5 Medieval Torture Methods (And Their Movie Depictions) Still In Use Today
By Dan Berry
For all the humanitarian improvements of the modern world, mankind still allows itself to descend into ancient, barbaric practices when the stakes are high enough. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “torture is a tool as old as stone and steel.” In effect, even the most advanced governments condone torture when their own nation’s safety is at risk.
In Season 1 of KoldCast TV’s intense award-winning series Clutch, viewers were introduced to a streetwise pickpocket who finds herself up against the mob. Of course, when you rob the mob, there is always a price to be paid. Such is the hard and horrifying lesson learned by the character of Bridgette in the cold intensely dark opening to the TV-MA second season of Clutch as the menacing Marcel ruthlessly tortures her. As for the details, we’ll let the premiere speak for itself.
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Season 2 TV-MA opening of Clutch: “Aftermath”
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Season 2: Episode 1 of Clutch: “Debt Collectors”
Needless to say, torture is illegal in most countries as dictated by the Geneva Convention. However, there are sickening forms of torture – we’re not talking waterboarding – practiced to this day. Confessions are coerced, information is acquired and oppression routinely occurs as the result of methods that remain as evil, yet effective as when they were first implemented in ancient and medieval times.
Referred to as bastinado, falaqa and phalanga, the method involves beating the soles of the victim’s feet with everything from rods, canes, and clubs to leather bullwhips with hard wooden handles and bats constructed of heavy rubber. Being that the foot is comprised of a cluster of nerve endings, as well as countless small bones and tendons, bastinado proves unimaginably painful and makes it nearly impossible to walk. However, the torture leaves few marks, making it diabolical indeed.
Recently, it has been a popular weapon of intimidation and oppression unleashed by the Bahrain secret police and by the Assad regime in Syria. Shakespeare, Mozart and Mark Twain all referenced foot whipping in their works and pop culture has famously echoed the act on film in Midnight Express and on television in Criminal Minds and Bones. In The Godfather, Sonny has three men “thoroughly bastinadoed” by his bodyguards.
In 1978’s Midnight Express, prisoners at a Turkish prison are formally footwhipped in the street.
Hanging by Members
An ancient torture method still commonly used in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, hanging by members involves the prolonged suspension of the victim by the ankles or wrists, which can cause permanent damage such as paralysis of the limbs. Widely used in Vietnam against the U.S. military, hanging by members is ironically now one of the torture methods U.S. soldiers were accused of applying to prisoners in Iraq.
In Lethal Weapon (1987) not only is Martin Riggs left hanging by his wrists under a cold shower, he’s electrocuted to give up information.
Burning with a Hot Iron
Hot hurts. It’s as simple as that. Burning someone with a blistering iron is insanely painful, and it leaves a permanent reminder of the excruciating experience. Unfortunately the method is still in use now in China, though human rights groups are working to halt the barbaric practice. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, sadistic Nazi agent Arnold Ernst Toht tried to burn Marion with a hot iron before Indy steps in to the rescue.
Arnold Ernst Toht in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark sporting his own branding scar.
Whether it’s a leg, an arm or a more creative bodypart, this method of torture delivers a maximum amount of pain with minimum amount of effort and is as common today as it was at the dawn of time. Remember in Casino when DeNiro had the man’s hand smashed with a hammer for cheating at cards? That was about as close to the reality of this simple, brutal torture method you can get. Fear invoked. Anguish accomplished. Message delivered.
Robert DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein lays down the laws of his casino for a card cheat whose partner just had his hand mangled by a hammer in 1995’s Casino.
Strappado is a vile form of torture in which the victim’s hands are tied behind his or her back with a tight rope that is then passed over a pulley, beam or hook in the roof such that the victim’s arms are dislocated as he or she hangs over the ground. To further intensify the suffering, weights are often attached.
Best known for its use in the torture chambers of the medieval inquisition, “reverse hanging” was also a device used during the Salem Witch Trials, in Nazi concentration camps and was one of several methods employed at the Hoa Lo Prison, popularly known as the Hanoi Hilton, in Vietnam. The act has been carried out in more recent times by the security forces of Turkey, Libya, and by U.S. Navy Seals on terror suspects at Abu Ghraib.
In The Princess Bride (1987) Westley suffers “more greatly than any man in a century” thanks to an advanced, fantastical strappado machine.
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Season 2: Episode 2 of Clutch: “La Malinche”
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Season 2: Episode 3 of Clutch: “Inamorata”
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Season 1: Episode 1 of Clutch
Dan Berry is a graduate of New York University. The warped mind behind The Prison Kite and HBO’s upcoming project The Bid, Dan has served as a network staff writer and is co-author of the soon-to-be-released biopic Madoff Uncuffed, documenting disgraced financier Bernie Madoff’s first year behind bars. Be the first person to follow him on Twitter @RealDanBerry.