Mysterious show comes to Up Front at Shadowbox Live on Thursday

The Reverend Tommy Gunn said that anyone can pound a 6-inch steel spike into their skull.

“But remaining unhurt, that’s what makes it an act,” he said, providing what feels like a needed qualifier.

Gunn, who founded FreakShow Deluxe in 2001, knows a few things about carnival-type injuries, having once been flattened by a trio of wrestler types who stumbled and fell on him as he reclined on a bed of nails (“That was ugly,” he said, his nondescript words somehow magnifying the horror). Gunn also said he has accidentally caught on fire “a bunch of times,” a ballpark figure on which a person should probably have a firmer grasp.

“In order to do some of these things… Sword swallowing isn’t something just anyone can do. Some people have a more natural affinity, or can force their bodies to overcome that gag reflex,” said Gunn, born Thomas Nealeigh in Greenville, Ohio. “Getting on a bed of nails is easy. … But then to add the extra weight, or to smash concrete blocks on top of it, with these things, you know it’s going to hurt, but it’s not unbearable. You have to know what the risks are. You have to study it. And you have to be prepared for when things do go wrong.”

Andy fractured his small toe in November and is finally just now semi-recovered so he doesn't think the FreakShow Deluxe life would be for him. Sign up for our daily newsletter

Gunn traced his interest in sideshow culture to some combination of an early love of history; being raised in a theatrical family, which instilled in him a fondness for the stage; and a teenage obsession with the modern primitives movement and its body manipulation, piercings and modifications.

“I was coming across it in books like the Man, Myth & Magic series, which came out in the ’70s and I found at the local library. And I’d grown up with American Indian cultures, so certain things like the flesh hook ceremonies were already known to me,” Gunn said. “Then traveling with my parents and their shows, because they specialized in historical productions, there were certain things you’d pick up. They’d have a show at a historical center, and you’d see a fire eater or a sword swallower, and over the years someone would show me something, and then I would show them something, because that was how you networked.”

While living in Long Beach, California, in the mid-1990s, Gunn was injured in a car accident, and in his recovery he started practicing yoga, which led him to research the Hindu fakirs in India, holy men who would spend days on end seated on beds of nails. In 2001, Gunn built his first bed of nails. It remains a staple of his act.

“What’s been behind every FreakShow Deluxe show is [the idea] that the human body is this amazing tool, this amazing instrument,” he said. “And it can do so much more than most people will ever try.”

Beginning in 2001, not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Gunn combined these amassed body-testing skills into a short set that he performed for visitors waiting to get into the PsychoPath Haunted Trail outside of Xenia, Ohio. “The question going in was, ‘Should we do it?’” Gunn said of the annual scare attraction, which some feared might be traumatizing so soon after the occurrence of such a horrific real-life tragedy. “But we had some of the biggest crowds we ever had because people wanted to be chased by maniacs with chainsaws, because that felt less real than … these terrorists.”

That initial routine, designed to entertain line-bound fright fans, has since grown exponentially, launching Gunn on a wild, winding, 20-year career that has included performances on network television (“America’s Got Talent”), at legendary illusionist venues (Magic Castle in Los Angeles) and at music festivals like Gathering of the Juggalos. Gunn has also performed at private parties hosted by the likes of Maroon 5, and he peppers his conversation with surreal tales, like the time a squeamish Marilyn Manson refused to pull a metal spike free from Gunn’s nose.

In recent years, Gunn’s pursuit has also spawned multiple traveling shows, including the purposely mysterious “How to Do a Sideshow for Fun and Profit,” which takes place at Up Front at Shadowbox Live on Thursday, Feb. 27, and a family-oriented affair that includes assistance from his two children (Gunn’s teenage son is a skilled knife thrower, among other things).

“If we put a clamshell on top of the minivan for luggage, everything else for the show rolls up, folds up and fits in the Chrysler Town & Country,” Gunn said, and laughed. “It’s sort of weird and funny when we go to the fair and all these trucks and trailers are there, and up drives this family that starts pulling everything out of a minivan.”