The Enjoyment Of Terror

“My heart!  My heart can’t take it!!” The man ahead of me screamed over the howling wind. It was the kind of frantic tone in which the voice cracks uncontrollably from deep seated primal fear. He looked back with desperate eyes, the white of his eyes clearly visible above the irises. Panic stricken, he tried to run, his legs strained to pull free from the binds that held them. He would have fallen had it not been for the men that supported him by each arm.

It was a terrible sight to behold, to see someone crack. That kind of fear was contagious. The same man who moments before seemed to be the loudest and most brazen of us, now lay writhing on his back. His feet were in the in the air, far from the edge, as the operators unbound and stripped off the end of the bungee that attached to his legs. Everyone now looked at me, I was to be next.

Human beings are strange creatures. We are the only animals that intentionally scare ourselves, and like it. It’s bizarre. The term adrenaline junkie is thrown around to describe thrill seekers, but being flooded with adrenaline and tricked into believing that you are about to die is an awfully stressful sensation, not a particularly pleasant one. Believe me! There are not many things more terrifying than falling from the sky and crashing into a planet. Is it that our lives are now so devoid of excitement that we must create it? Why do we do it? It’s not just in bungee jumping and skydiving but also roller coasters, haunted houses and thrill rides too.

While driving across South Africa a few years ago I stopped at the marvel of modern engineering that is Bloukrans Bridge. It is the largest concrete span bridge in the world straddling a giant gorge, similar to the grand canyon.  The top of the concrete arch of Bloukrans Bridge was the highest commercial Bungee Jump in the World with a freefall of 710’ (216m) or 8 seconds before the bungee begins to catch you. I signed my life away, and found myself on a suspended metal catwalk, with three other young men heading out into the sky.

For years the fear of heights had been creeping up on me. Peering out over railings from the top floors of tall buildings made me nervous. It was almost as though in addition to the fear of falling I felt the innate desire to fly, and I didn’t completely trust myself not to try. I could remember being fearless, and never thinking twice about what could happen. I guess we all start off fearless and throughout life see the world as a more threatening place, until in our later years we even fear going out to the grocery, or going down a few stairs should we fall and break a hip.

As the next person in line to jump, I could feel everyone's attention fixed on me. I sat down as tethered operators attached the bungee to my ankles. The bunjee was a thick white rope consisting of thousands of tiny rubber strands woven together with frayed bits sticking out all over. This drawn out period of anticipation only intensified my sensations of regret, doubt and fear. I recalled the few accidents that I had heard about and imagined many more.

After hopping over towards the edge and curling my toes over, I paused to pull myself together. Face to face with my worst fear, every living cell in my body beckoned me to lean back, to hop away. I had to force my head forward over my center of gravity to peer down at the vague shapes of trees, cliffs and a tiny river almost a thousand feet below. I had to avert my gaze from the canyon to the sky above in order to keep my nerve. The cold wind felt good on my shaved head  and closed my eyes to smell and inhale it for a final deep breath. Nothing makes you savour life more than confronting the fear of death. This was it. I embraced my desire to fly, opened my eyes and leapt.

A cosmic joke; something we aren’t supposed to experience. Uncontrollable laughter swept over me as I was bounced upside down. The experience was so intense. There was a rapid whooshing sound, I saw the ground rush up, saw pebbles and rocks in the river and then just as I was certain of my fate I got pulled back up, out of the jaws of death. It was then that I understood.

Its not the fear that people are seeking or the adrenaline rush, but rather the incredibly empowering feeling of having overcome absolute fear. Compared to death all problems and issues seem insignificant and it leaves one feeling capable of doing and becoming anything. For a few minutes after you glow with appreciation of life. That is what it’s about.

@georgebovell