Hooten and Madrid began suspending semiregularly with Pinhead. But the two were relying on someone who lived far away and was hard to reach, so Madrid decided to step up. In December 2013, he began building a rig in Miami. First, he bought a $500 pulley system from a place called Miami Cordage. Next, he needed a collection of Gilson hooks. A guy in Arizona charged $50 a pop. Then, of course, Madrid required a pressure steam sterilizer to keep it all safe. That ran him $270.

"I've started doing suspensions without him because we don't want to wait," he says of Pinhead. "With him, we used to go up every three or four months, but now I'm able to put people up every month."

Soon Madrid was the leader of a group that included Hooten, Coco Stabs, and a dreadlocked human-Hulk named Dazed. Franky Cruz, a young artist who was raised Seventh-day Adventist, is their latest convert and their unofficial fifth member.

Fakir Musafar brought Okipa, a Native American ritual, into the modern era.
Courtesy of Fakir Musafar
Fakir Musafar brought Okipa, a Native American ritual, into the modern era.
Fakir Musafar hangs from meat hooks.
Courtesy of Fakir Musafar
Fakir Musafar hangs from meat hooks.

In 2010, he was kicked out of New World School of the Arts for suspending during his solo debut. Now he's looking to hang regularly with Madrid and his crew. Being brought into the group, Dazed says, "is like a Dances With Wolves kind of situation. It's the classic story of a new guy being initiated as an outsider and going through an intense ritual."

Michael Hooten has slicked-back hair, "Chaotic Tendencies" tattooed across his chiseled chest, and what looks like a fishhook pierced through his gums. On this temperate January evening in Eric Madrid's backyard, he is amped. "This is a ritual that goes back further than the Bible," he says while pulling on a Newport and preparing himself for Okipa. "It's one of the oldest things there is."

But when it comes time to hang, his swagger vanishes. He hangs for a matter of seconds before he passes out and has to be let down. Then he collapses. A few seconds later, he sits slumped over on the ground, sobbing. Jenny, a psychic medium with a copper-hued Afro, a nose ring, and a permanently worried expression, tries to feed him a chocolate bar to raise his blood sugar. He says he's unprepared to eat anything. He's hyperventilating.

Like Madrid, Hooten explains later, he's looking for a release from trauma — in his case, a life-changing car wreck.

When Hooten was 11 years old, a trailer jackknifed on the Tamiami Trail during a family trip to Naples. His Jehovah's Witness parents became disabled for life, while his younger sister, Alex Halenda, walked away unscathed. Meanwhile, Hooten's face was nearly ripped off. Although it miraculously shows no scars today, the experience left him deeply troubled. Around the time of the accident, he saw a documentary about people who suspended. The image never left him.

"I spent my whole life wondering how I could meet people who did this," he says.

His father ran a window installation service before the accident but was unable to work afterward. To make ends meet, Hooten began running with a gang that referred to him as "Whitey" and "Whiteboy," according to court documents. He fell in deep with Jose Dominguez, AKA Kiko, the head of the TOYS, which stands for "Taking Over Your Space." A 2008 Miami-Dade Police Department report shows the gang had 40 members and six chapters at the time Mikey was involved. He also reported to "some kind of Italian Mafia boss-type person," according to one officer's court testimony.

"He didn't really give himself the chance to process the emotions and the sensations that were going on," his sister, Alex Halenda, hypothesizes. "I think that kind of got to his head."

Suspension turned his life around. ­Hooten was always angry and eager for pain. He had a beloved grandfather who would beat him if he failed to show courtesy to his mother. He grew up scrapping in schoolyards. As an adult, he tried muay thai, a martial art from Thailand, to channel his residual anger, but it didn't do much.

Meeting Madrid was pretty much the best thing that ever happened, the former gangbanger says. He traded his TOYS nickname for "Diabolic Mikey" and ­began working as a professional piercer near Dadeland. Suspending calmed his nerves, let him get the rage out, he says. He's done it about ten times so far.

But this January day in Eric's backyard was different. Either he wasn't ready for the pain, or he wasn't prepared for the spiritual aspect of the evening. Regardless, he was on the ground crying. "My grandfather always used to rub the back of my neck when he'd tell me something important," Hooten says. "I felt his hand there, and I even saw the red and black plaid of the shirt he always used to wear."

Other people would go up that evening. There was Dazed, the human-Hulk who chose to simply suspend from his back and skip the spiritual bullshit. He had a great time, swinging back and forth as he laughed, testing the strength of the Gilson hooks until the rig collapsed and he fell. The noise sounded like a popped tire.

Then there was Coco Stabs, the 250-pound behemoth and good-time guy who cheerily hung from his massive body and laughed when he came down.

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