WARNING: Suspension is a life-threateningly dangerous act, and should not be attempted under any circumstances!
Meet Andrew Stanton: one of the most well-hung gentlemen on planet Earth. Together with his girlfriend, Kelvikta ‘The Blade’ Tera, Andrew performs incredible (and painful) hardcore freak acts with their Las Vegas-based extreme circus, SwingShift SideShow, and to date he has undertaken close to 100 suspensions – hanging his body in the air from hooks skewered though his flesh.
At this year’s Dallas Suspension Convention (SusCon) – an annual meeting of hundreds of suspension experts and enthusiasts organised by body modification god Allen Faulkner – Andrew vowed to attempt the most dangerous suspension known to man. His chosen stunt had only been achieved by one other person, and even then for just a few excruciating seconds. Andrew had decided to suspend from his face.
HOLES IN THE HEAD
Facial suspensions can be life-threatening. Supporting your entire body weight with just your face places so much pressure on the spine that the risk of paralysis or death from spinal injury, or breaking your neck, is chillingly high. The angle at which your head is forced upwards during the suspension also means that there’s a strong chance of choking on your own saliva, as it’s difficult to swallow.
Theoretically, your cheeks could be torn off if the hooks rip out of your skin and, if nerves or tendons in the face are damaged, you risk impairing your sight, speech or hearing.
Thankfully, the exercises that Andrew has been performing for the past decade as part of his sideshow acts have primed his body to be able to cope with the strains of facial suspension.
“I’ve studied the way in which circus aerialists hang from hoops and leather straps,” he explains. “Generally, they support themselves on a strap about a palm-width wide, which passes around the back of their necks at the base of the skull, and they can hold their position for a couple of minutes. I’ve practiced to the point where I can hang for ten minutes on a strap only two finger-widths thick, so I’ve strengthened my neck muscles to hold the right pose for facial suspension. I’ve also learned how to hang stock still, or thrash about, kicking my legs high in the air. I’ve identified which muscles I need to tense and relax in order to prevent my vertebrae from pulling apart under the tension.”
Andrew also gleaned knowledge from suspension artist Supa Niga, who performed the world’s first facial suspension in 2006, and has tried it twice since. “Supa had problems with his neck during his facial hangings, which meant that he could only stay in the air for a moment,” Andrew reveals. “I benefited from watching videos of Supa’s experiences. In his first attempt, it looks as though he blacks out almost as soon as he leaves the ground. If you apply pressure to certain areas of the neck, it cuts off oxygen to the brain and causes you to faint, so that was something I had to bear in mind.”
Attempting his facial feat at Dallas SusCon meant that Andrew could pick his suspension team from the crème de la crème of hookers and hangmen. “I listened to everyone’s opinions and didn’t let my ego get in the way of my decisions,” he says. “It was a real meeting of minds.”
Andrew chose Håvve Fjell of Norway’s Wings Of Desire hooking group to be his main buddy on the day, and Håvve took responsibility for monitoring Andrew’s health during the stunt. “Håvve’s like a big brother to me, and we’ve spent so much time together that he knows what my body is capable of,” Andrew elaborates. “I trusted that he wouldn’t freak out if I was doing something that would be unusual for most people but is fair game for a sideshow freak like me! On the flipside, he’d be able to spot any genuine causes for alarm. Importantly, he was supportive of my endeavour – not everyone in the modding community thought my plan was wise.”
The round frame, or ‘rigging’, that Andrew’s face was attached to and winched up on was crafted by mod legend Joe Amato of Skin Mechanics. It was designed to allow Andrew maximum movement while keeping the tension evenly dispersed between all the hooks in his face, minimising the risk of his skin ripping.
Håvve’s partner Christiane Løfblad set the rigging up, while Matt Brawley of Los Angeles’ CoRE suspension team made a crucial suggestion about the size of hooks that Andrew should use. “I’d intended to use seven 13-gauge hooks, and had already tested them to check that they could withstand my weight,” says Andrew, “but Matt was worried that they were too thin and could slice through my face like cheese wires. Taking his advice, I switched to thicker 8-gauge hooks.”
You’d imagine that Andrew might kick back and chill out in the days preceding his big stunt, right? Wrong. A couple of nights beforehand, he performed a show that involved swallowing a sword while riding a miniature bike, and on the morning of the facial suspension he took part in a separate act in which he, his missus and six other people dangled from two hooks in their backs to form a ‘human mobile’!
“It was so much fun – I dangled for half an hour, until I was so deliriously happy yet knackered that I was being dragged across the floor by the rest of the suspendees!” he laughs. “During 2009 I had suspended once a week for six months straight as part of a casino show in Vegas, which was bad for my health, so I’d taken a long break from hanging before my facial stunt. I wanted to ‘warm up’ by suspending again before undertaking the challenge of hooking my face.”
Håvve and Matt dedicated 45 minutes to carefully massaging, pinching and rolling Andrew’s facial skin to loosen it up before they spiked in seven hooks.
“They spent ages feeling where the flesh on my face was thickest and strongest, and which way my dermis naturally pulled. They pinpointed the best location for the hooks to the last millimetre,” Andrew explains. “I think the care they took played a huge part in limiting the wounds I sustained during my hanging. Their massage also helped to relax me into an almost dreamlike state, which didn’t leave me until about 20 minutes after I’d finished dangling… it was surreal!”
Although Andrew is used to skewering his mouth with spears during his live shows, and has had hooks inserted through his body during many other suspensions (referred to in suspension circles as ‘throwing in’), he says that being pierced with hooks through his cheeks and forehead felt different. “It wasn’t more painful, but because the face has so many nerve endings, I could feel the hooks moving in my skin more acutely,” he elaborates. “One hook in my forehead gave me a sharp, electric shock-type feeling when it was pushed in and hit a nerve.
For two weeks afterwards, I had an electrical pulse in my head! That kind of temporary nerve damage is quite common after suspensions, though – on a separate occasion I jangled a nerve that didn’t calm down for four years! – so I wasn’t worried.”
After his facial hooks had been attached to the rig, Andrew began his suspension from a sitting position. With the extended version of Tool’s ‘Third Eye’ playing on the stereo, Andrew rose slowly to his feet, dancing and swaying to the music. Rotating his head, Andrew tested the limits of the hooks and got used to the feeling of them wrenching his head.
“I kept reminding myself of what I tell my suspension students: ‘Keep moving, and keep breathing!’” he smiles. “Movement dissipates the pain over a larger area of your flesh, so it’s not as overwhelming.”
After Andrew had familiarised himself with how the rig and hooks reacted to his movements, he signalled for the music to be turned up. Then he was taken up, swinging himself off the ground.
“It was bizarrely comfortable,” he reveals. “I’ve done chest suspensions that were excruciating, and made me scream as though I was on fire, but this was manageable, and I felt intensely involved in it – the hooks were right next to my eyes and brain, I was staring up at my flesh pulling towards the rig, and I had a level of freedom to move my body through the air that I had never experienced before.”
THE PHOENIX RISES AGAIN
After two minutes, Andrew descended for a quick break because he was concerned about an unfamiliar burning sensation that he could feel beneath his jaw and deep in his ears. “The feeling stopped as soon as I put my soles on the floor and relieved the pressure on my face, which reassured me that I hadn’t done any major damage,” he recalls. “I put my arms around Håvve – at this point I was high as fuck on endorphins! – and talked about the way in which he has cared for me throughout our friendship. The audience around us was cheering, but also crying, because they were so moved. It was intense.”
Using Håvve’s arms for support, Andrew lifted himself off the ground for a second time, and then hung for over four minutes. “I had more confidence on my second run, so I swung about and pulled some yoga poses,” he says. Remarkably, after descending again and removing the hooks, Andrew’s face only had two small tears in it – one in his left cheek, and a keyhole-shaped rip on his brow, between his eyes.
“It was right where my third eye would be!” he laughs. “And the stereo froze after Tool’s song finished. It was pretty strange...”
Andrew’s wounds were closed using sutures and Dermabond liquid skin adhesive, and then covered with plasters that made him look like “Magneto from X-Men, or a Mexican wrestler!” He was surprised at the speed at which he healed. “My skin sprung straight back, and although clear fluid leaked from my face for a few days, the rips knitted back together quickly due to the large number of capillaries that supply blood to the face.”
Phew, now there’s a guy who’s overcome his hang-ups. Andrew isn’t sure what his next challenge will be, but we’re sure he’ll look to the future with a brave face.
FOR MORE on Andrew’s sideshow, see www.Swingshiftsideshow.com
To learn more about suspension, head to www.Suspension.org