The electric chair was once the go-to method of execution in the United States, and “the chair” still holds a unique position in America’s history of capital punishment. In aftermath of more than a decade of debates about how “cruel and unusual” execution may or not be, four horror movies emerged over the course three years in the 1980’s. Prison, Destroyer, The Horror Show (aka House III), and Shocker are all films about criminals who die in the chair, only to come back to life newly empowered to kill. One of those movies, however, stands apart from the others in an important way…
Phillips, Lela Bond. The Lena Baker Story. Wings Publishers, 2001.
“The ‘Bloody Code’?” National Justice Museum, https://nationaljusticemuseum.co.uk/museum/news/what-was-the-bloody-code.
Williams, Emma Slattery. “The Bloody Code: Your Guide to the Severe Legal System.” Bloody Code: What Was It, Why Was It Bloody & When Was It Repealed?, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.historyextra.com/period/early-modern/bloody-code-guide-british-legal-system-death-penalty/.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Heightened Tensions” by Zeonium, licenced through Shutterstock
Is there a genuinely humane way to execute someone? If you’re ardently opposed to capital punishment I imagine your answer would be a firm no, and I have no intention to try to convince you otherwise. On the opposite end of that, coming up with a relatively painless way to end the life of a condemned person, or a way that at least minimizes the unpleasantness, hasn’t exactly been a high priority for most civilizations throughout the vast majority of human history.
It’s one of those things that gets a little deeper under my skin than I expect it to when I think of it. The term “cruel and unusual punishment” or any real equivalent wasn’t officially derided in any English-speaking legal document until the late seventeenth century. I don’t mean to be dismissive at all of any non-English-speaking legal documents that might have accounted for it, by the way, I’m just not literate in those other languages and my resources tend to lean toward the English-speaking world and areas more adjacent to it. Regarding that aforementioned reference to “cruel and unusual” punishment, what was considered cruel and/or unusual was subjective at the time it was first put to meaningful print, and I suppose still is today. In the UK, for instance, burning at the stake wouldn’t officially be abolished until a hundred years after “cruel and unusual punishment” was prohibited in the Bill of Rights of 1689.
In France, right near the end of the Age of Enlightenment, they rolled out the guillotine as the official method of execution, a decapitation machine named after a guy who didn’t invent it and who opposed capital punishment. His name got attached to it because he suggested it as an alternative to the more horrible execution methods still being employed such as the breaking wheel, which was an incredibly unnecessary, ponderous and protracted way of bludgeoning and brutalizing someone to death. I’m not going to lay it all out here because it’s a little bit cumbersome to describe–and also a bit inconsistent in its application–but if you’ve got the stomach for it, read up on it, and perhaps be astonished when you read that it was still being used in Prussia–the future Germany–as late as 1841.
Beyond the types of punishments themselves, even most modern proponents of capital punishment might say it was cruel or unusual to simply sentence someone to death for some of the crimes once considered capital offenses. In 1688, one year before the Bill of Rights of 1689 held up a stop sign in the face of excessively barbaric or strange executions, the number of capital offences was fifty. Over the next 110 years, that number grew to be north of 200. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Code . Per the UK National Justice Museum, as well as an article in History Extra, you could be hanged for stealing from a rabbit warren, wrecking a fishpond, pickpocketing the present-day equivalent of about 30-British-pounds, being out at night with a blackened face–moving on from that one–impersonating a pensioner, or illegally cutting down a young tree.
Strangely enough though, not murder. They neglected to put that in.
I’m kidding, of course you absolutely could be executed for committing a murder.
This system of crime and punishment became known in retrospect as the ‘Bloody Code,’ and didn’t get addressed until the Judgement of Death Act of 1823. In the meantime, execution numbers surprisingly did not skyrocket, for myriad reasons that it would take too long to get into here. Seriously, I just deleted four paragraphs from this script because I was getting way too far into the weeds and off topic. The focus of this episode is the assorted fears associated with capital punishment. The fear of being executed. The fear of what execution–or particular methods of execution–say about the civilization level of your home country. And the fear of certain ramifications associated with executing someone. You’ll find out exactly what I mean by that as I get deeper into the episode.
Here in the states we’ve got a shorter history overall, so we lay claim to fewer macabre contraptions like the wheel. Then again, unless you’re a member of our indigenous population, we’re all really descendants of elsewhere, and various other lovely, torturous execution methods are our inheritance. Which isn’t to say that indigenous Americans were strangers to punishment we would consider abnormally brutal. It can be difficult to determine sometimes what was a genuine Pre-Colombian practice of the native peoples, and what’s the invention of Europeans determined to make the Natives appear more savage, and what was adopted by indigenous people in response to the cruelties they endured as people violently pushed them from their homeland, but it’s pretty safe to say they were not shy about using sharpened objects, fire, and maybe even animals and insects to do the dirtiest work there is to do in the world.
Speaking strictly about government authorized executions, one hundred years after it appeared in the English Bill of Rights, cruel and unusual punishment was likewise prohibited in our U.S. Bill of Rights. From that time onward my country has utilized five primary methods of legal execution: hanging, gassing, firing squad, lethal injection, and the electric chair.
To many, any of those would qualify as cruel, but that last one, to me at least, stands out as quite unusual. The only other country to have ever used the electric chair to execute criminals is the Philippines. It was in use there from 1926 to 1987. Here in the States its record of executions runs from 1890 to 2020, and it’s still available as a backup option, or something the condemned can select, in a handful of states. It is an American invention, created by a dentist from Buffalo named Alfred Southwick, with help from a Canadian surgeon named George Fell. The first person to die in the chair was an alcoholic convicted of murdering his common-law wife. It took eight minutes and two attempts to kill him. The youngest, George Stinney, was a fourteen-year-old black boy from South Carolina, whose conviction would be vacated seventy years after his death. The last person to die in the chair was a serial killer in his late 50’s.
Individual chairs had nicknames in certain states. “Old Sparky” in Arkansas, Florida, New York, Texas, and more. In Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee it was called “Old Smokey”. In Alabama they called it “Yellow Mama,” while in Louisiana it was “Gruesome Gertie.”
I’m just old enough to remember when the chair was synonymous with criminal executions in the United States, and I’ve got to say it’s a little bizarre to think about. The chair was considered fairly humane. It wasn’t like those old barbarous beheadings the European kingdoms and empires used to be fond of. It wasn’t hanging, which was older than The Bible. It wasn’t the firing squad, which had been around since rifles were invented. It was modern technology, born just ahead of the 20th Century. We weren’t backwards like those brutes of times gone by. No, we were going to strap people to chairs, secure electrodes to their head and legs, and run thousands of volts of electricity through their bodies. Is that not merciful?
According to the Sing Sing Prison Museum, the postcard made from a picture of their electric chair was once one of the most popular postcards they had. Even into the present day the electric chair is somewhat iconic in America, a part of the culture. Not on a baseball and apple pie level, but it’s something you could see show up or at least referenced in “kid-friendly” cartoons, for instance. Not just older ones like the 1939 Looney Tune “Bars and Stripes Forever,” but in something as recent as the 2021 Looney Tune “Mallard Practice.” There’s also at least one Saturday Night Live sketch, featuring Christopher Walken, where he sits in the chair awaiting his execution for the duration of the skit. And it also appears in comedic films, ranging from Ernest Goes to Jail to Wes Anderson’s latest–at the time of this writing–The French Dispatch. In contrast, there aren’t many examples of light-hearted entertainment rolling out the gas chamber or a lethal injection gurney for a gag.
Lethal injection is by far the most commonly used method of execution in the United States presently, and it’s been that way for a few decades now. But I’m centering this episode around the electric chair because it allows me to dive into one of my favorite oddities of entertainment. Those moments when three or more films come out within a short time frame that all share a similar idea, or have something fairly specific in common. I’m not talking so much about situations where a successful story is the obvious inspiration for others, although that, too, can be interesting at times. In episode 3 I talked about Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Other, the three books that ignited the horror boom of the 70’s, which all showcased children possessed and/or corrupted by preternatural evil, and it’s clear that the latter two books were following in Rosemary’s footsteps for that.
I also talked about the four-year stretch of films that featured fear of darkness and photophobic monsters, ghosts and demons in episode 2, and in episode 9 I covered three different killer crocodile movies that all premiered in 2007.
Sometimes when this happens it feels like sheer coincidence, as it was with the crocodile films. Other times, as already stated with Rosemary and her offspring, it’s a simple case of follow the leader. But on other occasions, as I covered with the movies about fearing the dark in the aftermath of Y2K’s threatened widespread power failures, it feels like something was in the cultural and societal atmosphere at the time that inspired multiple creators to tackle a certain subject. And that invites you to speculate what that something might have been.
From 1987 to 1989, four different horror movies were released that all had as a central antagonist a criminal who gets executed in the electric chair, and who then unnaturally defies death to go on a bloody rampage. When you take a look at what was happening with capital punishment in America in the preceding years, I think it becomes easy to understand why four different teams of filmmakers thought there might be an audience for a scary story about executions that didn’t go quite as planned.
In 1972, the Supreme Court decision following the case of Furman v. Georgia prompted a national moratorium on the death penalty. It did not banish the death penalty outright, per se, in part because the Justices who made up the majority decision could not agree on what made the death penalty cruel and unusual. Some believed the problem was inconsistency in sentencing rules; or worse, a consistency that reflected racial discrimination. According to Justice Stewart:
“These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual. The petitioners are among a capriciously selected random handful upon whom the sentence of death has in fact been imposed. “
Thurgood Marshall, meanwhile, had this to say of the death penalty:
“No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony and human error remain too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some.”
This cuts to the heart of a major fear concerning execution. It’s obviously frightening to be the person ordained to die. But I think we should all have a healthy fear of the consequences of killing an innocent. Trusting a system that is inherently fallible–because human beings are fallible–to never get it wrong when deciding to do something that can’t be undone. Taking away something that in no way can be given back. True, you also can’t give the years back to people who’ve had it stolen from them by a wrongful conviction and imprisonment. You can’t return stolen time, but as long as they’re still alive you can return their freedom. As long as they’re still alive.
This hasn’t stopped being on the minds of Americans in the decades since the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision allowed capital punishment to resume, but this brief moratorium, the following reinstatement, and the debates and actions surrounding it all put it on a pedestal in the public consciousness. States revised laws to try to better clarify and specify exactly what constitutes a capital offense. The modern lethal injection process was implemented in the early 80’s, soon phasing out common usage of the electric chair. And from 1977, to 1986, the years leading up to the first of the movies I’ll be discussing this episode, the following numbers of inmates were executed annually:
One in 1977. Zero in 78. Two in ’79. Zero again in 1980. Just one in 1981, and two in 1982. Then five in 1983. Then, in 1984, that number jumps to twenty-one. Then eighteen more in 1985 and 1986 each.
Just to reframe those figures: six people total were executed in America from 1977 to 1982. That total was almost matched in one year alone in 1983. And there were almost twice as many executions in 1984 as there had been in the prior seven years combined. a quick search of newspaper archives and a look at the number of results year-by-year for the keywords “death penalty” shows how much more it was being talked about nationally as executions increased. From 1984 on, the number of people executed annually in the United States would never drop below double digits. That remains true as of the day I’m writing this.
Sticking to the 80’s, the topic would go on to be a critical, perhaps decisive point of contention during the debates leading up to the 1988 presidential election. And it was in this climate that the first of the four movies I’ll be talking about premiered. 1987’s Prison, starring a young Viggo Mortensen, along with the late, great Tommy Lister Jr., was directed by Renny Harlin. I’m going to set that film aside for the moment and talk about the other three instead, because those three have one important thing in common that Prison does not.
Destroyer, House III (aka The Horror Show), and Wes Craven’s Shocker were all released, in that order, from 1988 to ’89. They are also coincidentally listed in order from least to greatest regarding budgets, revenue, and overall legacy. All three films are about an imprisoned, prolific and perverse serial killer who gets strapped into the electric chair, shocked with the voltage necessary to kill a man, but who in one way or another doesn’t truly die. In Destroyer it’s never really explained why, but one character describes its villain, Ivan Moser–played by hulking football lineman Lyle Alzado–as being rendered “half dead, half alive” after his electrocution.
In The Horror Show it’s discovered that the villain, Max Jenke–who has the worst name of the trio–had been sort of micro-dosing himself with electrical shocks, gradually building up a resistance to his eventual electrocution, which somehow enabled him to live on as an electrified spirit.
Finally, in Craven’s film, there is Horace Pinker–okay, maybe he has the worst name–who simply sells his soul to the devil prior to his execution, giving him the power to body-surf between living people, and then later inhabit electronic devices to continue his killing spree.
In all three films, the electrocution scene is a bloody, prolonged affair where so much electricity is required to kill the resilient villain it overloads the circuit breaker, causing sparks to fly; that happens in each of these movies.
Something else these movies have in common, which maybe flies a little bit under the radar, is that executing the criminals is what sets them free, allowing them to murder more people. There’s no indication prior to the execution that any of these men were in position to escape their prison. Pinker was the most difficult to deal with, having duped a couple of guards into getting close enough for him to bite them, but he never comes anywhere close to breaking free before he’s put to death. It’s almost as if the filmmakers of these three violent slasher films from the late 80’s, understanding their target audience’s wants, and the tone of the films they were making, knew they that if they wanted to suggest that sentencing a man to die in the electric chair might not be the best thing to do, they’d have to suggest that stealthily. Or maybe that’s not what they were thinking at all, and the chair was simply a horror movie plot device in more ways than one. It’s more interesting to consider the idea of these stories having a hidden message, though, so I’m going to pretend I’m confident that that’s the case.
As mentioned earlier, there are aspects of executing someone that are cause for concern. Destroyer, The Horror Show and Shocker do not present us with innocent men. Moser, Jenke and Pinker are unrepentant murderers of men, women, and children, who you definitely want to see dead. Nonetheless, intentionally or not, strictly based on the plots, all three movies tell a story in which executing a criminal just makes things worse. Keeping them locked up is less satisfying, less potentially cathartic, depending on your disposition, but based on what the stories give us, it’s the better solution. And, as just about everybody in the real world knows or learns sooner or later, the more satisfying thing to do isn’t always the healthier thing to do. In their own unexpected way, these decidedly non-progressive films at least hint at the fear that execution just exacerbates evil instead of ending it.
Additionally, the electric chair specifically seems to imbue each of these killers with more power. It’s treated as an abnormal, science fiction torture device, barely understood even by the people using it. The way it works, its unique and unusual cruelty, ultimately magnifies the threat. The horror of the electric chair is most explicit in Destroyer, where Moser uses it to kill one of his victims, and tries to use it two more times as he repeatedly fails to finish off the final girl. It is not an instrument of justice in any of these films. It just brings pain, two different kinds of shock, and greater fear.
To be complete, two of the three villains are defeated at least in part by shocking them one last time during the film’s climax, albeit by means other than using the electric chair. The key difference between the climactic electrocutions and the initial ones being that they are done to stop an active, roaming threat, not someone who is already locked up. The overwhelming majority of people who think capital punishment is wrong, also accept that killing in genuine self-defense, or to save another innocent person, is perfectly justified.
I stated before that I lumped these three films together, and set aside the movie Prison, because of an important element these films had in common. I’ve gone on to mention multiple similarities between these movies, enough to make you think they were all based on the same obscure novel or something, and then just adapted in different ways. But the most important thing I think they have in common is that, again, all three of its antagonists are guilty men. Whether or not these movies are sneakily criticizing the death penalty, they definitely give us the kind of criminal that proponents of capital punishment would say it’s designed for. Hell, they give us criminals that might even make a few death penalty opponents say, “You know what? For that guy? I would throw switch.”
Renny Harlin’s Prison presents the fear that Thurgood Marshall wrote about in 1972. The thing that contributed mightily to the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom. The execution of an innocent.
10 Rillington Place is a notorious address in England’s history. I don’t think we have anything quite like it over here stateside. Off top, the closest thing I can think of is 112 Ocean Avenue, which is not really that similar at all. That’s the address of The Amityville Horror house, the site of actual, horrific murders that have been almost completely overshadowed by the fabricated haunting that made the site famous. There’s nothing at all fake about what makes 10 Rillington Place well-known.
Many of you listening probably already know the story. For those that may not, I’ll try to be somewhat brief. A man named John Christie lived at 10 Rillington. He was a serial killer. A man named Timothy Evans also lived there, with his wife, Beryl, and daughter, Geraldine. John would kill Beryl and Geraldine, and then convince authorities that Timothy was the murderer. Timothy Evans went to trial on the 11th of January, 1950. He was convicted just three days later, and on March 9th of the same year, he was executed. John Christie wouldn’t be found out until three years after Timothy’s death. In the intervening years he murdered four more women, including his wife, Ethel.
There is a lot more to the story–a coerced confession, Timothy’s past run-ins with the law, an assortment of issues with the investigation and trial–and if you want to know more about it, there are a number of books and documentaries on it, and I can’t imagine there’s a major true crime podcast out there that hasn’t covered it already. If there are some, I presume it’s on their soon-to-be-covered list. It is a major event in the history of British crime, and that might be understating it. Because there is no legitimate debate about the innocence of Timothy Evans. The man did not kill his wife and child, and in fact the actual murderer helped set him up to take the fall for the crime. The justice system in England committed the ultimate act of injustice. They took someone’s life for a crime they didn’t commit.
I haven’t directly stated my thoughts about capital punishment yet, although you can probably ascertain my opinion of it from the tone and content of this episode so far. I am actually theoretically in favor of it in specific cases, which possibly upsets some people who are 100% morally in opposition to it. All I can say is that my perspective on it is that if I committed a particularly heinous murder, I would consider my life forfeit. I want to say I would think that’s fair, but it’s not, because I would still think my crime would outweigh my penalty, but the least that should happen is that I should be deprived of the same thing I deprived of another. Of course, there are debatable and nebulous elements to what I’ve stated here. What exactly is a “particularly heinous murder,” for instance? I could go on trying to better define that, and I’d be a while, and it would ultimately be pointless because, once again, I am only theoretically in favor of capital punishment in certain cases.
In actual practice, which is all that really counts, I’m opposed. Always have been, because of the Thurgood Marshall argument. We know human beings are imperfect. We know our systems are imperfect. We know for a fact that we in the United States have wrongfully convicted people and made them serve time in prison for things they didn’t do. I agree with Justice Marshall, human error is too real of a thing for the absence of it to potentially be all that saves an innocent person from being executed. And that’s just factoring human “error,” mind you. Mistakes. Not things like malice, prejudice, or greed, which are also all too real.
There are also degrees of innocence. Technicalities that might leave someone’s fate open to another’s interpretation, as opposed to the simple truth of whether or not they did what they’re accused of. Timothy Evans is fairly well known even for interested people like me who’ve never crossed the Atlantic. Less well-known here and abroad is Lena Baker. A black maid from Georgia, sentenced to death in the electric chair in 1945. Sixty years later, the Georgia Parole Board granted her a full pardon. Now, why would they do such a thing?
For a fuller account of Lena Baker’s life and death, there was a book written by Professor Lela Bond Phillips in 2001, which was turned into a film titled The Lena Baker Story. I can’t give you a book or film’s worth of content and context here, but here’s what I will tell you. She worked for a man named Ernest Knight who would abuse and rape her, and keep her locked in the gristmill he owned for days. In response to this, local authorities told her to stay away from him or else she’d be placed in jail, as if she was in control of the situation. During her final stint as his captive, while trying to get away from him, he yet again physically threatened her and she ended up fighting him over control of his gun. At some point the gun was fired. Lena could not say who pulled the trigger. I would say it doesn’t matter. There’s no sane, decent person living today who would consider what she did a murder, perhaps not even manslaughter. Was she holding the gun and pulling the trigger when Ernest Knight was killed? Who cares? Kidnapping victims don’t typically get charged for killing their kidnappers, but not only was Lena prosecuted, her trial lasted less than a day, and the jury reached a verdict in under thirty minutes. Guilty. Less than twelve months later, her death sentence was carried out.
“We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some.”
Listen, on the surface, Renny Harlin’s film Prison is nowhere near as deep or meaningful as The Lena Baker Story. But it does give us the escapist ending and vengeance that real life seldom provides. And, unlike its three kindred films, it isn’t disguising any criticisms of capital punishment, or the prison system overall. I told a little lie earlier when I said all four of these films have the executed criminal as their main antagonist. The executed man in Prison, Charlie Forsythe, is ultimately villainous. He kills a number who had nothing to do with his wrongful execution, in a variety of painful ways. But he’s nonetheless a co-antagonist at most. The villain we spend far more time with, and far more time loathing, is Eaton Sharpe, the worst warden this side of Shawshank, Cool Hand Luke or various exploitation movies.
Sharpe and almost every other official–save the single person interested in reforming the prison–is either an outright villain or enables the villainy. Sharpe is carrying the years-long, nightmare-inducing guilt of framing a convict for murder, then watching him die as punishment for that crime. The fact that the man was already a convict is immaterial; he was innocent of the charge for which he was put to death. That alone would indisputably make Sharpe a murderer, setting aside the fact that he also committed the original murder that he framed Forsythe for.
The most defiant officer on his staff only gives him a second glance on occasion. The prisoners, meanwhile, are a mixed bag, but many behave nobly and bravely in the face of increasingly unfathomable dangers. Prison might not be the best of the four movies I’ve discussed this episode, but it’s at least in the running for the top spot with Shocker. From a storytelling standpoint, neither movie is all that concerned with making much sense, albeit in different ways that are familiar flaws in horror fiction: Shocker, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, seems to just makes up new rules for its supernatural happenings as it goes along, while Prison has most of its important characters ignore the fact that certain happenings are physically impossible, and at minimum have to be considered the result of some unknown phenomenon. Despite this, I thought Prison was the most engaging of the four films because, if nothing else, it had more of a story to tell.
Like the other movies, it too brings the electrocution back one more time late in the film, to stop the villain. This time, however, it’s not the originally executed man receiving the second shock, but the man responsible for his death. Along the way to getting his vengeance, however, the spirit of the Charlie Forsythe murders several others who are just randomly in the path of his wayward, violent rage. It’s as if there’s not enough justice in the world to cure the injustice done to him, so he resorts to more injustice instead. I don’t think the film was going for any deeper meaning, but it might have stumbled into a simple, frightening truth: certain evil deeds, or even just mistakes, are so contemptible they are uncorrectable. A changed law or a decades delayed pardon doesn’t bring back a life. No amount of justice can truly fix that level of injustice. Which is why, when it comes to something as severe and final as execution, we should never ever lose the fear of getting it wrong.