April 16, 2006
Across the United States, kids are looking for the ultimate drug-free high -- and dying.
A deadly thrill called "the Choking Game" is becoming increasingly popular and claiming lives of children between the ages of 9 and 16, doctors and other experts said. Two weeks ago, a 12-year-old Glenview boy hanged himself, and a police official said it was likely he died playing the game.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of kids that are dying," said Dr. Joseph Hageman, an Evanston pediatrician and author of a paper on the game. "It's just plain scary."
SIGNS A CHILD COULD BE PLAYING CHOKING GAME
# Unexplained marks or bruises on the neck
# Red or bloodshot eyes
# Belts, leashes, ropes, shoelaces tied in strange knots, or found in unusual locations.
# Frequent severe headaches
# Disorientation after spending time alone
# Locked bedroom doors
In the Choking Game, a child gets high by cutting off the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, then releases the pressure to let the supply back in. With the blood vessels no longer constricted, Hageman said, blood hurries back to the brain, creating "an incredible rush" that is "very pleasant."
It can be played in a group setting, with one person choking another, then releasing pressure as the person passes out. Even more dangerously, kids play alone using a belt, rope or dog leash.
"It's not dissimilar to -- from what I understand -- the feeling you get when you use methamphetamines," said Hageman, also a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
The Choking Game goes by many other names: Space Monkey, Fainting, the Pass Out Game, the Black Out Game, American Dream, Flatliner or Flatline, Space Cowboy, Knock Out, Gasp, Rising Sun, Airplaning, and many others. Under any name, it always has the potential to be lethal.
Death shocks Glenview
Glenview police say they think it claimed the life of Leo McCarthy. About 10:24 p.m. on March 27, Leo's father found the 12-year-old choked by a guitar strap, according to police and the Cook County medical examiner. The parents performed CPR with coaching from a dispatcher, said Glenview Fire Chief Wayne Globerger. It didn't matter. The boy was pronounced dead at 10:59 p.m. at Glenbrook Hospital. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be hanging.
The boy's family declined to talk to the Sun-Times.
Glenview Deputy Police Chief Kirk Filipowski said he thinks Leo died playing the Choking Game. "It looks like that was the case," he said.
"We're up to speed on this game. And hopefully . . . some parents will get the word out to other kids and hopefully prevent any future tragedy like this," Filipowski said.
Leo attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help school in Glenview. His death has sent shock waves through the school, according to the father of one student. "There are some very upset parents," he said.
According to Hageman, Choking Game participants tend to be between 9 and 16 years old. Many children who play it do so over and over again, in the mistaken belief it is safe because it does not involve taking drugs. The Choking Game differs from autoerotic asphyxiation, in which a person uses choking to enhance pleasure while masturbating. People who engage in that fall into an older age group than the kids playing the Choking Game, Hageman said.
Kids who play the Choking Game tend to be "wholesome," Hageman said: "They get this rush, and they go to their parents and say, 'but we're not doing any drugs now.' "
But the "game" becomes acutely dangerous if performed alone. With no one there to remove pressure from the neck, the child can pass out and strangle themselves on the strap they are using, he said.
As many as 750 may die a year
While statistics on the game are hard to come by, the Teen Choking Game Newsletter estimates 250 adolescents die from it or autoerotic asphyxiation each year. The newsletter's editor, Dan Baldwin, based the estimate on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The annual number of deaths could be as high as 750, Baldwin wrote.
As the game's popularity grows -- possibly fueled by the Internet -- the horror stories mount. Last summer, 11-year-old Coleman Noia of Springfield was found dead with a dog leash around his neck. He might have died playing the Choking Game, according to the State Journal-Register.
Earlier this month, Maryland high school student William Bowen was found dead with a terry-cloth sash around his neck after playing the game. The scourge has given rise to Web sites -- such as www.stop-the-choking-game.com -- alerting parents to the dangers. And "The Oprah Winfrey Show" ran a segment on the game.
But doctors and law enforcement officials say more must be done to tell parents about this dangerous game. "We're looking into ways to educate the public," Filipowski said.