Nathanael England was trying to find something to set off the coyote trap.
“We probably don’t have any carrots, do we?” England asked his partner, Remedy Howard.
“We have one carrot. It’s organic. Organic carrots are wimpy,” Howard said, handing England the lone vegetable.
England proceeded to open the jaws of the coyote trap and place the carrot in the middle. The jaws snapped shut, severing the carrot in half. England removed the carrot and, once again, opened the jaws. He stuck his hand in the center, and the jaws clamped snapped down on his fingers. He giggled.
“Do you want to try to pull it off? Just try yanking it at first,” he said. No matter how hard it was pulled, the trap wouldn’t budge.
England and Howard are sideshow performers who met on OkCupid in October, 2008, and they began performing under the name Switchblade Sideshow in 2010, starting with the Zombie Pub Crawl. Since then, they’ve performed in the Twin Cities monthly, especially around Halloween.
England released the trap and moved on to the “Doom Turkey,” a homemade prop comprised of five mousetraps above the fingers of an outlined hand. England carefully set the traps and placed his hand over the outline, and the traps simultaneously snapped onto each finger.
He wasn’t finished yet. England retrieved a skull studded with doll needles — thick needles for doll making — from the living room and set it on the floor. England pulled the first needle from the Styrofoam, set it against his bicep and pushed. The needle pierced through the top inch of skin and muscle, making its way through to the other side.
The room was silent.
England repeated the maneuver again and again, working down his left arm.
“So, this is pin cushion,” he said with meditative ease. “I think the most needles I’ve had in me [at one time] was 64.”
England concluded by pulling out a much longer and thicker needle, which he later revealed was a bike spoke. England took a deep breath, held the spoke to his right cheek and pushed.
“The last few times I’ve done this, I angled it too far back so it was actually poking me in the back of the throat,” he said, the spoke protruding from the right side of his face.
He guided the spoke from his right cheek to the left, pushed it all the way through and paused before removing the spoke and mopping up the blood.
England and Howard currently specialize in 11 sideshow acts, including human pincushion, straitjacket escape, fire performance, razor blade swallowing, bed of nails, bed of swords, human chopping block, whips, animal traps, glass walking, blowgun, stapling and more.
“You offer the staple gun up for people to staple money to you,” Howard said. “And a different kind of person wants to staple him than me.”
When they’re not dancing with death — or at the very least, terrible injury — Howard and England work non-stop. Howard is a chef at Ecopolitan and a front desk clerk at Ink Lab. England runs a photography company called Oneiros Imaging and a fire supply company called Ragnarok.
England said he became interested in sideshow after piercing himself with three barbells and posting the pictures on Myspace. Soon after, human pincushion Barry Silver contacted him and suggested different books and videos for learning different sideshow acts.
“I had always had an interest in what the human body was capable of doing,” England said.
Prior to messing around with sideshow, England spent five years in the navy, and prior to that, he was on a search and rescue team.
Though many of their acts are partner-based, Howard and England have slightly different tastes when it comes to aesthetics. Howard, a former art school student and performance artist, prefers beautiful acts like belly dancing and hula hooping and said the shock factor gets tired after a while.
“I’m the most cautious, conservative performer ever,” Howard said when explaining how to swallow a razor blade. “I’ve cut my mouth up a lot with that act, so I’m not going to do it all the time.”
Howard’s conservative approach brings balance to England’s tendency to push beyond his limits. When he put the spoke through his cheek, Howard stood on the sidelines, warning him against hitting the back of his throat again.
Extreme caution is a must when attempting new acts, though England and Howard said they have a hard time sticking to that rule themselves.
“Nathan and I have both had really bad mistakes,” Howard said, recalling a performance in Chicago when England pierced through an artery and spilled blood all over the stage.
During the same performance, England pierced another artery, and a malfunctioning angle grinder blade flew across the stage and hit Howard in the arm. She stuck her thumb in the hole, announced that the show was over and fell into a state of shock.
“That’s why it frustrates me when people are like ‘Oh, sideshow is so great,’” Howard said. “It’s wrought with danger, and there will be accidents. There will be blood.”