Deathtrap (plot device)

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A deathtrap is a literary and dramatic plot device in which a villain who has captured the hero or another sympathetic character attempts to use an elaborate and usually sadistic method of murdering him/her.

It is often used as a means to create dramatic tension in the story and to have the villain reveal important information to the hero, confident that the hero will shortly not be able to use it. It may also be a means to show the hero's resourcefulness in escaping, or the writer's ingenuity at devising a last-minute rescue or deus ex machina.

History[edit]

This plot device is generally believed to have been popularized by movie serials and 19th-century theatrical melodramas. A well-known example is the cliché of the moustache-twirling villain leaving the heroine tied to railroad tracks. Its use in the James Bond film series and superhero stories is well known.

Narrative use[edit]

It is a common criticism that it is unbelievable in story plots to have villains try to kill the heroes in such elaborate ways when they could use simple methods like shooting them. Through the decades, comic book writers have responded to these complaints by devising ways in which the deathtraps have served other purposes.

For instance, one Legion of Super-Heroes story by Jim Shooter had a team of Legionnaires put into a variety of deathtraps and the villains wanted the heroes to successfully escape. This was because the real purpose of the deathtraps was to have the Legionnaires use a great deal of energy doing so, which the villains then harnessed for their own benefit. Other stories have had villains use deathtraps as a means of testing the heroes or to distract them while the villain attends to other matters. On some occasions, the deathtrap is a machine that "absorbs" the energy from the hero/heroes.

Another rationalization for a deathtrap is when a particular villain simply enjoys leaving his victims some small chance of survival, just for the sake of sport. Such "sporting" villains include the Riddler, who has an uncontrollable compulsion to create intellectual challenges for his enemies. The Joker, Jigsaw Killer, and Arcade are other villains who simply enjoy the challenge.

On occasion, the villain may employ a slow deathtrap because they enjoy their victim's suffering prior to death, either due to sadistic tendencies or a desire for painful vengeance.

In a similar vein, the villain, often a megalomaniac, may feel that, as a reflection of his own imagined greatness, it would be "beneath him" to murder his enemy like any common criminal, and that his enemy's death should be the worthy spectacle that a successful deathtrap would provide. In contrast, he may feel that his enemy, having provided him with a worthy challenge in their earlier encounters, himself "deserves" such a grandiose death, or that the enmity between the two is so "epic" that it merits no less than such a conclusion.

The villain may simply be too insane to recognize the impracticality of the situation, although this characterization is rarely seen outside of deliberately parodic characters such as Dr. Evil.

A more recent reason is villains do it simply because its considered 'tradition' or 'rule' of being a supervillain to place a hero in a deathtrap and then leave them to their fate. This even goes as far as heroes, or other villains, insulting a villain for attempting to avoid using a deathtrap or staying to watch. El Sombrero is one villain who exemplifies this reason.

When a hero's sidekick or loved one is placed in a deathtrap, its purpose is often to distract the hero, occupying time and attention while the villain pursues their evil plan. Less frequently, the villain intends to instill grief and guilt as a means of defeating a hero that cannot be defeated physically. Multiple secondary characters may be placed in deathtraps to offer the hero an agonizing choice, ostensibly forcing the hero to save one victim and leave the other(s) to die.

Famous examples of deathtraps[edit]

  • The Engineer's Thumb (Sherlock Holmes story): the engineer Victor Hatherley is trapped inside a hydraulic press which would crush him to a pulp
    • Escape method: a woman working for the villains but not sharing their criminal ruthlessness opens a side panel at the last moment, allowing Hatherley to escape
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: Sealing Indiana Jones and Marion in the Well of Souls
    • Escape method: Seeing a possible tunnel entrance, Jones climbed a statue and toppled it towards the wall to create an entrance to a passageway that led to the outside.
  • Live and Let Die: Doctor Kananga and a minion tie James Bond and Solitare to a platform to be lowered into a shark infested pool to be eaten alive.
    • Escape method: Without the villains seeing, Bond activates his watch's rotary saw function to cut through his restraints to free himself and attack Kananga.
  • Goldfinger (novel): James Bond is shackled spreadeagled to a table and a circular saw (a laser in the film) is approaching to cut him in half. Unlike many deathtrap scenarios, Bond remains under constant supervision, and he does not use (or have) a device or outside help to escape.
    • Escape method: Bond bluffs Goldfinger, and persuades him that his replacement "008" also knows about Goldfinger's plans and that Bond's death will immediately summon him to investigate, so Goldfinger elects to not take the chance of another spy coming on the scene to interfere, which he can avoid by holding Bond captive.
  • Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum": The unnamed character finds himself bound to a large slab, beneath a bladed pendulum that slowly lowers toward him as it swings, with the intention of slicing through his chest.
    • Escape method: The character lures mice to the ropes with a piece of meat. They chew through the ropes, allowing him to escape before the pendulum can slice him open.
  • The 1960s live action television series Batman usually had two-part episodes use a bizarre deathtrap as a cliffhanger.
    • Example: The Joker traps the Dynamic Duo without their utility belts in the bottom of an industrial smokestack and begins to gradually fill it with a deadly heavier-than-air gas.
      • Escape method: The pair lock elbows and brace their backs against each other to walk up the smokestack to the top opening and slide down a support cable safely to the ground.
  • The Venture Brothers: Doctor Venture in Escape to the House of Mummies Part 2. He described the trap he was in as "Slower than haunted house spiked walls, but not quite as slow as evil scientist spiked walls."
    • Escape Method: Magic forcing the walls to stop. A secondary, previously unknown Boiling Oil trap failed when a henchman confused it for "Hot Voile," which was being warmed in a clothes dryer.
  • Disney's The Great Mouse Detective: Ratigan ties up Basil and Dawson in an intricate mousetrap and tells them about his plot to kill the queen. He then leaves to see his scheme unfold, assuming that they will soon be dead.
    • Escape method: Basil activates the mousetrap he and Dawson are trapped in early, catching the ball that was meant to crush them, and setting off a chain reaction that interferes with every other aspect of the trap.
  • Saw (franchise): The plot of the series revolves around the Jigsaw Killer, a dying vigilante who kidnaps his victims and places them in deadly traps to test them, and give them an opportunity to repent from their former lifestyle in which they took their lives for granted.
  • The Snowman: Rakel, Harry Hole's beloved, is forced to sit on a fast-melting snowman; when it had melted she would fall down and the razor-sharp wire around her neck would decapitate her.
    • Escape Method: Harry arrives on the scene and extricates Rakel in nick of time, at the acceptable price of the wire cutting off one of his fingers.

The villain speech[edit]

A simpler variation on the deathtrap is the villain speech, also known as monologuing. The villain, after having captured the hero or another victim, gives a long speech taunting and sneering at his victim, pontificating on how said victim will soon die, and reminiscing over how he tried for so long to get his kill and is now about to reap the reward. Villains may also give away details of their evil plots, on the rationale that the victim will die immediately and the villain often believes their victim deserves to know. This speech, given when the villain could have just killed the victim in a matter of seconds, is invariably used to give another character time to come in and save the victim, or for the victim to escape. In The Incredibles (which popularized the term "monologuing")[citation needed], Mr. Incredible and Frozone even attacked villains in the middle of their speeches (Mr. Incredible is seen attacking Syndrome and Frozone is mentioned to have attacked Baron von Ruthless off-camera). In a literary sense, the villain speech is also used as a form of exposition.

Even in relatively realistic stories, villains will often take a moment to say something pithy before finishing off the victim. The antagonist would often leave the victim to die whilst they commit their evil scheme.

Spoofs[edit]

The concept of the deathtrap/monologue is featured in many satires.

  • Deathtraps were spoofed heavily in the Austin Powers movies, including a replication of James Bond's Shark Infested Water deathtrap. It is first introduced as "an easily escapeable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death" with Austin placed on a platform over a pool (which Dr. Evil calls "the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism"). The trap is escaped by swinging on a grapple of dental floss. As the intended sharks with laserbeams were unavailable due to the complexities of international law regarding endangered species (much to Dr. Evil's disappointment), ill-tempered mutant seabass are used instead. As part of the spoof, Scott Evil, Dr. Evil's son, insists that the deathtrap is pointless and that they could simply shoot them with a pistol, which is nearby, and yells at his father for the further incompetence of leaving them alone. Dr Evil responds that not watching the killing but assuming it went well makes perfect sense.
  • In the sitcom Blackadder, Prince Edmund is captured by his nemesis, the Hawk, who straps him into a chair which, in sixty seconds, will mutilate him in a variety of ways. Edmund's friends, Baldrick and Percy, manage to poison the Hawk and his followers, but while celebrating this unlikely victory, the time runs out, and Edmund suffers a terrible fate. In another episode, Lord Flashheart is confronted by a villain who begins an evil villain speech. However, rather than waiting for him to finish, Flashheart merely shoots him without warning.
  • Curse of Monkey Island makes fun of this cliché. The villain LeChuck, after capturing Guybrush Threepwood, insists on telling him his plans before executing him. By this dialogue, interesting background story that connect the games together are given to the player. Guybrush does him the favour to listen, but after a while he is so bored that he refuses to listen any more, even if LeChuck pleads to continue.
  • The famous line from Watchmen wherein the character Ozymandias takes his time and explains in detail how he will set his plan irrevocably in motion and then, in a deliberate skewering of the monologuing tendencies of supervillains, explains that "Dan, I'm not a Republic serial villain. I did it thirty-five minutes ago."
  • In The Simpsons episode "You Only Move Twice", which generally spoofs Bond villain clichés, supervillain/great boss Hank Scorpio has "Mr. Bont" strapped to a table with a laser à la Goldfinger. Bont manages to escape, only to be tackled by Homer. Scorpio's henchmen promptly shoot Bont.
  • Some incarnations of the Evil Overlord List point out the impracticality of deathtraps. Some examples include making sure the deathtrap has a VERY small estimated time of death or such lines as "Shooting is NOT too good for my enemies."
  • Season 5 Episode 8 of the animated classic series The Flintstones entitled "Dr. Sinister" spoofed the James Bond series ("James Bondrock") and featured, among other deathtraps, Fred and Barney being tied to a slab with a slowly descending pendulum with blade, a la Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum". The duo escape when Barney holds his tied hands up and the blade slices through his bonds. He then unties himself and frees Fred before the final swing slices the slab in half.

Consumer products[edit]

The term death trap also is a slang term for a consumer product (typically one that holds or carries a person) that is far below typical safety regulations. Products released to the general public which may suffer design flaws or by very design itself be a danger to the user or bystanders. The term may be applied to any such product that poses a risk of injury or death, including vehicles, cribs and playpens, playground equipment, and buildings.

References[edit]