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In my medieval fantasy world, there is the concept of the Five Pains for interrogation and punishment. Each pain correlated to a specific sense of the human body. Burning is used for touch, and a special chemical concoction is used for smell, etc. However, I have failed to find an adequate torture method which only targets sight.

How could a medieval society create something literally torturous to look at?

Feel free to take some liberties if your idea seems plausible but lacks real historical precedent.

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    $\begingroup$ Hold these chillies for me, I will teach you the fastest way to cut onions ;D $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Mar 6 at 5:55
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    $\begingroup$ The Ludovico Technique? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 7 at 2:14
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    $\begingroup$ "specific sense" -> Which of the senses is, for example, "hunger"? :) (Spoiler Alert: There are more senses than children's rhymes suggests ;) ) $\endgroup$ Mar 8 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ You mean bright lights? Those can be pretty painful. $\endgroup$
    – LWS SWL
    May 7 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Well, just put a very bright lantern viciously close to the person you want to torture and lock their head in place so they can't look away. Even if they close their eyes they don't get away from the light, so it's definitely eye-torture. $\endgroup$ May 8 at 15:23

14 Answers 14

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Pokemon seizures.

Sometimes watching Pokemon can hurt you. One particular episode sent 685 kids to the hospital.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denn%C5%8D_Senshi_Porygon

Twenty minutes into the episode, Pikachu stops "vaccine" missiles with his Thunderbolt attack, resulting in an explosion that flashes red and blue lights. Although there were similar parts in the episode with red and blue flashes, two anime techniques, called "paka paka"[a] and "flash",[b] made the scene particularly intense. These flashes were bright strobe lights, with blinks at a rate of about 12 Hz for approximately six seconds.

At this point, some of the viewers experienced blurred vision, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Some suffered seizures, blindness, convulsions and loss of consciousness.

That sounds pretty uncomfortable. Blindness might be a relief! In any case your medievals should be able to replicate Pikachu's technique.

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    $\begingroup$ We now return to Battling Seizure Robots $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Mar 6 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ This is fun but seems uncertain enough that it wouldn't be a first choice. There is some susceptible slice of the population but most just shrug it off. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ @SoronelHaetir not sure. I've never had seizures - even during that EEG thing - but I'd still hate it through and through. You'd probably tune for the general population and if they slump to the ground, tone it down a bit. $\endgroup$ Mar 7 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ I'm epileptic. The way the brain works is that everyone has a seizure threshold. Everyone can have a seizure, ultimately the thing you die of ultimately is nearly always a seizure. All you have to do is break people down to the seizure threshold, using lack of sleep, poor food, whatever, and even healthy people become epileptic. That's what's so evil about gitmo. $\endgroup$
    – Owl
    Mar 7 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak Can confirm. I don't get seizures either, but some content with an epilepsy warning tires my eyes insanely fast. $\endgroup$
    – Egor Hans
    Mar 8 at 12:04
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Somebody already thought about it: abacination

Abacination is a form of corporal punishment or torture, in which the victim is blinded by having a red-hot metal plate held before their eyes.

Blinding as punishment has existed since antiquity, and was specifically documented as a form of torture in ancient Persia. A corrosive chemical, typically slaked lime, was contained in a pair of cups with decaying bottoms, e.g., of paper. The cups were strapped in place over the prisoner's eyes as they were bound in a chair. The slowly draining corrosive agent from the cups eventually ate away at the eyeballs.

An alternative was also to cut away the subject's eyelids, with obvious consequences.

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    $\begingroup$ And if you are cheap, you can also just have people stare at the sun. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 at 6:37
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    $\begingroup$ This feels different from the question's intent - it takes away the sense of sight entirely (in a way that's torturous on a haptic level), rather than bringing pain directly through sight. A more relevant option would be forcing the subject to look at something that causes fear, disgust, despair etc. $\endgroup$
    – Egor Hans
    Mar 8 at 14:45
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There is a fungus called ergot (pronunciation varies), which mainly infects grains such as rye, wheat and barley. It produces alkaloids, which have various effects on humans. Some cause diarrhea and vomiting.

But of you can refine the alkaloids out of ergot... one of those alkaloids, called ergotamine, has a structure which is very similar to LSD. Lo and behold, it has also much the same effects. The visions from an acid trip should be quite disturbing for the average medieval person, due to their upbringing.

Medieval monks should be able to cultivate strains of ergot which produce more ergotamine than other alkaloids, thus being able to make drug bread. They could use this among themselves recreationally, and set some apart for torture. Simply feed a medieval peasant a loaf of ergotamine-laced bread and watch as they trip. When they sober up they will describe visions of hell.

Ergotamine can also cause gangrenes, necrosis and stillbirth, be mindful of those. Then again, you can't make an omelet without some gore, so...

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    $\begingroup$ I'd imagine horrifying costumes and scenes being witnessed by the one being tortured would exaggerate the effects. $\endgroup$
    – Lemming
    Mar 6 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ Y'know, with hallucinogens like LSD, the subject can be 'primed' with good sensory stimulation to reduce the chances of a bad trip. I imagine the inverse is also true. $\endgroup$
    – Brinstar77
    Apr 29 at 11:39
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Show the victim another person being tortured

This already happens in some fiction: the hero is just too tough to be broken by torture, so the bad guys begin torturing some other civilian. The hero almost always breaks immediately, knowing that the civilian can't tolerate torture and isn't willing to die a gruesome death for the cause.

The torture would need to be graphically violent. Stick with the classics: flaying the skin, fingernail stuff, inserting nails. A wire jacketnot graphic would probably fit the bill.

To limit this strictly to vision, put the secondary victim behind a big glass window, so there's no sound. Also, surround the primary victim with mirrors so there's no place they can look that won't give them a view on the torture. And tape their eyes open so they can't be shut.

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    $\begingroup$ Medieval technology wasn't known for its big, soundproof clear glass windows, nor a surplus of high quality mirrors. Yes, there was glass and there were mirrors, but both were small and low quality by modern standards. And while they doubtless could find some way to keep eyes open, it wouldn't be tape. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 Probably would sew your eyelids open or cut em off if torture is the name of the game. Though I guess they'd want a way to prolong your ability to see without you being able to control what you get to see. No eyedrops in the middle ages. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 6 at 5:50
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    $\begingroup$ A friend of mine used this for scientific research. As a dentist he needed to research teeth grinding, and he needed some lab mice to grrind their teeth. He needed to stress some mice, so the way he found to get that was to have some mice watch as other mice were tased. Some of the mice watching their cage companions being shocked did grind their teeth, so the experiment was a success. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 at 6:20
  • $\begingroup$ You're assuming that the people being tortured are good people, or even capable of empathy to begin with. Goff stumbles head-first into this problem in Episode 3 when he tries to force Peacemaker to give up information by torturing Vigilante, not realizing that a) Peacemaker is only beginning to learn empathy and kindness at this point, and b) Peacemaker doesn't really like Vigilante all that much and is TOTALLY FINE with Goff subjecting Vigilante to electroshock therapy and partial toe removal. $\endgroup$
    – Brinstar77
    Apr 8 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ The best villains believe themselves to be the real hero. Most such people have someone they care about. But yes, I'll concede that this technique is unlikely to work on a sociopath, or someone who has contempt for the torture victim. After all, there are some real people I think I'd willingly watch be tortured. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Apr 8 at 18:15
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Literally torturous to look at? Somewhat inspired by Willk's answer - how about simply a very bright light? If it's bright enough, even closed eyelids won't save you. To get this much light you can use either:

  • The sun (which is by far the brightest thing in a medieval setting)
  • Lots of smaller individual flames
  • Some chemical concoction that burns very brightly

Then add some simple optics and mirrors that focuses it all on one person.

If the light also causes the face of the victim to heat up too much, add some air cooling. I believe a repurposed/modified blacksmith's bellows might do the trick. Or maybe just sprinkle the face with water.

Maybe making the light flash can also enhance the pain, I don't know. If so, then just add a rotating disc (shutter) with holes in it in front of the light which cuts the light off in regular intervals.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the most practical answer, especially if we use a magnifying glass to focus the light and eye clamps to keep the eyes open. You wouldn't need to be particularly precise with the optics, just focus the light in the region of the eye and after an hour they'd be begging for their lives. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 6 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ Or this, added with being in constant light. During the day, the victim is held outside in brightness and during the night under constant flame (or whatever light source you have). Not as "brutal" as constant light-driven sleep deprivation as today, but over time I'd say similar effects would kick in. $\endgroup$
    – BruceWayne
    Mar 6 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ @JoinJBHonCodidact Bunch of concave shields, extra polished? Like Archimedes' death ray but over a reasonable range and against an immobilized target. And even if you can't set up sun tracking, getting the Glare of a Thousand Suns [actually just ten; otherwise they'd catch on fire] once per day will do nicely, plus psychological damage because they know the Glare comes, every day at 1200, and they can do nothing about it. Or you can even have multiple sets each engaging at a given time of the day... $\endgroup$ Mar 7 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak You have people doing the torturing. They can continuously adjust the mirrors as needed. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Mar 7 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Vilx- the issue with the death ray wasn't getting enough volunteers to hold shields, but with 100 different glares moving about chaotically it's pretty hard to tell which one is yours. Although in this case you could have an array of adjustable mounts and then position the shields one by one. Bonus points if the court mathematicians equip the mounts with separate day/month knobs so that you only had to do hourly adjustments on one axis. I believe the linkage would be just a single circular joint whose axis lies halfway between your target and Polaris, with a month knob placed on that arm? $\endgroup$ Mar 7 at 9:26
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Upside down goggles

The medieval victim will get his/her eyelids removed first.

Then, a helmet is firmly attached to the head of the prisoner.

In the helmet, you mount a pair of upside down goggles..

enter image description here

The resulting disorientation will confuse a medieval prisoner, beyond madness.

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    $\begingroup$ Until their vision normalizes after a while, then you take the helmet off. Until it renormalizes, and you put the helmet back on. Until it renormalizes again, and you take the helmet back off.... $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Mar 6 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ Yes each time you switch up/down :p hehe $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 7 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @NoName Wouldn't it be just simpler to include a lever in the helmet that allows you to flip the upside-down goggles down and up? Then you don't have to remove/reapply the helmet every time you want to switch things up on the victim. $\endgroup$
    – Brinstar77
    Apr 29 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Brinstar77 It doesn't have to work for hours.. It's just to get the infomation out of the prisoner :p suppose you put the helmet on and release him. He can't escape.. maybe break a few bones trying to run away.. then you put him in the chair again and proceed interrogation. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Apr 29 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Brinstar77 Mayhaps, but as Goodies said, you probably don't need it for that long, and if you do decide to use a lever, you have to consider how you would secure it $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Apr 30 at 2:01
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That was already used in medieval times and is called a pillory.

Although that's the exact opposite of what you're looking for as instead of torturing the person's sight itself, something worse is used: the tortured are put on display for the ridicule of all!

And it was so effective, that it was used until the beginning of the XXth century:

(The 2 prisoners on the top half of the picture are the example, not the one being whipped on the bottom)

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    $\begingroup$ Far from being torture like the ones described in that gruesome post, but children at school (at least in France), until the '70s, were at in the corner of the class when they made some mistakes (specifically mistakes - not misbehaving, which was also punished this way). This si probably an urban legend, but I saw drawings of them wearing a paper hat with the word "ANE" on it (= "DONKEY"). The humorous ones show that kid looking in a mirror and reading "ENA" instead of "ANE", "ENA" being an Ivy-league school in France (the top one for civil servants, now closed by our President). $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Mar 7 at 13:43
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Visual tortures are fine, but Orwell's 1984 had an especially fiendish one: starved rats in a cage attached to your face. You don't need to be squeamish to empathize with John's abject fear as the rats are fighting with one another in the cage, ready to tear his face apart. Substitute whatever small gnawing critters you wish and this torture need not touch the victim at all. And it's fully medieval.

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A visual stimulus that induces flicker vertigo could qualify as a visual torture device, because it produces various uncomfortable effects, including nausea.

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Tik Tok Torture

There is, in the midst of the Eastlands, a country where a particularly devilish torture is carried out. One famous archon of this land quipped that only an amateur torturer would blind his victim. The true artist sets up the torture such that the penitent is ready to claw his own eyes out of his head within the hour.

Penitents assumed guilty of certain crimes are fixated to a chair so they can't move limbs or head. The eyelids are sewn open and traction sutures are placed in the sclera so the eye itself can't move. Once positioned in the chair, the penitent is wheeled into a heavily walled chamber the wall of which is smooth and painted white. Upon the wall is a kit cat clock. Its hands do not move, but its tail and eyes do. The mechanism provides a constant and slow motion. Except for an annoying and random disjoint between the tock and tick.

The penitent is left to meditate on the timeless nature of crime and punishment.

kit-cat.com

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The strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion is a good candidate for this:

A visual illusion where your own reflection in the mirror seems to become distorted and shifts identity [...] To trigger the illusion you need to stare at your own reflection in a dimly lit room.

Participants reported that apparition of new faces in the mirror caused sensations of otherness when the new face appeared to be that of another, unknown person or strange `other’ looking at him/her from within or beyond the mirror. All fifty participants experienced some form of this dissociative identity effect, at least for some apparition of strange faces and often reported strong emotional responses in these instances.

Descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included:

  • huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants)
  • a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased
  • an unknown person (28%)
  • an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%)
  • an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%)
  • fantastical and monstrous beings (48%)

This is after a 10-minute session with voluntary participants. Imagine what you'd see if it was against your will, had no idea exact what was happening, and were subjected to this for hours?

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Step 1) Keep the prisoner in a dark cell for some days. When the eyeseight gets used to the dark for a long time it takes a while to adapt back to daylight and it can be painful.

Step 2) Bring the prisoner on a open place in full daylight and hang them upside down to disorient them.

Step 3) Two pendulums with two braziers holding a bright fire oscillate towards the face of the prisoner from two directions. The pendulums have different length and different cadence.

The prisoner even if they close the eyelids will see and feel the fires going towards their face. The upside position, the uneven rhythm of the combined oscillations will disorient them and the scare of getting burned will add to it.

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Torturing someone visually seems pretty easy—just flash bright lights or hold their heads by a fire, and plunge them into darkness afterwards. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

As for the aspect of “creating something visually torturous to look at,” my suggestion as an artist is to take the usual advice of color theory, like “contrasting colors like red/blue tend to look good with each other,” and do the exact opposite. Or mention that they press-ganged a very unfortunate artist to paint exactly the wrong color combinations for their prisoners.

There’s a reason neon colors and huge washes are only used sparingly and referred to as “eye-bleeding;” because they’re not pleasant at all to look at.

Also, certain patterns like spirals and very dense maze/labyrinth lines are often said to trigger epileptic seizures; as a nearsighted person, I’ve found out a lot of them HURT to look at, because they make me dizzy if the lines start “moving.” It would suck royally if someone was FORCED to stare at those.

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I suppose the obvious answer is to blind them, but that seems a bit permanent for the intention of the Five Pains as I am reading it. Maybe instead of something painful to look at, you could just do trauma to the eyes? Like, hold their eyes open with something and plunge their head in salt water or something. I was also thinking using mirrors to reflect sunlight directly into their eyes? Hope this helps <:

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