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The History of 5 Deadly Circus Stunts

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The circus has always been about performers reaching the pinnacle of courage, strength, and skill, all for the intangible payback of the roar of the crowd. No other acts define this better than those who truly put their lives on the line for your entertainment. Here are the stories behind five of the most dangerous stunts ever seen under the big top.

1. Knife Thrower

Knife throwers and their "impalement arts" cousins—bullwhip crackers, archery experts, and firearm sharpshooters—became popular in the late-1800s as part of circuses and Wild West shows. The knife throwing acts generally consisted of a few standard stunts, like popping balloons, pinning playing cards, slicing through flower stems, as well as the famous "Profile," in which the thrower embeds 12" knives along the body of his assistant, known as a "target girl."


By far the most famous stunt, though, is "The Wheel of Death," in which the target girl is strapped to a large wooden wheel and then spun around. It's unknown exactly how old the Wheel stunt is, but it's widely believed that The Gibsons, a husband and wife act, are responsible for bringing it to America in 1938 as part of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Gibsons also introduced the most death-defying stunt known, the Veiled Wheel of Death, in which a large sheet of paper hides the wheel from the thrower. The stunt has been performed only by a handful of acts—The Gibsons, The Zeros in the 1940s, The Brumbachs (performed only once in 1978), and the current Guinness Record Holder for Fastest Knife Throwing, David "The Great Throwdini" Adamovich. The Great Throwdini has even taken the stunt one step further by adding a second target girl:

The Great Throwdini performs the Veiled Double Wheel of Death.

2. Lion Tamer

In 1819, Germany's Henri Martin stood inside a cage with a tiger for four minutes and lived to tell the tale. It was the culmination of many weeks' worth of acclimation, gaining the beast's trust by first rubbing the tiger through the bars, and then putting his head and shoulders inside before finally walking into the cage. After forming a friendly bond, Martin soon taught the tiger to do simple canine-like tricks, such as sitting up and lying down on command, thus becoming the first-known wild animal trainer.

Although Martin's methods were humane, not all trainers have been so kind. Pioneering American trainer Isaac Van Amburgh was the first person to (intentionally) put his head inside a lion's mouth. Unfortunately, he gained this type of control by savagely beating the animals into submission with a crowbar. Van Amburgh justified his cruelty by citing Genesis, which proclaims man's dominion over the animals. Even at the time, his methods were controversial, but it didn't prevent him from performing his show across Europe and America to huge crowds in the 1830s and '40s.



This "Man vs. Beast" philosophy was also the basis for trainer Clyde Beatty's act (above), which ran from the 1920s until the early 1960s. Inside the ring, Beatty used a bullwhip and chair to distract the big cats, and he kept a loaded pistol strapped to his side, becoming the epitome of the lion tamer persona that we all know today.

Clyde Beatty performing with his cats.

Sadly, cruelty to circus animals continues even today. Recently, the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was hit with a $270,000 fine for 27 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act, stretching back to 2007.

3. Human Cannonball

Despite the big bang and puff of smoke, human cannonballs are not really shot out of the cannon with gunpowder. In fact, the original design for the catapulting system, created by tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt, used rubber springs for propulsion. The first dedicated human cannonball act was a 14-year-old girl going by the stage name "Zazel," whose inaugural blastoff occurred on April 2, 1877, in London. Sadly, her career ended a few years later the same way as so many other human cannonballs—she missed the net. Thankfully, though, she only broke her back.



The cannon's design was upgraded in 1922 by Italy's Zacchini Brothers, who replaced the rubber springs with compressed air. Originally, they suggested the Italian Army use the cannon to send troops equipped with parachutes behind enemy lines, but when the Army said no, they adopted it for the circus instead. Over the course of 70 years and multiple generations, the Zacchinis became the long-standing holders of the world record for distance, and helped popularize the now-common stunt of launching over obstacles, such as buildings or carnival rides.

The modern reigning family of human cannonballs is the Smiths, made up of patriarch David, son David Jr., and one of the few female cannonballers, daughter Jennifer. Over the years, the Smiths have been fired up and over everything from the American-Mexican border to a baseball stadium wall, the first human home run. They also have quite a few world records to their credit. The first was in 1995, when David Sr. broke the Zacchini's distance record by launching himself 180'. David Jr. upstaged his old man in March 2011, though, when he went 193'. But David Sr. still holds the record for the highest launch at 200'4", which he set by flying over two Ferris Wheels in 2002.

David Smith, Jr., being fired out of a cannon.

4. Flying Trapeze

In 1859, acrobat Jules Leotard (left) hung trapeze bars over the swimming pool in his father's gymnasium. He then swung and launched himself from one to the next without fear because, if he missed, he simply landed safely in the water below. A few weeks later, Leotard introduced his 12-minute "flying trapeze" routine at Cirque Napoleon, where he was soon performing to sold-out crowds. Sadly, his reign as king of swing was cut short—he died in 1870 of either typhoid or cholera. However, his legacy lives on as the namesake of the skin-tight leggings he wore for his act, as well as the inspiration for the 1867 song, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze."


While single and double somersaults are pretty standard tricks on the flying trapeze, a triple is so dangerous that Italian fliers once called it solto mortale, "The Deadly Leap." The danger lies in the fact that the feat must be accomplished at such high speed that the brain loses track of its place in space, making it difficult for the flier to regain their sense and know it's time to reach out to the catcher. Missing the catcher means dropping into the net (if there is one), which is notorious for breaking the necks of even seasoned fliers if they're not in the right position. However, this Holy Grail of stunts was performed in 1897 by Lena Jordan, a 4'10" 18-year-old woman who weighed in at a whopping 94 pounds. After Jordan proved it could be done, more fliers tried it, and soon the triple became the high-water mark of a truly exceptional act.

Of course if the triple was possible, it seemed logical that a quadruple was, too. Many tried, but the quadruple eluded even the most skilled fliers until July 10, 1982, when Miguel Vazquez of Ringling Brothers, spinning at more than 80mph, landed the first in Tucson, Arizona, in front of a crowd of 7,000 spectators. Since Vazquez, the stunt has only been completed by a handful of fliers, most recently in January 2010 by Ivo Silva, Jr., of The Flying Caceres.

Miguel Vazquez performing a quadruple somersault.

5. Tightrope Walker

For hundreds of years, acrobats and jugglers have upped the ante by performing their routines suspended high above the ground on a thin wire. As if the very act of walking on a wire 5/8" thick at 40' in the air (minimum) without a net wasn't dangerous enough, these "funambulists" have continually developed routines that truly defy reason. Perhaps the most famous of these is the human pyramid, wherein two walkers follow each other onto the rope with a balance bar stretched between them on their shoulders. A third walker will then climb onto the bar and the group will make its way across.

But a three-person pyramid simply wasn't exciting enough for Karl Wallenda. In 1928, his Great Wallendas performed a four-person, three-level pyramid consisting of two men on bicycles, with Karl sitting on a chair on the bar between them, and his wife Helen standing on his shoulders. They performed this act for years under their original name; however, that changed during a performance in Akron, Ohio, when the group lost their balance and fell. They caught themselves on the wire and were unharmed, but a reporter in the crowd said they fell so gracefully that it appeared they were flying. From then on, they became known as The Flying Wallendas.



The family pushed the act to the limit, performing a three-layer, seven-person pyramid: two pairs of men with shoulder beams at the bottom, two more men with a shoulder beam on the next level up, and a woman on a chair like a cherry on top. They performed this stunt (above) without incident from 1948 until January 30, 1962, when, tragically, the performers fell during a show in Detroit. Of the seven, two died on impact and another was paralyzed from the waist down. The rest dangled from the wire, but made it down safely. Convinced that the show must go on, the pyramid was dropped from the routine, but the Wallendas performed again the very next night.

A group practicing the Wallenda 7 act for a production at the Goodman Theatre of Chicago.

The fall in Detroit led some members of the act to retire shortly thereafter. The tragedy had the opposite effect on Karl, though. He practically became a one-man act, performing ever more daring tightrope walks from ever increasing heights and distances. He became famous throughout the 1970s for walking 1,000' across Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, across the roofs of stadiums like the Astrodome, and between two landmark hotels in Miami Beach. It was during a 1978 daredevil performance in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that the 73-year-old tightrope walker fell 120' to the concrete parking lot below, live on camera. (Yes, it is on YouTube.) For a man who risked his life for the thrill of the crowd, he probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

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10 Surprising Facts About The Babadook
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In 2014, The Babadook came out of nowhere and scared audiences across the globe. Written and directed by Aussie Jennifer Kent, and based on her short film Monster, The Babadook is about a widow named Amelia (played by Kent’s drama schoolmate Essie Davis) who has trouble controlling her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who thinks there’s a monster living in their house. Amelia reads Samuel a pop-up book, Mister Babadook, and Samuel manifests the creature into a real-life monster. The Babadook may be the villain, but the film explores the pitfalls of parenting and grief in an emotional way. 

“I never approached this as a straight horror film,” Kent told Complex. “I always was drawn to the idea of grief, and the suppression of that grief, and the question of, how would that affect a person? ... But at the core of it, it’s about the mother and child, and their relationship.”

Shot on a $2 million budget, the film grossed more than $10.3 million worldwide and gained an even wider audience via streaming networks. Instead of creating Babadook out of CGI, a team generated the images in-camera, inspired by the silent films of Georges Méliès and Lon Chaney. Here are 10 things you might not have known about The Babadook (dook, dook).

1. THE NAME “BABADOOK” WAS EASY FOR A CHILD TO INVENT.

Jennifer Kent told Complex that some people thought the creature’s name sounded “silly,” which she agreed with. “I wanted it to be like something a child could make up, like ‘jabberwocky’ or some other nonsensical name,” she explained. “I wanted to create a new myth that was just solely of this film and didn’t exist anywhere else.”

2. JENNIFER KENT WAS WORRIED PEOPLE WOULD JUDGE THE MOTHER.

Amelia isn’t the best mother in the world—but that’s the point. “I’m not a parent,” Kent told Rolling Stone, “but I’m surrounded by friends and family who are, and I see it from the outside … how parenting seems hard and never-ending.” She thought Amelia would receive “a lot of flak” for her flawed parenting, but the opposite happened. “I think it’s given a lot of women a sense of reassurance to see a real human being up there,” Kent said. “We don’t get to see characters like her that often.”

3. KENT AND ESSIE DAVIS TONED DOWN THE CONTENT FOR THE KID.

Noah Wiseman was six years old when he played Samuel. Kent and Davis made sure he wasn’t present for the more horrific scenes, like when Amelia tells Samuel she wishes he was the one who died, not her husband. “During the reverse shots, where Amelia was abusing Sam verbally, we had Essie yell at an adult stand-in on his knees,” Kent told Film Journal. “I didn’t want to destroy a childhood to make this film—that wouldn’t be fair.”

Kent explained a “kiddie version” of the plot to Wiseman. “I said, ‘Basically, Sam is trying to save his mother and it’s a film about the power of love.’”

4. THE FILM IS ALSO ABOUT “FACING OUR SHADOW SIDE.”

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Kent told Film Journal that “The Babadook is a film about a woman waking up from a long, metaphorical sleep and finding that she has the power to protect herself and her son.” She noted that everybody has darkness to face. “Beyond genre and beyond being scary, that’s the most important thing in the film—facing our shadow side.”

5. THE FILM SCARED THE HELL OUT OF THE DIRECTOR OF THE EXORCIST.

In an interview with Uproxx, William Friedkin—director of The Exorcist—said The Babadook was one of the best and scariest horror films he’d ever seen. He especially liked the emotional aspect of the film. “It’s not only the simplicity of the filmmaking and the excellence of the acting not only by the two leads, but it’s the way the film works slowly but inevitably on your emotions,” he said.

6. AN ART DEPARTMENT ASSISTANT SCORED THE ROLE AS THE BABADOOK.

Tim Purcell worked in the film’s art department but then got talked into playing the titular character after he acted as the creature for some camera tests. “They realized they could save some money, and have me just be the Babadook, and hence I became the Babadook,” Purcell told New York Magazine. “In terms of direction, it was ‘be still a lot,’” he said.

7. THE MOVIE BOMBED IN ITS NATIVE AUSTRALIA.

Even though Kent shot the film in Adelaide, Australians didn’t flock to the theaters; it grossed just $258,000 in its native country. “Australians have this [built-in] aversion to seeing Australian films,” Kent told The Cut. “They hardly ever get excited about their own stuff. We only tend to love things once everyone else confirms they’re good … Australian creatives have always had to go overseas to get recognition. I hope one day we can make a film or work of art and Australians can think it’s good regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.”

8. YOU CAN OWN A MISTER BABADOOK BOOK (BUT IT WILL COST YOU). 

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In 2015, Insight Editions published 6200 pop-up books of Mister Babadook. Kent worked with the film’s illustrator, Alexander Juhasz, who created the book for the movie. He and paper engineer Simon Arizpe brought the pages to life for the published version. All copies sold out but you can find some Kent-signed ones on eBay, going for as much as $500.

9. THE BABADOOK IS A GAY ICON.

It started at the end of 2016, when a Tumblr user started a jokey thread about how he thought the Babadook was gay. “It started picking up steam within a few weeks,” Ian, the Tumblr user, told New York Magazine, “because individuals who I presume are heterosexual kind of freaked out over the assertion that a horror movie villain would identify as queer—which I think was the actual humor of the post, as opposed to just the outright statement that the Babadook is gay.” In June, the Babadook became a symbol for Gay Pride month. Images of the character appeared everywhere at this year's Gay Pride Parade in Los Angeles.

10. DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR A SEQUEL.

Kent, who owns the rights to The Babadook, told IGN that, despite the original film's popularity, she's not planning on making any sequels. “The reason for that is I will never allow any sequel to be made, because it’s not that kind of film,” she said. “I don’t care how much I’m offered, it’s just not going to happen.”

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11 Terrifying Facts About The Hills Have Eyes
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In the late 1970s, Wes Craven was a struggling filmmaker known for only one thing: a little horror flick called The Last House on the Left (1972). Though he was itching to branch out and make other kinds of movies, he could only find financing for horror films, so he agreed to make a movie about a group of hill people savaging a vacationing family. Though he may not have been in a hurry to admit it, Craven found that he was really good at scaring people.

Produced on a tight budget, under sometimes grueling conditions, The Hills Have Eyes cemented Craven as one of Hollywood’s great horror masters. The film was released 40 years ago today, and it’s just as brutal as ever. So let’s look back on its unflinching terror with 11 facts about the film’s production.

1. IT WAS BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

According to writer/director Wes Craven, The Hills Have Eyes was inspired by the story of Sawney Bean, the head of a wild Scottish clan who murdered and cannibalized numerous people during the Middle Ages. Craven heard the story of the Bean clan, and noted that the road near where they lived was believed to be haunted because people kept disappearing while traveling on it. He adapted the story to instead be about a group of wild people in the American West, and The Hills Have Eyes was born.

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY NECESSITY.

After Craven released The Last House on the Left in 1972, he tried his hand at making films outside of the horror genre, but according to the late director, “Nobody wanted to know about it.” In need of money and searching for a better career path, he finally answered the request of his friend, producer Peter Locke, to write a horror film. At the time, Locke’s wife Liz Torres was performing regularly in Las Vegas, and so Locke was frequently exposed to desert landscapes. He suggested that Craven set the film in the desert, and Craven began to craft the screenplay.

Budget was also a concern, so Craven structured the film to feature a relatively small cast and very few locations.

3. JANUS BLYTHE WON HER ROLE BASED PARTLY ON SPEED.

For the role of Ruby, the filmmakers needed an actress who could pull off the flighty and feral character convincingly, so, in the words of Locke: “We had sprints.” Actresses trying out for the role were asked to race each other, and Blythe’s speed won out.

4. PETER LOCKE PLAYS A SMALL ROLE IN THE FILM.

Because of the film’s small budget, even Locke was drafted to join the cast. He appears as “Mercury,” the feather-covered savage who appears only twice: once in the film’s opening minutes, and then again as he’s pushed off a cliff by the Carter family’s dog, Beast.

5. THE TARANTULA SCENE WASN’T PLANNED.

The scene in which Lynne Wood (Dee Wallace) discovers a tarantula in the family trailer is a foreboding moment that signals the trauma to come, but it wasn’t in the script. According to Craven, they simply found the spider on the road during shooting, put it in a terrarium, and decided to add it into the film. Don’t worry, though: Wallace didn’t actually stomp the spider in the scene.

6. THE DEAD DOG WAS REAL (BUT THEY DIDN’T KILL IT).

During the scene in which Doug (Martin Speer) discovers the mutilated body of the family’s other German Shepherd, Beauty, a real dog corpse was used. According to Craven, though, the dog was already dead.

“Let’s just say we bought a dead dog from the county and leave it at that,” Craven said.

7. THE FILM WAS ORIGINALLY RATED X.

Though it might seem relatively tame by modern standards, the film’s graphic violence earned it an X (what we now call NC-17) rating from the MPAA, which meant cuts had to be made. According to Locke, significant footage was removed from the scene in which Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) kills Fred (John Steadman), the scene in which Pluto (Michael Berryman) and Mars (Lance Gordon) terrorize the trailer, and the final confrontation with Papa Jupiter.

8. MICHAEL BERRYMAN CONSTANTLY FACED HEATSTROKE.

Berryman, who became a horror icon thanks to this film, was apparently game for just about anything Craven and company wanted him to do, though he personally told the producers he was born with “26 birth defects.” Among those birth defects was a lack of sweat glands, which meant that the intense desert heat was particularly hazardous to his health. He soldiered on, though, even in intense action sequences.

“We always had to cover him up as soon as we finished these scenes,” Craven recalled.

9. THE CLIMACTIC EXPLOSION COULD’VE BEEN DEADLY.

Because the budget was small, production on The Hills Have Eyes often meant taking risks. Actors performed stunts themselves, sometimes putting themselves in harm’s way. For the scene in which Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston) set a trap to kill Papa Jupiter by blowing up the trailer, the crew members who set the explosion actually couldn’t tell Craven whether it was safe to have the actors in the foreground of the shot.

“We didn’t know how much of a blow-up it was gonna be,” Craven said.

10. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH MORE HOPEFUL.

According to Locke, the film’s original scripted ending involved the surviving family members reuniting at the site of the trailer, including Doug and the baby, signifying that they had survived and could finally look forward. Craven, though, opted for something more bleak, and so the film ends on a shot of Doug brutally stabbing Mars while Ruby looks on in disgust, a reversal of roles that the director liked.

11. IT STARTED AN INTERESTING CHAIN OF HORROR HOMAGES.

The Hills Have Eyes is admired by fellow horror filmmakers, so much so that one of them—Evil Dead director Sam Raimi—chose to pay homage to it in a strange way. In the scene in which Brenda is quivering in bed after having been brutalized by Pluto and Mars, a ripped poster for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is visible above her head. Raimi saw it as a message.

“I took it to mean that Wes Craven … was saying ‘Jaws was just pop horror. What I have here is real horror.’”

As a joking response to the scene, Raimi put a ripped poster for The Hills Have Eyes in his now-classic film The Evil Dead (1981). Not to be outdone, Craven responded by including a clip from The Evil Dead in his classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Additional Sources: The Hills Have Eyes DVD commentary by Wes Craven and Peter Locke (2003)

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