By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
Jennifer Kindelspire is 20 years old. Petite and pale. Big brown eyes. Kinda quiet.
The other Church members fear her. They call her a monster. They say Kindelspire can outpull anybody. Nobody wants to go up against Kindelspire. She's like a bull. She once pulled an armored truck across a parking lot.
Kindelspire has a pair of hooks freshly pierced through the skin of her upper back, one on either side of her spine. The eight-gauge steel hooks are made for shark fishing. Church members file off the jagged barbs before getting pierced.
Her opponent is a muscular 21-year-old named Jon Stanton. The rims of Stanton's hook piercings are redder than Kindelspire's. She's a Flesh Club veteran, her back is accustomed to the trauma, she's thick-skinned. Whereas this is Stanton's first time "taking hooks."
Their hooks are attached via carabiners to a shared rope, about nine feet long. Stanton and Kindelspire stand with their backs to each other, like two duelists about to pace, the rope hanging limp between them.
A referee yells, "Pull!"
Kindelspire and Stanton lunge forward. The rope jumps taut. The hooks yank their skin into blushing mounds.
For a moment, Kindelspire and Stanton frantically struggle against each other without relinquishing ground. They're scrambling to get a foothold, running in place and kicking dirt like some madcap cartoon version of Hellraiser.
Stanton slowly pulls Kindelspire backward a couple feet, taking the lead.
Kindelspire awkwardly hops on one foot, then the other, yanking off her shoes. She grinds her naked feet into the dirt.
All she's thinking, she says later, is pull.
Pull, pull, PULL: Her face scrunched, her snared flesh turning white as it stretches, Kindelspire suddenly jerks Stanton off balance and triumphantly hauls him across the yard until she runs face-first into the bushes.
The crowd laughs and applauds.
"Why do you do it, Jenny?" somebody asks.
"For the pain," she says.
Kindelspire's piercings look fine. Stanton's hooks have stretched their holes a bit. A few drops of blood leak down his back, mixing with sweat. He calls the contest "exhilarating, the best feeling of my entire life."
"Wanna play?" she asks.
Here's the who, what and where:
The group is the Church of Body Modification, a Phoenix-based organization dedicated to increasing public understanding and acceptance of those who are modified. By "modified," the Church means people with tattoos, body piercings, implants, branding or scarification. Several Church members also participate in a performance group called Life Suspended that has appeared on Ripley's Believe It or Not!, 20/20, and Guinness World Records, at fetish balls . . . "anywhere somebody wants some freaks," as one member put it. The performance profits go to the Church.
Tonight's event is a private gathering of Church members indulging in unorthodox fleshplay. There will be hook suspensions reminiscent of Indian rite-of-passage ceremonies, as well as "Flesh Club" hook tug-o-wars inspired by the movie Fight Club. The festivities will last about 10 hours. Before the night is over, there will be several daring acts of wince-inducing hook drama. One event will end in messy regret.
The house belongs to "3-D Modification Artist" Steve Haworth, owner of HTC Body Piercing and holder of a Guinness-record title for "Most Successful Body Piercer." The record's qualifications are not defined, yet few would dispute the title. In recent years, Haworth has taken his innovative flesh artistry to shocking new extremes, creating human modifications so radical that critics accuse him of unethical home surgery. Haworth created the Church. His fiancée, fetish clothing model Beki Buelow, runs it.
That's the who, what and where.
The "why" is tricky.
Baby Fox doesn't want her boyfriend to hang from hooks. She's quite firm about this.
"I don't want to watch it," Fox pleads with him. "I don't want you to go."
Fox and her boyfriend, tattoo artist Don Gesaman, wait on Haworth's backyard patio. Gesaman has signed up for a horizontal flesh-hook suspension called The Superman. He will soon be called into Haworth's piercing studio to take 12 hooks. Gesaman has never taken hooks before. He says the suspension is a challenge he wants to conquer, a birthday present he is giving to himself.
"I'm a bit nervous," he admits. "It's fear of the unknown."
Gesaman is burly and rugged-looking. His body seems to drip with tattoo ink. Fox is young and fresh-faced, wearing a picnic-friendly blouse and blue jeans. She met her boyfriend when he did her tattoo at Outrageous Ink. As a couple, they have a beauty-and-the-beast charm.
Fox says tattoos are cool, but thinks getting stabbed with hooks is crazy. When Gesaman first told her about the suspensions, she was reminded of the hook-suspending serial killer in The Cell.
Suspensions actually date back to religious rituals by Southern India Hindus and American Plains Indians.
The Church's suspensions are not a tribal ceremony so much as a mix-and-match hybrid of extreme sport, spiritual exercise and/or sexual fetish, depending on the participant. Church members use terms such as "endorphin rush" or "religious experience" or enthuse about the thrill of the pain.
Fox doesn't understand the appeal. She walks about the patio, openly gawking at the Mad Max assortment of assembled Church members. Fox tentatively takes a seat next to Beki Buelow, 22.