Q&A: Extreme Medical Experimentation and Torture

A big part of my story idea involves my characters, who are vampire and werewolves, being put through extensive torture through experiments and dissection, over and over again, but not enough to kill them. (I know there is media that has covered this, but it never seems to get deep into the experimentation of it all) I was wondering what research I should read or look for, and also if you have an opinion on what is to much, or going to far with the torture?

I don’t usually say, “this is a bad idea,” as my lead in. I think this is doable, but it is going to require a very delicate balancing act. If the experiments aren’t severe enough, then the entire scenario loses plausibility. On the other hand, if you go too far, you can completely turn off your audience. Extreme violence will cause the reader to disconnect from the work, and you’ve lost them.

We don’t talk about audience disconnect often, but this is a real concern for writers. It is incredibly easy to go too far with violence. (Not just in this specific context.) There are a lot of potential causes, including trying to include extreme elements for shock value. However, whether you’re going for shock value or not, you’ll want to gradually build up intensity throughout your story. If you ramp up too fast, the audience disconnects. This becomes a balancing act, as you need to increase the intensity at a pace which keeps your readers engaged, without driving them off.

So, when you say, “torture,” this is going to be a very difficult mark to hit. Realistically, an organization engaging in extreme medical experimentation on non-human, “monsters,” is going to be pretty horrifying on its own. If you whiff that, the organization loses credibility as villains.

There’s already plenty of history with humans doing borderline unspeakable things to one another under the guise of medical experimentation. I’m not going to dig into the history of crimes against humanity today. We’ve talked about in the past, and I don’t think this week really needs delving into that rabbit hole.

What is important is that this kind of torture for medical information already has a template in the real world. If your werewolves revert to human form on death, any meaningful anatomical analysis would need to be done through vivisection. Similarly, your vampires would need to be autopsied while still un-living, because, once dead, they’re just another corpse (assuming they don’t rapidly decay on death, in which case, we’re back to the same fundamental issue as with werewolves.)

There are a few major considerations that can help you significantly.

First: Your characters escape (or are rescued) before things get out of hand. We’ve said it before, but torture is about the threat of what comes next, not the actual damage being done. In the same sense, you can threaten much worse things but then interrupt the process without paying off those threats. Important to remember, just as anticipation is part of torture, those threats can be enough to cause the audience to disconnect if they’re too explicit. However, it is much more manageable to have a villain threatening to carve up your protagonist’s best friend, than to actually deliver on it.

There are a few problems here, if you’re wanting to torture them repeatedly, that will turn off the audience. The repetition doesn’t build tension, and once you’ve brought a character out the other side, doing so again doesn’t contribute to the story. However, each new session is another opportunity for the audience to get sick of what’s happening and walk away. This doesn’t mean the event is one and done, but you probably don’t want to depict multiple sessions unless there’s something significant about them.

Also, torturing them repeatedly won’t generate useful information, unless the methods change dramatically. For example, burning this week, poisons next, surgical examinations on Tuesdays at 5pm. There is an element where simply having a mundane schedule for this can be very disturbing through minimal effort. If you’re wanting to work with this you need to ask yourself what they’re trying to learn from each test. If this is for the purpose of developing a greater understanding of how these creatures operate, then reverse engineering the scientific method will go a long way towards establishing the monster hunters as a real, plausible threat.

As a quick aside, the scientific method is: 1 Form a hypothesis, 2 test the hypothesis, 3 evaluate results, 4 if the results are not consistent with the hypothesis, go to 1 and refine it. If you want this to work for your story, you need your monster hunters to be actively learning about the creatures they’re hunting.

Second: You don’t need to see this. Finding a character who has been butchered is going to be less traumatic (and will have less risk of disconnect), than depicting the act directly. This can also sell the threat of the organization very effectively. Placing scenes like this needs to be carefully considered if the victim is an established character. If the victim is anonymous (no one your characters know), the impact on the audience will be diminished. As I said a moment ago, this needs to be managed carefully, but, it can be a relief. If a character has been captured, and the other characters find a corpse, learning that it isn’t their friend (and isn’t someone the audience knows) will be a temporary relief for the audience, (though not so much for the characters.)

Third: Flipping the script can make these behaviors uncomfortably palatable. Specifically, stories from the perspective of the monster hunters can get away with some really horrific behavior directed at the monsters because, “they’re monsters.” If the story is told from the perspective of the humans hunting vampires, and they’re engaging in horrific experimentation to probe vampire limitations the audience will be more sympathetic. If you start humanizing your monsters, audience support for this will quickly break down. This can (potentially) be used to move audience sympathies from the humans to the monsters, though doing so will still require a delicate touch.

One piece of fiction that plays with this very deftly is the British TV series Ultraviolet. The human vampire hunters are somewhat sympathetic because they’re human, but their methods are just uncomfortable enough to keep things on edge. At the same time, the vampires are just human enough to keep the overall tone surprisingly balanced, while being monstrous enough that trusting them is a mistake. It also has my favorite performance from Idris Elba. It’s an excellent series, and does get into medical experimentation in a way you don’t often see in vampire fiction.

In the end you to balance three things. The audience’s tolerance for what they monster hunters are doing. If you ramp up too fast, you risk alienating your readers. Your monster hunters’ goals and methods. If their actions are a major focus of the story, you need to structure what they’re trying to learn. (At a disturbing level, it’s possible they know more about your characters’ physiologies than the vampires or werewolves.) Finally, you need to remember you’re dealing with some very complex, and difficult subject matter. There are legitimate reasons to tell this story, and there is a lot of potential ways to present it. However, this will be difficult, so prepare yourself for that.

-Starke

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