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Real-life trapdoor traps in the historical record?

darthmixdarthmix Registered User regular
edited September 2007 in Help / Advice Forum
This is going to be an odd request.

There's a cliché in adventure fiction (and sometimes comedy) of hidden trapdoors designed to open under unsuspecting victims and drop them into dungeons, or down chutes, or whatever. Jabba's throne room had one. Tons of toy playsets have them. Mr. Burns and Scrooge McDuck both have them in their offices. They show up in videogames all the time (I remember one in Mario 64).

What I'm trying to discover is whether these are purely a convention of fiction, or whether, in all of human history, there's ever been a structure which contained a hidden trapdoor designed for that specific purpose: to be opened suddenly by some mechanical means under an unwary victim and drop him through the floor. Either as an elaborate prank (like, in a funhouse or something) or as an actual booby trap. I'm not talking about gallows, since those aren't really hidden, or at least they don't need to be. Same basic mechanism, subtly different purpose.

I have a very, very vague memory of seeing something on PBS as a kid which may have described this feature being implemented as a defensive measure in certain medieval castles. I'm pretty sure it was based on this book by David Macaulay. But such trapdoors aren't mentioned in the actual book, and I don't have easy access to video of that show.

I'm finding research on this subject to be almost impossible because the search terms have so many other associations, like trapdoor spiders, or trapdoors leading to someone's attic, or even a hidden stairway. I can't tell if I can't find what I'm looking for because it doesn't exist, or because all my searches are being polluted with these false hits. There are lots of hidden passageways in the historical record. But actual trap trapdoors? I got a really funny look from the reference librarian. Google and wikipedia weren't much more help, so I thought I'd try to mine the public knowledge-base here and see if anyone knows of such a thing ever having actually been built. I'm not interested in building one, if that's what you're thinking; my interest is mostly idle curiosity, but it's feeding into a writing project.

Yeah, so. Anyone ever heard of such a thing in real life?

darthmix on

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    GorgeeenGorgeeen __BANNED USERS regular
    edited September 2007
    I remember reading about trapdoors being used to drop people into a pit full of spikes or cobras or both or something like that.

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    darthmixdarthmix Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Do you have any recollection of where? What culture/historical era etc?

    darthmix on
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    PheezerPheezer Registered User, ClubPA regular
    edited September 2007
    Tiger traps work that way. You dig a pit and fill it with spears set in the dirt facing upright. Cover the hole with a mesh of weak sticks and cover those with leaves, and leave some raw meat in the middle. Tiger weighs a few hundred pounds, pounces on the meat, gets gored on the spears.

    You need the spears because otherwise the angry tiger jumps back out.

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    darthmixdarthmix Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Yeah, I thought of those. What I'm looking for is something that specifically involves a door, with some kind of hinge and lock mechanism, since that's what you so often see in fiction.

    darthmix on
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    SniperGuySniperGuy SniperGuyGaming Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Pungee Pits those are also called, right?

    SniperGuy on
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    SnorkSnork word Jamaica Plain, MARegistered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Pungee pits imply that the stakes are covered in human shit and infectants I think.

    Snork on
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    Steel AngelSteel Angel Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    I recall seeing a documentary about some old West coast taverns where hidden doors were used to dump drunken men into a cell to be shanghaied for a ship's crew, but I don't remember if they were actual trap doors or if they were hidden, horizontal doors and someone just dragged the drunken victim through them when it was time to press gang people.

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    Z3nZ3n Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    darthmix wrote: »
    Yeah, I thought of those. What I'm looking for is something that specifically involves a door, with some kind of hinge and lock mechanism, since that's what you so often see in fiction.

    The viet cong used them as booby traps in vietnam.

    I don't know if that's historical enough for you, but there were a variety of setups that they used.

    Z3n on
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    Blake TBlake T Do you have enemies then? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Wasn't there a serial killer in new york (maybe I can't remember where) who would lure unsuspecting patrons into his barbar shop and when they were in the chair he'd pull a lever and the chair would flip and drop them into his basement for him to torture?

    It sounds fairly horror storyishness in how far fetched it was, but I've got a sneaking suspision that is was true.

    Blake T on
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    saltinesssaltiness Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Snork wrote: »
    Pungee pits imply that the stakes are covered in human shit and infectants I think.

    Punji sticks on wikipedia.

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    FallingmanFallingman Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Not quite the same, but they might be derivative of the mechanism used to drop people into the gallows when they were being hanged...?

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    UnicronUnicron Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Blaket wrote: »
    Wasn't there a serial killer in new york (maybe I can't remember where) who would lure unsuspecting patrons into his barbar shop and when they were in the chair he'd pull a lever and the chair would flip and drop them into his basement for him to torture?

    It sounds fairly horror storyishness in how far fetched it was, but I've got a sneaking suspision that is was true.

    I think you're actually thinking of [url="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd]Sweeney Todd[/url]. Who sadly (?) was fictional. Interesting though that people were thinking up crazy stuff like that centuries ago, guess it can't all be the vidja games fault then :D

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    ÆthelredÆthelred Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    I've visited and studied a lot of British castles and they don't have them; so you can rule those out. They don't really make much sense defensively since you can only use them once.

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    RuckusRuckus Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    I've visited and studied a lot of British castles and they don't have them; so you can rule those out. They don't really make much sense defensively since you can only use them once.

    If you line the pit with spikes, they only need to work once. ;-)

    The only situation where I know trapdoors have been used, besides for gallows, is the theatre. Theatre stages did (and do) have quick opening trapdoors in the stage floor, the area beneath a stage is still referred to today as a traproom. But I'm pretty sure most of the people who plumetted through those doors were planning on it, the exceptions being Paul McCartney, and there was somebody who jumped off an amp or drum platform during a performance, and landed directly on a trapdoor (accidentally), the locking mechanism for the door broke and the rocker fell halfway through the stage. I can't find a reference to that event.

    Ruckus on
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    cooljammer00cooljammer00 Hey Small Christmas-Man!Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    i think it's have to be more of a slope opening up.

    cause honestly, i dont see a sliding trap door catching me off guard.

    unless it's like It's A Wonderful Life.

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    Sharp10rSharp10r Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Ruckus wrote: »
    I've visited and studied a lot of British castles and they don't have them; so you can rule those out. They don't really make much sense defensively since you can only use them once.

    If you line the pit with spikes, they only need to work once. ;-)

    The only situation where I know trapdoors have been used, besides for gallows, is the theatre. Theatre stages did (and do) have quick opening trapdoors in the stage floor, the area beneath a stage is still referred to today as a traproom. But I'm pretty sure most of the people who plumetted through those doors were planning on it, the exceptions being Paul McCartney, and there was somebody who jumped off an amp or drum platform during a performance, and landed directly on a trapdoor (accidentally), the locking mechanism for the door broke and the rocker fell halfway through the stage. I can't find a reference to that event.
    It was Donnie Wahlberg from New Kids On The Block...:oops:

    Sharp10r on
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    cooljammer00cooljammer00 Hey Small Christmas-Man!Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Sharp10r wrote: »
    Ruckus wrote: »
    I've visited and studied a lot of British castles and they don't have them; so you can rule those out. They don't really make much sense defensively since you can only use them once.

    If you line the pit with spikes, they only need to work once. ;-)

    The only situation where I know trapdoors have been used, besides for gallows, is the theatre. Theatre stages did (and do) have quick opening trapdoors in the stage floor, the area beneath a stage is still referred to today as a traproom. But I'm pretty sure most of the people who plumetted through those doors were planning on it, the exceptions being Paul McCartney, and there was somebody who jumped off an amp or drum platform during a performance, and landed directly on a trapdoor (accidentally), the locking mechanism for the door broke and the rocker fell halfway through the stage. I can't find a reference to that event.
    It was Donnie Wahlberg from New Kids On The Block...:oops:

    Joey Fatone fell through and hurt his leg.

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    ThanatosThanatos Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    I was thinking H.H. Holmes had some, but I'm not entirely sure.

    Thanatos on
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    SarcastroSarcastro Registered User regular
    edited September 2007
    Old thyme housing used to have cellar doors set as trapdoors fairly often, used as cold rooms. Not a lot of them had steps- they had ladders. If you fell through one, it would hurt a lot. The meme still floating around probably has to do with accidents involving those trapdoors; wouldn't take much to rig one either, and since a lot of these same houses had earthen basements, they make decent body storage. Um, so I've heard.

    Sarcastro on
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