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The Agony and the Ecstasy 

A walk through the "Torture Exhibition" can be a terror or a turn-on, depending on your point of view

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
Torture (tor-chur) n. 1. the infliction of severe pain as a punishment or means of coercion. -- Oxford American Dictionary

Torture (tor-chur) n. 1. a form of sensual bliss that precedes or deposes sexual release. -- Lady Katrina

There can be no confusion as to the aim of the Herbst International Exhibition Hall's "Torture Exhibition: European Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment From the Middle Ages to the Present." Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch endorse the touring retrospective of more than 100 gruesome implements of suffering on loan from the Criminal Medieval Museum of San Gimignano, Italy. Since its debut in Florence in 1983, the macabre exposition has drawn thousands of visitors to showings throughout Europe, Tokyo, Argentina, and Mexico and has spawned lectures and debates about human cruelty wherever it has appeared.

"Our commitment is to show how, throughout the centuries, human beings have been tortured, both in body and soul," says exhibition director Aldo Migliorini. "We want to combat violence, torture, and capital punishment against living beings."

That said, it is not only the socially conscious and soberly altruistic who are drawn to a show of this kind. More than a few people in San Francisco would give their eyeteeth to add the gorgeous Catalonian Garrote, with its highly burnished wooden seat, severe iron collar, and perversely pious crucifix-shaped base, to their personal collection or in-home dungeon.

The history of the garrote stretches back to ancient times when a simple pole was driven into the ground and the attached rope was strung around a nearby neck. In Spain, the device was "perfected" for executions by adding a dull iron spike on the inside of the collar that would crush the cervical vertebrae and push the trachea against the immobile constraint by screws that were unhurriedly tightened. This little innovation added agony to the already fatal process of asphyxiation, and was used in Spain until 1975 and in much of Latin America until only recently.

But 26-year-old "Lady Katrina" has other ideas, something involving a deerskin flogger and an adjustable ball stretcher (a soft leather apparatus that straps half-pound weights to her lover's scrotum) available from the San Francisco mail-order company Blowfish.

"It is very stylish, no?" asks Katrina, looking like a ghoulish hand model, running a pale index finger along the smooth wooden edges of the contraption.

Of course, there is no sublimating the intention of the Guillotine -- a towering example of which sits at the front door of the hall guarded by a formidable hooded executioner -- which was actually the attempt of French physician Joseph Ignace Guillotin to make beheading more humane. Or the Bull of Falaride, a hollow cast-iron bull in which men were slowly roasted in Athens.

"Perhaps just a little heat could teach someone a lesson," suggests Katrina. "It is very pretty, anyway."

Indeed, as detailed and lovingly tooled as is the re-creation of the bull, it is not difficult to imagine the beast sitting as an objet d'art in someone's sculpture garden, and the Bull of Falaride is not the only highly ornamental device of torture on display. The Barrel Pillory, popularly used on drunkards and gamblers in 18th-century Salzburg, was often filled with feces and urine before the penitent was lowered inside, but the barrel itself depicts lovely folk scenes painted in watercolors of men drinking beer with their families, carrying sacks of grain, climbing apple trees, and serenading ladies at their bedroom windows. The Branks, Scold's Bridles, and Masks of Infamy are fine examples of metalworks that made their way from 16th-century Scotland to the Americas styled after animal heads, mostly pigs and donkeys, in a most artfully balanced and aesthetically appealing way (if only one were able to overlook the internal spikes, blades, or balls that frequently disfigured the tongues of the back-talking wives who were forced to wear the masks in public). The Oral, Rectal, and Vaginal Pears -- used respectively on blasphemers, sodomites, and Satan's concubines (adulterers) -- are delicately carved and richly adorned pear-shaped mechanisms that open up inside the body with the turn of a screw, thereby mutilating the corresponding orifice, often with fatal results. (Such things are still used in parts of the world today, though they are not so artfully decorated as during the Inquisition.) Perhaps all this might be avoided by simply kissing the exquisitely inlaid Inquisitors' Crucifix, which holds hidden within its religious trappings a razor-sharp dagger. But probably not.

Of course, some of the most ingenious forms of torture require little pomp and paraphernalia. Featured at the Herbst are several small reproductions of historical paintings accompanied by meticulous, grisly descriptions of preferred torture: Flaying Alive, during which the dermal strata is cut through until the knife reaches muscle, where careful undercuts between the muscle and epidermis allow the hide to be peeled away whole as the victim expires from blood loss; Water Torture, in which the incline of the body and hasty bloating through forced water consumption causes the crushing of internal organs and suffocation; and the seemingly innocuous Goat's Tongue, for which a dehydrated goat is invited to lick salt off of the soles of someone's feet until bone is exposed. But even obvious accouterments like the Rack, Saw, Head Crusher, and Skull Splitter benefit from the colorful language employed by the Italian curator of the "Torture Exhibition": The Rack, a must-have item for any well-equipped Italian dungeon between the 1500s and 1700s, lengthened the human body up to 12 inches, causing the very audible separation of joints and ripping of muscle tissue; the Two-Handed Saw was used to dissever the body from anus to throat while the victim hung upside down and spread-eagled (blood flow to the brain kept a person conscious); small spikes in the headband of the Skull Splitter pierced the bone as screws were tightened until the cranial cap cracked off; the elaborate vise of the Head Crusher was tightened around a metal cranium cap until "brains squirt through fragments of the skull."

The language of the exhibit, as extreme as it is, leaves nothing to the imagination, and I am not surprised to see two young boys, once eager to gaze on the Iron Maiden (aka the Virgin of Nuremberg), ask their mother if they can leave after reading about, and gazing at, the medieval practice of Impaling: A well-smoothed conical stake is deftly inserted in the anus and raised in the air, lifting the victim up with it; while gravity slowly pulls the body toward the ever-widening end, vital organs are evaded, allowing the prisoner to live for several days.

But my imagination is limited. While I can see the aesthetic allure and Gothic appeal of the spike-encrusted Interrogation Chair, Lady Katrina sees possibilities.

"They used to heat it up," she says, earnestly considering history for a moment. "It's a precursor to the electric chair."

The Self-Mortification Belt, a body-hugging item made with 220 barbed-wire points designed to push into the flesh, holds special interest for Katrina.

"Masochism in the name of God," she says coolly, turning toward the highly decorative Chastity Belt fixed with tiny metal teeth surrounding a small slit. "Bondage and discipline in the name of property."

"Now, these I like," says Lady Katrina, eyeing the nearby Cat's Paw and Spanish Tickler, metal claws used for ripping breasts, genitals, abdomen, and back. "They're crude but pragmatic."

"I think the appeal of pain and torture has a lot to do with control or, more importantly for many people, relinquishing control," says Greta Christina, the merchandising director of Blowfish mail-order and narrator/producer of the new Blowfish video Our Friend the Volt: Fun and Safety With Folsom Electrical Sex Toys.

While Folsom's electrical wares are not pain toys like the Violet Wand, which sends static electricity skittering across the surface of the skin, they share shelf space with some elegant sadomasochist playthings in Blowfish's brightly painted 16th Street storehouse: like the Wartenburg Neuro Wheel, a small medical device with incredibly sharp spikes used to test nerve response or torment a partner in those "extra-sensitive but difficult-to-torture" places; the Rope Flail, a multitailed whip made from marine-grade nylon, which is hand-washable (a desirable attribute, I am told, since leather flails cannot be disinfected); the Male Chastity Belt, a G-string-style harness with four locking buckles; and the Whippet, an innocent-looking fiberglass rod with a rubber handle that delivers "a sharp, nasty, biting, super-evil sting," among hundreds of other things.

"I really like the talons," says Christina, who, along with the six other people at Blowfish, personally tests every product -- from dildos to nipple clamps to lube to video to Folsom Electric Company's "metal urethral electrode" -- before including it in the catalog. The Long Single Talons from Effigy Metals are the work of a former San Francisco jeweler who now lives in Arizona, where he handcrafts each 3-3/4-inch-long nail out of sterling silver, brass, and copper, or latex-coated brass and copper, each with a stainless-steel point. They, like many of the locally made whips and flails, are each little works of art.

"And they can really scratch," assures Christina. "They are exquisite to look at, beautiful, but they feel very, very intense, very animalistic."

"The experience of pain really helps me break down barriers," explains Christina. "It cannot be ignored. It keeps me very, very present and connected to my partner. I'm sure people have all sorts of psychological explanations for it -- upbringing, environment, endorphins (there's no denying the endorphin high that can be achieved after an intense session of pain play) -- but I think some people are just hard-wired for it."

Like Lady Katrina, 34-year-old Atheris remembers torturing her stuffed animals when she was 4 or 5. By the time she was a teen she was writing hard-core S/M stories. Now she works as a professional domme, and play includes electric toys, needles, whips, floggers, clamps, canes, dildos, strap-ons, wax, and piercing; she also co-stars in Our Friend the Volt, which she assures is more about involuntary muscle contractions and instant tingling orgasms than pain or torture. Still ...

"That feeling of being able to torture a willing victim really gets me going," says Atheris. "I don't exactly know why I get sexually aroused by inflicting pain, but I do. And always have."

"It's like explaining why a person likes broccoli or roller coasters," says Christina.

"It's just as strange to me," says Lady Katrina, "that someone could look at the Scavenger's Daughter [an arm and leg restraint that eventually causes violent cramping of the abdominal and rectal muscles] and not be titillated. Just a bit."

"Torture Exhibition: European Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment From the Middle Ages to the Present" runs through Oct. 14. The Blowfish catalog can be perused at

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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