The 5,000 year history of the "art" comes down to physics, spirituality, and risk.
A woman lies face down on a massage table. She is tended to by five men wearing surgical masks and gloves. The men aren't wearing scrubs, though, and elaborate tattoos are visible on three of the men's arms. They insert large fishhooks under the woman's skin: in her calves, thighs, and lower, middle, and upper back. They work quickly and with practiced efficiency, grabbing a good sized piece of skin, pushing the hook into the skin until -- pop -- it slides in and out the other side. There is no blood. The men position the hook's bend around the freshly pierced hunk of flesh before moving onto another piercing.
The woman goes by the name Trigger. She posted a video montage of several of her body suspensions -- a form of body modification that involves hanging a human body by hooks attached to ropes -- to YouTube. In her video description, in an attempt to ward off hurtful comments from both the prejudiced and the Internet's resident ignoramuses, she wrote:
This is a little music video I made to footage of some of my suspensions. Some were hard and painful, some were fun & painful. Either way, I'm always grateful for the opportunities I had to do these suspensions and will never forget what an impact they have had and continue having on my life.
Enjoy this video, but please, no comments about how gross this is... if you don't understand it or agree with it, that's perfectly okay, but there is no need for disrespectful comments.
The rest of the video, after the piercings, shows Trigger suspended. She hangs in a number of positions: from hooks inserted into her upper back, known as a suicide suspension because the suspended person appears to have hanged him or herself; from the skin around her knees; and face down from hooks that run the length of her back and legs in what is called a Superman suspension. A suspension artist, who is responsible for setting up the hooks, ropes, and pulleys for the suspension, monitors the entire process. During some of Trigger's suspensions, a man hugs her tenderly and strokes her hair, rocking her body gently back and forth in the air. For the Superman suspension, she remains in a resting position. During one of her two suicide suspensions, she swings back and forth in a wide arc.
"Really beautiful, thanks for sharing," one commenter wrote.
Tearing of the skin can, and does, happen, but it's almost never the sort of dramatic freefall that someone watching a suspension for the first time might imagine.
"Hey, just wanted to let you know that I am finally going up!" wrote another. "Thank you for giving me the inspiration to do this. I have a 4 pt knee scheduled for tomorrow!"
One simply asked, "Why?"
People have been hanging themselves from hooks for perhaps 5,000 years. The most ancient suspensions likely occurred in India, where suspension was a sort of religious penance. Devotees at the ancient Hindu festival Thaipusam, which continues to this day throughout Southeast Asia and is popular among Tamils, sometimes suspend themselves as part of a practice called vel kavadi, a rite in which worshippers undergo some form of hardship as an expression of debt bondage to the war god Murugan. Some who perform the vel kavadi pierce their flesh with skewers -- stand-ins for the spear that Shiva's wife, Parvati, gave to the god of war Murugan to kill the demon Soorapadam -- and hooks. The pierced worshippers sometimes attach ropes to their hooks, which are pulled by other devotees or used to suspend the worshippers in the air. The level of pain the worshipper feels correlates with the level of devotion -- the more pain, the more sincere the worship. Suspensions also occur at the Chidi Mari festival, another Tamil holiday.
Half a world away, on the banks of the Missouri River, the Mandan tribe suspended young warriors in an annual rite of passage ceremony that celebrated the creation of the earth. The Okipa ceremony, as it was called, required initiates to fast and hold vigil for four days, then dance, and lastly perform trials of endurance. The warriors-to-be had to prove their strength to their elders and the spirits. The young men were suspended from the roof of the tribe's lodge by ropes attached to skewers in their chest, back or shoulders. To increase the pain, weights were attached to their legs. Cries of agony were considered cowardly. The warriors would faint and were brought down to be watched over by the men who presided over the ceremony. When an initiate woke up, it signified the spirits' approval.
The new initiates then had their left pinky removed with a hatchet, and finished the ceremony by racing around the village in a race called "the last race." The skewers were still in place, the weights still attached. The Okipa ceremony was first documented by an outsider around 1835 when George Catlin, an American painter on an expedition with William Clark, produced a painting of the ceremony. The last Okipa ceremony took place in 1889. A variation of the Okipa ceremony was made famous in the 1973 film A Man Called Horse when Richard Harris' character underwent a similar ceremony in order to gain acceptance from the Lakota tribe that had taken him prisoner.