Everything was darker in the Middle Ages. People just seemed to generally be in an incredibly foul mood for about 1,000 years between 500-1500 A.D. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, culture declined and society devolved considerably. It was a perfect recipe for torture to become the preferred form of entertainment for a new generation of religious zealots with way too much time on their hands.
Torture devices became a great way to show your creative side. And a lot of Inquisitors were up to the challenge. The Medieval Inquisition took on anyone who dared to challenge the church, pulling confessions out of poor souls that probably weren’t guilty in the first place. Pope Innocent IV was the one that made torture an acceptable form of punishment to elicit a confession, if we want to throw around blame.
There were actual rules to torture people, too. You couldn’t just abuse whoever you wanted, whenever you wanted. That would be chaos! Guidelines had to be in place. The accused could only be tortured once and any tortures that resulted in death were considered illegal. There was usually some kind of investigation or trial. But that was really just to single out the heretics and get to the suffering.
Below, Dread Central has selected some of the most fun, disturbing forms of torture that will, hopefully, make you think twice before you challenge authority! Some devices have already been used in real life and in horror movies. Some, are still waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
Cat of Nine Tails
Dario Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails, the Giallo master’s second entry in the Animal trilogy, didn’t feature the real torture device of the same name. The number nine just referred to the number of clues actor James Franciscus had to investigate to find the killer.
The real cat-o’-nine tails were covered in metal barbed lashes and were used as a flesh-tearing flogging tool. One version called the Russian knout dried out pieces of rawhide wrapped in wire with sharp hooks attached. It was generally reserved for inmates and the victim was expected to stay quiet during the beating. Its use was widespread and was also used in the United States. The New York legislature finally abolished the punishment, but not until 1848.
Arya Stark had to watch this brutal form of torture when she was imprisoned inside the dark and dingy castle Harrenhal in season 2 of Game of Thrones. Selecting innocents at random, an iron bucket was placed on the chest of one poor soul, then lit on fire. Inside, a rat had only one way out of being boiled alive. Eat through flesh and bone. A version of rat torture was also used to great effect in George Orwell’s 1984 in the dreaded Room 101 where a prisoner’s worst fear comes true.
The Brazen Bull
Taking the same idea of rat torture to the next level, a man called Perilaus of Athens has been credited with coming up with this next ingenious invention—the brazen bull. This was a surprisingly clever and wicked twist on burning someone alive. Well done! The unlucky heretic would be placed inside the hollow belly of a bronze bull with a fire blazing underneath. The acoustics inside the bull were designed especially to increase the volume of tormented screams. Lovely.
I really like the simplicity of the Heretic’s Fork. It was designed so the perpetrator would be forced to look up at the false God they supposedly worshipped. Even swallowing became extremely painful due to the constant constricting of the Adam’s apple. Over time, the Heretic’s Fork has become a pretty popular fetish kink in S&M circles. So, at least someone is getting some enjoyment out of it. In a cruel twist, the fork was designed so death was not instantaneous if the victim tried to impale their own neck to end their suffering.
The aptly named thumbscrew was also referred to as “pilliwinks.” How cute! The vice design of the thumbscrew could be used to torture in all sorts of different ways. It could crush the fingers and toes. Or, the larger variations could crack and snap the knees and elbows. There was also a head crusher. Of course.
Pulling the Tongue
Medieval Inquisitors disliked blasphemers almost as much as your average, run-of-the-mill heretic. Red-hot pincers and piercing guns were used to inflict immense pain on the tongues of the wicked. Sometimes the Inquisitors would just cut jagged edges out. Other times, they’d nail the tongue to a table. It really just depended on their mood. Mark of the Devil from 1970 has the best tongue-pulling scene in horror history. Seek it out. The scariest part about it is the fact that it actually happened to a lot of people.
A pyramid tip made especially for the most unholy orifice! The Judas Cradle was one of the most feared torture devices of The Inquisition. Historically, it wasn’t used on a huge number of dissidents. But knowledge of the unthinkable torture traveled far and wide. One of the main reasons to conjure up a device like the Judas Cradle was not necessarily to use it. The fear it instilled in many free-thinkers was enough to keep them quiet.
Bone Tomahawk used saw torture to great effect when Kurt Russell had to bear witness to a man being completely split in half from the groin up. Saw torture was popular in medieval Europe and also in some Asian countries. Supposed witchcraft, murder, blasphemy, and theft were all reasons enough to get the saw. The Roman Empire would usually saw their victims in half like a magic trick. Chinese torturers got creative and would hang the accused by their feet between two stakes. The body could remain awake even with a considerable amount of blood loss. This is what people did before cable was invented.
Drawn and Quartered
The sometimes real, sometimes fake Faces of Death series had a drawn-and-quartered video I will always remember watching as a kid. It was supposedly some Russian prisoner being torn apart by four horses in the middle of the forest. This form of torture was reserved for more public showings where large crowds would gather to watch someone be slowly ripped apart. A dingy dungeon probably wasn’t large enough to accommodate such a spectacular punishment.
Hook suspension was used in The Inquisition to hang witches and heretics up by hooks in their flesh for days at a time. The idea behind the lament configuration was invented long before Clive Barker ever put pen to paper. Over the centuries, suspension has been reclaimed by body performers and artists like Stelarc who have turned torture into a spiritual experience.
That kind of reinvention is exactly what the horror genre should continue to do. These inventions can entertain us, make us squirm, and even inspire us without ever inflicting any real pain again.
Tags: Dario Argento Game of Thrones Saw torture
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