IF YOU GO
What: Subterranean Cirqus with Megan Jean & The KFB and Banditos.
When: 9 p.m.-3 a.m. today.
Where: JJ's Bohemia, 231 M.L. King Blvd.
Most people treat pain like a biological red light and stop whatever they're doing before they injure themselves.
Lazarus Z. Hellgate, 28, and Pinkie Pell, 27, the founders of macabre performance troupe Subterranean Cirqus, blow through that red light at top speed, performing feats involving risks most wouldn't even contemplate.
"There are definitely things we do that I don't think a normal person could process properly," said Hellgate, whose acts include walking on a bed of broken glass, bending rebar rods with his throat and sticking his hand in a metal coyote trap.
"I absolutely snapped two bones in my hand doing that act the first time," he said. "These two bones fused together, so now, I can do that act over and over again, and it doesn't break.
"The pain I feel onstage is not a normal pain. It's more like pressure and cold as opposed to when I'm not in that zone."
Despite this lack of sensation, Hellgate said he still feels squeamish watching Pell, his longtime girlfriend, who performs under the stage name Pinkie the Princess of Pain.
When her mother refused to take her to a professional piercer as a child, Pell began piercing herself, discovering that she didn't react to pain the way others did.
Her Subterranean Cirqus performances push the edge of what even her fellow troupe members said they can watch, including piercing her own eyelids, putting out a blowtorch on her tongue and sticking needles under her fingernails.
"Basically, I just want to know what everything feels like," said Pell, whose face is studded with dozens of piercings and whose hair is dyed a vivid pink.
"I'm like all those science projects I failed in middle school," she added, grinning.
Hellgate's and Pell's flirtations with pain are just one stake in Subterranean Cirqus' tent. Their 25 annual performances also include burlesque, belly and fire dancers, stand-up comedians, a strongman and other vaudeville-style performers.
FROM MIDWAY TO BIG TOP
Hellgate and Pell met while taking drama classes in high school at Center for Creative Arts and began dating a few years later.
Their performing careers started as Internet exhibitionists for humor website Break.com, which paid them $500 for home videos of them doing things like drinking a glass of hot sauce and eating sandwiches made with worms.
The money was good, helping to pay their rent for several months, but their career eventually ended after one of their videos pushed the site owner's tolerances beyond the breaking point.
Hellgate has been a fan and student of historical circus sideshows since he was 7 years old. He said he saw the end of their Internet stardom as an opportunity to take their show on the road, first as a small troupe providing extra spice to touring bands' shows.
About six years ago, he, Pell and another partner decided to strike out on their own and formed Scenic City Sadistic Sideshow, a larger group and the precursor to Subterranean Cirqus.
Unlike the Cirqus, which has 10 core members encompassing a wide range of performing arts, the Sideshow had just one objective: turning stomachs.
"In the old days, that's all it was: 'Let's get onstage and see if we can make somebody [sick],' " Hellgate said.
At the time, he and Pell acted as behind-the-scenes organizers, allowing their partner, who went by the stage name The Doctor, to take centerstage as the sideshow's frontman.
For four years, the Sideshow toured heavily, performing about 100 dates annually at venues throughout the Southeast. Then, Hellgate and The Doctor split ways over a difference of opinion, offering a golden opportunity, Hellgate said, to create Subterranean Cirqus, a new group with loftier goals than just upsetting stomachs.
"I wanted to take the show in the direction I wanted to begin with, which was a full circus sideshow with ... any kind of variety act we could get our hands on, anything strange and unusual," he explained.
Building a larger cast has been a double-edged sword, adding the variety Hellgate said he wanted but making it harder to coordinate schedules. As a result, Subterranean Cirqus manages only a quarter as many annual dates as the Sideshow, mostly appearances at conventions.
While stomach-churning acts of pain endurance still feature heavily in Subterranean Cirqus, they're sandwiched between singers, dancers, fire breathers and other performers.
To add a sense of cohesion to these segments, Cirqus shows are presented as a traveling carnival hosted by a twisted ringmaster (Hellgate) and his ghoulish servants.
Each performance is tied together by the twisted comedic stylings of Cirqus' co-emcees, Joel Ruiz, 24, and John Michael Bond, 27, who play Hellgate's grave-robbing henchmen, Handlebar Jones and Mad Brother Jonathan.
Both men perform stand-up comedy around town. Unlike their normal shows, which follow a set routine, however, most of emceeing the Cirqus involves ad-libbing to describe the events unfolding onstage for those who can't see what's going on.
Being off-the-wall and twisted is easier and more fun under the guise of a sadistic manservant, Ruiz said, although he admitted that even after two years, he still feels squeamish watching Pell perform.
Bond joined the group three years ago but has known Hellgate and Pell for about a decade. At first, it was difficult watching his friends risk injury onstage, but over time, that has become easier, he said.
"The fact that they can do it over and over again has made it less bad for me because I know that, 'Oh, she's going to be fine tomorrow,' " Bond said.
"For a while, I'd worry that she would drink coffee, sneeze and it would come out the bottom of her chin because there was a hole there, but that didn't happen."
Over the years, Hellgate and Pell have used online forums and Facebook to seek out new performers with skills to add to the show's variety.
Although he originally contented himself with finding unskilled but willing additions, Hellgate said he and Pell have become more demanding of new talent, instead targeting those with established acts or especially promising novices.
Bellydancer Meghan Vonzurmuehlen, 23, has been with the group for only a couple of months but said she has appreciated the opportunity to explore beyond bellydance's traditional Middle Eastern roots.
Although the extreme nature of the show might be off-putting to some, Vonzurmuehlen said she sees the Cirqus as serving a valuable purpose.
"I think it opens people's eyes," she said. "People need to see that there's an underground scene that doesn't repress itself and just does what it wants to do and doesn't care what other people say.
"It frightens them, but it's good for them, in a way."
By day, Leroy Lewis works 60 hours a week managing a retail store, but on the weekends, he wrestles professionally. When Hellgate approached him three years ago to tell him many wrestlers also worked in sideshows and to offer him a spot in the Cirqus, Lewis said he was intrigued.
Hellgate brought over a box of props to see what he was capable of, and it was a natural fit, said Lewis, who now goes by the stage name Leroy the Irish Strongman.
"Lo and behold, I broke their stuff," he said, laughing.
Over the years, Hellgate said, Lewis has proven to be the Cirqus' most expensive act. Between frying pans he rolls up, metal rods he bends and phone books he rips in half, he goes through about $70 in props a performance.
In the thrill of the moment, Lewis said he doesn't feel the effects of his act.
"The pain doesn't bother me," he said. "It's usually the next day at work when I realize what I did to myself."
REALITY VS. ILLUSION
Although they may seem to take needless risks onstage, Hellgate and Pell have learned over the years what limits they can take their bodies to. They may toe the line, but they do their best not to cross it, Hellgate said.
Preparing for most of their acts requires weeks, sometimes months, of preparation to ensure the risk of injury remains as slim as possible.
"We like to say 'Safety third' onstage because it's funny, but really, in all honesty, it's absolutely safety first," Hellgate said. "There are certain things that are dangerous enough and entertaining, and there are certain things that are just dangerous.
"We've been trying to cut out the not-entertaining parts, because there's no reason to kill yourself if nobody's enjoying it, right?"
As a professional piercer, Pell said she ensures all her equipment is sterilized, and Hellgate said any member involved in acts that could result in bloodshed must provide results of a blood test first. And despite it's flash appeal, Hellgate said he no longer takes part in fire-breathing acts because he's developed an allergy to the fumes and won't risk the danger needlessly.
Although the danger is as minimized as possible, Cirqus acts are not illusions. Hellgate and Pell are adamant that cutting corners with fake needles or deadening their nerves with painkillers is not an option.
"A lot of people ask ... 'Do you have to get wasted before you go onstage or take a lot of painkillers?' No, that takes away half the fun," Pell said.
"We can't be screwed up like that onstage or we'd kill each other," Hellgate added, laughing. "We're not trying to perform Stephen King's 'Misery' up onstage. We're trying to entertain."
Some people may not understand why someone would willingly risk burns, cuts and bruises for others' amusement, but Hellgate and Pell said their group caters to the primal lusts that exist in everyone.
"These people are bloodthirsty," Hellgate said. "They want to see something weird; they want to see somebody get hurt; they want to see somebody exploit themselves."
Then he paused briefly before laughing and adding, "But you know what? Those are my people."
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...