Hooking Up with Ascension Suspension
Flesh. Hook. Suspension. Did you just cringe? That’s the reaction most people have when they imagine piercing sharp hooks through their skin and dangling from them. Mention body suspension to someone and, after a confused stare, many will recall A Man Called Horse or Hellraiser, and talk about how those movies freaked them out. Others might think of Criss Angel hanging from a helicopter in the Nevada desert and denounce it as a magic trick. Either way, people always have a visceral reaction to body suspension.
Suspension is the art of hanging your entire body weight from a few steel rods or hooks freshly pierced through your skin. Modern body suspension derives from a movement in Western society during the late 20th century called Modern Primitivism. The father of the movement is a man called Fakir Musafar. From the age of 12, he experimented on himself with a wide variety of body modification techniques. He eventually formed the first body piercing school. From there, one of his apprentices, Allen Falkner, went on to develop the art of body suspension.
Since then, body suspension has continued to evolve and spread across the globe. Local business owner Steve Truitt has been piercing professionally for 20 years and facilitating suspensions for almost as long. He formed the traveling performance troupe Ascension Suspension in 2001. Truitt has since overseen hundreds of suspensions and has traveled the world promoting this art form.
As I sit down with Truitt at his shop, Ascension Body Modification (1916 Central SE, Suite A), my first question is, naturally, “Why would anyone want to try this?” He says there are as many reasons as there are people. “We don’t really have any rites of passage anymore. You can drive when you’re 16, smoke when you’re 18, drink when you’re 21. What kind of milestones are those? I think people are looking for a type of experience to get them through different things in their lives. If they think suspension is the way to do it, I want to provide that for them.”
First-time suspendee Karen Verow is 33, a wife and mother from Indianapolis, Ind., who works in the veterinary field. “I had heard about suspension before but never seen it,” she says. “I never thought it would be something I would ever do.” Then she saw it done at a Jane’s Addiction concert where Truitt and his troupe were performing on stage. “When I saw it, I thought it was amazing,” she says. “It was a beautiful piece of art that went with the music. It was a multisensory experience.” After that, Verow sought out a suspension convention and saw people of all body types performing suspension. “That was when I realized it was something that I could do too,” she says. I ask her what drove her to give suspension a go. “I have anxiety. Forcing myself to walk through [suspension] is a way of working through that.”
“But doesn’t it hurt?” I ask. Steve Truitt chuckles a bit at my obvious question. “Everybody’s pain tolerance is different,” he says. “We don’t numb the skin first.” He explains that the pain is an integral part of the experience. As you progress through a suspension, as with every trial of endurance, your brain releases endorphins, your body’s natural opiates. Truitt says there is a point where most people no longer feel the pain. “People can suspend for hours,” he says. “It’s all up to them.”
Karen Verow contacted Truitt and scheduled her first suspension at a tattoo convention in Chicago where Ascension was performing. She says she did a four-point suicide, the standard for first-timers. This type involves piercing four hooks through the skin of the upper back. According to Truitt, this is the easiest to endure because the body is upright, and the person can move around a lot if they want. He tells me it’s called a suicide suspension because, if you don’t move, it looks like you just hung yourself by the neck. In the early DIY days, you didn’t have facilitators. You just threw your ropes over a tree branch, stood on a chair and stepped off of it.
“So what was it like?” I ask Verow. “I was a little apprehensive about the piercing. It was fine though. I felt deep pressure, but that was it.” She goes on to explain that she walked out to the lobby where the rig was set up. “I don’t enjoy being the center of attention, so I was kind of worried about that, it being a convention,” she says. “I waited until the end of the night, so there weren’t so many people left to watch me, and I just blocked them out.” Truitt then attached her hooks to the rig, and a member of Ascension slowly worked the pulley system and began to put tension on the ropes. Truitt says some people lift their feet off the ground right away. Others take their time. Verow spent several minutes walking back and forth, holding on to Truitt as he guided her to relax, and she adjusted to the stretching of her skin. “I just stared straight through him,” Verow says, “until I was up. Then I immediately told Steve, ‘I Love this!’”
She doesn’t recall feeling pain at that point, but soon after, she started to spin and became nauseated. “I had to come down after that. I was only up for a minute or so.” That happens to a lot of first-timers, Truitt says. He told Verow to take deep breaths and asked if she wanted to go up again. “Looking back, I wish I had, but I didn’t,” she says. Still, Verow considers her first suspension a success. “I felt grounded, mentally clear, satisfied and happy.”
Many might think suspension will always be a fringe pastime for “freaks.” But some people in the suspension community are concerned that the ritual is actually becoming too mainstream, thanks to people like Truitt bringing it to the masses. They believe suspension is a way to define themselves as separate from dominant Western society, forming a bond with a small community who utilize body modification as a defining outsider characteristic. Truitt thinks differently. “I don’t see suspension as an act of resistance against society. It could be for some people. But others do it to fit into a society, to test themselves, as a rite of passage or to commemorate something.” He says people who suspend tend to develop a bond with the people who facilitate it for them. There is always a sense of community.
As for Verow, she thinks that it is important for people who want to try it to have access to reputable professionals. She’s glad that people like Truitt are on the convention circuit to provide this service. She has already scheduled her next suspension with Ascension in Louisville, Ky. “I think I’m going to do the suicide again, conquer that. Then maybe I’ll try a different one. Who knows?”