I heard about a strange sexual practice the other day that I hope you can tell me more about. It seems a boy was found dead with a rope around his neck, but he hadn’t purposely killed himself. Apparently he was masturbating at the time of his death and hanged himself in order to heighten the sexual sensation. The radio announcer called it an autoerotic suicide and said it is not uncommon. I’ve never heard of it. Can you tell me more? –Desiree Blough, Santa Barbara, California

Time for a walk on the weird side, kids. Autoerotic asphyxiation–“suicide” is a misnomer, since death is usually accidental–is in fact fairly common. One researcher estimates there are at least 50 deaths annually nationwide. The victims are mostly young males; evidently if you live long enough to become an old male you start getting a partner to help you, although it’s quite dangerous even so.

Autoerotic asphyxiation arose out of the observation that men executed by hanging often got an erection and sometimes ejaculated. It’s described in detail in de Sade’s Justine and is mentioned in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Why it works is unclear. The simplest explanation is that lack of oxygen causes lightheadedness, reducing inhibitions and enhancing the sexual experience. Masochistic fantasies, castration anxiety, and other psychological factors no doubt also play a role.

The problem is that it’s easy to go too far. As little as seven pounds of pressure will collapse the carotid artery, producing unconsciousness within seconds. Many victims are bondage freaks and their elaborate bindings make self-rescue difficult.

Needless to say, this is not something you should try at home. Judging from the photos–hey, it’s my job–not only do you end up dead, you look real stupid when they find you. I mention this on the theory that if fear of death won’t stop somebody, maybe fear of embarrassment will.

For a long time I’ve heard stories about a man who tied a bunch of balloons to a lawn chair and went soaring into the heavens. I even spent an afternoon searching at the library to see if it was true, but no luck. I gave up, thinking it must be someone’s wild imagination. Then the other day a story in the paper made mention of a mad balloonist named Larry Walters. Can you tell me more? –Roger Knipp, Dallas, Texas

Ah, how fleeting is fame. It’s been a mere six years since Larry Walters made his legendary flight, and already people are starting to think he’s a mythical being. Au contraire. Larry, an authentic working-class hero (at the time he was driving a truck), went aloft July 2, 1982, from his girlfriend’s backyard in suburban Los Angeles. His craft: an aluminum lawn chair borne by 42 helium-filled weather balloons.

Larry’s original idea was that he would fly east to the Mojave desert, but it didn’t quite work out that way. As his girlfriend and buddy were feeding out the tether, the line broke and he shot skyward. Eventually he reached 16,000 feet, where the pilots of at least two airliners saw him. Not wanting to cause a fuss, he began putting out calls on his portable CB radio. After a while his feet got cold, so he pulled out a pellet pistol and began shooting out balloons.

The descent was uneventful except for the fact that the balloons wrapped around some power lines at the end, knocking out the electricity in a Long Beach residential neighborhood for about 20 minutes. But Larry and his chair stayed clear–he simply dropped a few feet to the ground, having spent about 90 minutes in the air. Most people thought the whole thing was pretty funny, and Larry got to appear on Letterman and the Today show. But the FAA was not amused. “We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed,” a spokesman said. Sure enough, Walters was charged with reckless operation of an aircraft, failure to stay in communication with the tower, and flying a “civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate.” He wound up paying a $1,500 fine. You ask me, it was worth every penny.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.