Inside, the Freaks and Fetish party is in full swing. The wide range of fetish tastes are on display, including men dressed as schoolgirls and others wearing elaborate steam punk costumes. Dog muzzles are common, but more striking is a woman dressed as a feline being dragged around on a leash behind a man in business-casual attire.
The event kicks off Dallas SUSCON, the city's annual body suspension convention. Body suspension is the practice of hanging from hooks placed strategically through a person's skin and muscle. In private, it's a meditative, near-spiritual experience. In public, this late April night, it's part performance art and part freak show.
The show doesn't begin until Allen Falkner takes the stage. SUSCON is here because Falkner — the world-renowned father of suspension himself — is from Dallas. He briefly introduces the emcee, an infamous body modifier from Austin who's known as the Lizard Man. He's a professional freak who has transformed every inch of his body to resemble an actual lizard. The result is fairly life-like: His skin is green and tattooed with scales, implants protrude from his forehead and his tongue is split.
The Lizard Man makes a choice ringleader. He begins the show by sticking a fork all the way up his nasal passage, then licking it and joyfully exclaiming, "Salty!" He also sticks a corkscrew through his face somehow, swallows a sword and offers up an impressive list of one-liners, including, "There is nothing alike between sucking a dick and swallowing a sword."
Falkner is dressed in a simple black outfit, and it would be easy to lose him in the strange crowd if it weren't for all of the devotees flocking to him. He seems to take time to welcome each person warmly.
The community is tight-knit, and Falkner is at the core. He even changed the life of the Lizard Man, whose human name is Erik Sprague. Sprague met Falkner and his suspension crew many years ago — "before the scales, when he looked like a normal person," Falkner says — at an event called A Night of a Thousand Scars, where Sprague was doing a fire act. Sprague recalls their immediate rapport, and how Falkner's group allowed him to "piggyback" as a fellow act on their tours.
Sprague soon abandoned the pursuit of a philosophy doctorate degree from a New York university in order to become an entertainer, and, in a Kafkaesque turn, metamorphosed into a reptile. He even officiated at Falkner's wedding. Sprague has praise for Falkner that is typical among the body mod community. "When he gets involved in something, it's for the betterment of the bigger picture," he says. "For Allen, it's not enough to be good, it has to be bar-setting."
Falkner makes frequent on-stage appearances, but as an assistant who calmly sets up suspensions. The most crucial step is the rigging. The suspendee is cleaned and marked before being pierced and having hooks inserted. This last step is called "throwing hooks" because the needle is actually on the end of the hook, which is installed with one quick movement.
Without question, the most show-stopping piece at Freaks and Fetish is a woman singing opera while suspended and spun. Forget the alien lady in The Fifth Element, this is a truly otherworldly aria. She twirls in a blue dress, her bruising skin visibly strained by the hooks in her back, giving a performance that's genuinely pained.
SUSCON, founded in 2001, was the first suspension convention of its kind and it prompted the creation of other conventions all over the world. Like many people, the Lizard Man credits body suspension's popularity directly to Falkner. "A lot of it has to do with Allen being Johnny fucking Appleseed for the suspension community," Sprague says.
Falkner, the man noted for popularizing the art of suspension in North America, is also a born-and-bred Dallasite. He's a laser technician who runs Fade Fast, a tattoo removal shop in Deep Ellum. He's not against tattooing — on the contrary, he believes in erasing bad ink to make room for better art. His sophisticated, red-walled shop reflects that line of thinking, as it's decorated like a tattoo parlor.
When we spoke he was just getting ready to throw this year's SUSCON. Sitting on a massive leather sofa, he stopped our conversation intermittently to greet customers and to inquire about his employee's upcoming burlesque show.
Falkner believes that what earned him his reputation was simply his ability to unite interested parties. Yet, despite devoting his career, life and physique to the practice of body modification, in many ways Falkner seems like a regular fellow. He's bald-headed, amiable and well-spoken.
His body is a sort of fun house, though. He has a split tongue — with parts that move independently, as he demonstrates, evoking something out of Men in Black — and titanium implants, meant to give texture to his body art, like Braille. Gravity clearly isn't the only rule he defies.
"We used to tip strippers by putting dollar bills in our tongues, which I thought was amusing," he says. "Now everyone I know has a split tongue." He implanted a magnet in his hand after he read an article saying it could induce magnetic vision, aka the ability to perceive magnetic fields, but he admits that the sixth sense never materialized.
"I've wanted to experiment with my body for as long as I can remember. I think one of my youngest memories was sticking a sewing needle through the pads of my fingers," Falkner says. "It was fascinating to see the needle go through without feeling any pain. Of course, as I delved deeper into piercing, the tattooing, scarification, branding, implants and so on, pain became a factor." For Falkner, each modification is a badge of honor and a means of growing more comfortable with himself.
"So many people are unhappy in their own skin, myself included," Falkner says. "I will never be a model or attractive in a conventional sense. It’s not in my genes. I’m short and have male pattern baldness and a pointy head to boot. So what have I done? I’ve altered my external appearance in a way that makes me happy."
Falkner grew up in Lake Highlands with a "normal sort of upbringing," he says. His mother was Brazilian, and she and his father, who owned an accounting firm, met on a blind date during carnival in Rio. Falkner says he was a "nerdy little kid" until the early '80s, when he became a punk and a drug addict. He sobered up by 18 and became straight-edge for 11 years, studying electrical, mechanical and computer science engineering in college.
He says his parents were none too pleased when he dropped out and moved to California. There Falkner met Fakir Musafar, who introduced him to suspension and body piercing. Since first piercing his ears at age 12, Falkner has perforated every bit of pierce-able skin. "When I worked as a professional piercer I wanted to experience every piercing I could before performing it on another person," he says. These days he only keeps two lip rings in for credibility when he's lecturing on body piercing, and he considers them parts of his face.
"He has very strong beliefs I don't necessarily identify with," Falkner says of his early mentor Musafar, whose methods include isolating the subject in the forest for days before suspending him or her. For Falkner, suspension isn't part of a religious practice. "Everything in life can be spiritual," Falkner says. "However, I find that people who are out there selling spirituality are usually selling snake oil." While he's not interested in promoting a doctrine, he admits that spirituality is a motivator for many in the suspension community.
Falkner had never seen a live suspension until he disastrously attempted one himself by using fishing line in his skin, which caused it to rip. "I lasted for five seconds," he says. "For someone who was in school to be an engineer, I should've known better." He'd only tried ball dancing with Musafar — not to be confused with ballroom dancing — the practice of sewing weights onto your skin and dancing yourself into an ecstatic state.
Falkner first learned how to properly suspend in the early '90s, through a body piercing studio in San Francisco called Body Manipulations, which renamed the practice suspension after it was originally called Okipa. Falkner still hosts monthly suspension meets, where he sees many newcomers. After he started SUSCON in 2001, he took a seven-year hiatus, but in 2009 he brought it back as a way of gathering friends for his 40th birthday.
During the hiatus, Falkner toured with an English fetish group called Torture Garden. He says he was heavily involved with the fetish scene for a long time, although he emphasizes that in this case the term fetish refers merely to a subculture, not a sexual fixation. Falkner set up a website, now suspension.org, and founded the convention group Traumatic Stress Discipline, the first of its kind. TSD's original name was Traumatic Stress Disciples, but, incidentally, the Dallas Observer incorrectly referred to them as Traumatic Stress Discipline in a review, and after that the name stuck.
Traumatic Stress Discipline primarily worked in warehouses, with a crew made up of a dozen to 20 people. These days Falkner focuses on large events and often lectures at international tattoo and piercing conventions. "For the longest time, body suspension was considered to be almost secretive, not in practice but in knowledge," Falkner says. He gladly shared his own expertise, and this attitude earned him many connections.
Two appearances on the TV show Ripley's Believe it or Not soon followed, along with hanging Criss Angel twice — once from a helicopter. Traumatic Stress Discipline are in the Guinness Book of World Records, earning the record for "hanging from the least amount of hooks," or one hook. "It's technically a record which can't be beat," Falkner says, amused.
"Your body is the only thing that physically belongs to you in this whole world. You don't own cars, you don't own property, you don't own other people," Falkner says. "So I kind of got obsessed with modifying my body because it was the only real thing that I could influence and change."
Falkner says he would've liked to indulge in more extreme body modification, "But I also like going to the store and not having people freak out." He laughs while recalling the time when a homeless man gawked at the Lizard Man, starstruck and curious, gasping intermittently, only to finally ask: "Are you ... in Star Wars?! "
Falkner's first name is Charles, and he says that it was Musafar who first convinced him to get a piercer name. He chose his middle name and the last name Falkner, which came to him in a dream laced with symbolism about his career switch. He's finally changed his name legally to Falkner, merging the identities he'd kept separate, partly for his parents' benefit. Ever ceremonial, Falkner enthusiastically supports the tradition of marriage, and has officiated at two different weddings while being suspended from hooks, along with the bride and groom.
Artist George Catlin first painted the North American Mandan tribe suspending back in the 1800s as part of a religious ceremony called Okipa. Many still refer to suspension by that name, but Falkner says that's offensively incorrect, as hanging was only a part of the ritual. "It's like sitting around having wine and crackers and calling it a communion."
Paul King, a body piercer who lectures regularly to anthropology students at the University of Berkeley, is in town to teach the history of suspension at SUSCON. The suspension convention is a week-long affair that includes lectures on the history of body suspension and safe-practices. It's a closed event for registered participants, tallied at 120 this year.
King highlights the distinctions between Fakir Musafar and Stelarc, two suspension pioneers who represent opposing schools of thought. Musafar, an American influenced by natives like the Mandan and Dakota tribes, continued the tradition of suspension as a spiritual ritual, King says.
Stelarc, an Australian performance artist for whom suspension is a grand form of entertainment, was influenced by the Tamil tribes of South Asia. King also names Falkner as being greatly influential in turning the obscure practice into a modern phenomenon.
King says that suspension is correctly classified as a body modification, despite it seeming more like an activity than an alteration."Suspension alters the body for a short period of time," he says. "There's no jewelry, there's no pigment left behind, but it does leave marks. Most regular participants have permanent scars." King adds that the greatest modification is often more internal than physical. Via "mirror neurons," these internal effects can extend to the viewers as well. "You participate just by watching," he says.
On the technical side, Falkner says that a small private suspension involves a crew of two to six people and usually lasts for 10-15 minutes, though an hour to two is his personal standard. He says that while the first suspension is generally more difficult than subsequent ones, the crowd's reaction greatly affects the suspendee's. Once, a camera crew guy tried to suspend at the end of Oslo's SUSCON. "He was very stoic, because that's their culture, so he thought that's how you're supposed to hang," Falkner says. "If you have a bunch of people screaming and freaking out, that's how it will go."
The hook piercing hurts, but only initially. "If you can convince your brain that something doesn't hurt, it won't," he says. Falkner requires that suspendees be over 18 years of age and that they spend a full day watching suspensions and asking questions. Then he recommends a position based on comfort and body type. Suspensions are funded on a donation basis. It's safe to say that those who don't donate might not hang with this crowd again.
Suspension has become a part of rock concerts, art shows — such as the current Skin exhibition in Philadelphia, where live subjects are suspended as objets d'art — and televised stunts performed by the likes of Criss Angel. Falkner has his hooks behind the scenes at each of these events. Even still, suspension seems to produce intense reactions, perhaps because of the deathly image that hanging evokes.
Dave Navarro, guitarist for Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is a "hooker" and a personal friend of Falkner. "We are similar age groups, we grew up listening to the same music, going to the same clubs, and that's what's shaped us creatively. He's a Dallas staple," Navarro says. "He's like Dallas royalty. If there is any, he's in that realm. He's very supportive, respectful and generous with his time and wisdom."
When Jane's Addiction played Gexa Energy Pavilion in Dallas two years ago, Falkner took stage production to haunting levels by suspending his wife, pole fitness instructor Courtney Crave, onstage.
Navarro speaks of his regret at missing this year's SUSCON, which he once hosted, because of obligations in New York. "It's a very social event, and one with intent. Everybody is there for a common goal and nobody there gives a fuck who you are or what you do, it's about what you're willing to put into your craft."
Navarro practices suspension himself. "I really enjoy it, it's very unique," he says. "Sometimes it's a very physical experience full of adrenaline, sometimes it's very spiritual. There's a connectedness between the suspendee and the team, so it's a huge exercise in trust. It's pretty special and miraculous. I love not knowing what kind of experience I'm gonna have. That's part of the mystery about it — it has a seduction to it. It's also very sexual."
Falkner sees it differently. "Suspension is not a sexual endeavor. There are porns of it — but you can have sex and ride a roller coaster, too. ... The S&M community is very different than the suspension community, because S&M is very sex-based."
Jason L. is an aircraft engineer contracted by the government, and an occasional hooker. While he finds that the practice has become more socially acceptable, he keeps his hobby a secret due to his particular line of work.
He was friends with Falkner first, he says, which led to him designing hooks and rigs for suspension, and eventually to practicing it himself. Jason says he's fascinated by the practice from a technical perspective but also respects its artistic value. "I think of it as an art form, not just people hanging from hooks," he says.
Jason L. has been hung from every area of his body, using up to 10 hooks at one time. He finds that hanging from the chest is the most painful, but also the most exhilarating position. His favorite suspension act involves two people hanging simultaneously, symbiotically controlling each other's suspension. "But my favorite one to watch is The Astronaut, where people hang only by two hooks on their ass," he says.
It's evident that even those involved in the suspension community disagree about its appeal. It may seem like just the latest body modification trend — along with the stretching of the lobes, piercings and implants — intended to shock those with parochial views. In a culture crusading against cutting and other forms of self-harm, an art form that celebrates it is bound to be controversial.
But suspension is more about shock therapy than shock value. The initial pain subsides as the body becomes anesthetized during suspension through the combined release of adrenaline and endorphins, Falkner says. As neurons fire and produce an unparalleled high, brain waves ebb into a barely conscious theta state. Falkner finds it to be a sweet escape from the monotony of modern living.
He also swears by the social benefit of being cocooned by a group witnessing and assisting in this exertion of mind over torture. He compares it to the bygone traditions of building barns as a community. "Avoiding pain doesn't necessarily make us happy," Falkner says. "[But] when we conquer pain, it's euphoric."
Falkner doesn't want the subculture to be demonized or vilified. "You don't have to understand, you don't have to like what we do, you don't have to watch or participate, but I want to make sure that people don't try to not allow it," he says. Falkner says it's a common problem the community faces.
He once testified in a custody case after a mother risked losing her parental rights because of her involvement in suspension. Falkner had to explain to a jury what suspension entails. "[That] was very difficult because I'm the weird-looking guy with the tattoos trying to explain that hanging from hooks is not a detrimental activity," Falkner says. "She actually got full custody."
The mother in question, who asked that we change her name to Veronica, is a loan agent from Fort Worth who first saw a live suspension with her then-husband at a 2012 party at The Church. Finding it thrilling, she began practicing it herself. "When you're hanging, there's nobody else but you," she says. "You have this feeling of being able to accomplish anything."
Veronica had been practicing suspension for six months when she went through a divorce, and her more vanilla husband used her suspension practice to argue that she was an unfit parent. She says the Tarrant County judge took one look at the Facebook photos her ex-husband presented as evidence, called suspension sadistic and ruled that her child be removed from her home immediately. "Only a child molester would get involved in this," Veronica recalls the judge saying.
Veronica says that her own attorney agreed suspension was cause enough to lose custody, and she had to replace him. She was ordered supervised visitations with her daughter, which cost her $50 an hour. But she received an outpouring of support in the form of character witnesses from coworkers and friends in the suspension community, and Falkner himself was quick to testify on her behalf. He kept his composure as he explained the community's practices and lifestyles, though the opposing team attempted to misconstrue his statements.
"Allen was the first to pop up, because he knew that suspension was the only reason they took my daughter away," she says. "He has that persona about him. He looks out for other people — he has a very protective role, especially with the younger people." Although she won full custody, she ultimately agreed to 50-50 custody. She also placed a complaint about the first judge, but says it hasn't gone anywhere.
Still, Veronica hasn't gone back to suspension since she continues to be afraid it will be used against her. She misses it. "I love the suspension community," she says. "I trust them with my children more than I do my own family."
Falkner doesn't want people like Veronica to pay the price for people's misperceptions about suspension. "The main thing that I try to articulate is that we're not crazy, we're not Satan-worshippers, we're not religious zealots, we're not a cult and we're not trying to recruit people," Falkner says. "We just want to be able to do what we want to do and not have society try to prevent us."
It's the closing night of SUSCON at the Red Light Lounge in Deep Ellum, which Falkner co-owns. From the street, a crane can be seen on the rooftop. A man is suspended from it, flailing and kicking about gleefully, as if he's skydiving. Attendees show off their fresh bandages, appearing exhausted after eight hours of classes.
Some say they've come because the convention is "more education-based," others simply to indulge their passion free from disapproving eyes. One young man from Denver says that he took time off from his IT job, under the half-true pretense of visiting friends in Dallas.
Håvve Fjell, who runs Oslo's SUSCON, is also here holding court. It's not a costume party, but the attendees are vibrantly eclectic in their appearances, with enough tattoos to cover the Sistine Chapel. Burlesque dancers perform acts with hula hoops and on swings. Falkner is complimentary while introducing each performer. In between, he walks around introducing people to each other with the ease and grace of a lord.
Nine Inch Nails and Prodigy play incessantly in the background as people hug goodbye with such affection that they seem like family. For these out-of-towners, Dallas is the cradle of modern suspension. And its inventor Allen Falkner looks on at his graduates with fatherly pride.