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Wheel of Pain

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Round and round they go, which is really saying something.

This is a common torment for slaves in pre-industrial and fantasy settings, though occasionally it pops up in futuristic settings, too. The Wheel of Pain is a giant capstan to which slaves are chained and made to drive in order to power some unseen machinery. In Fictionland, it seems, every slave-holding culture has this device. The most notable exception are the slaves held on plantations in the antebellum South of the United States (who were forced to harvest crops without the help of elaborate machinery).

Note that it is not strictly necessary to show a Wheel of Pain actually doing anything with all the effort its victims put into it. Many a Wheel of Pain has appeared only to make a story's bad guys look cooler or more evil.

Has little or nothing to do with Painwheel. Nor about the "breaking on the wheel" method of execution, which is even worse. Look it up at your own risk.

Grim Sister Trope of Hamster-Wheel Power; the two can overlap if the Wheel of Pain is also being used as a power source.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Bizenghast volume 3, the characters are forcibly chained to one of these.
  • Some enslaved Numemon are forced to operate one of these to power Machinedramon's city in Digimon Adventure.
  • Electricity in Tentei's Capital in Fist of the North Star comes from such a contraption, run by slaves.
  • Superbook: in the scene where Samson has been captured by the Philistines and is set to work grinding grain in his prison, he pushes one of these.
  • An episode of Ulysses 31 shows the loom of fate powered this way by those who have defied the gods.

    Comic Books 
  • In Barbe-Rouge, Eric finds himself sold as a slave in Alger. Since he is quick to rebel against his master, he soon finds himself sent to the oil mill, which serves this purpose.
  • In Lucifer, Hell is seen to have one of these.

    Comic Strips 
  • Used in The Phantom in one storyline. The second Phantom is briefly held prisoner at one of these, which judging by the design of the wheel powers a mill, and is almost broken by the hard labor and torture, until a vision of his wife and his father, the original Phantom, spurs him into freeing himself by resuming the work by night when his torturer isn't present and using the wheel spokes to wear away on the chain. Eventually, he's worn it away enough for him to break it, and overpowers the torturer and locks him onto the wheel instead.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Used on the sugar plantation the eponymous protagonist is chained to in Captain Blood.
  • Named for the device from Conan the Barbarian (1982), which turned the titular character from a scrawny kid into the musclebound Barbarian Hero that rampaged across two films. (Indeed, Arnold Schwarzenegger buffed up so much for the movie, when he was being filmed pushing it along, the director had to have half the crew on the other side of the wheel pushing the opposite direction so it'd look like Arnie was actually exerting himself.) While the wheel's purpose is never revealed in the film itself, Word of God states that it is a grain wheel.
  • The Louis de Funès film Delusions of Grandeur ends with the protagonists chained to one of these. It pumps water for a tiny "pet" palm tree of a Bedouin chief.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has trolls turning huge wheels to open the gates of Mordor.
  • The film adaptation of the musical Oliver! briefly shows a variation on the theme, as detailed in Real Life below, during the opening scene.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean:
  • Zombie slaves provide the motive power for a similar sugar-mill capstan in White Zombie (1932, and not connected with Rob Zombie beyond a A Good Name for a Rock Band). There's a surprisingly grisly moment for the movie's era when one of the zombies falls into the mill and is mindlessly ground up by the rest.

  • Shows up a couple of times in Gor: The gate that one enters the Sardar Mountains at is powered by slaves, and in Guardsman of Gor the hero is captured and set to work one which opens and closes a water gate. Don't worry, he planned for that to happen.
  • The Great Wheel of Kharnabhar, in Brian W. Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy, is built inside a mountain, has only one door, and takes several years to make a turn. The locals believe the Wheel drives Helliconia's great year, so in the centuries-long winter when things are bad for humans, the Wheel is basically a monastery staffed by volunteers; in summer, it's a prison.
    • Which opens another question: How the hell was this thing built? And after it was finished, how was it put into move, since it's harder to make something move than keeping it moving?
  • In the later books of Le Donjon de Naheulbeuk, the barbarian, hired by an elven army as a drill sergeant, sets up one such wheel just for the purpose of strength training. He calls it the Wheel Of Muscle and reminisces about the more impressive ones he saw in his homeland. The Dwarf on the other hand, promptly rigs a mill to it and starts raking in money.
  • A variant in Ranger's Apprentice - Skandian slaves turn the rack, which is a pair of paddles that aggravate the surface of the water in the well to prevent it freezing over in winter. It's such gruelling work that even the slave owners, who drive their slaves hard, recognise they can only work on it for two hours at a time.
  • The Raven Tower offers a Zig-Zagged example:
    • The Strength and Patience of the Hill (a god who inhabits a large boulder) strikes a deal with Oissen (another god) to aid in the creation of Miracle Food for Oissen's faithful by promising to "grant the petition of whoever is causing me to be turned." Oissen sets a group of slaves to work at a wheel that turns The Strength and Patience of the Hill like a millstone while prayers are made to cause the food to materialize.
    • The Strength and Patience of the Hill is later captured by the Raven (an enemy god) and affixed to a hydro-powered wheel in the sea caverns beneath the Raven's seat of power. There are no slaves operating the wheel, but The Strength and Patience of the Hill is themselves enslaved and forced to grant their powers to the Raven as long as the wheel turns them.
  • A Mammoth-pushed variant is shown in The Way Things Work to power a merry-go-round. The Mammoths have carrots dangling in front of them and are basically tricked into turning one wheel, which is propped up against another with seats dangling off it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who has the Christmas special "The Next Doctor", with orphans turning this type of device to turn the machinery to start the Cyber King.
  • Norsemen has one which, true to the trope, has absolutely no function other than to make the village slaves push something around and around.
  • True Blood, but not before the second season. Actually, Eric has one in the basement of his bar.

    Myths & Religion 
  • The Bible: Samson, after being captured by the Philistines and blinded, is set to work on one of these.

  • Cirque du Soleil's features the Wheel of Death, which is a vertical contraption powered by slaves in circular units.

    Video Games 
  • An unoccupied one is seen in Cimmeria in Age of Conan. It might even be the same in the Trope Picture.
  • One of the first missions in Brütal Legend involves freeing a bunch of Headbangers from a mine that features one of these.
  • In Conan Exiles, it's used to grind seeds into gruel and make the captured NPCs into slaves.
  • In The Curse of Monkey Island, the player sees a horde of monkeys being enslaved this way.
  • The Deadly Tower of Monsters: One of the friendly apes inhabiting the tower is pushing one of these. He says that if he stops, the tower will collapse, and another ape is ready to take his place when he dies.
  • In Dominions 3, Early Ulm has it as one of their national sites. Orphans are sent there, and those who survive are made into Steel Warriors, often called "Conans" by the fans.
  • One can appear in Dungeons 2 in parts of the overworld once they are corrupted by evil.
  • Gene of God Hand fame rescues a few humans from one.
  • A non-slavery example can be found in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Tingle's brothers are responsible for keeping his lighthouse spinning. They aren't all that happy about it though.
    • Though given that one of Tingle's "brothers" is a random, unrelated guy Tingle rescued from a shipwreck there may be a little bit of slavery involved...
  • Some large huminoid creatures are shown pushing a wheel of pain in the Outworld Market stage in Mortal Kombat X. There are even slavers cracking whips at them.
  • World of Warcraft the expansion Warlords of Draenor has one that is a shout out to the trope name from Conan the Barbarian (1982) in the dungeon "The Bloodmaul Slag Mines". Slaves of various races are being forced to push it until a Boss calls on them to attack the players, the one NPC that stays pushing the wheel is called 'Arnold Croman' and is based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Conan the Barbarian from that film, if you follow the right instructions you can recruit him your player HQ.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: "Return to Omashu": King Bumi's pet, Flopsy, is chained to one of these after the Fire Nation takes over Omashu and overthrows Bumi (or rather Bumi lets them win to spare his citizens).
  • Seen in an episode of The Critic, when Alice is looking for a preschool for her daughter. One school she visits turns out to be a Dickensian workhouse, complete with a Wheel of Pain being operated by the children. It turns out its actually a sweatshop that produces merchandise for The Simpsons.
  • The Fairly OddParents!:
    • The beauty pageant episode has one of these in every character's fantasy of them becoming mayor for a day. In Vicky's fantasy, Timmy is the one turning the wheel. In Timmy's Mom's fantasy, it's a bunch of men turning the wheel. When Timmy's Dad actually wins the contest and becomes mayor for a day, he basically makes the fantasy come to life...only it's his hated neighbor, Mr. Dinkleberg. turning the wheel.
    • At one point in Wishology, the fairies are forced to do this by the Eliminators. Cupid asks "What happens if we stop pushing this thing?" They decide to find out... and discover that it plays the melancholy background music.
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: Cobra in many of its earlier episodes inexplicably keeps haggard-looking slaves wearing rags, turning wheels and pushing mining carts, despite that fact that Cobra prides itself on using the sorts of advanced technology that would have made it easier to mine via automation.
  • In My Life as a Teenage Robot, when first informed about the Cluster, we see humans chained to this, apparently to power some kind of Ice Cream Parlor for robots.
  • Samurai Jack: In the pilot, protagonist finds his now-elderly father chained to one of these devices, which seemingly does nothing but rotate a large statue of Aku. Notably, he's the only person consigned to push it, as an apparent punishment for having been the one to defeat Aku originally.
  • The Simpsons:
    • "Rosebud": Parodied when Homer, due to not returning Mr. Burns' teddy-bear, is forced to work one, which turns a display wheel at the canteen.
      Lenny: Hmm, I wonder what makes it turn.
      Carl: Who cares?
    • "The Serfsons": The fantasy equivalent of the power plant consists entirely of a huge version of this, which doesn't actually power anything; the resource it's harvesting is literally human misery.
  • In the Star vs. the Forces of Evil episode "Is Mystery", Buff Frog gets caught investigating who's been smuggling corn out of the royal fields of Mewni, and is chained to "the Grinder" with a bunch of other monsters and forced to grind corn into corn-meal.
  • ThunderCats (1985): In "Sword in a Hole", Captain Shiner forces Lion-O and Snarf to work on one in his ship's reactor. The main problem is the heat and radiation, which Captain Shiner tells Mumm-Ra will kill them in less than a day. Fortunately, Panthro rescues them.
  • In The Venture Brothers, in Dean's daydream/hallucination in the Season 2 finale, he fights the Insect King (a cyborg version of his dad's arch-nemesis, the Monarch), who is forcing enslaved orphans to turn one of these.

    Real Life 
  • Something similar in principle was actually seriously proposed for use in workhouses in Victorian Britain, not for slaves, but for petty criminals and/or the long-term unemployed (the two groups were treated pretty much the same back then). It used a treadmill arrangement that resembled nothing so much as a very large hamster-wheel rather than the traditional capstan, which really isn't very much better, and rarely if ever served any practical purpose because steam power did the same job more effectively.
  • In the medieval period, there were pieces of construction machinery called treadle cranes, powered by people walking in, as in the example above, what amounted to a giant hamster wheel. They were basically the engines of the cranes used in castle and cathedral construction. They could also be powered by animals (a tiny version was found in kitchens, powered by a dog- so common that there was a specific breed of dog created for this, the now-extinct Turnspit dog.) This was never used as a torment for slaves or criminals though. While boring, it was actually one of the least physically demanding jobs on a cathedral building site since they needed the wheel to turn steadily, not quickly. Furthermore, the person in the wheel was unaffected by the weight of the load being carried by the crane. A shift in the wheel would have been more like an invigorating walk, assuming you weren't afraid of heights.
  • Treadwheels were also used to raise the counterweights on large trebuchets. Once can be seen on the modern replica at Warwick Castle in England.
  • The World's Strongest Man competition has this. As it is inspired by the Conan movie, it's appropriately called Conan's Wheel. It is heavy to lift and going in circles gives you a higher score.
  • Sugar plantations used to have presses that would work on the same principle. The Americas were notorious for these machines being pushed by slaves, and horrific accidents were commonplace.
  • The device that raised the anchor aboard an old-fashioned sailing ship worked on this principle. Anchors are incredibly heavy and quite a few men had to work the capstan.
  • Before steam and internal combustion engines became reasonable in size and price, lots of agricultural machinery ran using workhorses in precisely this manner. (This is where the term "horsepower" as a measure of engine power comes from.)
  • On a more lighthearted note: Karol Borchard, who used to be an officer on a ship in the Mediterraenean (in the 20th century) mentions in his memoirs a passenger utterly convinced that the ship must be run by sweaty, whip-driven rowers. Why? Because she's seen it in the movies.
  • Before the widespread adoption of windmills in the Middle Ages, most types of mill that weren't next to a river (where waterwheels were preferred) worked like this: a person or animal pushing on a bar, causing a millstone to revolve and crushing anything between the millstone and the base. Variations on this setup were used for grinding grain and crushing olives or grapes, dating as far back as the Neolithic period, making this trope's basis substantially Older Than Dirt.


Video Example(s):


Fairy World Enslaved

The captured fairies are forced to turn a wheel that spins the record for the background music.

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Main / WheelOfPain

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