deathtrap by Phil Selby

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 and 19th century theatrical melodramas. A well known example is the cliché of the moustache-twirling villain leaving the heroine tied to railroad tracks. Its use in the James Bond film series and superhero stories is well known.

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, such as a means of testing the heroes or to distract them while the villain attends to other matters. On some occasions, the deathtrap is a machine that ‘absorbs’ the energy from the hero/heroes.

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, and The Joker, who simply seems to 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 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.

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 of the ‘Austin Powers’ films.

A more recent reason is villains do it simply because its considered ‘tradition’ or ‘rule’ of being a supervillain to place a hero in a deathtrap and then leave them to their fate. This even goes as far as heroes, or other villains, chastising a villain for attempting to avoid using a deathtrap or staying to watch.

A simpler variation on the deathtrap is the villain speech, also known as monologuing. The villain, after having captured the hero or another victim, gives a long speech taunting and sneering at his victim, pontificating on how said victim will soon die, and reminiscing over how he tried for so long to get his kill and is now about to reap the reward. Villains may also give away details of their evil plots, on the rationale that the victim will die immediately and the villain often believes their victim deserves to know. This speech, given when the villain could have just killed the victim in a matter of seconds, is invariably used to give another character time to come in and save the victim, or for the victim to escape. In a literary sense, the villain speech is also used as a form of exposition.

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