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The Risks of Death-Defying Sideshow Acts

man spitting fire
Evgheni Manciu/Shutterstock

While it may look cool when someone spits fire, swallows a sword, walks on glass, or hammers something sharp into their nose, the fact is: The performer in question is taking numerous calculated risks in order to wow the audience. Indeed, although professional circus performers spend years training, the risk of experiencing irreparable harm is always there.

Some sideshow performers regularly trick watchers into thinking they’re witnessing something dangerous or even death-defying (like those who walk on breakaway or fake glass). However, there are plenty of performers who really do put themselves in danger.

Warning: Don’t try any of the following at home. Sideshow performers spend months to years learning the tricks and tools of their trade.

Playing With Fire

Watching a human spit fire is awe-inspiring, but even with practice and concentration, it’s a death-defying act. Even if a performer survives an accident, it can leave them with severe and permanent burns as well as internal damage.

From sideshows to circus events, fire-breathing acts and twirling fire poi are popular. However, these types of performances are a huge risk to perform—even without having fire directly near the performer’s face, as in the case of poi acts. One false move while spinning a lit poi on a chain can light the performer or even the whole crowd on fire. Oops!

People who breathe fire risk far more than burns outside their bodies. Did you know that they can also burn the inside of their mouths if they breathe in the wrong pattern during the performance? And depending on the exact fuels used, internal harm is another possible consequence of making a mistake. Below is a list of commonly used fuels for fire-related performances.

  • Naphtha and other low flash-point fuels: Naphtha is often used in fire-breathing performances, and so are butane and propane. Vapor buildup in the oral cavity from these low flash-point fuels can lead to internal combustion. Naphtha is also a carcinogen and increases the risk of cancer.
  • Kerosene and gasoline: While easy to acquire, both of these fuels are likely to contain additives that can cause cancer. They also pose an increased risk because they are easy to ignite.
  • Methanol: Fire-breathers that perform fancy acts with colored flames often use methanol. Risks of developing neurological disorders and potential blindness come with using this particular fuel.
  • Ethanol: Ethanol can be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream (even when it isn’t directly imbibed), leading to intoxication.

Swallowing Swords

Performers who swallow swords have to train hard to disable their gag reflex and keep that sword in just the right position. One wrong move and internal organs (most likely the esophagus) will be punctured.

Even if an internal organ isn’t punctured, a simple nick in the side of the throat can lead to a dangerous level of internal bleeding. It’s important that novices train only under the best masters in order to lessen their risk of injury.

Walking on Glass

If you’ve ever gotten a piece of glass wedged in your foot, you know it can be a very painful and bloody experience. Those who make a living walking on glass have learned to step on it in a way that keeps them from getting cut. (They also walk at a slow pace, which helps.)

Their two main tricks involve using heavier, curved glass, and creating thick piles of it (so that small pieces sink to the bottom and pose less of a risk). If the performer is unlucky enough to get a shard of glass stuck in their foot, a little mishap like that won’t harm them—but failing to take proper care of the cut will because it can lead to an infection. Untreated infections have the potential to turn into a full-on blood infection, which can cause death if it isn’t treated quickly.

Sticking Things in Extremities

A “human blockhead” hammers a nail into his nose, and everyone’s jaw drops to the floor in shock. How did he do it, they wonder? Well, whether it’s done with a hammer and nail or a screw and screwdriver, the simple trick is to follow the basic anatomy of the head and nose in order to move the nail straight into the nasal cavity. If done wrong, the human blockhead act not only poses a potential risk to nasal tissue but also could put germs up the nose and create a nasty infection.

Like the blockhead act, mousetrap tricks are less death-defying than breathing fire and swallowing a sword, but they can still lead to harm. Even professionals have snapped a trap wrongly while trying to capture their tongue and knocked out their teeth instead, which are difficult to replace.


There are many life-threatening risks involved in such performances. Even jugglers sometimes risk the loss of digits and limbs depending on what they are juggling with. So, if you’re planning on putting on a risky performance, make sure you have fully studied and trained (under a professional) for the task! These activities aren’t easy to pull off.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »