At their best, daredevils rival philosophers and mystics in their exploration of human mortality and spirit.
We watch them with locked attention even as we wonder if we should be watching them at all. Sometimes we feel guilty for our absorption in the daredevil’s endeavour, as if our bearing witness were alone responsible for their self-imperilment. The sanctimonious like to reinforce this feeling of guilt, attributing one’s fascination to a sickness, an eagerness to see others die right before our eyes. It’s only appropriate then that the most famous daredevil of them all – the veritable avatar of the phenomenon – provides the most poetic wisdom on the matter, reckoning that, while most of those watching don’t want to see him die, they do want to be there if he does.
Evel Knievel knew what he was talking about, and he knew what he was doing. People love an extravaganza, an event, a one-of-a-kind spectacle – a set-piece that will result in either tragedy or triumph, or something extremely compelling in between. And this isn’t anything new. It didn’t start with Knievel any more than it ended with him. For hundreds of years, in the Western world, spectators have been fascinated by human beings risking their lives in the name of entertainment.
This fascination has been indulged in ever-inventive ways, as daredevils outdo themselves and one another in concocting elaborate means of obtaining proximity to death: tumbling over the falls in a barrel, taking the city skyline on a tightrope, catching a bullet in the mouth. Harry Houdini – who of course preceded Knievel as an icon of daredevilry – once freed himself on stage from the belly of a dead whale-like sea creature. If you’ve ever conceived of an impossibly strange way to almost kill yourself before an audience, it’s likely that these guys thought of it first.
Not that they’re all guys. Far from it. The first person to successfully go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, in fact, was Annie Edson Taylor, a schoolteacher by profession and one of many remarkable female daredevils. Her leap down the falls was a variation on a theme introduced in 1829 by Sam Patch, the Yankee Leaper (who’d taken his jumps straight, no barrel, sometimes accompanied by a bear). Seventy-two years later, on the day, remarkably, of her 63rd birthday, Taylor got it into her head that she could cushion her retirement if she did just like the Yankee Leaper had done, but in a barrel.
It was 4.5 ft by 3 ft, made of oak and braced with metal hoops. She was protected by two pillows, strapped in with a leather harness, and air was supplied and regulated with a makeshift apparatus. A 175 lb anvil was fixed to the bottom to keep the barrel upright during its initial descent. She took Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls 167 feet down, and by the time she was finished, she’d endured 18 minutes of being ‘hurled about and knocked frightfully’.
Taylor lived to tell her tale, but not to make the fortune she’d envisioned. Patch, too, failed in his mercenary intentions. The final jump he would ever take – the one that killed him – was from a greater height than the one immediately preceding it, precisely because the last-but-one had failed to generate satisfactory revenue. It’s easy to see Patch and Taylor in the daredevils of today, convinced they’re just one YouTube video away from riches and fame. The internet has not fundamentally changed the impulse of those who perform such stunts or those who watch them (even if it has changed the number who indulge the impulse, and the frequency with which they’re watched).
Set up a Google News alert for ‘daredevil’ and you will be confronted daily with two or three new accounts of someone performing some vertigo-inducing (for the viewer, at least) stunt, designed expressly for web consumption. Sometimes these stunts result in death. Usually they involve BASE jumping, or a vehicle moving at high speed, or (particularly popular lately) free-climbing some lofty – dizzyingly, nauseatingly lofty – tower or building.
Even though, at the scale’s extreme ends, the difference between amateur and professional daredevils is huge, the vast middle range is densely populated with performers whose impulses are virtually indistinguishable. Still, the professional does benefit from certain undeniable assets. The lethality of the whole enterprise is only affirmed when you stop to consider that, even for those favoured with the professional’s advantages – with talent, training, financial resources, expert consultation – performing stunts is still dangerous as hell.