Deathtrap (plot device)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
A deathtrap is a literary and dramatic plot device in which a villain, who has captured the hero or another sympathetic character, attempts to use an elaborate and usually sadistic method of murdering him/her.

It is often used as a means to create dramatic tension in the story and to have the villain reveal important information to the hero, confident that the hero will shortly not be able to use it. It may also be a means to show the hero's resourcefulness in escaping, or the writer's ingenuity at devising a last-minute rescue or deus ex machina.


This plot device is generally believed to have been popularized by movie serials, though it is best known for its use in the James Bond film series and superhero stories, and has precedents in the 19th century theatrical melodramas from which the cliché of the moustache-twirling villain leaving the heroine tied to the railroad tracks is derived.

Narrative use

It is a common criticism that it is unbelievable in story plots to have villains try to kill the heroes in such elaborate ways when they could use simple methods like shooting them. Through the decades, comic book writers have responded to these complaints by devising ways in which the deathtraps have served other purposes.

For instance, one Legion of Super-Heroes story by Jim Shooter had a team of Legionnaires put into a variety of deathtraps and the villains wanted the heroes to successfully escape. This was because the real purpose of the deathtraps was to have the Legionnaires use a great deal of energy doing so, which the villains then harnessed for their own benefit. Other stories have had villains use deathtraps as a means of testing the heroes or to distract them while the villain attends to other matters.

Another rationalization for a deathtrap is when a particular villain simply enjoys leaving his victims some small chance of survival, just for the sake of sport. Such "sporting" villains include The Riddler, who has an uncontrollable compulsion to create intellectual challenges for his enemies. The Joker, Jigsaw Killer, and Arcade are other villains who simply enjoy the challenge.

On occasion, the villain may employ a slow deathtrap because they enjoy their victim's suffering prior to death, either due to sadistic tendencies or a desire for painful vengeance.

In a similar vein, the villain, often a megalomaniac, may feel that, as a reflection of his own imagined greatness, it would be "beneath him" to simply murder his enemy like any common criminal, and that his enemy's death should be the worthy spectacle that a successful deathtrap would provide. In contrast, he may feel that his enemy, having provided him with a worthy challenge in their earlier encounters, himself "deserves" such a grandiose death, or that the enmity between the two is so "epic" that it merits no less than such a conclusion.

Finally, the villain may simply be too insane to recognize the impracticality of the situation, although this characterization is rarely seen outside of deliberately parodic characters such as Dr. Evil.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Deathtrap (plot device)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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