I started having second thoughts about this whole thing on Sunday morning.
Leading up to Nik Wallenda’s two highwire walks between 50-story Chicago skyscrapers—one blindfolded, one at an eight-story incline—I was just excited to see the circus legend in person. We had been invited to come watch Wallenda’s latest Discovery Channel primetime special Skywire Live (which aired Sunday night), from an area almost directly below one of the wires, which was strung more than 630 ft over the street. But a few hours before the event, something didn’t feel right.
Looking at the wire hanging between the two buildings from our hotel room window down the block that afternoon, I got a sinking feeling. This wasn’t going to be like going to a basketball game or a concert. It wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. Talking to people on the street before it started, they expressed the same thing: Why are we all gathering to watch someone take a very real risk of a terrible death for our entertainment?
The appeal of Wallenda’s live television specials is unique: In an era of Netflix on-demand offerings and DVRs that let you watch your favorite shows whenever you want, the stunts represent a truly shared viewing experience.
Each special follows the same formula, which may sound monotonous, but actually makes for some pretty compelling TV: The first hour or so is a build up, featuring interviews with Nik and his family, along with mini featurettes discussing what it’s like to attempt such an insane feat. Even though the specials are usually around two hours, there’s only 40 minutes or so of actual highwire walking. Sure, many of us have been jaded by big-budget special effects and movie quality-cable series, but it’s hard to think of many TV shows that are more tense than watching a dude slowly make his way across a tightrope, knowing that the stakes are so literally life and death.
Along with crazy TV ratings, Nik’s highwire acts have become social media phenomenons, instantly trending around the world when they broadcast. For a brief pop-culture moment, everyone tunes in at the same time to watch a man walk over a tightrope, while all simultaneously tweeting about it.
Wallenda is also a devout Christian, and most of the time he’s walking across the highwire at stomach-churning height, he’s openly praying. He brings a Tebow-like appeal to otherwise mortally questionable specials (he could literally die on live TV), and brings along megachurch pastor Joel Osteen to cheer him on from the sidelines.
The Wallenda name has been associated with death-defying highwire stunts for seven generations, but it was Nik’s last two TV specials, previous to Chicago, that made him an international star. His televised walks over Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon each drew more than 13 million viewers and briefly took over social media when they aired.
The shows are a unique convergence of social media buzz, actual danger, shared TV viewing, novelty programming and evangelicalism that brings together millions of people.
What’s not to get excited about?
After we got the invite to fly to Chicago to watch Nik first walk between two skyscrapers over the Chicago River and then race to another building to perform another walk—while blindfolded, it was all I was talking about. Then Sunday morning came.
On my way to Chicago, I read an article that was running in a recent issue of the Chicago Tribute about Nik and the Skyscraper Live TV show. Sure, part of the fun and excitement of the special was the element of danger, but the Tribune story seemed to relish on the fact that Nik Wallenda could actually die.
Here are some facts the article pointed out: Wallenda’s own great-grandfather died while performing a highwire walk on live TV; at 630 ft above Chicago, “If Wallenda falls from his wire, he likely would hit the water or ground at a speed between 90 and 100 mph”; people were questioning why officials would allow such a reckless event to be sanctioned by the city.
The director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University told the paper, “There are some real ethical problems … Why not just turn off all the stop lights in Chicago for a night and see how that goes?”
Despite all of the novelty of the event, the fact was people were tuning in to see if Nik Wallenda would make it across or not. And by “or not” we mean die on live television. I started to question why I was so excited about the prospect of it in the first place. I didn’t want to be there in person to see someone fall off a wire to the ground hundreds of feet below.
There’s also the strange theological questions it raised: Nik is praying for safety the whole time, but do I believe God is actually helping him across that highwire? And, more troublingly, if he falls, is God somehow responsible?
This is why I’m glad I went. I got my questions answered. As soon as he started to walk across the wire, the 65,000 people gathered started cheering. It was like being at a football game. It was tense, but more than that, it was a feeling of camaraderie. Everyone wanted to see him do it, not because he might fall, but because he was someone capable of doing something that seemed impossible.
Before the event, it was impossible to stand below that wire at the street level and not have a mild panic attack just looking at it. It did not seem within the realm of human capability to walk across something the width of a penny at that anxiety-inducing height in the heart of the “Windy City.” To see someone actually do it would be kind of inspiring.
The guy is a professional, and one of the best in the world at what he does. There was a risk, but that was far outweighed by the likelihood that all of his training would help him do something that few people on earth could do. And that’s what we were there to see.
We weren’t there to watch someone take their life in their hands just to be famous on TV. We weren’t even watching some weird supernatural prayer event. We were just there to watch someone do something incredible.
And he did.
Meeting with media afterward, Wallenda was asked about his faith, and what the line was between actual preparation and prayer. “The only thing that faith assures me is where I’m going if I were to fall off that wire,” he said. “I don’t believe in any way that my faith holds me on that wire, or gets me across that wire.”
Nik told the reporters, “I believe that God provides a peace that passes all understanding. And that’s why I can stay calm and cool leading up to these walks. But my faith plays a role in every aspect of my life, not just on the wire.”
He credits God for his talent and his platform, but he credits his own hard work for getting him over the wire. That’s why it’s fun to watch. Despite coming from a long line of highwire walkers, he’s just a guy. He’s just like anyone else, except he’s spent countless hours practicing his craft.
“That’s always my prayer: That people will be inspired by what I do,” he said.
Wallenda said that people constantly tell him how inspired they are watching him, “not to walk a wire over Chicago blindfolded, but to pursue their dreams, even though they seem impossible.”
Earlier that day, Nik wore a baseball hat and glasses and walked the streets near site of the walk, and said he heard people as they were chatting. “And they’re all saying ‘That’s impossible!’” he remembered. “And I proved that the impossible isn’t impossible if you work hard enough.”
The prospect of death is obviously an element of highwire walking 60 stories over Chicago, but it’s not why people watched. We watched because we want to be a part of something that seems crazy, but actually shows us what we are capable of with a little prayer, a lot of hard work and the support of friends—even if one of them isn’t Joel Osteen.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.