Teenage boys often bring video games with them when they go over to their friends' houses. But these boys bring their video cameras -- and jugs of gasoline.
They set themselves on fire, they sew their lips shut, jump off cliffs and drill screws through their arms. They are members of amateur stunt groups or more aptly put, daredevil groups, who will do just about anything it takes to create the most outrageous clip to post on the Internet. MTV's "Jackass" started the trend years ago, but these boys have taken outrageous stunts one step further. "You want to one up people, you know?" said Al Cantu, a member of the stunt group called Freak. Inc. In one notable stunt, Cantu stapled firecrackers to his chest and exploded them directly on his skin.
Erik Barath, who runs the video-sharing Web site Vidmax.com, explained the attraction of these "homegrown" stunt videos. "I think people want to see something that they would never try," he said. "And they feel safe looking at it through a window."
Barath buys some of the most outrageous stunt clips for his Web site, offering prizes ranging from $50 to $1,000 for the best clips. "I consider myself a modern day P.T. Barnum," Barath said. "What people would call a freak show, I call it a side show. [Viewers] come to our site and they see, I hope, the greatest show on Earth."
What makes a great show?
"If it ends up in a serious injury, as long as we get to the hospital, then [the stunts] turn out sweet because people like to see that stuff," Cantu said. "As long as the guy doesn't, you know, die..."
Marc Leroux didn't die, but there was nothing sweet about what happened to him. Fourteen years old at the time, Marc poured gasoline on his pants and ran through a flaming railroad tie. The boys had taken no precautions to put out the fire.
Marc burned for 40 seconds, screaming, as the camera kept rolling. "The skin [on my legs] was pink and peeling everywhere and there was pus and fluid dripping from my leg onto the ground," Marc said. "I've never smelled anything worse than that."
Although Marc missed school for a month and failed his classes that year, he was able to recover from his injuries. He immediately returned to filming stunt videos.
But Joe White, a high school senior from Topeka, Kan., who suffered a severe head injury and was partially paralyzed after jumping from a moving car last year, will never recover. "Joe is never going to be the same," his stepmother, Kristin White, said. "He may never progress past being a 10-year-old mentally."
To anyone on the outside, these stunts seem crazy, dangerous -- and stupid. But for the boys in the stunt groups, they are a way of life.
Mike Gaboff, 20, and his brother Ryan, 21, said their lives are governed by the camera. Leaders of a stunt group called We Play Crazy, the brothers have made $50,000 in the last year from their stunt videos. Sponsored by distribution and clothing companies, they consider themselves to be very successful.
They owe their inspiration to the video camera. "I wouldn't be jumping over cars if there wasn't a video camera out there," Gaboff said. "The video camera made me want to jump over that car."
The video camera also made Gaboff want to back flip off a vending machine. He had failed at this stunt before and hoped this time he would be more successful. "But if not, my face will be on the ground and I'll go to the hospital," he said. "Either I'm going to be in a really happy state of mind or a really regretful state of mind."
Gaboff awoke at the hospital after being carted off by paramedics after the stunt. He broke three bones in his face. To those who think he's crazy for continuing his stunt business after spending $10,000 in hospital bills, Gaboff said, "You're just not in my shoes. I pretty much live off a video camera. That's the way I am."
But there is also a positive side. Cody Gargrave said his stunt group Freak. Inc. gives his life a much needed direction. "If I wasn't doing this, I would be in jail right now," he said. "I was running around with the wrong crowd of kids. That's where they are, sitting in county jail right now. Eighteen facing 30 years in prison."
Gargrave said that his stunt group has provided him with a way to escape his small town in Arkansas. "We're making it to where we are by selling clips and getting money from them, and we're getting recognized by people in other countries for it," he said. "It's been something real productive for us."