The "Rats' Dungeon" or "Dungeon of the Rats" was a feature of the Tower of London alleged by Roman Catholic writers from the Elizabethan era. "A cell below high-water mark and totally dark" would draw in rats from the River Thames as the tide flowed in. Prisoners would have their "alarm excited" and in some instances have "flesh ... torn from the arms and legs".
During the Dutch Revolt, Diederik Sonoy, an ally of William the Silent, is documented to have used a method where a pottery bowl filled with rats was placed open side down on the naked body of a prisoner. When hot charcoal was piled on the bowl, the rats would attempt to escape by "gnaw[ing] into the very bowels of the victim".
An account similar to the Sonoy torture appears in the 1899 Octave Mirbeau novel The Torture Garden, and psychologist Leonard Shengold has identified this as the possible source of the story that the Rat Man told Freud. Part of the book, an imaginary dialog between a torturer and a beautiful woman who is sexually excited by the accounts, is set in China.
The threat of the torture occurs in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The central character, Winston Smith, is arrested by the Ministry of Love and undergoes a process of mental reprogramming. When it is clear that this programming has been unsuccessful, the ministry imprison him in Room 101. Here Winston must face his greatest fear: rats. A cage filled with rats is placed over his head, their only source of food or escape being by eating their way through Winston's face. At this point Winston breaks and begs that the method actually be used on his lover Julia, a sign that he has finally been broken.
Rats also feature in the Edgar Allan Poe story The Pit and the Pendulum. The narrator lies on the rack and can only watch as a scythe swings back and forth, approaching closer each time, and rats swarm over his body. The narrator later manages to make the rats eat through the straps.
In the 1997 Fantasy novel Temple of the Winds, this form of torture was used on the character of Cara. The insane Drefan Rahl in an attempt to learn the location of his brother, the protagonist Richard Rahl, uses a heavy chain to tie a cauldron to her stomach, then shoved rats under the rim of the pot. He put hot coals on the top, causing the rats to claw at Cara to try and get away from the rising temperature inside the pot. Resisting the torture she nearly dies, but is saved at the last moment by Richard and Kahlan. The 2003 movie 2 Fast 2 Furious features a very similar scene where antagonist Carter Verone tortures a police detective into distracting cops so Brian, Roman Pierce and two thugs can escape with several bags of money.
It was also used on a victim in The Bone Collector.
- Cameron, Mary (1931). Merrily I Go to Hell: Reminiscences of a Bishop's Daughter. "the Canton Rat torture, in which enormous half starved rats are put into a box with the victim, who is rapidly eaten alive"
- George Lillie Craik and Charles MacFarlane (1848). The Pictorial History of England. Harper & Brothers. http://books.google.com/?id=FSosAAAAMAAJ.
- John Lothrop Motley (1883). The Rise of the Dutch Republic. Bickers & Son. http://books.google.com/?id=mDcOAAAAQAAJ.
- Leonard Shengold (1971). "More about Rats and Rat People". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 52 (3): 277–288. PMID 5106163.
- Jorge Ahumada (Summer 2005). "Review of Mental Zoo: Animals in the Human Mind and its Pathology". Publications: Book Reviews (American Psychological Association Division of Psychoanalysis). http://www.division39.org/pub_reviews_detail.php?book_id=7. Retrieved 2008-01-27.
- Christopher Boorse, Roy A. Sorensen (March 1988). "Ducking Harm". The Journal of Philosophy 85 (3): 115–134. doi:10.2307/2027067. http://jstor.org/stable/2027067.
- Kevin J. Hayes (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521797276. http://books.google.com/?id=W755ymfap4sC.
- Commentary on rat torture with a translation of an extract from Le Jardin des supplices by Octave Mirbeau.