August 1, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

Death Defying Acts

Between the mighty legs of Death,

We play the schoolboy pranks of breath;

Scrawl challenge on his sodden boots,

The while he coils his cypress-roots.

Samuel Hoffenstein, 1928

There is an old joke about a paratrooper about to take his first jump. His instructor tells him that his parachute will open automatically. If it doesn't, he should pull the rip cord of his auxiliary chute and that there will be a truck on the ground waiting to return him to camp. He jumps and his chute doesn't open. he pulls the rip cord of his auxiliary chute and nothing happens. He thinks, "It would be just my luck; the truck won't be there either."

I have wondered what induces someone to pick an occupation or a hobby in which, if you don't succeed, you either die or become maimed for life. I suspect it is that exhilarating feeling that the player feels when the event is over and he realizes that he is still alive and that, once again, he has "cheated death."

He is supported in his efforts by a huge audience of ghouls who go to his/her performance in anticipation of seeing someone killed, as well as the media which publicize such events extensively.

I went to a circus once as a child and have never gone again. Why? Because I have an antipathy to seeing someone die or killed. If it was guaranteed that it wouldn't happen, I might go. But then it wouldn't attract as large an audience and with it, a large amount of money. Acrobats on the ground, or on trapezes with a net underneath them, use as much skill and artistry as the death-defying ones and are a pleasure to watch, but the element of impending death is missing. I don't miss it, but a lot of people seem to.

The lion tamer is popular merely because the lion may go berserk and maul the tamer. It rarely happens, but it could, and the element of danger attracts a larger audience. I once saw an act at Marine World-Africa USA with trained house cats. It took more skill and artistry to do that than it does to train big cats, but there was no danger attached to it. Being scratched or bitten by a house cat isn't life threatening, so it is not likely to attract as large an audience.

I sometimes feel like a freak because I don't want to see anyone die nor do I court danger. This is in contrast to a substantial percentage of the population. What makes me think so? The large number of people who watch events which contain a large element of danger tells me that many people go to these events in anticipation of someone being killed or maimed. Some like the feeling that they, themselves are in danger. Hence the popularity of roller coasters.

Bullfighting has been very popular in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries. The element of danger seems to play an important part. It is much more spectacular to see a bullfighter impaled on the horns of a bull than it is to see a prizefighter knocked out. Of course, both are in mortal danger; the bullfighter from the horns of the bull and the prizefighter from getting his brains scrambled by that knockout punch.

The first large circus that I went to featured "death defying" acts. If the trapeze artist fell, he/she would probably be killed instantly. There were no nets. This was because the management thought that a net would give the act less appeal and they were probably right. That was the last circus I went to. I have enjoyed acrobats and trapeze artists, but only when they were not in mortal danger.

When I went to Marine World-Africa USA, I enjoyed the trained pussycat act much more than I did the tigers.

Next column

Return to the Psychology Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page