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Secrets of Spectacularly Skewered Skin

Skeptical Inquiree

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.6, November / December 2008

Q: What explains the ability of some people to insert sharp spikes into their skin without bleeding or pain?

I’m sure there is nothing paranormal involved, but my friend believes otherwise.

—A. Lawson

Zamora the Torture King with skewers through his jaw and arm. (Photo by Benjamin Radford)

A: With perhaps the notable exception of masochists, sticking sharp spikes and skewers into your body isn’t something most people do for fun. It hurts, it can be dangerous, and it’s one of those skills that’s best left off your resume.

However, there are a few who do it for a living as part of an act. One of them is Zamora the Torture King, a Las Vegas-based performer who has entertained (and disturbed) audiences for years with his peculiar brand of showmanship.

In his book Secrets of the Sideshows, fellow SI columnist and CSI investigator extraordinaire Joe Nickell discusses this as a version of the “human pincushion act” well-known to sideshow performers during the heyday of the carnival (Nickell 2005, 234).

There are several psychological and physiological processes at play. The first is the audience’s expectations: when they see a large, sharp, gleaming spike, they tend to overestimate the damage it will do. They may picture what it would do to their own bodies if they stepped on it or jabbed it into their chests. Yet in the right hands, the sharper the skewer is, the less blood there will be, since the performer can then carefully guide it into place with minimal dermal damage.

Then there’s the psychology of the victim/performer. He (it’s usually a he) knows when the pain is coming and, through practice, can steel himself against it. In some cases, the skeweree seems better able to control pain than most people: Zamora’s tolerance for pain was tested by Dr. Joshua Prager of the UCLA School of Medicine. According to Prager, Zamora’s ability to withstand pain was “off the charts,” most likely due to meditation and self-hypnosis (Is It Real? 2005). Another simple way to ease the discomfort is to take painkillers beforehand—though not aspirin, which would thin the blood and create more bleeding.

The other part is physiological: cleanly made puncture wounds bleed far less than scrapes or cuts, and the skewers are often placed in the fleshy parts of the body, away from major veins and arteries. The inside of the forearms is a popular puncture place, as it has relatively few areas that register pain and even fewer that will bleed profusely. It’s not quite accurate to say that there is no blood or pain, but there is certainly less than most people would expect upon seeing a huge metal spike through the arm or jaw.


Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford's photo

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).