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."
However, there is, at least for the Torture King, a brief healing process, especially -- it might be assumed -- for one of his most outrageous stunts, in which he swallows a length of twine, then extracts the twine from his stomach with the use of a scalpel and forceps. The twine is pulled from his abdomen, and, for added visual effect, Christmas ornaments are hung from it. You won't see this at any of the local Nutcrackers.
"I'm healing pretty rapidly. The skewers go right through my biceps -- deep muscle -- but it's part of the daily routine. The more I do it, the more my body seems to be in tune and adapted to it."
It's crazy, the things you get used to.
Although the Torture King lectures to New Age conventions about mind control, his act is very old age, popularized in circus sideshows in the 19th century but going back further in human history -- to religious fakirs in India and the Middle East. The Torture King is continually researching to resurrect old, lost acts.
"There's something I've been threatening to do. A guy from Holland in the '40s would take a sword, like a sharpened fencing sword, put it all the way through him, entering right next to his spine and exiting right in the solar plexus. This is something that I've found historically going back a thousand years, but he's the first I've seen. He got studied by scientists in Switzerland and filmed for newsreel footage. That's something I'd like to do, but it's obviously something that's very serious and dangerous."
The Torture King not only takes such feats seriously, he cares about the presentation of his contemporary sideshow. He broke from the Jim Rose Circus, which toured with Lollapalooza in 1992, over what can be labeled "artistic differences." The rift brings back old wounds -- those aesthetic ones that aren't so showy. "There was his own ego," Torture King says of Rose, "thinking that he was like a rock star. That's not what I want to be. He was doing these silly Mexican transvestite wrestling and fat lady sumo wrestling -- that's kind of silly, I think. My show is meant to be entertaining and fun, but I don't want to do anything kind of hokey. It's all very classical."
But though classical, the Torture King seeks new ways to do old tricks. "You've got to compete not only with movies, which are killing live entertainment to some extent, but also VCRs and cable and satellite -- just to get people out of the house can be a difficult thing.
"I just did the bed of nails recently -- this was tied to the New Age convention -- where I had a car drive over the top of me. A 2,500-pound Volkswagen Jetta that drove over me while I was on the bed of nails. I hadn't done the bed of nails until then because it seemed so many people would want to do it, so I had to make it unique."
Well, maybe not that many people.
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