South Floridians Suspend to Find Enlightenment

Eric Madrid is a 32-year-old shaman with a cropped beard, a protruding lower lip, and dark curls grown long in the back. Although he typically wears an all-black uniform, from flat-brimmed cap to high-top skate shoes, he's barefoot and stripped to his skinny jeans this January night.

He lies prostrate on a long cushioned massage table in the dining room of his 1930s Design District home, which boasts a stripper pole and an antique metal bathtub for decoration. In the corner, propped between the linoleum floor and the wall, is a canvas spray-painted with the phrase: "Be who you want to be, just choose."

Diabolic Mikey — a handsome, insanely tattooed 28-year-old who looks like Matt Damon's evil twin — slips on a pair of white latex gloves so he can stick his friend in the right pectoral using a six-inch, six-gauge skewer that looks like the tip of a syringe.

He tries once to pierce the shaman's skin. Then again. The veins in Mikey's neck bulge and his ears turn red as he gives it a third go. The skewer bounces off Madrid's armor-like skin. Ten minutes later, on the fourth try, it penetrates his hairless chest.

Madrid's eyes well up with tears. He grips his stomach with his left hand and clenches his toes. Pushing with all his might, Mikey is able to make the skewer go through about four inches of his buddy's skin and pop out the other side. He slips what looks like a tiny coat hanger on the skewer and secures it with a screw and nut on top. Eventually, three of these are inserted and secured.

Three tattooed friends take cell-phone pictures of the carnage as Madrid stands and shows off his new hooks. His pixieish girlfriend, Kerri, fills an entire paper towel's worth of blood as she dabs his chest. Next, Madrid walks through his kitchen to a backyard lit with a pit fire and filled with droning, tribal-sounding music by the band Tool.

Coco Stabs, a 250-pound version of Bamm-Bamm with wooden shower curtain rings in his ears and a sherbet-colored bun atop his otherwise shaved head, awaits Madrid. He rigs his friend to a $1,200 pulley system that's similar to one on a yacht.

Everyone is silent. Although most suspension rituals are full of laughter and delight, Madrid's first chest suspension is deathly serious.

Red rivulets dribble down his slender figure, turning him into a hipster Christ. The seven spectators who have gathered for the event gasp in awe at this modern-day religious revival.

As Coco Stabs rotates the pulley, Madrid ascends about two feet off the ground. His tented skin seems impossibly stretched at six inches and destined to tear clean off.

To an outside observer, Madrid's suspension goes from terrifyingly tense to entirely banal within 30 seconds. The skewer/coat-hanger contraptions, called Gilson hooks, do their job. Madrid looks like he's asleep standing up as he slowly swings back and forth.

Later, he explains there was more going on than met the eye. Madrid emotionally describes seeing his physical body from an outside perspective and light cascading over his body in orgasmic waves. Eventually, the pain went away. As he puts it: "It's not the suspension that hurts; it's before and after." Although in reality the suspension lasted 90 seconds, to him it lasted years. "It felt like I was flexing a psychic muscle," Madrid says. "It felt like a breath that never ended."

And although most of his fellow suspension fanatics are covered in ink, subdermal skin implants, and unusual piercings, Madrid is as clean as he was coming out of the womb, except for the vague scars that reveal he's been suspended from his back ten times.

As perhaps Miami's most veteran suspension proponent, he now leads a small crew of dudes into out-of-body experiences, or what he calls OBEs. Together they're a surrogate family of young men who have defected from traditional religious upbringings to find comfort in ancient rite-of-passage rituals and supernatural experiences.

Madrid says he's been having OBEs since he was a kid but has now learned to control his extrasensory ability. It's a skill he learned from a mysterious man named Juan Leal and is now keen to pass on.

Though other suspension teams exist in Florida, Madrid claims his is unique in that its members use the practice as a spiritual tool more than anything else. Of the four core guys and handful of ancillary participants, only Coco Stabs does it for fun.

"It's always felt like my mission here since I was a little kid to assist with a shift in consciousness," Madrid says two weeks later, when he's still feeling the suspension's euphoric buzz. "But as I grow up, I see how it doesn't fit with a lot of people's ideas."

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.