Tag Archives: writing torture

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.


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Q&A: Waterboarding

Is waterboarding deadly? Some people say it isn’t and I don’t know what to think.

Not normally, but a torturer can botch this and kill the victim.

So, normally, waterboarding involves covering the victim’s face with cloth, and them pouring water over it. Water that gets in their mouth will trigger the gag reflex, and while the water is being poured, any attempt to inhale will pull water in, so it “simulates” drowning.

The asphyxiation is real. While the water is being poured, it’s impossible for the victim to breathe. If the torturer never stops pouring, then they will suffocate the victim.

Normally, the procedure is to pour for short periods of time, and then stop, giving the victim time to breathe, before continuing.

It’s kind of telling that waterboarding has been used in countertorture training. If properly administered, the physical danger to the victim is minimal. However, there are a lot of potential, “points of failure,” here.

I already mentioned asphyxiation. If the victim is improperly restrained they may harm themselves thrashing around during the process. Even if they are properly restrained, this is still a risk. All of the usual hazards for asphyxiation are present, including brain damage from lack of oxygen.

This is where things become a problem. There are a lot of factors that can determine how well you can handle a lack of oxygen: Age, adaptation (if you live at a higher altitude, you’ll adapt to lower oxygen levels), medical history, (particularly any respiratory or cardiovascular conditions) can all seriously alter how resistant you are to oxygen deprivation. When we’re talking about waterboarding, that resistance is the difference between, “fine,” and brain damage, or alive and dead.

So, yes, waterboarding can kill, but that works against the goal. There are far less elaborate ways to kill someone. The primary use of waterboarding is to elicit false confessions. Because the torture leaves few visible injuries, it’s easier to present a waterboarding victim’s confession as voluntary. Of course, as with any form of torture, there will be significant, lasting, psychological damage, but that’s not going to be apparent when the victim is being publicly presented.


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Q&A: Torture Is Anticipation

With torture, is it the pain or the expectation of the pain that makes people crack and give an answer (regardless of the answer’s truthfulness)?

It’s the anticipation of pain, which is like expectation but there’s suspense and uncertainty. The victim doesn’t know what’s coming. If they did, they could mentally prepare for it. That’s why unpredictability is important in a torturer’s repertoire. They are predictable and unpredictable, both at the same time. What they’re actually doing is using pain and other methods like starvation, deprivation, drugs, bright lights, and noises to break the brain’s internal rhythm. Your ability to recognize where you are and what’s happening to you. A torturer can actually torture a victim into submission entirely through the use of deprivation, without laying a finger on them (though they often do.)

What happens is the victim loses their sense of time, they’re disassociated from the world around them. They don’t know night or day, they don’t know how much time has passed. What torture is, rather literally, is the process of breaking a person down and retraining them into someone else so they’ll give the answers you want.

If you use torture in your fiction, it’s important to understand that it will effect your characters and it will change them. They will be different, and possibly never quite whole again. Withstanding torture is predominately a matter of mental strength and a willingness to continually say no, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. The events the experience will take their toll on the character’s psyche, and may become a character defining moment or redefining moment for who they are. There’s also no shame if they do break under the strain. Torture is not (and should not be) a metric by which we measure a person’s courage or mental fortitude.

Please, don’t apply morals to abuse victims.

When torture is treated this way by an author as some sort of badge of honor, most of the characters they imagine surviving without any problems are the ones who’d break. Remember, snarky characters are characters with a fragile sense of self. They’ll break first. The damaged, the broken, the insecure, and the uncertain will go down. A torturer’s job is to assess a person for their weaknesses and attack those weaknesses. Everything your character is frightened of, nervous about, cares for will come roaring to the surface. This is the battering of the self. The resilient are those who know who they are. They’re certain in certainty, resolute. This isn’t everyone, this isn’t even most people. It is a tiny sliver of the population.

Fictional torture is the equivalent of throwing your character into the oven, dialing the heat up past eleven, and opening it up later to see how charred they got or if they crumbled into ash. You’ve got to know them and be willing to attack who they are down to the very core of their being or it’s pointless. The sequence becomes gratuitous angst that serves no real purpose and becomes grossly disingenuous in regards to the real thing.

Like when writing any other sort of fight scene, the author plays both sides against the middle. They are both torture victim and torturer. Don’t treat torture as a test to be beaten. Be honest with yourself and your characters. When we create these scenarios, our role is to play the scene out. The story is in the character’s experiences and how they deal with what they’re presented with, not in what comes after. To be honest with those experiences and introspective in regards to their effects. Strength is found in figuring out how to come to terms with what happened and what they do after, not whether it affected them. They were tortured, the torture did affect them. This is the reality. The question is where they and their story go from here.

Babylon 5, Season 4 episode, Intersections in Real Time (also this clip) is probably one of the best torture episodes I’ve ever seen. The full episode is brilliant, and if you truly want to understand the methodology you should watch it in its entirety. Almost nothing the torturer says in the room is true. Take this piece from the scene.

“Your father is being held in another facility. His case is being handled by an associate of mine. I passed him in the hall.”

If Sheridan’s father is being held and interrogated in another facility then it’s unlikely the torturer passed his associate or Sheridan’s father in the hall. However, that’s not what we hear first.

“Your father is being held in another facility.”

Personal information meant to instill fear. Someone Sheridan cares for deeply is being held and tortured in similar circumstances. There’s the threat.

“His case is being handled by an associate of mine.”

This translates to: “I have a personal connection with the person who is interrogating your father, if you cooperate with me I can help him.” This instills trust in the victim.

“I passed him in the hall.”

Sense of immediacy. “If you give me what I want, I could go out right now and stop all this.” Here’s the hope. The desire to save someone we care about from experiencing pain by making the sacrifice.

This is how the torturer gets you. It is not the pain, the pain is the layup.  It’s there to confuse you, distract you, get you desperate so you don’t hear their lies. You don’t hear what they’re saying, you start hearing what you want to hear. They overload you with information. They use you against you.

The people you care about, your past history, what you take pride in, your morals, your failures, and your insecurities. A torturer is similar in some ways to a psychologist or a con artist, they can read people. Their special skill is in making assessments of an individual’s psyche based on the information available to them and the victim’s own behavior.  They profile, much like a police officer or an FBI agent. The torturers ability to see through their victim, to know when they’re lying, to know what they can’t know, and to make educated guesses that are spot on is part of why they’re so frightening.

“I don’t care about you. I don’t have a personal stake in this. It’s only a job. If you give me what I want this could all stop.”

It’s all on the victim, no pleas will reach the torturers ears. They are sympathetic to the victim’s circumstances, but implacable. They want to help the victim escape their current predicament, but the only way to do that is for the victim to give them what they want.

The art of torture is the art of slow burn escalation. It starts with a conversation in a room between two people, sometimes after a sleepless night in an uncomfortable chair. The victim must wait for the torturer to come to them. They have no control over their circumstances, all information comes through the torturer and they have no interaction with anyone else. We have an image in our minds of the cackling madman in the black mask who takes psychotic glee in pulling off nails. That is one version, but it is not the successful one. The scary torturers are mild, well-mannered bureaucrats. Everything they do disrupts the victim’s expectations so they cannot anticipate what will come next.

They may feed you, but the food will be poisoned. A poison designed to remove whatever remaining liquids were in your system via a night of uncontrollable vomiting. Then, they come back the next day and ask the same questions. Repetition. Do you trust them this next time, when they offer you water? You’re so thirsty. You see a light in the hall when the door opens, you think its sunlight. Its not. Is it night or day? How many days have passed? You don’t know.

This is a game of trust and betrayal on the part of the torturer. They control everything about your life, everything about you. They tell you what to think, how to behave, and what to do. You must trust their version of events because there is no way to know otherwise. You are tired and hungry and thirsty. You haven’t slept, and what sleep you did get what interrupted. They return at odd intervals, and you have no idea when they’ll come. You’re too frightened to fall asleep. What will happen if you do? Always, they ask the same questions. Again, and again, and again. Did they come on the same day? Or on different ones? Was it fifteen minutes or thirty? How long did they stay? You don’t know. Panic sets in. Its driving you mad, you want it to stop.

One day, if you hold out long enough, they introduce another prisoner to your cell. Someone from your side, someone held here just like you. You’re starved for companionship, you don’t question it. The prisoner befriends you, they give you hope and together you plan to escape. You try and are caught, you see the other prisoner killed. You grieve and blame yourself. After all, it was your idea wasn’t it? Again, you’re left alone in the dark. Later, the torturer returns with the same prisoner you saw die. Perhaps the torturer apologizes for tricking you, or maybe they just act like the event you lived through didn’t happen. They take the prisoner away again. Time passes and you’re alone. Did it happen? You wonder. You’ve begun to distrust your own memory.

Then, the torturer returns and the cycle begins all over again. The previous events never occurred and nothing has changed. There’s only one way for this to stop. You know that now.

Give them what they want.

It is far more useful as a tool used against say political opponents and dissidents than it is as a means of intelligence gathering. You get your opponents to say what you want in order to break opposition to your rule. This includes journalists, professors, philosophers, rebel leaders, entertainers, business owners, community leaders, and politicians. Break them so those who follow and believe in them will also be broken. Torture has been best used in the past to force confessions of guilt (regardless of truth), so the victims say what their captors want.

Capture Shock is one method that’s been employed by the CIA in the past. (I would not look if you are squeamish.) Fear Up Harsh is an enlightening book on the torture methods used in Iraq.

The use of drugs is very common in association with the pain because, again, the goal is to break the captive from their ability to recognize what’s happening to them.

There’s no one size fits all method for torture, and if you over focus on the pain then you’ll have missed the point. You’ll miss the person in the chair. There is purpose to the pain. It is relentless, controlled, and decisive. The pain is used to make you afraid, so you feel powerless. Confuse you, so you lose track of yourself. Break you apart, so you can be rebuilt.

This is why torture is frightening and so difficult to overcome. Survival is by itself success. Without these components in your fiction then it is just gratuitous violence and, essentially, torture porn.


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