Have you ever gone to a circus and thought, "Oh, yawn, that didn't seem too dangerous"? Because — forgive me if I'm being a wimp here — I think pretty much every circus act is terrifying. Sure, this could be relative to my rather staid life, but the whole point of the circus is to have a bit of danger in every act to keep the audience gasping. And don't think the clowns are getting out of this: Physical comedy can be treacherous, after all.
But our list is going to include the best of the best ... or the worst of the worst, depending on how you see it. We'll recount some traditionally dangerous circus acts that still get a lot of "oohs" and "aahs" but also have a history of injury or even death. You've probably heard of a few of the acts, but you might be surprised to discover the danger behind them. Let's start off with one we probably all agree is risky: fire breathing.
Unsurprisingly, the list includes the circus act that involves spraying fuel from your mouth. Truth be told, it should probably be on the list of just plain dangerous things to do, period. Let's go through some of the steps involved in fire breathing, just to reiterate how totally bonkers it is that people still happily perform the trick today.
First off, fire breathers put some sort of fuel in their mouth, be it kerosene, gasoline or an alcohol-based flammable liquid. Then they spray the fuel in a fine mist — you know, like the kind a fancy shower might produce (that's the most relaxing description I could think of for spit-taking flammable liquids). Next, they'll ignite the mist with a small hand-held torch. Lighters and matches are not trustworthy enough for fire breathers, which is saying something.
We probably don't need to go into every aspect of danger when it comes to fire breathing, but let's acknowledge a few hazards to the performers: The flame can blow back into their mouth, they can get chemical pneumonia from inhaling the fuel and they can even poison themselves. And there's danger to the audience, too: The flame can easily shift with no warning and burn whoever is watching — or even set fire to the property.
Big Cat Acts
While working with circus animals is controversial stuff, there's no denying the wild popularity of acts that feature our non-human friends. And while it might seem like all the cats used in popular circus acts are trained and tamed to be perfect pupils, the reality is that working with big cats — tigers and lions, mostly — is just as dangerous as it was when Thomas MacCarte (a young trainer) was killed by a mob of five lions in front of hundreds of spectators in 1872 [source: New York Times]. We can be more certain, however, that trainers today aren't inebriated, as was rumored of MacCarte in news stories about the incident.
Unfortunately, there are more recent examples of dangerous big cat acts from circus shows that can convince most of us to beware of kitty, including the 2003 incident that took place during a Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas. No one is sure what caused the white tiger to attack, but Roy Horn sustained serious injuries that forced him into retirement. Horn says that he had a stroke, and the white tiger picked him up by the neck to save him [source: ET]. Still, there's no denying that working with big cats is a dangerous way to spend your days.
Wall of Death
The Wall of Death is a completely and utterly bananas circus act that you may not have heard of — but rest assured it's still performed today, some eight or nine decades after it originated [source: Original Wall of Death]. The Wall of Death is a motor-sports act where motorcycles or cars race around the walls of a cylinder ring while performing trick stunts. It's straight-up terrifying to watch, let alone take part in.
It's not a part of every circus (and perhaps for safety's sake we should be grateful), but it's one in a long line of exhibitions that have become a popular staple of entertainment. It uses centrifugal force and inertia to keep riders on the curvature of the wall. The Wall of Death was originally even more dangerous, with less-sloped walls on a mile-long track, and riders and spectators alike died during performances [source: Robbins]. Performers are still putting themselves at serious risk today. Samantha Morgan, a pioneer Wall of Death rider, died in 2008 of complications from her injuries over the years.
Make no bones about it: Aerial acrobatics may be a standard part of any circus, but that in no way means they're safe. The fact that they've been performed for more than a century as part of circus routines has not made them any less prone to accidents. The thing is, there are lots of ways to, let's say, "inadvertently ground" yourself in circus acts. And unfortunately, the point can be illustrated by a depressingly large number of aerial accidents in recent circus history. One specific act is so reliably dangerous that we'll cover it in depth later.
But to prove our point, let's just take a small tour of aerial accidents that have recently happened. In 2007, a trapeze artist in Southern California was killed during a performance when he fell 40 feet (12 meters) without a net to catch him [source: Alfano]. In 2013, a performer in a Moscow circus fell 85 feet (26 meters) through the net, but supposedly was well enough to make it back to work eventually [source: Rivlin-Nadler]. And horrifically, eight hair-hanging aerialists plunged to the ground when a clip snapped in the 2014 circus accident in Providence, Rhode Island. None of the acrobats died, but they all sustained terrible injuries. The lesson? Aerial acts might be wildly popular, but gravity wins.
Perhaps you assume that the danger of elephants lies in their ability to crush or maim a human. You'd be absolutely correct, of course — elephants have been responsible for all sorts of frightening incidents, including an elephant that killed its trainer and later escaped on a rampage through Honolulu in 1994 [source: Cave]. Elephants also might be one of the most dangerous acts simply because when they slip through the circus' confinement, they can cause a lot of damage. And slip they do: In 1956, 42 elephants stampeded while being led to a railway car [source: NY Times].
But let's not forget that with all animal acts, some of the most dangerous risks are ones to the animals themselves. Organizations concerned with animal welfare have documented many cases of elephant cruelty that resulted in lawsuits and protests. In 2015, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced it would retire its elephant acts in 2018. While the move will appease animal rights activists in general, the New York Times editorial board pointed out that it does give a few more opportunities for the circus to make money off their controversial pachyderms.
Balancing on a wire dozens of feet in the air is no small feat. And many performers who practice high-wire acts are putting their lives in danger every time they do. In fact, even seasoned performers practice their new stunts just a few feet from the ground and might wear a harness with a pulley to aid with balance practice. Another lesson? Learning how to grab the wire when you fall.
Many high-wire acts don't use a net, and some, like the Guerrero family, cite the lack of net as a form of higher artistic expression [source: CBS]. Unfortunately, Walfer Guerrero was paralyzed at the age of 28 when he fell during a high-wire act in 1997. He was doing a trick where he jumped over another performer on the wire when he plunged 26 feet (8 meters) to the ground [source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune].
There's nothing safer than a pony, right? Stereotypically the animal of prim little girls and fancy boys in polo shirts (I get all my horse-owner data from Ralph Lauren ads), the gentle animals just can't strike a person as rough and tumble. Unless, of course, the horse in question is galloping at full speed while a rider performs acrobatic stunts and tricks. That is definitely dangerous.
More than any other discipline, equestrian acts (or trick riding) have long been a staple of circus shows. In fact, the first contemporary circuses were just equestrian acts with a few sketches of clowning or acrobatics mixed in [source: Speaight]. The performances might include vaulting on and off horses or standing on one's head while perched on a running horse's back. Circuses today still claim their equestrian acts as some of the most dangerous — horses, after all, aren't machines you can calibrate [source: PBS]. Performers must know not only their own act and tricks but must also be able to understand their equine partner.
Globe of Terror
Another dangerous circus act is brought to us by the Globe of Terror (or Globe of Death). Much like the Wall of Death, the Globe of Terror is an act that partners centrifugal force and motorcycles in a combination most of us would rather avoid. It involves putting several motorcycle riders in a steel sphere where they ride around at 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) with wild abandon [source: Gallacher]. For good measure, there might be an aerialist hanging from the middle of the cage performing, too.
As you can imagine, this is not a fail-safe act. In 2015, riders were injured in a Globe of Death act when two performers crashed into each other during a ride in Washington state. No one was killed, but at least one rider sustained a fracture [source: Johnson].
While it's a bit more sideshow than Big Top, we couldn't resist the urge to put sword swallowing on our list. Because while it may seem like a fancy illusion or even some sort of sleight-of-hand trick, sword swallowing really does involve sticking a blade down your gullet. And that is so obviously dangerous that the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) website includes a whole resource section on the medical complications associated with sword swallowing.
One of those sources is a survey published by the British Medical Journal, which is surprisingly chipper about the health outcomes for sword swallowers. It concluded that swallowers are at risk for harm if they are distracted, swallow multiple swords at a time or aggravate a previous injury — just avoid that, and no problem [source: Witcombe and Meyer]! (To be clear, they had more nuanced advice than that.)
And there's the case of Hannibal Hellmurto, who suffered a seriously frightening stab to the throat in 2012 when he attempted to swallow a lit neon rod. [source: McQueeney]. He ended up with a hole in his throat that put him in intensive care, but the show must go on: Hellmurto is still performing after his recovery.
It's time to dive (ahem) into an aerial act that is so very dangerous that it's actually proven injurious — and even fatal — to several different generations. The famous Flying Wallendas, a circus family that traces its entertainment roots to 1780 Austria-Hungary, have been simultaneously entertaining and scaring the snot out of crowds for centuries. They get the No. 1 spot because of the sheer history of their act and the tragedies that have followed it.
So a little background: The Wallendas have traditionally been both an aerial and wire-walking act, and their big showstopper was the seven-person chair pyramid. Two pairs of performers wire walk while holding poles that hold two more aerialists. Those aerialists hold a pole that a chair balances on, where another performer (naturally) balances [source: Wallenda].
Unfortunately, a 1962 accident on the seven-person pyramid killed two performers and paralyzed one. In a separate accident, a Wallenda sister-in-law also fell to her death in an aerial performance. Karl Wallenda, the family patriarch, also died from a fall during a stunt [source: CBS]. But the acts are still performed today: Nik Wallenda completed a wire-walk across the Grand Canyon in 2013 [source: Nik Wallenda]. Ta da, indeed.
HowStuffWorks looks at the history of magician's assistants, what they do and why the assistant is usually a woman.
Author's Note: 10 of the Most Dangerous Circus Acts Performed Today
After researching this list, I have decided I am not running off to join the circus.
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