Oct. 24, 2012 - Issue #888: Winter Guide 2012
Those Freaks next door
Ryan Stock and AmberLynn Walker help make Edmonton a weirder place
Canada's most famous freakshow couple are hiding in your backyard. Blink and you'd miss their secret warehouse hidden in one of Edmonton's countless industrial zones, sandwiched between the twisted metal of a scrap yard and the cracked pavement of a big-box store parking lot.
Finding the place is just the start. Once inside, surprises await the uninitiated: a prank roll of TP in the bathroom that unspools, confounding the seated victim; a tarantula tank with a nasty shock for anyone foolish enough to tap on the glass; and a genuine fake swinging bookcase guarding secret passageways, opened by pulling on the appropriate hardcover.
It's only fitting that the Guinness Book of World Records is the open-sesame book for the clever false furniture: the owner has three of them—Guinness World Records that is—including one for pulling an Audi A4 with a sword—a sword that was down his throat.
This warehouse—with its blood-spattered walls, amateur taxidermy equipment and ample storage for circus props—belongs to Ryan Stock and his fiancée and performing partner of more than a decade, AmberLynn Walker. Stock set his throat-straining world record on an episode of Guinea Pig, their Discovery Channel TV show that saw him test the limits of his body's endurance. Photos from his three episodes of being blasted with non-lethal police weapons are now used in courts to show the effects of rubber bullets and Tasers.
Stock and Walker, both 31, are on hiatus from television and focusing on their live performances. You might have seen them performing with their friend Fat Matt, the World's Fattest Contortionist, at this year's Fringe Festival with their circus-tent show Sick?—a showcase for their talent of simultaneously nauseating and entertaining an audience.
"We're a modern freakshow," said Stock, relaxing on a Victorian couch in their warehouse. "TV was great, but we prefer live stage shows—you get that instant gratification from the crowd's reaction."
The duo does what they love—they just happen to love stuff that most consider "weird." Like the sword swallowing: there are less than one hundred performing sword swallowers on the planet—making it one of the world's rarest skills. Stock makes all his own swords at the warehouse and is teaching Walker the finer points of sword-swallowing with a long pair of hand-tailored surgical tongs.
"Right now, I'm working on being able to swallow a billiard ball," Stock said, pointing to a nine-ball with a string tied to it to keep it out of his stomach until he masters regurgitation. "But I'm working my way up with golf balls right now."
Combining Stock's passion for reimagining sideshow performance—like developing The Human MeatHead, where he uses a meat hook torqued through his nasal cavity to lift toasters and even pull cars—with Walker's business sense has meant they've been able to support themselves solely through their sideshow talents.
"I'm always surprised when people are shocked by me doing the human blockhead," said Stock, describing the classic stunt where a performer pounds nails—or in his case, jams a running power drill—up their nasal cavity. "Because all my friends do it—that's all I see on my Facebook feed. I guess that's because we've been doing this for so long and haven't had an actual nine-to-five job in 11 years."
In the decade they've been performing together, including a stint with international sideshow heavyweights The Jim Rose Circus, Stock and Walker have picked up business savvy to complement and further their freaky antics. For example, Stock cautions to "never work with a promoter who cries in front of you," always get paid for your work and don't oversaturate your market—in their case, by doing too many shows in Edmonton. Halloween, their busiest season, will see them perform more than a dozen times over four days as part of Calgary's ScreamFest.
Ever the performer, Stock, son of a "very supportive" Baptist minister, was staging magic shows in his native Beaumont before he was in his teens. But thanks to a gift from his parents—a book on fire eating that now sits on his real-fake swinging bookshelf in the warehouse—he soon segued to eating glass and pounding nails up his nose.
Walker, originally from Peace River, describes herself as a "muse," but you could easily tack on photographer-actor-designer-contortionist-painter-sewer-balloon animal master. Indeed, the two met at the Fringe Fest 11 years ago when Walker was busking by making balloon animals.
"You need to embrace the weird in your life," Walker says. "One thing I've learned is that there's no such thing as 'normal'—and when people call me weird, I take it as a compliment."
And, having gained experience and wisdom through their travels and career, Stock and Walker are keen to help other artists do what they love—and do it for a living.
"We want to open the warehouse to the arts community," Walker says. "There's a ridiculous amount of talent in Edmonton—and a lot of artists need space, but they just can't afford it."
The warehouse has an anything-can-happen spirit. The couple have transformed the blah-beige warehouse into an alternate reality, one where Enigma—the guy with puzzle pieces tattooed all over his body—might stop by to carve Halloween pumpkins and an average evening could feature a world record attempt for most "water balloons" snorted up the nose.
Sharing the space is an open-ended concept. It could mean a band using the warehouse to shoot a music video, or a performer using Stock's tools and know-how to design and build circus props. Or, like the scene when I visited the warehouse last month, it can just get weird.
Edmonton photographer Renee Robyn was using the warehouse's built-in stage and studio space to shoot promotional photos for The Profane Exhibit, a locally-produced horror movie. She ran into a snag when one of the half-dozen or so scantily-clad models asked to use her own blood for the shoot—not a fan, apparently, of the prop plasma covering the other models.
Walker, a model in the shoot and a co-star in the movie, called out to Stock in the next room: "Do we have a scalpel?"
Unfazed, he suggested a syringe—more hygienic, he reasoned. Minutes later, and thanks to the accommodating hosts at the warehouse, the nearly-naked woman was, to her satisfaction, covered in her own blood and the shoot went on.
"Just another Saturday night," said Stock, sporting a wicked grin.
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