You’ve seen it in literature and film a thousand times: A string is pulled and an arrow speeds its way to the hero. Someone steps on a pressure plate and the walls begin to close in. Or, perhaps an artifact is lifted from its place and a spherical boulder is released, squashing people to death.
There are thousands of variations to these deathtraps. Whether they’re there to stall the story or kill off characters, these traps always provide readers with entertaining situations. How will the hero escape now?
What Is a Deathtrap?
In fiction, the deathtrap is a plot device that uses an elaborate, improbable, and often bizarre method intended to kill the hero.
Villains are a lot of things, but you can’t deny that some of them are committed. They go the extra mile just so they can set up the ultimate showdown with their rivals. Hence, the deathtrap.
Sure, they could just shoot the hero and be done with it, but where’s the fun in that? Or maybe they think a plain death is too easy a death for their enemies. They want them to suffer as much as possible before finally expiring.
Classic examples include trapdoors that open up to snake pits or spikes, suspension traps over acid pools or lava, and rooms slowly being filled with water.
Famous Examples of Deathtraps
Deathtraps come in many shapes and sizes. Here are just a few iconic examples in literature and film.
Spoiler Alert: I’ve also included details about how the characters were able to escape each trap!
1. The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe
In this short story, a man is captured and tortured with a series of deathtraps. In its most famous scene, the man is strapped to a table over which a bladed pendulum is suspended, swinging back and forth. The pendulum slowly descends, and will eventually killing him unless he escapes.
The Escape: The man is able to smear his bonds with meat from his last meal, attracting rats that eventually gnaw through the ropes.
2. The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming
Bond Girl Mary Goodnight is strapped to a railroad track by the villain Scaramanga. It just so happens that the train James Bond is currently riding is the one about to squash Goodnight flat.
The Escape: Subverted. It’s revealed that the body chained on the tracks is actually a mannequin, designed to draw Bond out into the open.
3. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
Harry Hole’s beloved Rakel is forced to sit on a melting snowman. Once the snowman melts, she falls down and the razor wire around her neck will decapitate her.
The Escape: Harry is able to arrive just in time to save her, at the cost of one of his fingers being cut off.
4. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones recovers a golden idol from a booby-trapped Peruvian temple. Immediately after taking it from its pedestal, the room begins to seal shut. As Indy frantically backtracks, he has to jump over a pit and evade various traps, including a huge boulder that threatens to flatten him.
The Escape: No clever tricks or impossible feats. Indy simply runs at full speed until he exits the temple. Unfortunately, a rival archeologist comes and steals the idol.
5. Final Destination
In each installment in the Final Destination franchise, several people escape death because of a premonition moments before a catastrophe. Death, a malevolent entity in the film, sets up various deathtraps to reclaim the deaths it feels it was cheated out of.
The Escape: It’s almost impossible to escape Death’s designs. However, in one of the films, a survivor “dies” by letting herself drown and then be revived, thereby ruining the pattern and allowing her and another survivor to live.
Why Use a Deathtrap?
Storywise, the deathtrap is a useful tool to create dramatic tension. It shows us the villain’s devious mind, and the hero’s resourcefulness in escaping. Plus, it’s the perfect way to introduce a cliffhanger.
In some ways, the deathtrap is about proving the villain’s superiority. It’s not just about killing the hero, it’s about choosing the way they die—usually in a slow and painful death, at that. However, the villain often fails to monitor the hero closely, leaving them able to figure out a way to escape just in time.
It’s closely tied to the trope where a villain tends to do monologues when the hero is in their clutches. They reveal their plans and goals, confident the hero won’t be able to use the information because they’ll be dead shortly. What they fail to realize though, is that their speech gives the hero time to figure something out, or for rescue to arrive.
This trope can be written seriously but is also frequently parodied or subverted. Whatever way it’s used, deathtraps are a guaranteed way of making a situation more interesting.