Higher Human Forms: Hook Suspension

A Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu devotee, seen suspended with hooks pierced through his body, participates in the Vel Hinduism festival. Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

“I fell in love. I was allowed to feel and bleed and openly respect the process of each. It was a whole new world for me... Suspension became my life.”

When our listener Ainsley wrote in with these words on hook suspension, I was reminded of Elaine Scarry’s “The Body in Pain,” a deep treatise in which she stresses that an individual’s physical pain has no voice -- but that when it finds a voice, it begins to tell a story of the interstellar distances between your experience of pain and my own, the complications inherent in that distance and the very nature of human creation.

British performance artist Alice Newstead hangs from shark fishing hooks in the window of a soap shop in campaign to end shark finning, in central London.

Authors and artists often city pain as a necessary part of creation. But if that’s the ink we paint and write in, then perhaps individuals like Ainsley engage in a more direct communal exploration of the human condition.

But of course this sort of reading on hook suspension is difficult to convey. The media tends to focus on the more shocking aspects of the practice, and you certainly don’t need the fantastic embellishments of 2000’s “The Cell” to elect adverse responses from the general public. Images of hooked flesh stir strong, visceral reactions. When those images come in the wrappings of spiritual transcendence, confusion may ensue. Throw in the otherness of race, religion or subculture and it’s easy to throw up mental walls and exorcise hook suspension to the world of freaks and weirdos.

Of course, as suspension artist Allen Falkner points out, “Hanging from hooks is hardly seen as a ‘normal’ activity” [source: SafePiercing.org] At the same time, it’s hardly some deviant creation of the modern age. And like all forms of body modification, it emerges from and echoes something human.

History on the Hooks

Pain is an essential part of the human experience, and so we see rituals of pain in every human culture. Hook suspension, however, is a rarer emergence. Let’s consider a few examples.

A Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu devotee, seen suspended with hooks pierced through his body, participates in the Vel Hinduism festival.
Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

In North America, there’s the Oh-Kee-Pa hook suspension ceremony of the North Dakotan Mandan tribe. A rite of passage, the ceremony saw hook-suspended warriors twist and swing until they entered a transcendent state. The 1970 movie "A Man Called Horse" depicted the rite in a rather memorable scene.

Hinduism offers at least two additional suspension rites. There’s Charak Puja, a Hindu folk festival in the Southern Bangladesh. The faithful believe the festival will satisfy Lord Shiva and generate prosperity through the elimination of the previous year’s sorrow and suffering. Sometimes a human 'Charak' takes part in the festivities, tied with a hook on his back and then moved around a bar with a long rope. Sri Lanka’s Vel Hinduism festival, named for the divine javelin of war god Murugan (AKA Kartikeya), also entails public hook suspension. As with so many religious rites of pain (including Christianity), these traditions seem rooted in religious penance and expression of devotion.

Pain becomes a sort of proof, echoing Scarry’s argument that the “act of wounding is explicitly presented as a 'sign': the human body is in each the site for the analogical verification of the existence and authority of God…”

Of course, modern suspension is often a secular affair, rooted in traditions of personal exploration and performance art.

Modern Suspension

As explored in Wyatt Marshall ‘s “The Therapeutic Experience of Being Suspended by Your Skin,” the modern suspension movement traces back to the 1960s, when Fakir Musafar (born Roland Loomis) reintroduced and adapted various forms of suspension and coined the term “modern primitives.” In his wake, suspension enthusiasts such as Musafar protégé Allen Falkner and performance artist Stelarc have advanced the culture and public understanding of such rites.

Stelarc in particular, a frequent Stuff to Blow Your Mind subject, has utilized suspension in his continuing exploration of the transhumanist body. Some practitioners take hook suspension in a more industrial or even erotic direction, and this is all quite understandable. After all, pain and pleasure are more closely linked than we typically realize -- and modern hook suspension is a union not of human and god, but of human and medical/industrial paraphernalia.

Which leads us to our next question…

Is it safe?

While “safe” might seem an odd word choice for something as intrinsically endorphin-releasing as hook suspension, safety is a prime concern for modern enthusiasts. After all, it’s one thing to pierce the skin and hang from specially-prepared hooks; quite another to suffer tearing or a fall.

A man hangs in the air from hooks stuck in his body during the Fifth International Tattoo Convention in Bogota, Colombia.

In the aforementioned Atlantic article by Wyatt Marshall, a pair of physicians testify to a basic fact of human anatomy: No matter how easily skin rips off in a Hellraiser or Silent Hill movie, our hides are incredibly durable. If skin tearing begins to occur, it’s a gradual process and “almost never the sort of dramatic freefall that someone watching a suspension for the first time might imagine.” Infection, not accidental flaying, poses the greatest health risk -- and that’s where the importance of sterilized hooks, needles and gauze comes into play.

The 2013 Guardian article “Body suspension: why would anyone hang from hooks for fun?” also provides an even-handed discussion of the health issues involved. In the article, emergency medical technician Scott DeBoer points out that hook suspension doesn’t really receive any medical journal attention, but that experienced practitioners take an individual’s health history into consideration.

But what does the suspended individual feel? Can we cross that interstellar distance and imagine what the other person feels?

What do you become?

Hook suspension is a consensual exercise, and far from an impulsive activity. Matters of health and physics are carefully calculated for the purely physical aspects of the event, and the participant likewise weighs the inner complexities of the experience. Anticipation, priming -- it all accentuates the already complex interplay of nerve response and psychology.

The gulf between my pain and yours is -- again in the words of Elaine Scarry -- like that between Earth and a distant, violent galaxy. We have the limited tool of language, and more than a few excellent personal accounts of hook suspension experience, but what else can be done to bridge the gap of understanding?

First, let’s consider the nature of pain itself -- a varied, distressing feeling that involves regions of the brain also associated with the enjoyment of food, drugs, and sex.

A woman hangs from hooks put in her back and leg during the First International Tattoo Convention in Medellin.

A 2006 University of Michigan study revealed that the brain's dopamine system is highly active while someone experiences pain -- and that this response varies between individuals in a way that relates directly to how the pain makes them feel.

And when spiritual or secular ritual is involved, the ritual in and of itself can arouse the participant and trigger hormones that stimulate the reward systems of the brain. This, according anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, can cause sensations such as pain or fear to transform into pleasurable experiences through a dopamine spike. An increase in neuropeptides called endorphins, which bind to the brain’s opiate receptors, produces the same soothing euphoria felt by marathon runners during a “runner’s high.”

And remember the priming involved? Many descriptions of first-time hook suspensions speak to the anticipation of extreme sensation. According to a 2013 study from the University of Oslo, pain that hits less severely than expected may give us a rush of release or even something like pleasure -- to say nothing of endorphins.

Additionally, there’s a dimension of communal rite to consider here, potentially invoking Émile Durkheim's collective effervescence theory, in which a communal ritual generates a kind of shared electricity.

Plus, having completed a suspension, one may feel more connected with the group for having experienced a painful rite of passage -- a process explored in a 1959 United States Army psychology study. Psychologists Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills used electric shocks and found that those who received severe shocks before entering a group valued their membership more than those who received mild shocks.

There’s a lot going on when we experience pain. While much of it can be categorized as negative sensation, there’s plenty of territory that defies dualistic classification. The sooner we abandon such thinking, and perhaps identify the complex nature of pain in our own lives, the sooner we can grasp the basic shape of hook suspension as a human experience.

A man hangs from hooks put in his back and arms during the First International Tattoo Convention in Medellin, Colombia.

Higher Human Forms is an ongoing blog series profiling the many fascinating ways in which humans have reshaped their bodies throughout human history. To quote plastic surgeon Joe Rosen, "The body is a conduit for the soul, at least historically speaking. When you change what you look like, you change who you are."

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.