Tim Cridland — better known by his stage name “Zamora the Torture King” – is an American sideshow performer who makes a living mutilating himself on stage. His most famous acts include walking barefoot on razors, applying electric shocks to his face and skewering various body parts with meat hooks and needles. (Rumours that he can step on Lego barefoot remain unfounded.)
Needless to say, Tim isn’t the kind of person who makes a big fuss over stubbing their toe. For all intents and purposes, he is a superhero impervious to pain. Here are his secrets.
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Laughing at pain through the ages
History is filled with queer tales about people who cannot feel pain. Perhaps the most famous were the berserker warriors of the Viking Era who feared neither fire nor iron. Some historians think beserkers were psychologically conditioned to ignore pain while others believe hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol dulled their senses. Either way, there are numerous historical records detailing their imperviousness to pain – which is a handy skill to have in the heat of battle.
Hundreds of years before Vikings were reaving the coastline of Europe, the Spartan warriors of Ancient Greece were the hardest soldiers around. Their rigorous military training program – called agōgē – specifically involved pain tolerance. This included extreme fasting and deprivation of footwear to toughen the feet. This prolonged exposure to physical and psychological pain honed the Spartans into some of the greatest warriors of the ancient world.
The Immortals Army of Ancient Persia were similarly fearless in battle which led to the legend they could not be killed. In reality, their strength was kept at exactly 10,000 men, with killed or injured soldiers immediately replaced with fresh members. While their reaction to pain is undocumented, they did inspire the Unsullied from Game Of Thrones, which just about warrants their inclusion here.
The science of painlessness
In more recent times, scientists have begun to explain why some people are impervious to pain. Usually, the culprit is congenital analgesia, a rare genetic disorder that effectively dulls or deadens the pain receptors found in skin, muscles, bones, blood vessels, and organs.
The condition is caused by mutations in a protein-encoding gene essential for initiating pain signals between neurons. While people with this condition still have a sense of touch, they do not experience pain the way normal people do.
While this might sound pretty handy – particularly for any bloke who’s ever been kicked in the bollocks – it can lead to serious unintended injuries. For example, a person with congenital analgesia would not instinctively remove their hand from a hot plate until their noticed the smell of burning flesh. By that point, they could already have a third- or fourth degree burn.
People with the condition have even been known to accidentally bite their own tongue off or to die from heat stroke on hot days. Even something as simple as sitting down can lead to serious injury as they haven’t learned how to lower their bodies with due care.
It’s estimated that congenital analgesia occurs in about one in one million people worldwide. Interestingly, recent studies into congenital analgesia sufferers could help to produce new and infinitely more effective pain killers for ordinary people. Hopefully, we will all soon be able to shut off our pain receptors by popping a pill.
Zamora’s torture tips
Surprisingly, Zamora the Torture King does not have one of the aforementioned genetic conditions. Rather, he has managed to increase his pain threshold though rigorous training – just like the Spartan warriors of old. The pain caused by external stimuli is still there, but Cridland has the psychological fortitude to shrug it off. In other words, it’s a learnable skill – although why anyone would want to learn it is beyond us.
In various interviews, Cridland has explained that he was always fascinated by the Indian mystics and street performers who would put real pins through their bodies. To Cridland, then a budding magician in elementary school, this was much closer to “real magic”, and he attempted to emulate them by sticking sewing pins through the skin of his forearm.
“I always feel pain. I’m just able to control it and feel it in a different way,” Cridland once explained in a Men’s Health article. “I can reduce the way it affects me, what I call the feedback loop of pain. I’m aware of sensations; it’s not like I’m totally numb.”
Cridland claims he has been studied by scientists who have verified his ability to “change” the way his brain perceives pain. If Cridland can be believed, this is something almost anyone is capable of achieving.
“The main thing is to basically change your relationship with pain,” Cridland explains. “You can visualize pain in different ways, and gain control over it. It’s not to say that you’ll be completely free of pain, but the more you feel trapped by pain, the more it controls you. If you can get out of that feedback loop, you’ll reduce the experience of pain, or at least keep it deep in the background, as opposed to being front and center.”
According to Cridland, the key is not to ignore the pain by trying to think of something else, nor to focus on it above everything else. Rather, you need to find a middle ground – acknowledge it and work with it, but don’t let the sensations consume you.