Pain Killer

Zamora the Torture King remembers a book in his elementary-school library, one that had "descriptions of bizarre entertainment throughout history and other countries. They had people in India doing the skewers through the cheeks, the sword-swallowers and the snake charmers. I found that very fascinating, and I wanted to see something like that."

He wasn't Zamora then, of course. It would be years before Tim Cridland would take the name of a small Northern California town as his stage name, years before he would do the skewers through the cheeks and the sword-swallowing himself. "It's not something that I jumped into all of a sudden. It took me years of research. It was a lifelong interest, and I gradually, gradually acquired knowledge."

The Torture King (which is what he calls himself when he answers the phone for the interview) admits that it's hard to explain that initial appeal. Most boys that age were stealing glimpses into Playboy and imagining things they wanted to do with those bodies rather than considering what it would be like to stick skewers through their own. When the Torture King tries to convey that early fascination, he sounds oddly reminiscent of a self-help tape. "I can't really explain why it is, but a lot of it has to do with the mind-and-the-body interaction, and you have more potential than you think. What I do is an extreme example of that. A lot of limitations you have are self-imposed, and you are capable of doing things that you probably have no idea that you can do -- things like sword swallowing is one example."

The uplifting message of human potential goes awry with his choice of an example. "All the feats I'm doing are things that I've learned. People have the capacity to do this." And most have the good sense not to.

The Torture King grows uncomfortable talking about the philosophy behind sticking skewers through his arms and cheeks or swallowing swords and fire ("I've been fire-eating since I was 15"). "I want to point out that the whole show is fun, it's entertainment. That's the main point of it. There are serious sides to what I do in terms of the mind-body relationship, and some people have been asking about that, and I've been doing some lecturing at New Age conventions lately. But the show -- some people might find it shocking, but it's shocking in a fun way. There are some shocking roller coasters, but people are still drawn to them. It's a fun show. We get the audience cheering and yelling, and everybody leaves having a good time. That's the main point."

The show, coming to the Firehouse at 10 p.m. and midnight Friday, Dec. 11, includes Zamora, the strongman Mighty Jack Hartley ("some beefcake for the ladies," says the Torture King) and Flex the Rubber Boy. "I'm going to be eating fire," he says, describing the evening's entertainment. "I'm going to stand on eggs without breaking them" -- this feat, he explains, is done to show that "precision and skill" are employed in ways other than those death-defying acts. "I swallow swords. I break up bottles onstage and walk on them, jump up and down on them barefoot. I lie down on them and have someone from the audience jump up and down on me. Rubber Boy, for a warm-up, goes through a tennis racket and through a toilet seat. It gets stranger from there. I do the bed of nails with four guys on top of me who weigh 200 pounds-plus, so I have at least 800 pounds on top of me."

The Torture King goes on to describe one of Rubber Boy's feats, in which he manages to put himself into a bound straitjacket and then into a small box, qualifying himself as the only living "enterologist." "When you see it, it's very funny, very amusing -- to me," he qualifies.

This is not -- in case you've gotten your hopes up -- an S/M show, the Torture King wants to note. He's not anything like the late performance artist Bob Flanagan, who drove a nail through his penis in the documentary Sick. Everyone keeps their clothes on in this show. Needles go through public parts only.

"The name 'Torture King' was something that was given to sideshow performers because that's the only context that the North Americans can understand the feats that are being performed," he explains. Piercings before swine, so to speak. "I appear to be torturing myself, but in reality I'm not. I'm showing you that I can overcome injury and pain. Everything I do is a physical mind-body stunt. I'm drawing aspects from martial art, from yoga, from Middle Eastern disciplines. I get myself in situations that should be painful or cause me injury, and I overcome that. I am not really hurting myself -- which does not mean it's not real; everything I do is real. We let people verify that all the implements we're using are real.

"But some people accuse me of hurting myself onstage, but if I were doing that I couldn't do this show night after night. I perform five nights out of seven."

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