B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S02E03: Firewalkers

Cold open on an erupting volcano, while Nimoy intones a speech about the savage awe of nature. Hell yeah! I don’t know where this episode is going to go, but I can’t fault the opening.

This episode is about firewalking, but this picture of a hypnotised guy with his hand in a bowl of icewater just makes me laugh.
This episode is about firewalking, but this picture of a hypnotised guy with his hand in a bowl of icewater just makes me laugh.

And then we’re into firewalking. “Man knowingly and willingly matches himself against the flames”. We’re watching several firewalking ceremonies from around the world. Full confession – I actually learned something here. I’d always thought firewalking was specifically a Pacific Islander custom, but Wikipedia tells me that the practice is surprisingly widespread, and the In Search Of… footage reflects that. Nimoy sets out the question this episode will ask: why do people do this? And how?

The why? is a fascinating question. The how is actually pretty well known. Let’s see how we do.

Nimoy points out that fire is both a destructive force and something comforting and useful. Then we’re seeing old-timey pictures of cavemen as Nimoy talks about the harnessing of fire. It’s really just colour, I guess, but it’s still cool to watch. We’re watching some Islanders on their way to a ceremony while Nimoy points out that we don’t know where this custom started, or why.

There’s a nice map showing places where firewalking is a custom, and Nimoy talks about ancient texts that mention firewalking. There’s some lovely still photos of firewalkers, including one of a man firewalking in a business suit with the pants rolled up to the knees! Nimoy claims that the one common factor of all of these disparate and yet similar practices is that the firewalk is only considered a success if the walkers don’t burn themselves. To which what can one say but ‘duh’.

In the studio, Nimoy demonstrates that he can’t keep his hand in a candle flame for longer than a moment, and points out that the skin of the feet of firewalkers is in contact with burning material for far longer. “But how?” He claims that sceptics believe that there’s a ‘trick’ involved, but ‘experts’ believe that it has to do with the powers of the mind.

Hello? Sceptic here. I don’t think there’s a trick involved. Many years ago I saw a less silly show than this, where someone explained it quite simply. Yes, the embers you walk on are hot, but it’s not about the heat. It’s about efficiency of heat transfer.

Imagine baking a cake. The oven is hot, and by the time it’s cooked, the cake is just as hot. If you touched the metal of the cake pan or the oven racks, you’d burn instantly. Yet you can touch your finger to the surface of the cake itself without harm—so long as you didn’t touch it for too long. The temperature is the same, but the cake transfers the heat less efficiently than the metal would — meaning it is possible to touch the cake for longer without harm.

The same is true of the hot coals of the firewalk. If the walk is prepared properly, and the walker goes through quickly, not enough heat will be transferred to the skin on their feet to cause them to burn.

But, there’s a man in a mint-green shirt sitting in a chocolate-brown 1970s office who’s about to tell us different. He’s Sidney Walter, head of the California State Hypnosis Association. He claims that the lack of burning is caused by disassociation. He performs a nicely unsetting demonstration where he hypnotises some guy not to feel discomfort while his hand is in a bowl of icewater.

He goes on to claim that firewalking is possible due to self-hypnosis. Nimoy asks the obvious question – does this mean that self-hypnosis can overcome not only the sensation of pain, but actual physical damage?

We cut to a firewalking ritual in northern Spain. There’s some very nice footage of the procession and the wearing of bread-based head-dresses, which is pretty neat. Nimoy prattles a little, then we go into the ritual, which is one of lively dancing as the ashes in the fire-pit die down. Then someone goes walking across, followed by another guy who is piggybacking a woman. There’s lots of cheering and camera flashes, and the In Search Of… cameras focus on the walkers’ feet. It’s pretty cool. Nimoy claims that the locals credit their successful walks to fate, but then he starts talking about mysterious realms of the human mind.

I think it’s about to get silly, folks.

Now looking at India. Ish. Okay, we see what look like illuminated manuscripts from Indian books and some black and white pictures of Indian firewalkers, and then we’re talking to a white yoga instructor. He does some nice looking manouvers. He has big hair and a barely visible moustache and wears white yoga pants with a dark blue skin-tight t-shirt as he does his yoga on a speckled-blue carpet. We’ve reached peak ’70s, folks.

He starts talking about people having energy bodies. He claims that these energy bodies expand in the case of firewalking, effectively forming a force-field. Then Nimoy is showing us some kirilian photos, and the yoga guy and his similarly white-trousered friends do this weird thing where all four of them can’t lift a man out of a chair until they’ve expanded their energy bodies. I don’t get it myself, I’d think four people could easily lift the guy, but they all seem pretty happy with what they’ve accomplished so good for them.

Now we’re in Bali, where we’re going to see another fire-waking ritual. Apparently in Bali firewalking is used to drive illness away. The local priest is supposed to be possessed by a horse spirit, and sort of gallops through the flames, stamping out all the coals as he does so. It’s pretty damn awesome, and other than the element of walking through the flames it’s completely different from the Spanish firewalking we saw earlier.

Now we’re talking to Dr Feigen, a surgeon from San Francisco who took part in a firewalk in the South Pacific and now believes that the solution to how firewalking is possible. He believes that it can only be explained by parapsychology. This part of his talk isn’t very interesting, the part where he describes firewalking as an ‘act of defiance’, where people take on primal forces and win seems pretty insightful. He describes his own experience walking through the flames while creepy electronic music plays.

Nimoy asks what makes man want to tempt fate like that. Back in the studio, he asks how and when this custom began. He has a ‘radical new explanation. Marking the places where firewalking remains a tradition, we see that many of them are close to geological fault lines. And we’re looking at images of lava. He suggests some sort of vast volcanic event, and people had to outrun the lava. Firewalking is the re-enactment of this.

It’s… it’s not a good theory. But the lava footage is cool.

Firewalking is interesting, but it is not as bizarre as Nimoy makes it out to be. There’s all sorts of cultural practices that basically involve putting yourself in harm’s way. Fasting, scarification, feats of strength or endurance, fighting animals, fighting each other and so on. It’s like the surgeon said – an act of defiance. Go to hell, world, we can deal with whatever you can throw at us! Bring it on!

(Previous paragraph written from a comfy chair in a cosy flat in a first-world country. But it’s a nice idea, even if I have no intention of living up to it.)

Best Quote

Nimoy: “It is to Eastern thought that many think we must turn to solve the mystery of how man can walk on fire.”

Diagram that sentence. I dare you.

Summing up

Cool Footage: 8/10, Nimoyness: 8/10, Bizarre theories: 9/10, Peak 1970s: 10/10, Through Darkness of the Future Past, The Magician Longs to See, One Chants Out Between Two Worlds, Fire Walk With Me: 0/10. Overall: 35/50. Credit.

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B.G. Hilton - Author