High voltage victims.

Museum of Historic Torture Devices

Field review by the editors.

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

In a tourist town known for its elaborate water parks and other squishy family entertainment, the Museum of Historic Torture Devices sticks out like a spike on the end of a thumbscrew. Do you really want to know what it's like to have rats gnaw out your intestines, or to have a bolt slowly screwed into your brain? This is where to go to find out, and the local wave pools apparently are filled with inquiring minds.

The torture equipment exhibited may be real, or it may just be fakes from some wax museum's Dungeon of Horrors exhibit. What's impressive is not its authenticity, which is irrelevant, but the idea that people want to see an attraction devoted to nothing BUT torture equipment. Maybe Abu Ghraib and Gitmo have something to do with it, sparking a public desire for knowledge that only a museum can provide, even if it's a museum with loudspeakers that broadcast continuous human screaming. "Were these harsh techniques of 'Justice' too extreme?" asks a sign at the ticket counter. "Decide for yourself!!!" See, it's all about being an informed citizen.

Rats torture.

After passing through the museum's red-orifice entrance, the first exhibit showcases a local celebrity, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, "Torture King of Chicago." Two cases display a photocopy of his death certificate, a cheerful canvas of the Seven Dwarfs supposedly painted by him, and a couple of birthday cards sent by John from prison. He "seemed like a normal everyday fella" according to the museum's accompanying bio -- that is, until he began torturing and killing people.

To fill out this sparse collection, the cases also display things that have nothing to do with John Wayne Gacy: a mummified skull, a bullwhip, autographed photos of Vampira and The Three Stooges, a check signed by Vincent Price, and an unpleasant-looking metal screw that was supposedly removed from a victim of an alien abduction. "Tortured...by an Alien!?!" asks a sign, letting us know that this is all part of the larger theme, really.

John Gacy personal cards.

From this point on the museum reverts to the classic era of Human Agony, in a space that was probably once a gift shop. Among the over 40 "horrible contraptions" on display are a Rack, a Breaking Wheel, a Chinese Death Cage, and a Skull Crusher. A crown of thorns is exhibited next to a Roman Flagellum (spiked whip) without comment, although almost every other device is accompanied by lurid descriptions in both English and Spanish. "One can only imagine the pain as the hard metal pressed harder and harder against the teeth, gums, and jaw," reads a sign next to The Iron Gag.

A sign for Stoning explains, "la causa de la muerte que es trauma embotado al craneo." Rocks in your head; a bad way to go.

Throughout the tour, an audio loop chugs along in the background, an oddly appropriate mash-up of Pink Floyd, Halloween soundtrack and psychedelic instrumentals... and screams (the cashier later mentions it will be replaced soon with something the owner likes better).

Implements and accessories of torture.

In one corner hangs a gibbeted human skeleton in burlap rags. In another, a woman glamor mannequin is tied to a stake, ready for the flames. A flimsy-looking guillotine has had its blade and lunette splattered with crimson paint. Most of the smaller devices are displayed behind plexiglas windows set into black walls, in front of a background of what appears to be red Christmas tissue paper. The steel straps and spikes and ripsaws of the devices are uniformly brown and crusty, conveying ideas of ancientness and discomfort while suggesting that curatorial preservation really is not this museum's purpose.

The self-guided tour ends where it begins, at a fake electric chair plastered with stickers that declare, "Life Like Violence Strong" and "Suitable for All Ages." Sliding a dollar into its slot enables you to electrocute yourself. Loud buzzing, ascending voltage lights, and a big dial calibrated "0, 300, 1000, SMOKE" provide status cues to passers-by. The sensation is similar to the old Magic Fingers motel beds, which is probably not what a real electrocution feels like, but strong enough to prompt squeals of terror from an adventurous date or a bratty child.

Museum of Historic Torture Devices

Address:
740 Eddy St., Wisconsin Dells, WI
Directions:
I-90/94 exit 87. East on Hwy 13 through a couple of stop lights, then across the bridge into downtown Wisconsin Dells. Make the second right onto Eddy St.; the Museum will be on the left.
Hours:
Summer daily. Off-season Sa-Su. Call for hrs. (Call to verify)
Phone:
608-254-2439
Admission:
Admission
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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