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

Going into neurogenic shock is "always a possibility," Haworth says, and therefore he only suspends people who have had "pain conditioning" such as tattoos or multiple piercings. Symptoms of shock include fainting, vomiting, shallow breathing, trembling and clammy skin when associated with pain or extreme mental distress. The condition is usually harmless and fleeting, but in some circumstances it can segue into full-fledged circulatory collapse.

Once Burson is attached, the crank operator on the garage roof slowly turns the reel. The ropes tighten.

Burson's goal is to hang for at least five minutes. She knows the first 90 seconds are usually the most painful. Afterward the body can float along on an endorphin high. That's where she wants to be.

John Gomes forks the BBQ in Haworth's backyard.
John Gomes forks the BBQ in Haworth's backyard.
Beki Buelow, Jennifer Kindelspire and Beth Ruddy 
attend Ashley Burson as she prepares for her 
Kathleen Mary Flynn
Beki Buelow, Jennifer Kindelspire and Beth Ruddy attend Ashley Burson as she prepares for her suspension.

As her knees gradually rise off the mat, Burson begins to protest. Quietly at first, then . . .

"Oh, wait. Oh, fuck. Ow-ow-ow. Fuck! STOP!"

"Hold it!" Haworth says.

One of Burson's hooks has partially come out and is digging into her leg. The hole looks violent. Burson begins to tremble.

Gomes takes out his girlfriend's errant hook, then pushes the steel back through the gore. He urges her not to quit.

"You already have double [knee] piercings," he reminds her.

Burson asks for somebody to play her Tool CD on a nearby portable stereo. As the song begins, she closes her eyes and mouths the lyrics: It took so long to remember just what happened. I was so young and vestal then . . .

"C'mon, get through it," Gomes urges. "You can do this."

As they begin to hoist once again, Burson winces and breathes rapidly. Her legs are parted and bloody with her knees raised. Buelow holds her hand for support. Her boyfriend looks on urgently. The scene is a parody of childbirth.

. . . I've got my hands bound, my head down, my eyes closed . . .

Haworth orders a nearby girl to put on a pair of protective surgical gloves, and stands up. He looks gravely down at Burson, assessing her as if she's a patient in critical condition.

"I don't think she's going to make it," he says.

. . . For one sweet moment I am whole. . . .

The reel clicks another few inches. More tension is added to Burson's hooked knees, pale white with splashes of red.

Buelow gives Burson a SweetTart. The candy is used to keep a person's blood sugar up, which reduces the risk of fainting.

"Breathe, relax, you're almost up," Buelow tells her, then noting the blood, she turns to some bystanders. "Can we get a couple of damp paper towels?" she asks.

Gomes gets up, and walks away for a moment. He's frustrated. His method of helping somebody in a suspension does not involve this sort of "petting and pampering."

"You're doing something you know is going to hurt," he explains. "Going slow isn't going to help. That's just making it worse."

On the mat, Burson mouths her favorite lyric from the song: I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this, and says something to Buelow about Gomes being disappointed.

"This is not about John," Buelow reminds her. "It's about you."

When Gomes returns, Burson announces she's ready to try again: Let's do it.

The crank operator begins to turn the reel.

Burson's knees tug upward. She clenches her teeth.

"Just keep it inside, baby," Gomes urges. "You're so tough, you're so strong . . ."

. . . I've come round full circle. My lamb and martyr, this will be over soon . . .

The crank operator, looking like some sort of sadistic fisherman, reels Burson into the air.

Burson gasps and hangs, upside down, for several seconds.

Her bloody piercings stretch, her arms dangle limply toward the ground.

A shadow of a smile creeps over her face . . .

. . . then she grimaces again.

"No. No. Sorry. I can't do it."

Burson is lowered back to the mat.

She sighs and flops back, eyes closed. Every inch of her skin twitches independently, as if she's being shocked by thousands of invisible electrodes.

"You looked beautiful," Gomes says, trying to reassure her. "Congratulations."

Burson shakes her head, no.

"You did what you set out to do," Gomes says. "It doesn't matter if you didn't enjoy it. It matters that you beat it."

Burson fingers her black pants in Haworth's office, recovering, feeling the blood seeping through. During a suspension or hook-pull, air is often sucked under your skin. Afterward you need to push the air bubbles out toward the wound. One Church member says the air bubbles have a crackly feel, "sort of like Rice Krispies."

Burson says the suspension was the most painful experience of her life. And she's angry at herself for staying up for only 30 seconds.

"I don't feel like I accomplished anything," she says. "I need to do it again. I didn't do it right."

Gomes is also disappointed. The suspension, he says, was "a fucking mess." The incident happened in front of a New Times reporter and a producer from Ripley's Believe It or Not!, camera in hand. The Ripley's producer predicted he'll have no trouble finding funding for his feature-length documentary on the Church.

Yes, it's all fun and games until an 18-year-old Spaghetti Factory hostess is strung up writhing and bleeding from the knees.

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