In the magical world of fiction, if torture
isn't being just used to prove that the Big Bad
is indeed big and bad
(or that the Anti-Hero
is indeed anti), it works as an instant source of 100% reliable information. The information extracted under torture is always accurate and important, even if the interrogator himself starts with no information at all and so has no way to know if the prisoner is telling the truth or lying. The possibility of having the wrong person, who will say anything
under torture whether they know anything or not
, will be excluded. Often as not, the victim is then released with no consequences to them if they lied.
The only times when torture doesn't work is when the tortured is just too Badass
to be broken, and doesn't say anything at all. When characters object to torture, they are often portrayed as weak liberal Strawmen
who "don't have what it takes" or "don't realize what's at stake". They only make moral criticisms, and never bother to point out that it's unreliable, presumably because they too know that it Always Works. Even when it doesn't work, characters who should know better assume that it will.
In Real Life
, as an interrogation technique for extracting actual usable intelligence, its efficacy varies wildly - some will tell the truth, others will lie just to spite their torturers, others will clam up under poor treatment, and still others will say ANYTHING to make the torture stop. This last is a major problem with torture - it is a well-known means to extract false confessions from people, being frequently used for such purposes, and as such any intelligence
gathered in this way is highly unreliable, doubly so because the torture victim will often be playing directly into what they believe that their torturer WANTS them to say. There are also cases where the victims tells the truth but the torture continues anyway because their tormentors don't believe them
... until, of course, they come up with a convincing lie...
The most common form when used by villains is probably Electric Torture
. When heroes torture their enemies, they usually use Enhanced Interrogation Techniques
, because they Always Work but have a different title and are thus Not Torture.
Compare Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique
. Contrast Torture Is Ineffective
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Anime and Manga
- Vinland Saga. After catching an English spy, Askeladd takes a pair of shears to his fingers. Eventually the guy tells him what they want to know, in a way that leaves them all shitting their pants. The torture victim laughs in their faces as Askeladd cuts off his head.
- From Darker Than Black:
Havoc: [Talking to Hei] If you've really established a Contract, you'd know better than anyone else. A Contractor's greatest priorities don't lie within the syndicate, nor in its priorities. It lies with himself. There's no merit in being tortured and remaining silent. You, for some reason, just can't seem to understand that.
- Pandora Hearts subverts this in the first five minutes. Though the torture is mundane... the victim promptly gives quick information. Quick, and WRONG information!
- In the Sherlock Holmes Deliver Us From Evil Series, this is played with when Holmes was kidnapped and tortured by Moriaty and his henchmen. It is averted that Holmes just barely avoided crossing over the Despair Event Horizon but when his rescuers found him, it was clear that he was pretty far gone.
- In Mindshattered of One Piece, the Big Bad Panaceam captures Zoro and brutally tortures him by beating him and starving him to near death for over a month. When that didn't work, he added poisons and drugs in Zoro's scarce food and water which finally forced him to talk. The guilt, horrific injuries and being riddled with the physical and emotional issues that comes with starvation, Zoro was a complete wreck by the time the crew found him.
- The Avengers has Invincible where Steve was captured and HYDRA tortures him, not to get information, but to break the Avengers and SHIELD's spirit by physically and emotionally shattering their leader. They nearly succeeded.
- Briefly discussed in You Obey. Torture is not a prefered means of acquiring information, and it's implied that its reliability is uncertain. The victim fails to give in, resulting in Mind Rape.
- Averted in Episode 67 of Sonic X: Dark Chaos. Cosmo begs Beelzebub to stop her suffering and offers to tell him whatever he wants if he'll stop the torture. Then she finds out he isn't after information.
- Averted in Goya's Ghosts - Natalie Portman is tortured into 'confessing' to being a secret Jew by the Inquisition, and then in revenge her father tortures her inquisitor into signing a 'confession' that he is an ape in human form with a secret mission to subvert the church. He hopes to blackmail him into releasing his daughter. It doesn't work.
- In The Matrix, Smith tortures Morpheus for the codes to Zion's mainframe. The fact that they've given him a digital truth serum that is hacking his mind does help.
- In Dirty Harry, San Francisco Police Department Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan presses down on the Scorpio killer's badly wounded leg (he was just shot with a .44 revolver) until he tells him where to find a girl he had kidnapped and left to suffocate. Naturally, he finds out where she is, only to discover that she has already died. The killer promptly walks away from the law by crying "police brutality", much to Harry's disgust.
- In The Dark Knight, Batman uses it on a mob boss by dropping him from two stories up (conventional Batman interrogation techniques involve dangling the perp from twenty or thirty stories up until he talks) and breaking his legs. This works a bit better. Except it still doesn't work. The mob boss still doesn't tell him anything, because he's way more scared of the Joker than anything the Batman could do to him. This calls to mind earlier, when Batman had the Joker in custody, and Joker himself told Batman that he could wail on him all day, and he'd still never tell him anything until he decided he wanted to. This is in stark contrast to Batman's very effective use of torture in Batman Begins, who determines information about the growing conspiracy from crooked cop Flass, and finds out that Dr. Crane/Scarecrow is working for Ra's Al Ghul. This is part of the more mature theme of The Dark Knight.
- The Joker even gives the Batman tips on how to beat someone up while Batman is pounding him. Batman begins by slamming Joker's head against the table, which the Joker says is a poor way to start, since it makes the victim too dazed to feel any further injury. Which is immediately proven: Batman smashes Joker's hand, which Joker no-sells and says, "See?"
- Subverted in Transsiberian. Kolzak tortures Abby to find out where her boyfriend Carlos is. She legitimately doesn't know, however. He then tortures her in front of her acquaintances, Roy and Jessie, thinking that seeing Abby in agony will cause one of them to talk. Jessie, who know exactly where Carlos is dead, by her hand, is visibly disturbed during the scene. She breaks down, seems as though she's going to crack, and then lies again. Badly.
- The Punisher (2004): The Punisher himself hangs a guy from the ceiling in chains, cooks a steak with a blowtorch behind the guy's back (sound and smell of sizzling meat) while running a popsicle along his back, explaining that burning usually feels like freezing to start. It works.
- The chief benefit of this is the fact that it's a complete psych out. That said, the film never explores how far Frank would actually have gone. By contrast, a later torture scene involving Quintin Glass and Frank's next door neighbor subverts the trope; Glass gets nothing, in spite of removing every piece of the man's extensive body piercings the hard way.
- Slightly ambiguous in A Clockwork Orange, but seems to indicate that even if torture did work, would that really justify its use?
- Subverted in The Passion of Joan of Arc. They drag Joan to the torture room but she simply explains to them the logic listed in the description above.
- In the movie Payback, Mel Gibson's character willingly submits to being tortured just so he could feed his torturers false information. (They wouldn't believe him if he just told them before the torture)
- Act of Valor deliberately subverts this. When a CIA agent is captured by the drug traffickers in the film, she is brutally tortured but utterly refuses to break under the pain. Later on, when Christo, the leader of the drug traffickers, is captured and questioned by Miller, the interrogation consists entirely of the two men sitting at a table and talking, with Miller simply laying out the reality of the situation: Christo will be going to prison, and unless he cooperates, he will likely never see freedom or his family again. Christo breaks immediately and tells them everything he knows.
- Zero Dark Thirty is a rendition of how Osama bin Laden was captured. Torture was involved in getting some of the information about his associates. This spurred a lot of controversy and accusations that the film is pro-torture. Yet torture is also clearly shown as ineffective in preventing an attack, as the prisoner is reduced to gibberish and any worthwhile information either came from non-torture interrogation and overlooked files, and the director said in an interview that the moral ambivalence of the use of torture was intentional.
- Averted in Prisoners. Vengeful father Keller, believes that kidnapping and torturing the child-minded man he believes kidnapped his daughter will force him to confess and reveal her whereabouts. Turns out the child-minded man wasn't the kidnapper, the woman he was staying with was the true kidnapper as well as a serial child killer.
- Discussed at length in The Battle of Algiers. Torture does work, as the French gain valuable information from it, but the movie depicts it as counterproductive by leading to backlash amongst the Algerian population and even the French public.
- Lone Wolf features a rare example of a hero torturing information out of a villain in Book 18 Dawn of the Dragons. In the beginning of the adventure, Lone Wolf has the opportunity to interrogate a man who had been caught plotting to assassinate him. The gaoler offers Lone Wolf his torture tools (including hot coals) but Lone Wolf declines. Lone Wolf then proceeds to either Mind Control or Mind Rape the prisoner into telling him who wanted Lone Wolf dead. It works but then the prisoner uses the last of his willpower to bite into a trick tooth containing deadly poisonous gas.
- The Mord-Sith are an entire order of The Baronesses in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth. To be fair, they are long-term torturers, in that they "break" a target over weeks or months so that they want to obey their Mistress, who have been trained since girlhood. They're less a method of gaining information and more a method of making someone into a slave. Hell, they don't even ask any questions until they're sure that their victim is properly "trained."
- The grimmest part of the whole scenario is that Mord-Sith start out as kind, gentle girls and are systematically tortured and broken until they are ready, willing, and able to do it to others.
- Subverted, however, when one tries to question a Mord-Sith. The books show two attempts and both have failed (including a Room 101 one)
- In Flight of the Nighthawks the protagonists torture an assassin for information about his organization's base. However, they only need him to think about it, as they have a mind reader among the interrogators. It still takes days.
- From Tom Kratman's Carrera's Legions series:
- In Carnifex, the Aesop is that torture works if you're both clever enough and ruthless enough about it.
- Both subverted and played straight later in the series. A corrupt UN-Earth Admiral makes it clear that under torture a man will say anything. However, the terrorist chief who has captured him reminds him that this includes the truth. Extra points are awarded when the Legion tricks an Amnesty Interplanetary investigator into taping them brutally interrogating several prisoners with mock hangings and blow torches, then storming into her press conference to reveal that everyone in her tape was actually a Legionary soldier and the whole thing was one big set up.
- At the same time, the said Legion operates a ship where captured Terrorists are subjected to horrific procedures, from dental drilling, to finger breaking, to sex change operations over a period of months to get them to give information. It is mentioned repeatedly that they verify all the information gained with that other prisoners and from intercepted messages. If the captured terrorists are found to be lying their parents are brought in....
- Parodied in Terry Pratchett's Interesting Times. A lot of people try to convey how ruthless and dangerous the villain is by pointing out that "he has a man in the dungeon who can keep you alive for years". While this would imply extensive torture so refined that even dying from it isn't an option, the protagonists usually interpret it literally and ask if it involves jogging and a balanced diet.
- The torture skills of the Quisition in Small Gods is equally remarked upon. In this case, though, whether or not the victim is actually in possession of important information or is a heretic is considered ultimately unimportant. They figure that simply being suspected of something is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, since surely the Great God Om would not allow suspicion to fall on an innocent. Sound familiar?
- Also used by the Gestapo-esque Particulars in Night Watch. They don't seem to care whether it's a reliable method or not; they just torture prisoners until they admit to any crime the Night Watch needs to solve. Vimes gets information out of a suspect by pretending he's used the horrific ginger beer trick on a comrade, but it's actually several watchmen impersonating the sound of fizzy ginger beer and the resultant screaming.
- For those with a too-inquisitive mind, you can find the actual trick in the third season of Dexter: Crooked cop Ramon Prado tortures a gang-banger by shaking a glass soda bottle, then spraying it straight up his nostrils, leveraging the pressure with his thumb, which is harmful enough to give the kid a horrendously bloody nose. Technically doesn't work, because the guy legitimately doesn't know anything.
- Invoked and then subverted in Mercedes Lackey's Arrow's Fall: facing torture, Talia thinks back to her training, in which she was advised that torture will eventually force anyone to give up whatever information they are trying to keep concealed... so, as per her training, Talia starts off with a Sarcastic Confession and then lies extensively and creatively to make sure her torturers won't recognize the truth when they hear it. Of course, they're not especially interested in getting information out of her anyhow.
- Subverted in the Trickster's Choice, in which after Fesgao asks if they should use torture to get the information from an assassin, Aly replies "Any amateur knows torture is chancy at best. People do still lie under torture."
- It helps if you are in an universe that has truth spells and truthdrops...
- Interestingly, the Provost's Dog series is set in the same universe, and focuses on a group of proto-cops. Torture is still widely used because the high price of truth spells, combined with political red-tape, put them beyond the reach of low-level law enforcement. Actual, genuine torture is shown to be pretty useless and needlessly cruel, but there's no real alternative.
- The title character of Robert A. Heinlein's Friday is captured at the beginning of the book and tortured for days on end, plus truth-telling drugs are used on her, and she's raped. Her reaction to all this? Irritation that her captors are such amateurs because she told them everything she knew immediately, knowing that with the drugs they were using nobody could keep a secret. And as a highly trained courier she is more important than any information she might be carrying on any single trip. Plus, she finds it distressing that they are dumb enough to actually rape her (and several other highly unpleasant things) when they should know that her training allows her to deal with it, making it useless for torture purposes.
- In James Patterson's Cat and Mouse, Pierce gets information out of a suspect simply by shoving a shaken Coke can under his nose and opening it. "It's an old interrogator's trick, incredibly painful, and it always works."
- Caesar relies on this trope in a quite gruesome matter in the fourth Emperor" book. After Brutus' Face-Heel Turn, Julius realises he has to keep the lid on what has happened and make use of the fact that no one ever believed Brutus would betray him, as well as keep an eye on Brutus so that he knows how much he reveals to Pompey. So he lets people believe that Brutus is actually working as a spy, knowing that this is what Pompey is suspecting, and then he selects a soldier to go as a second spy. He purposely selects a clumsy, non-discreet soldier in the hopes that he will be captured and tortured, in which case he'll reveal the truth as he knows it - that Brutus hasn't betrayed Caesar but is his spy. Julius does show a lot of agony over having to go through with the plan, but feels he has no other choice.
- The Cure by Sonia Levittin. It's an open secret that the torturers can get anyone to confess to anything if given enough time, and they apparently don't care whether the confessions are true as long as they match what they're fishing for. (What they're fishing for, incidentally, is a confession that the Black Death is the result of Jews poisoning wells, and that every Jew above the age of seven is in on it. This is Based on a True Story of a town that massacred all its Jews on such a pretext.)
- Generally averted or subverted in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. Partly because it doesn't work, but also because the drug "Fast Penta" works quicker and more reliably. (It is easily obtained, makes those who take it amiable enough to answer any questions and ensures perfect recall. The only immunity is a fatal allergic reaction. (Which most of the people who know sensitive information have, as it can be artificially induced.)) (Or, if you are Miles, having an atypical reaction.) Most of the torture that occurs is motivated by pure sadism and insanity (Shards of Honour, Mirror Dance) and the victims have extensive issues years later (Mark Vorkosigan, Bothari, Elena Visconti).
- Of course, the existence of Fast Penta doesn't stop people from occasionally wistfully wondering if it's time to start yanking fingernails when the drug won't work.
- Played straight and subverted in His Dark Materials. Mrs. Coulter uses torture twice to get information from witches in The Subtle Knife, but when she's threatened in The Amber Spyglass, she says that she would have thought that they would "know better than to expect truth to come out of torture."
- Jack Ryan:
- In The Cardinal of the Kremlin, the KGB uses sensory deprivation to break a mole in their service, in their efforts to capture the titular agent. Once said agent was captured, the sensory deprivation method wasn't used due to his health, so instead they used other methods that weren't as harmful to physical condition. Ultimately, he did break, though it took a lot longer than the KGB had planned. The designer of the "new technique" muses that the old methods had more to do with satisfying the sadism of the interrogators than with getting accurate information
- Played straight in Without Remorse, involving a pressure chamber on an old Navy base used to basically destroy the drug dealer that Clark was questioning.
- In The Sum of All Fears, John Clark tortures two Palestinian terrorists that he had captured to get information from them regarding their plans. The terrorists had come up with a disinformation plan in case of capture, as an alternate method of attaining their goals.
- Subverted in Ben Elton's Stark since the truth is less believable than the lies.
- In his James Bond novels, Ian Fleming (who had prior experience in British intelligence) refers now and then to agents being tortured, on the implicit assumption that, indeed, anyone — even a trained agent — will eventually give up what they know given enough time and pain.
- Played with in Flashman and the Mountain of Light. After being captured by a general of the Khalsa, Flashman is told that he will be tortured for information, with the rationale being that a man as brave is he will only give up what he knows after he's been driven out of his mind with pain. However, not only does Flashman not have any information, he is also an utter coward, and so he breaks down into a terrified wreck at the mere thought of physical pain. Unfortunately, such is his reputation for heroism that his captor assumes he's putting on an act in order to avoid giving up what he knows, and begins torturing him anyway
- Subverted in American Gods - when Shadow is captured and interrogated, he's completely cooperative and truthful, but his captors don't believe him, so the Bad Cop continues to beat the tar out of him. Until Laura shows up, anyway.
- The First Law is about a torturer. Of course, it get subverted ruthlessly in that he knows most of the 'confessions' are false and he only does it to achieve the political goals of his superiors.
- Averted in Raiders Of Gor, where the Anti-Hero quickly establishes that the racked prisoner "will say whatever we tell him to."
- Subverted in Chester Anderson's The Butterfly Kid. First, the protagonist is asked by his alien captors "What do you do?", and finds his vocal system, without his own intervention, telling them what he does, starting with a detailed account of his digestive processes. Then he is strapped into the alien torture machine, but their ideas of torture are... alien; and he finds them easy to withstand, with the possible exception of being forced to watch hallucinations of Donald Duck playing Brahms.
- A running theme in the Mitch Rapp books is that, contrary to the protestations of politically correct liberals, torture works consistantly and gives reliable information. On the rare occasions there's someone who doesn't break easily, there will be a weaker compatriot around for the interrogator to exploit instead. Not coincidentally, the author has worked on 24, below.
- According to Aquarium, there are no strong people. There are only bad interrogators.
- Discussed and doubly subverted in The Maltese Falcon. When Kasper Gutman uses the threat of torture in order to coerce Sam Spade to divulge the whereabouts of the Falcon, Sam responds that torture is only effective if the tormentor is ready at some point during the torture to go all the way and kill the vitim; Gutman cannot afford to kill Sam since he is the only person knowing the bird's location and Sam knows that Gutman knows that etc...which is not quite true since many torture techniques are very painful and specially designed to keep the victim alive for an indefinite amount of time.
- In Darkness at Noon, Gletkin, an interrogator during Stalin's purges is a firm believer of this, stating: "Human beings able to resist any amount of physical pressure do not exist." This is despite the fact that during the Civil War, Gletkin was captured by the enemy, and they tied a lighted candlewick on to his shaven skull, but he didn't confess. When this is brought up to him, Gletkin counters that this was only because they didn't have enough time to torture him, as he was rescued a few hours later.
- Subverted in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Bellatrix tries torturing Hermione to find out how they got Gryffindor's sword (which Bellatrix thought was being kept in her vault at Gringotts). She uses the Cruciatus curse on Hermione, but Hermione is still able to lie that the sword they have is a fake. Bellatrix does have the presence of mind to double-check by bringing a goblin she was holding captive to verify this, but Harry gets the goblin to go along with the story.
- Played straight in A Song of Ice and Fire. A Mook in Queen Cersei's employ initially gives the false confession they had agreed upon when questioned by the Church Militant, but under torture he gives up the true story.
- Subverted in Replica. Dirk Mosely, Paxco's chief of security, enjoys using torture, but knows one must be sparing because people can and will say anything to make it stop.
- Deconstructed in Prokleta Avlija. When the two guards use this on Ćamil (trying to get information about a nonexistent conspiracy), he ends up emotionally broken down, and they find out nothing.
Live Action TV
- Ken Shamrock did this once to Christian, after he had been implicated in the kidnapping of Shamrock's on-screen sister, Ryan. Christian and his cronies, Edge and Gangrel, were yukking it up in the ring about how they had gotten to Shamrock, only for Shamrock to come storming out to the ring and — after sending Edge and Gangrel out of the ring — began brutally beating Christian. Christian refused to talk at first, making Shamrock accelerate his punishment. After several minutes in his crossface lock, Christian squealed.
- In GURPS torture gives a huge bonus to interrogation rolls but Social Engineering turns this on its head. A subject who is overwhelmed by torture or a long interrogation will say whatever they think will stop the torture rather than what they think is true. As a result the bonus can play against the interrogator.
- Both played straight and averted in The Book of Vile Darkness. Torture makes it easier for torturers to Intimidate their victims, but they also take penalties to Sense Motive checks as most believe wholeheartedly in the reliability of knowledge gained from torture.
- Zig-Zagged in Warhammer 40K: On the one hand, the Inquisition has grown extremely skilled at extracting information. Unfortunately some Inquisitors have a grox-in-a-ceramic-store approach which tends to get a lot more innocent (well, innocent for a given value of innocent...) people in the dungeons than actual heretics, and they all end up in the pyre or the penal legions anyway. And in the case of Slaaneshi cultists it doesn't even work unless you get really creative.
- One such room known simply as Interrogation Chamber XXIX has a 100% success rate. The white room has been stained brown and black by the procedures preformed on the victims, which include simply ripping the knowledge straight from the brain, physically or otherwise, or using psychic manipulation to reshape the personality to more... compliant... shapes.
- Warhammer has an aversion: one Witch Hunter manages to get the information he needs from Slaaneshi heretics by giving them a potion that numbs all sensory input. To those who worship a god(dess) based on constant physical sensation, it's a complete Mind Rape.
- The basic trope is Older Than Feudalism, since in classical legal systems slaves could only testify under torture, and a stock gambit by the accused was to defy the court to torture his slaves. However, it is subverted in Aristophanes The Frogs, where Dionysus' slave, impersonating Dionysus, tells the underworld guards to torture Dionysus, impersonating the slave. They end up BOTH getting tortured to see which is the real god, and hilariously trying to pretend that it doesn't hurt a bit, no, sir.
- In Oedipus the King, the shepherd who found the abandoned infant Oedipus and gave him to Polybus is brought to Oedipus refuses to talk, Oedipus orders his guards to twist his arm behind his back until he does. Later, he threatens to have the man killed when he hesitates again. Only then does Oedipus become the last in the play to deduce the Awful Truth that he indeed did, as prophesied, kill his father and marry his mother.
- Parodied here in The Non-Adventures of Wonderella. The torturee essentially points out the flaws in a Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique, even referencing the show 24.
- In Erfworld, Parson's understanding of the enemy plan (after Wanda reports that their prisoner has given it up) matches what we know of Ansom's actual plans. However, it's an open question how much this owes to torture (which the two have of a history of doing recreationally anyway) and how much to other psychological pressures and regular mind control, using magic.
- In Girl Genius, Othar Tryggvassen (Gentleman Adventurer!) assumes this is what Baron Wulfenbach intends, but the Baron is simply interested in taking him apart to see what makes the spark tick. "No matter what you do to me, I'll never talk!" "Ah, if only that were so."
- Last Res0rt subverts it with Daisy Archanis and her leaked confession that she's actually the Galaxy Girl Scout Arael who set off a huge feud, which was apparently extracted using torture... and everyone knows it, including Daisy's supporters, arguing that because she was tortured for the information, it MUST be bogus.
- Veled admits later that she didn't need to torture Daisy for the information — just the audio confession thereof, since Veled can extract whatever somebody knows just by touching them (and thus confirm the truth of Daisy's statements). In other words, Daisy had to be tortured into compliance, not into supplying new information.
- Called out in "Fans!!" where Rumy yells at her berserk subordinate that "Contrary to what you see on '24,' pain is not a Lasso of Truth."
- The Hitherby Dragons story "An Oracle For NP" deconstructs this. It starts with a torturing that reveals the location of a bomb from someone who has no way of knowing where it was from or how. Further experimentation soon reveals that a suitably chosen torture victim can give correct answers to any question whatsoever, and the world soon shifts to a high-tech utopia built on the backs of a caste of victims.