When Ludwin was 9, his father took him to Bill Haast's famous Miami Serpentarium, where he watched the self-proclaimed Snakeman perform a bare-handed cobra-milking ritual. When he learned that Haast had built up an immunity to venom through injections, Ludwin remembers thinking, "I want to do that." For all his theatrics, Haast was focused on a higher purpose: supplying venom to science. In the late 1970s, Haast produced a drug that was used to treat multiple sclerosis and arthritis, and it showed such encouraging results that 60 Minutes broadcast a glowing report in 1979. But that only attracted the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which shut down the Serpentarium's manufacturing operation. Haast, whose antibody-loaded blood has saved the lives of 21 snakebite victims, presented himself as the best evidence of venom's medicinal potential. "I could become a poster boy for the benefits of venom," Haast, then 95, told the Miami Herald. "If I live to be 100, I'll really make the point." He died in 2011, six months shy of his 101st birthday.
Although Ludwin reverently calls Haast "the first Westerner to inject snake venom," self-immunization has age-old roots. It's sometimes referred to as mithridatism, named after Mithridates VI of Pontus, a fierce enemy of the Roman Empire who ingested daily cocktails of toxins and antidotes to ward off assassination attempts. But Ludwin is more interested in the shamans of Myanmar and South America, who are believed to have been using venom for millennia. Ludwin's adventures have also been shaped by a book called The Serpent Grail, which posits the existence of a prehistoric serpent-worshipping cult that has influenced every human civilization. The book's main claim is that the Holy Grail was a bowl from which was drunk a mixture of snake venom and either snake blood or the blood of a human or an animal that had been repeatedly bitten by a snake. "When I read that," Ludwin says, "I immediately made a mixture with my own blood and drank it . . . Perhaps I could sell it! Knock Coca-Cola right off the drink charts."
Ludwin experienced brief brushes with fame with his alt-rock band Carrie, which released two singles on Island Records that charted in the U.K. In 2002, he auditioned to be the lead singer of Velvet Revolver. When that didn't work out, he moved into songwriting. Three years ago, he also began putting on reptile shows for children, mostly at schools and occasionally for high-wattage clients. He once drove out to a big property in Richmond, a wealthy suburb of London, and performed for Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and clan. "It was funny because, during my shows, I'd often say that Brad Pitt owned 38 chameleons," he says. (Ludwin had gotten that intel from Slash, a fellow snake aficionado.) Pitt took the opportunity to correct Ludwin: He used to own 42.
Ludwin now sees himself as Haast saw himself—as a servant of science in showman's clothing. He dreams of one day making a documentary exploring the connections between snakes, science, and ancient rituals. It won't be his first. In 2010, a U.K. production company told his story in The Man Who Injects Venom. In the lead-up to the shoot, Ludwin increased the rate of his injections from every two months to every two weeks, then once a week, "and sometimes every day. It got to the point where I could take a lethal amount and play a game of tennis an hour later." It made him feel "like an athlete in training." Although few people saw the documentary, Ludwin viewed it as a seminal experience, allowing him to interact with medical professionals. During the shoot, he met Dirk Budka, the mysteriously credentialed director of London's Immune Clinic. The two men conducted weekly experiments. According to a British magazine, Ludwin's "blood was . . . tested against a number of infectious bacteria including MRSA and E.coli, with staggering results. . . . Budka . . . was stunned when the blood, in most cases, destroyed 70–100 per cent of the bacteria. 'He's amazing,' said Budka. 'His immune system may be strong enough to develop a medicine for the future.'"
The pair had plans to share their findings with Big Pharma, their eyes set on a multi-million-dollar payday. But Ludwin says they had a falling-out. According to the Immune Clinic's website, Budka—who couldn't be reached for comment—is no longer practicing medicine. On the advice of his lawyers, Ludwin declined to discuss specifics. "All I wanted was for someone to use me as a guinea pig to study the side effects and medical benefits," he says. "I hope the right company will knock on my door someday and go, 'This needs to be researched. Let's do it.'" In the meantime, most of the e-mail solicitations he gets are from "18-year-old girls going, 'Hey, I saw your program. I want to do what you do.' It's quite scary. I wouldn't instruct people to inject venom. I'm not saying it's safe."