Tran is a 21-year-old college senior who, if everything goes as planned, will be preparing for his first year of medical school this time next year. Tran also loves blowing things up — or as he puts it, “playing with fireworks in unconventional ways” — particularly as a means of content creation for his TikTok and Instagram accounts.
“The giant mortar fireworks just don’t translate on a screen in a way that appeals to a wider audience,” he tells me. “But Roman candles are cheap and showy without being too dangerous, which makes them the perfect firework for goofy antics.”
These goofy antics include misbegotten pyrotechnic feats such as using Roman candles as chopsticks. “I thought it would be hilarious to watch and get people’s adrenaline racing,” he explains. “But it blew up the cup, and noodles went everywhere, ceiling included. After I stopped screaming, I could hear the fire alarms going off, so I had to scramble to get those off and clear up the smoke.”
The test run didn’t go much better: He accidentally set his lawn on fire. “I told my mom I was cooking, that the food had caught on fire, and when I brought it outside, it caught the grass on fire, too. She couldn’t be upset if it was a cooking accident, right?” he argues.
There is, however, one Roman candle trick/video that never fails him: the wizard duel. “I love chasing my friends around and dueling with them like we’re in Harry Potter,” he tells me.
According to Joel Robinson, product manager for the pyrotechnics company COBRA Firing Systems and purveyor of a popular fireworks-centric YouTube channel, Roman candles were popular long before the advent of social media. “Even Baby Boomers likely have memories of using Roman candles throughout the years, especially after living through the cherry bomb/M-80 ban that only left Roman candles and a few other things to use every year,” he tells me.
That said, there’s no doubt that they’ve been signal-boosted by YouTube in particular. “Videos of people getting hurt have consistently done well on the internet,” he says. “So the YouTubers try to draw in viewers with the ‘danger’ aspect of Roman candles. And that reaches back to shows like Jackass.”
The danger has built over time, too. For example, this summer, Robinson says the latest viral danger craze with Roman candles isn’t wizard duels, but making “machine guns” out of several Roman candles taped together. “I’ve seen several very large YouTubers use those types of videos to celebrate their subscriber milestones,” Robinson tells me.
Obviously, using Roman candles for wizard duels, machine guns and chopsticks — essentially, anything outside of their intended use — is very perilous, and the reason “most of the pyros who do fireworks for a living try to stay away from [doing them],” Robinson says. “The biggest safety issue is burns and your eyes, which are the two most common injuries with fireworks every year. Normally, things like bottle rockets are the main contributing factor, but Roman candles are a close second. Starting fires is also a concern, but the good news is, both injuries and fires compared to usage have dropped a lot over the years.”
Which side of the equation Tran will fall is TBD, but he’s definitely still chasing the viral high from his first Roman candle video. “It was the most viewed on my TikTok at the time, and I think it would’ve gotten more if I didn’t include the section trying to raise awareness for the Australian Bush Fires,” he says.
And despite the fact that TikTok has taken down his subsequent attempts at Roman-candle-fueled fame — “because they ‘violated guidelines,’ which I’m assuming refers to the dangerous aspect” — he remains unfazed. “I bought a few of these giant 192-shot Roman-candle-style fireworks,” Tran tells me. “I want to mount them to a piece of wood, wear them like a jet pack and light them while I’m on a skateboard. I also saw this Mario Kart idea where you and your friends wear three balloons and shoot Roman candles at each other. The last one with unpopped balloons wins.”
He believes that if he makes sure to now include a “do not try this at home” warning, it should prevent the videos from being taken down. And if it doesn’t, he’ll just keep blowing up shit until he finds something that can be preserved for posterity. “It’s my last year in college and my last chance to do stupid things before I have to grow up,” he says. “I’ll come up with something.”