of horses who've been administered venom and developed resistance to it. The animals don't suffer any effects from the procedure because the venom is delivered slowly, giving their antibodies a chance to respond to it. "But other self-immunisers have been hospitalised, suggesting that their experiments aren't effective at stimulating antibodies capable of neutralising the effects of the venom," he says. "It's potentially very dangerous and they shouldn't do it."
Unperturbed, Steve thrives on criticism. "Being in a band, I'm hardened to all that negative shit," he shrugs. "This is just the beginning. I'm going to continue on this path. I'm going to inject all kinds of crazy bacteria and see if my body can take it. I want to see if I can fight off malaria, I want to swallow a tapeworm egg and see what parasites do to my body." Eugh, we're keeping our fingers crossed for you, Steve.
WARNING: IT'S DANGEROUS TO INJECT VENOM - DON'T TRY IT!