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Electroconvulsive Therapy Is Torture

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"They strap you down to a special table that flips over. So that you don't choke on your own vomit. Then they inject you with a muscle relaxant. Then they tape electrodes to your forehead and then turn up the juice. When your toes start twitching, that means you're having a major convulsion, which is what they want. It's what they call healing."
Derek Lord, "Influence", Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

In fiction, electroconvulsive therapy (often mistaken for electroshock therapy) has a negative reputation. It's portrayed as Electric Torture done by cruel, quack doctors at Bedlam Houses, and apparently hasn't gone through any improvement since the '50s. It's about as useful as a lobotomy but with the added fear of being completely awake and able to feel the electricity.

In Real Life, electroconvulsive therapy is not nearly as torturous or ineffective as it is in fiction. In its modern form, the therapy is a safe and medically sound treatment with legal restrictions regarding consent similar to any other significant medical procedure. Side effects like memory disruption are minimal in most patients (though potentially more drastic in others), and the treatment itself is administered under anesthesia over a series of sessions to minimize the magnitude of seizure required while maximizing the benefits. It is used for a variety of mental illnesses, including cases of severe clinical depression or PTSD that do not respond to milder treatments.

The treatment is nearly as old as electric power itself, and it has gone through many advancements over the last century. While it generally works today, there is still no clear agreement on exactly why it works. For this reason, medical experts have mixed opinions on ECT: some regard it as a last resort as long as our understanding of it remains incomplete. Also, like any other treatment, it only works when performed properly: accidental misapplication can do serious harm. And like any treatment, side effects are possible, like temporary memory issues.

This trope is largely because of the misunderstanding that electroshock therapy and ECT are the same thing. Electroshock therapy was actually quite a painful experience, which is why it was sometimes used as punishment (instead of treatment) in mental wards. Note  ECT is a much milder version of the older therapy, and anesthesia is used so it does not cause any pain. There is also TMS which is even milder as it uses magnets instead to stimulate understimulated parts of the brain. It's faster, doesn't require any sort of anesthesia and is done as a brief office procedure, though it takes weeks of regular application for effects to show.

Sub-trope to Electric Torture. Compare Electricity Knocks You Out for another misconception about electricity.


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    Audio Plays 

    Comic Books 
  • Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Dr Amadeus Arkham really does use the electroshock machine (ECT hadn't been developed yet) for torture and murder, subjecting Mad Dog Hawkins to "treatment" that slowly fries him alive in revenge for what Hawkins did to his wife and daughter. This being a) the 1920s, and b) Arkham Asylum, it's dismissed as an unfortunate accident.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Invader Zim fic Asylum of Doom, Dib mentions electroshock as being part of the sort of brutal treatments performed at the Burke Lunatic Asylum when it was functional, specifically mentioning how this was back in the day before anesthesia was used to soften the process. When Gaz wakes up as a patient in the asylum, being told that the life she knows is a delusion, she's subjected to this multiple times; while she tends to black out the experience, it still contributes to the slow erosion of her willpower.
  • In the Bones fic The Psychologist in the Institution by ASC12, a murder victim is found to have been subjected to electro-convulsion therapy. Sweets goes undercover to figure out what's going on at the institution and ends up tortured with shock therapy while conscious. The team has to rescue him only for the place's director to use legal means to take him back. He's rescued again, but recovering from the mental toll is a tough process.

    Films — Animation 
  • One scene of Mary and Max shows Max, who has Asperger's Syndrome in the 1980s, at a mental institution receiving some clearly painful electroshock therapy.
  • In Batman: Assault on Arkham, Waller's Suicide Squad straps themselves into electroshock chairs in order to fry the bomb chips inserted in their necks. All of them are in intense pain throughout the entire process (though Harley was enjoying itnote ), but it works for some better than others. Unfortunately for King Shark, his skin is too thick for the electricity to fry the chip, resulting in his death by Your Head Asplode when Waller figures out what they're doing.
  • Martin of The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue was made more intelligent and utterly mad by a scientist shocking him. He, in turn, managed to turn the procedure around and turn the scientist into a simple-minded dullard. He similarly uses it to convert other animals to his cause or just to change their personalities around to his whims.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Double subverted in The Snake Pit. Virginia finds electroshock therapy terrifying, but it actually does alleviate her schizophrenic symptoms. The film was based on an autobiographical novel by a woman who went through the same thing.
  • In Return to Oz, the doctors at an 1899/1900-era Bedlam House try to shock Dorothy because she keeps talking about a magical land called "Oz", but she escapes before they can. There are also "damaged" patients shown locked in the building's cellar following the failed attempts at ECT.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Mental patient McMurphy is given electroshock therapy that causes him extreme pain and sends him into convulsions. The film was made in 1975, but the book the film was based on was written during the '60s, back when anesthesia was just starting to be used for ECT. But considering this is Nurse Ratched we're talking about...
  • Constantine (2005): While he was still a child, Constantine could see demonic half-breeds in their true form. When he told his parents, his psychiatric care included electroshock therapy. When the current is applied, Constantine's body is shown arching and he tries to cry out in pain through his gag.
  • In the finale of Requiem for a Dream, Sarah Goldfarb is treated for amphetamine psychosis with ECT - by a doctor who can barely pay attention to the fact that she is unable to give informed consent to the treatment. The experience is portrayed like a torture sequence and leaves her lost in her own dreamworld. More appropriately justified in the book, which was written and set in the 1970s, back when ECT was used more cavalierly and a lot less effective.
  • In The Ward, Kirsten is subjected to electroconvulsive therapy when drugs fail to cure her "hallucinations". The doctor and nurses are genuinely well-intentioned, but as the film's set in the 1960s, there's no anesthesia in use and the procedure is predictably agonizing. Later, Sarah is actually murdered with the ECT machine.
  • In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the eponymous villain is given ECT treatments by HYDRA via a special machine to wipe his memory and prevent him from remembering that he's actually Bucky Barnes, Captain America's best friend. Said treatments take place without anesthesia of any kind and feature the recipient screaming in agony.
  • Cult of Chucky features a scene in which Nica is given ECT... while chemically paralyzed but fully conscious. Though she can't scream, the voltage leaves her eyes wide open with horror as she violently lurches around.
  • The Town with a Dark Secret in Population 436 uses electroshock therapy in order to "cure" anyone who even thinks of leaving. In extreme cases, they're lobotomized.
  • Murdock is put through a rather painful bout of electroshock therapy in The Stinger of The A-Team. To the doctors' disturbance, he proves Too Kinky to Torture.
  • Stonehearst Asylum: We see ECT used in flashbacks which clearly causes the patients extreme pain (at the time, no anesthetic was given, with its application half-hazard). Lamb later shocks Salt to the point he loses his memory in revenge. Newgate is also tortured by its use on him.
  • In Changeling, Dr. Steele uses ECT to torture patients in his mental hospital into compliance.
  • The Hudsucker Proxy: Corrupt Corporate Executive Mussburger cheerfully assures the board that he has arranged for Norville to be dragged off to a sanitarium where he will be zapped into submission daily. Fortunately, Norville avoids this fate.
  • Sharp-eyed viewers of Joker (2019) will notice that Penny Fleck's dossier claims she received electroshock treatment during her stay at Arkham Asylum. Given that Arkham is the comic book Bedlam House, we can safely assume it was traumatic at best and didn't do much for either her mental stability or her relationship with her son Arthur.
  • Joker does this to Harleen Quinzel in Suicide Squad (2016). It’s part of what drives her insane.
  • Subverted in The Jacket. Set in a Bedlam House with experimental procedures, the time-travelling protagonist learns from the future that the one good doctor managed to help a child patient in the past with his seizures by using ECT. When he gives this information to the doctor's past self, she's only dubious about using it on a child, but the procedure ultimately works.
  • Shock Corridor: The breakdown of the main character — a journalist who has himself committed to a lunatic asylum while Going for the Big Scoop — is facilitated by him receiving electroshock treatment.

  • The Bell Jar: Played With. Esther is incorrectly given Electroconvulsive Therapy by the arrogant Doctor Gordon, and it only succeeds in making her problems worse. However, later on, when it's applied properly by the much more empathetic Doctor Norton, it greatly succeeds in helping her with her depression. Author Sylvia Plath is describing her own experience here; it has a kind of antidepressant effect (lifting the metaphorical "bell jar" in which she feels she's suffocating) and is used not as a cure for depression but as an adjunct to traditional talk-psychotherapy sessions.note 
  • In Dan Morgan's Sixth Perception novels, ECT is regarded as dangerous and psychologically damaging — especially to psychics, who may end up so traumatized by the process that they lose their powers altogether. Once again, though, this series was written in the 1970s...
  • Averted in the original One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest book. It's treated like any other medical procedure if extreme. The Nurse in charge of the ECT ward makes a concentrated effort to be nice to The Chef and McMurphy when she finds out that they're from Ratched's ward, and this isn't the first time she sent people to ECT as punishment.
  • In Splintered, what kicks off Alyssa's journey is discovering that her dad scheduled electroshock therapy for her mother Alison after she had a sanity lapse and attacked Alyssa during their weekly visit.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Supernatural Season 7, "The Born-Again Identity" sees Sam driven into a psych ward by his hallucinations of Lucifer and subjected to ECT. It is lampshaded that ECT is usually performed under anesthesia... when the administering doctor doesn't turn out to be a demon, that is.
  • American Horror Story:
    • Justified in American Horror Story: Asylum. While electroshock therapy is presented this way, it's also combined with conversion therapy against the lesbian Lana, and what seems to be a violent attempt to elicit a confession from Kit, who is falsely accused of being Bloody Face. Later in the season, Sister Jude is subjected to the same treatment, this time for the possessed Sister Mary Eunice's sick amusement. For good measure, the voltage is deliberately set to unsafe levels, leaving the "patient" barely functional.
    • In American Horror Story: 1984, Benjamin Richter was subjected to ECT after being locked away in a mental asylum for committing a mass murder. He had been framed and was innocent, but the ECT made him increasingly susceptible to suggestion, and eventually he became convinced that he'd committed the murders.
  • Batwoman (2019). When insane supervillain Alice is thrown into Arkham Asylum, a Daydream Surprise of her spending happy times with her sister is shown to be a Happy Place fantasy while she's Bound and Gagged and strapped into an ECT machine. In a later episode Alice and Hush play the trope straight by using that same ECT machine, dialed up to deadly levels, as an Electric Torture device.
    Hush: Arkham's power bills are gonna be through the roof, but just between me, you, and... well, science, I'm not sure how much more you can take.
  • In the "Influence" episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Derek Lord justifies his opposition to psychiatry using his experiences with ECT; Novak asks him if he ever attempted suicide after. He's forced to admit that no, he didn't. Novak goes on to point out that since then, he's had a very successful career, made a significant amount of money, and has a large fan base; so if anything, ECT saved his life.
    • Averted in the episode "Girl Dishonored". Detective Benson learns that a rape victim has been forcibly checked into a mental hospital. She arrives right as the girl is about to be given ECT and tries to stop it Note . The doctors tell her it's too late to stop it, and in any case, the girl requested it. The doctors are shown to care about her, and the girl believes it to be her last chance to recover from her trauma.
  • Mad Men: Pete Campbell's brief flame, Beth, is subjected to electroshock therapy because of her severe depression. She comes to Pete to tell him she's gonna undergo the procedure, and he's horrified. She says it does help, but she's shown suffering. Pete comes in to see her after the procedure. She welcomes him, but it's revealed she doesn't remember a thing about him.
  • Six Feet Under: In season 5, George undergoes an ECT treatment to deal with his increasing paranoia. It's shown realistically, with an actual ECT machine, but it's not done under anaesthesia and he's in incredible pain. It somewhat helps with his paranoia.
  • In the first episode of The A-Team, Lynch visits the lovable-but-insane Murdock at the psych ward, and notices bald patches on his scalp. Murdock starts whispering about painful electrical therapies he's been put through, freaking Lynch out. Naturally, Murdock is messing with him; he gave himself the bald patches trying out a new hairstyle.
  • The third season finale of Quantum Leap entitled "Shock Theater" had Sam leap into a mental patient just as he received ECT. The result scrambles Sam's already swiss cheesed memory and he ends up assuming the identities of people he previously leaped into. In the end, Al convinces Sam that the only way to fix it is to undergo the same treatment again (which is then turbo-charged by a bolt of lightning just as Sam leaps out).
  • Played with in Homeland with Carrie Matheson. On the one hand, she is genuinely, severely bipolar and had become a borderline Yandere towards Nicholas Brody, to the point that she was threatening him and his family, and the ECT helped get her life back under control. On the other hand, her belief that Brody was actually a terrorist was actually true, but the ECT erased her memories of the evidence needed to prove this.
  • In Treadstone, John Bentley is repeatedly subjected to ECT as part of the KGB's efforts to break him.
  • In the BBC historical crime series Vienna Blood, which is set in Vienna in 1906-7, the psychiatrist hero Max Lieberman's academic supervisor Professor Gruner is clearly marked as evil by his enthusiasm for crude (and anachronistic) ECT, naturally performed without anaesthetic or muscle relaxant.
  • Cold Case:
    • One episode's case about the unsolved killing of a mental patient in the 1960s. The victim was a genderfluid/possibly trans man who got repeatedly subjected to ECT for not abiding by the rules which the psychiatrist stipulated in "acting female". This happened so much, it left them with brain damage and comatose. His estranged best friend, who had come to apologize and get him out, then smothered him in a clear homage to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a mercy kill. It's also mentioned that the psychiatrist did the same thing to another patient, though then he was sued and fired over it.
    • This isn't the first time that Cold Case has done this. A first season episode, this one set in the late 1950s, involved a little boy being subjected to this in order to cure his "irrepressible naughtiness and wildness" (nowadays, just very high spirits and possible ADHD), in order that he'll be adopted by a loving family. Tragically, this is done with the very best of intentions by his biological parents, a nun and a doctor; the father is very reluctant because he knows what it involves but the mother is insistent. The little boy dies from the initial treatment - not only because of his age but because unbeknown to the parents, he's also been a lab rat in a series of experiments on the effects of irradiated food, which weakened his body.
  • Stranger Things Season Two: when Eleven finds her mother, Terry Ives, the woman's unable to do anything except blink and breathe, unable to say anything except a repeating cycle of certain phrases. When Eleven enters her mind, she finds out that Terry broke in to Hawkins' lab to get her, but was caught. Her condition is a result of Dr Brenner strapping her in an ECT machine and deliberately turning up the voltage to the exact frequency he knows will fry her brain and leave her unable to communicate but not kill her. The calm and precise way Brenner does this implies that he's done this before...
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "Room 2426", Dr. Martin Decker is hooked up to numerous electrodes in the titular torture chamber in an attempt to get him to divulge the location of the notebook containing his bacteria research.
  • In the Warehouse 13 episode "Don't Hate The Player", Claudia's nightmare is being back in the Bedlam House, strapped to a table while the doctor prepares the electrodes. It's not clear whether this is something that actually happened to her or just a manifestation of how much she hated being there.
  • Lex Luthor involuntarily undergoes this in the third season of Smallville. Through a complex series of events, his father Lionel secretly drugged and gaslit him to the point that he becomes legitimately (if artificially) deranged, and is committed to Belle Reve Mental Hospital. Lionel did this because Lex discovered that his father had his grandparents killed. After being committed, Lionel has Lex subjected to this in the hopes that it will erase his memory of the discovery. It works.
  • Criminal Minds: The unsub in "The Uncanny Valley" was subjected to ECT as a child by her psychologist father. Reid immediately picks up on this as a sign of abuse, and it's quickly revealed that the father did it less out of concern for his daughter and more as a means of keeping her quiet about his molestation of her.
  • Yellowjackets: In the second season premiere, Lottie's behavior after her 1998 rescue (she's Dumb Struck, hardly eats, has trouble sleeping, etc.) worries her parents, so they take her to a psychiatric clinic. In the clinic, during her ECT session, Lottie is sedated but is still seen convulsing on the table.

  • In "Away in a Madhouse" by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (who also gave us A Shoggoth on the Roof), shock treatment is part of the narrator's treatment along with "mind-numbing pills" and a lobotomy. He considers this a preferable alternative to knowing the Awful Truth about the world.
  • One interpretation of "The Mind Electric" by Miracle Musical involves the singer of the song undergoing Electroshock Therapy after pleading insanity in court. It doesn't end well.

    Tabletop Games 
  • World of Darkness: Asylum discusses this trope. In the earlier days of Bishopsgate Asylum, the ECT machine was occasionally used as a punishment. However, the current director is a supporter of its use, and it's only used properly, with anesthetic and all necessary safety precautions. And any orderlies caught threatening to use it improperly on patients are harshly punished.

  • In Next to Normal, the main character Diana goes through several treatments for her bipolar disorder and psychosis. After everything else has failed, her psychopharmacologist Dr. Madden suggests ECT, which Diana compares to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The treatment ends with her losing her memories, but they eventually return, which also brings back her psychosis. This causes the doctor to recommend more ECT, which she promptly refuses, leading to her stopping treatment altogether.

    Video Games 
  • The Town of Light features a flashback showing the protagonist undergoing electroshock therapy in a Bedlam House. The scene plays out like a Nightmare Sequence and fades to white when the procedure begins. Watch it here.
  • Justified in The Park. While exploring Atlantic Island Park, Lorraine experiences a vision of the ECT she underwent to treat her depression, here imagined as her screaming in pain and begging for mercy as bolts of lightning rip into her. Of course, this isn't actually what happened to her, just the Bogeyman tormenting Lorraine with hallucinations. As it turns out, the real impact of the ECT was on Lorraine's ability to trust others: the doctors were using ECT as a quick fix to get rid of an unwanted patient, and while the treatment may not have physically harmed Lorraine, it only made her less inclined to accept help in the long run.
  • In Dishonored 2, you can choose to sit down antagonist Kirin Jindosh in the same electroshock chair he used for his test subjects. Watch here how he trembles in pain when you turn on the machine.
  • While exploring the abandoned asylum in The Suffering, it's discovered that the projected ghost of Dr. Killjoy has created his own special variant on ECT to make the brain "behave" and has tested it on one of the intruding corrections officers. By the time you find him, the guard is completely brain-dead. However, you can still use the device just to watch him mindlessly writhe in pain - dinging the Karma Meter in the process.
  • In Evil Genius, Elsa "The Matron" Krabb was once a kindly nurse working at a Swiss mental hospital, until a mix-up involving some experimental psychosis drugs caused her to develop an unhealthy interest in electroshock therapy, culminating in her being investigated by the Swiss electricity board for single-handedly consuming more electricity than the entire city of Zurich and placed under house arrest for cruelty to her patients. If you recruit her as a henchman, she has a special attack called "Electroshock Therapy" that can harm multiple enemy agents at once.
  • Sonny 2: Referenced in one of the Psychological build's attacks, called Shock Therapy, which is, quite damaging, utterly unblockable, and an excellent buff remover. Notably, the Psychological build has a slew of cruel attacks and boasts that "if insanity were a weapon, this would be its form", and its more electrical side is a full-on Psycho Electro, so it's likely meant to be twisted.
  • The opening of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh depicts Curtis Craig being wheeled in for electroshock therapy at Greenwood psychiatric. Dr. Marek, his therapist, explains that Curtis is being treated to stop the psychotic episode he's having, but a later flashback reveals that Dr. Marek actually performed it to punish Curtis for escaping from a wheelchair in a room full of crazy inmates.
  • In Twisted Metal Black, Dollface's dossier says that she should be treated via shock therapy (in addition to antidepressants). How they plan to administer this to a girl whose head is locked inside of a porcelain mask is never elaborated upon, and Blackfield Asylum doesn't look like a pleasant place to be treated. Raven is also suggested for shock therapy, which is something her parents would presumably have to sign for since she's a minor.
  • A justified example in Pokémon Reborn: Dr Connal uses ECT to treat all his patients, whether they need it or not, and he doesn't use anaesthesia or even safe methods (he uses his Electivire instead).
  • Implied in Road 96. The final Hitcher ends up in a holding cell with another teen who is later taken away for a new "treatment". When next encountered, the teen's head has been shaved and they are almost completely unresponsive. Another teen says he can't even talk and claims he was "fried".

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Sadly, the form of electroshock therapy that predates ECT was a very torturous experience. Anesthesia was rarely used, and even if it was, the shocks were so overwhelming that they caused serious pain anyway, and often permanent brain damage. Medical hospitals were also frequently found to have used electroshock therapy as a punishment for out-of-control patients, and the procedure was often done without the patient's consent, which made many instances quite literal examples of torture. This is why it was eventually deemed "medical torture" by international healthcare laws, leading to the later invention of the much more beneficial ECT.
  • The Judge Rotenberg Center is perhaps infamous for its use of electric shocks on autistic people there as a form of aversive punishment. One former resident of the center describes how the staff would shock them for the smallest sign of movement, for screaming when shocked, or often for no reason at all. This has inspired a petition against the practice.
    • In March of 2020, the FDA banned the use of electroshock devices to correct self-injurious and aggressive behavior due to the unreasonable risk of illness and injury they present. The JRC, not to be outdone, took the matter to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled in their favor in July of the very next year, effectively overturning the ban.
  • During a certain time, electric torture was the favorite "punishment method" of many behaviorist treatments and conditioning experiments (see also: The Ludovico Technique). For example, the early ABA experiments by Ivar Lovaas to "cure" autism used an electrified floor, the famous "learned helplessness" experiments were about dealing electric shocks to wolves, and electric torture was used to "treat" drug addictions, mental illnesses, things that were thought to be mental illnesses at the time (like being LGBTQ+) and alcoholism (which backfired, because most patients reacted to the shocks by drinking to numb the pain of the shock). Nowadays, behaviorism is a Discredited theory, dismissed in modern psychology for being reductionistic, as well as associated with unethical/barbaric psychiatric practices, that which is unacceptable in the modern era of humanistic personalised therapeutics.
  • Sadly Electroshock therapy was the final nail in the coffin for Ernest Hemingway. Surviving two horrible plane crashes in two days had pushed him into a severe depression and alcoholism to control the pain. The Mayo Clinic gave him 15 ESTs in three months, leaving him a hollow shell of who he used to be. Within six months, he shot himself.
  • One of Project MKULTRA's more horrific experiments combined massive doses of ECT with LSD and Donald Ewen Cameron's psychic driving technique. The intent was to make prisoners more pliable to interrogation, or possibly for brainwashing, but the result was that many patients were left vegetative.
  • Anais Nin's friend June Miller, the wife of Henry Miller, was severely depressed in later life and checked into psychiatric wards where she received shock treatments. Apparently she found them helpful, but in one session, she was improperly restrained and fell off the table, breaking several bones. She never fully recovered.