Throughout his lengthy career, professional daredevil Dean Gunnarson has travelled the world in the hopes of finding new and inventive ways to put his body on the line for people’s enjoyment.
On July 1, the Winnipeg-based escape artist will bring his unique brand of entertainment to Thompson’s Canada Day festivities by performing a pair of high-risk stunts that could potentially end in disaster.
“They want to hang me upside down and lock me up in a straight jacket and chains and hopefully a burning rope,” said Gunnarson. “The other [stunt] they want is to lock me up in a big tank of water in handcuffs, chains and locks and see if I can get out.”
Gunnarson’s been obsessed with this kind of public spectacle ever since he was around 10 years old and his mother bought him a book on famous magician Harry Houdini.
“Houdini travelled around the world and he got out of handcuffs and straight jackets. He did the impossible and as a kid he was like a comic book hero, but he was real.”
Over the next 45 years or so, Gunnarson tried to emulate his hero through mastering the same techniques and replicating the kinds of stunts Houdini made famous a few decades earlier.
“My first escape was from the old Winnipeg Free Press building back in 1982,” he said. “They locked me up and hanged me from my ankles to the building. It was the same place that Houdini escaped from when he was in Winnipeg back in 1923.”
While Gunnarson found a lot of success in his early career, he’s experienced his fair share of setbacks as well.
On top of breaking pretty much every bone in his body, Gunnarson nearly suffocated to death in November 1983 after failing to escape from a wooden coffin that was submerged in the Red River.
“I went four minutes without oxygen, I turned blue, I was unconscious,” he said. “They had to rush me to the Health Sciences Centre and bring me back to life. So these things do have an element of risk and danger and that’s just one incident.”
While any other aspiring performer might have thought about switching careers at that point, Gunnarson just kept on refining his technique in subsequent years. This involves a unique training regimen where Gunnarson prepares his body for every possible scenario that could take place in an upcoming stunt.
“It’s a lot like an athlete, a hockey player or football player,” he said. “You practise the fundamentals bit by bit, and then hopefully by game time everything that you’ve practised in bits and pieces will come together.”
All of this training was really put to the test in 1998, when Gunnarson performed what he considers to be his biggest stunt to date at the Hoover Dam.
As chronicled in NBC’s The World’s Most Dangerous Magic TV special, Gunnarson hung himself upside down from a trapeze and had to wriggle out of a straight jacket before losing his grip and plummeting 726 feet to the concrete below.
“It was a feat beyond anything that I had ever done or attempted before,” he said. “So that’s the one I’m most proud of.”
While he doesn’t have anything that extreme planned for Canada Day, Gunnarson said he is still looking forward to his trip up north, since he hasn’t performed in Thompson like this since doing some Nickel Days shows back in the mid-80s.
While the 55-year-old escapologist wouldn’t recommend that anybody follow in his footsteps directly, Gunnarson hopes that these death-defying stunts will, at the very least, inspire people to overcome their fears and try something that they once thought was impossible.
“We all have challenges and obstacles in our lives and it’s about trying to figure out how to solve them,” he said. “And as an escape artist that’s what I’ve done all my life.”