Created By: Nemmington on October 28, 2012 Last Edited By: Nemmington on January 3, 2013

Torture fake-out

The hero is set to torture a villain for information - but the audience is assured that it's all a bluff.

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This trope starts off as a standard Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique, but the hero only gets as far as threatening torture before the victim gives in and confesses. Then, in a thought balloon or an aside to another character, the hero clarifies that it was all just a bluff: he'd never really torture someone.

From a storytelling point of view, the appeal of this trope is clear: it moves the story forward by allowing the hero to extract vital information, but - in theory - avoids the moral issues that surround the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique by skipping the actual torture.

There are two problems with this, however. One is that threatening someone with torture could be seen as a form of psychological torture in itself. The other is that it falls headlong into the also-dubious Torture Always Works trope: not only does torture always work, the merest hint of torture always works.


  • In one of Dan Slott's issues of Spider-Man, Spidey and Silver Sable conspire to pour acid on their captive, the Sandman, until he gives information. The Sandman can't feel pain - but if the acid touches a specific grain, he will die. We later find that Spidey was bluffing, but some critics argue that putting the Sandman in a deathtrap in the first place constituted torture.
  • In an issue of New Avengers Wolverine - on the suggestion of Daredevil - apparently throws a woman out a window, down several stories and onto a car as part of an interrogation. We later find that it was all just an illusion caused by Dr. Strange.
Community Feedback Replies: 15
  • October 28, 2012
    My english ain't good enough to word it the right way, so here's the short version.

    In The Punisher: Warzone, the Punisher tricks a blindfolded mook, presses a steak into a frying pan and the mook thinks the sizzling is a hot iron pressed against his paralysed back.

    Also a Real-Life Subversion: In a recent high-profile German criminal case, a police officer threatened a kidnapper with bodily harm, i.e. torture, if he wouldn't give him the whereabouts of the kidnapped boy (who was suspected to be in mortal danger). The kidnapper told the police officer the place where the boy was held, but it was too late, the kid had already been murdered before the kidnapper was captured. The kidnapper was later awarded 3000 euros for being submitted to inhuman treatment.

    Another one: In The Untouchables, Malone props up the corpse of a gangster outside the cabin in which the others are interrogating Capone's bookkeeper. Malone pretends to kill the man in his grip by shooting the corpse, and the bookkeeper inside is so shocked that he agrees to cooperate. So while they don't torture him, they still use fairly unethical methods.
  • October 28, 2012
    • In The Wheel Of Time Juilin Sandar threatens two agents of the White Tower with oil and salt to make them tell him why they drugged Nynaeve and Elayne. Then het tells Nynaeve and Elayne that he had no notion of how to use the oil and the salt.
  • October 28, 2012
    This is basically Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique subverted. I don't think that's enough for a page.
  • October 28, 2012
    Here's a possible page quote for you:
    "There's a saying in interrogation: Violence perceived is violence achieved."
    -- Michael Westen, "Do No Harm", Burn Notice
  • October 29, 2012

    Hard Candy had Hayley (an underage girl who'd baited an online pedophile, Jeff, into a trap in his own home) go through the motions of surgically castrating him (she numbed him first) and making him think she'd severed his testicles, only for him to look down and see that they were still on him--this was done as a Mind Screw in an effort to break him and get him to confess some of the sick things he'd done.
  • October 29, 2012
    In Raiders of the Lost Ark Marion was about to be interrogated in the tent. The interrogator pulls out what appears to be a torture device resembling nunchucks, but they're quickly fashioned into a hanger for his coat.
  • October 30, 2012
    This might be tropeable if it's expanded to any case where the hero pretends to torture a villain for information. For example:

    • In the film of Dudley Do Right, during a point where Dudley is pretending to go 'bad' he straps a Mook to a log headed for a large sawblade to extract information about Snidley Whiplash's evil scheme. It works, but Dudley seems to have trouble shutting the machine off and the Mook appears doomed ... until Dudley smashes the saw itself, revealing that the "blade" was just a cardboard prop all along.
  • October 30, 2012
    In Return to the Stars by Edmond Hamilton, the protagonist needs to get information from a captive. Another man ( the Big Bad of the previous book) says he can make him talk. The hero doesn't like it, but sees no choice. The other guy leaves, returns with the information, and warns the hero not to go past that room unless he wants to be severely disappointed. Apparently, the guy has enough of a reputation for simple threats to be enough.
  • October 30, 2012
    • In Copper the coppers are interrogating a group of Confederate agents and make a big show of picking a man from the group, asking him some questions and then taking him to a separate room where they execute him. After they have done it a few times, one of the prisoners breaks down and tells them what he knows about the plot to burn down New York. Turns out that the 'executed' men were simply bound and gagged and their deaths were faked.
  • October 30, 2012
    Batman The Animated Series had Batman threaten a mook that he'll be infected with an incurable disease that was being kept in a vile if he didn't spill the beans on who was impersonating Bruce Wayne. By coincidence, the mook happened to be very germophobic, and quickly spilled the beans it was Matt Hagan. Of course, it was later revealed that the vial only contained water and no disease samples at all.
  • October 30, 2012
  • December 30, 2012
    • In Take The Money And Run a prisoner is led off to another room to be whipped, which we see via shadow. The warden tells Virgil that that's what he has to look forward to if he doesn't obey the rules. But when the warden comes in to the room he discovers that they're only whipping the shadow, not the prisoner himself. The warden points out the error, and the guards start whipping the prisoner.
    • Used by Jack Baur himself once. Hooked up via videophone he has a bad guy's wife and son tied up, telling the baddie that he will have them killed if Mr. Bad doesn't give up the intel. The bad guy refueses, so Jack has someone on the other end kill the man's son. After the "interrogation" is over, Jack reveals to the bad guy that it was all an act, his son is fine.
  • December 30, 2012
    • Inverted in Justice, when Batman threatens to torture a mook for information. All other superheroes (and the audience) assume that Bruce bluffs, as usual. Then, however, someone recalls that he is still tied with Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth, which means that he cannot lie.
  • December 31, 2012
    Could we expand this to include threats of death as well, since they're really the same trope?

    • Horatio Hornblower series novel Hornblower and the Atropos. While in a dense fog, Hornblower captures a group of men from a French privateer. He needs to find out where their ship is, so he threatens to hang them as pirates, hoping that they'll tell him rather than die - he even gives an Evil Laugh. His threat works - the leader of the group is tricked into telling him where the privateer is.

    Tabletop RPG
    • Dungeons And Dragons. The Dragon magazine #79 article "Principles of Successful Adventuring" had some advice on how to get prisoners to talk. Force them to swallow a liquid and tell them it's a "truth potion": if they don't tell you the truth, the potion will kill them. It further advises showing the prisoner a dead body and telling them that it was that of another prisoner who was fed the potion and refused to tell the truth. Although the article doesn't say so, you could instead tell the prisoner that they will suffer intense pain if they don't tell the truth.
  • January 3, 2013
    • In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent threatens one of the Joker's mooks for information about his boss's whereabouts, flipping a coin to decide whether or not to shoot him when the mook won't talk. Batman shows up and chews Harvey out for it--but a later scene reveals that Harvey's signature coin is double-headed, so his threat to shoot the mook was a bluff.