Beyond Belief: author Tim Cridland challenges what we “know”

Jane Pojawa

The cabbage is stuck. The pretty blonde girl who dropped it is pulling her hardest, but it won’t budge from the spikes. Zamora, the Torture King, lends her a hand and with a certain amount of lugging and wiggling the human head-sized vegetable comes free. The girl looks apprehensive. She had been plucked from the audience to help with the act, but who or what is going to follow that cabbage on the bed of nails?

Quickly, others are pulled from the audience. These three are journalists and they are accustomed to observing the act, not being a part of it. Two of them; Adam Gorightly and Greg Bishop are ordered to stand on a board which is placed on the torso of the Torture King who is lying on the bed of nails; a sandwich arrangement that is not likely to have a happy outcome, given the fate of the cabbage. The third, Nick Redfern, is to act as a spotter should the other two slip. Reluctantly they stand on the board, but Zamora is not perforated into a bloody mass or punctured like an inflatable pool toy – a conclusion that could easily be deduced by observing the cabbage drop. After several long minutes, the Torture King tells them to step off the board and when they do and find that he is unhurt, the relief is palpable. It is beyond belief.

“Zamora the Torture King” is the alter ego of Tim Cridland, a sometimes author, recorder of anomalies and researcher. He appears somewhat shy and bookish, his silver hair is pulled into a long ponytail and his dark eyes are quick and alert. He gives the impression of being very observant and intense. He has deep dimples, but one would have to know his night job to guess that they were caused by wearing a spear through his cheeks. Cridland has had a lifelong fascination with circus sideshows, the “freaks” who were capable of extreme physical acts that would seem impossible, or at least excruciatingly painful to the average person.

As a researcher, and then as a performer, Cridland learned that the trick to many of these wild talents is that there is no trick. These sideshow performers, Indian fakirs, sword swallowers, blockheads and fire eaters are doing exactly what they appear to be doing. He also found that expectation or belief plays a major part in how these feats are accomplished.

These acts may be tricks, but they are not faked. He does chew on a broken lightbulb, walk on burning iron, lie on the bed of nails and poke skewers through his own arms. He swallows sharp steel swords. He exhales oxygen and carbon dioxide like the rest of humanity, but performs the standard suite of “fire breather” tricks – extinguishing a lit torch in his mouth, spitting flames etc, at a virtuoso level. Through it all he keeps up a witty, circus barker-style banter that is charming and also imparts a certain logical element to his act. He explains that these “impossible” feats are a matter of physical conditioning and not so much savant ability.

“Anyone can learn to do it,” he says “but they have to want to. The average person just won’t try and if they do then they give up too easily.” In other words, they have to believe that they can, and then it’s practice, practice, practice. Cridland has been studying these tricks since he was a teenager. He was a founding member of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which formed the basis of his first book, “Circus of the Scars.”Now 44, Cridland uses his skills in his stage act “Zamora the Torture King,” billed as “often imitated, never duplicated,” and as a tour guide to haunted Las Vegas, pointing out weird phenomenon and little-known aspects of a town well-known for its eccentricities.

His most recent book, “Weird Nevada” expands the anomalies of Las Vegas to the entire state. Eccentricities of geology, anthropology, architecture and culture are given brief treatments and color photographs document the reality of these unlikely occurrences.

Which brings us back to the bed of nails. Cridland is performing the Torture King act at the RetroUFO convention in Landers, Calif. Some audience members are disgusted, others are riveted. Those who are familiar with Tim Cridland, the author, might not know Zamora the Torture King, his “after dark” persona. Cridland is also giving a lecture about “Lemurians in Mount Shasta,” a possibility that dazzled the public’s imagination in the 1930s and has since resurfaced periodically in various New Age venues.

In the early part of the 20th century, the belief that an ancient race of highly cultured Europeans from the supposedly sunken continent of Lemuria made their homes in secret caves in Mount Shasta had enough validity for a series of articles to be published in the Los Angeles Times. Cridland thoroughly researched the genesis and demise of this belief, which has parallels with the rise in popularity of the UFO-contactee movement of the 1950s, in which men from outer space, since nicknamed “Nordics” for their European appearance, arrived in flying saucers to tell a chosen few that earthlings must learn to live together in harmony.

Needless to say, there is not a shred of physical evidence that there ever was a lost continent of Lemuria, that the Lemurians found their way to Mount Shasta or that they continue to live there now. This did not prevent people from believing in their existence or from believing in a whole range of other “unprovables” – ghosts, faries, angels and aliens.

The parallels to religious belief are obvious, but what is not so apparent are the aspects of life that people consider to be not a matter of faith, but of fact.

Much of that belief is fueled by scientific theory. Cridland produced a Scientific American article that posited the possibility of sunken continents and pointed out that plate tectonic theory was dismissed as a crackpot idea when first posited. Numerous other theories- phrenology, eugenics, mesmerism, electroconvulsive shock therapy, and so on, have been embraced and then discarded by mainstream science.

Perhaps other scientific beliefs that we now hold as truth; evolution, the big bang theory, quantum physics and black holes will be discarded as well. Rather than treated as a matter of fact, these might be considered a matter of belief.

“You can’t change the world but you can change your mind,” says Cridland, pointing out that the principle of mind over matter is not constrained merely to learning to walk on broken glass or having a cinder block broken on your chest. It also impacts the body’s reaction to pain and to healing time. That’s news anyone can use, not just a wanna-be sword swallower.

“The main conclusion I’ve come to [in researching weird beliefs] is that it’s probably best not to believe too much in anything,” says Cridland. “That way you don’t need to change your beliefs, or be disappointed when things don’t work out.” Zamora the Torture King incorporated some of his “Weird Las Vegas” research into a new act, “Vegas After Midnight,” which features beautiful tattooed showgirls with “biological anomalies.” Seeing is believing – or is it?