Hook, Line & Sinner

A harrowing evening with the church of body modification, where parishioners reclaim their bodies and have gory tug-o-wars - then something goes wrong

Interjects Buelow: "Normally what they're doing is getting into the excitement of it all, the whole raw of it all. But if Steve did that, the way he would go about it would be on a totally professional basis."

Haworth tries to keep the discussion in perspective.

"This is talking about the one in 20 million who have the self-amputee fetish and acts on it," he says. "But why would I want to do something that's destructive? I draw my own line, and I don't do things that are potentially destructive."

Baby Fox and Don Gesaman wait for Gesaman's turn 
to hang from hooks.
Notosphotos
Baby Fox and Don Gesaman wait for Gesaman's turn to hang from hooks.
Pointy-headed Valley resident Joe Aylward sports the 
world's first metal Mohawk.
Notosphotos
Pointy-headed Valley resident Joe Aylward sports the world's first metal Mohawk.

Buelow nods. "I've asked him to remove my little toes. He doesn't have a problem with that, necessarily. But if I get it done, I want the whole joint off. And he won't do that."

Haworth grins. "Yeah, just so her feet would look cuter in smaller shoes."

The other Church members laugh at Haworth's apparent joke. But Buelow isn't laughing.

"Without the little toes," she explains, "it would be a lot easier to get into smaller shoes."


Here's how a suspension works: First you must choose to go horizontal or vertical. Horizontal is the usual choice for beginners, as going vertical tends to be more painful. Plus, depending on placement of the hooks, it is possible to suffocate during a vertical suspension.

Next you select the number of piercings. The more hooks you take, the more times you need to be pierced. On the other hand, more hooks means your weight is more evenly distributed and you feel less pull-per-hook.

The exact placement of hooks is absolutely crucial. Depending on the hook's depth and location, a minute error can make the difference between a mildly painful experience and an excruciating one.

John Gomes, 26, leads the Church's spin-off performance group, Life Suspended. He says the critical moment during a suspension is when the person first lifts into the air.

"I've seen people laugh at that moment," he says. "I've seen people cry, I've seen them pass out, vomit, orgasm -- it hits everybody a bit differently."

Gomes is a lifelong modifier and professional body piercer. He says modifications are something he needs, that modifying is not a choice for him. In fourth grade he burned his initials into his arm. In sixth grade, he pierced his nipples to emulate Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. He once carved girls' names in his skin because, he says, it was emotionally easier than telling girls that he liked them.

"Once you learn to control your pain, it becomes a valuable ally," he says. "There are a lot of different sensations out there -- pain and pleasure -- and I want to experience it all."

It's tempting to slap modification extremists with a single sweeping motivation. But both Favazza and Haworth agree the reasons vary. Most who practice extreme modification are doing it for the ornamentation or showmanship. Some, like Gesaman, do it for the challenge, or, like Kindelspire, for the pain. People like Gomes, those who need painful modifications for relief and exhilaration, are a minority in the modified community. A few, Favazza says, are also working through abuse issues -- experiencing pain in a controlled environment to reenact painful memories.

Tonight Gomes' girlfriend, Ashley Burson, is going to attempt a difficult suspension. She is going to hang upside down from her knees.

"This is my drug. I can't wait to go up," Burson says enthusiastically. "Your endorphins and adrenaline kick in and it becomes like a pure natural ecstasy."

Burson is 18, attractive and fit, and works as a hostess at Spaghetti Factory. Recently Burson got a tattoo. In the tattoo parlor she saw pictures from one of the Church's flesh-hook suspensions. She wanted to try it herself, and she contacted the Church.

Burson met Gomes at her debut suspension. He did her hook piercings, and they began dating. This will be her fourth suspension.

"Afterward I feel so strong," she says. "Afterward I feel like if I were to get hit by a truck, then the truck would fall apart. Because after I've done this, I can do anything. It's something special to me."

No female Church member has ever attempted to hang from her knees. Burson's previous suspensions have been difficult for her; she's struggled with the pain. She hopes this time will be easier. It won't.


Burson lies on a mat in Haworth's backyard, breathing deeply.

She has four hooks in her, one on either side of her legs, just shy of her knees. About 20 Church members and friends sit on the patio, watching.

Directly above Burson is "the rigging," a dangling web of rock-climbing ropes and carabiners leading to a steel pole. The pole extends over the yard to a mounting on the garage roof. It functions like a fishing reel. A Church member on the roof operates the crank, raising or lowering the person being suspended.

Gomes attaches the hanging carabiners to her hooks. Buelow sits beside her. Haworth stands nearby, keeping a supervisory eye on the proceedings.

Haworth is watching the hooks and Burson's skin. He says nobody he's ever suspended has had a hook accidentally tear out, and he wants to keep it that way. He's also watching Burson's face and eyes for signs of faintness.

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