"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842 in the literary annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story describes his experience of being tortured. The story is especially effective at inspiring fear in the reader because of its heavy focus on the senses, such as sound, emphasizing its reality, unlike many of Poe's stories which are aided by the supernatural. The traditional elements established in popular horror tales at the time are followed, but critical reception has been mixed. The tale has been adapted to film several times.
The unnamed narrator is brought to trial before sinister judges of the Spanish Inquisition. Poe provides no explanation of why he is there or of the charges on which he is being tried. Before him are seven tall white candles on a table, and, as they burn down, his hopes of survival also diminish. He is condemned to death, whereupon he faints and later awakens to find himself in a totally dark room. At first the prisoner thinks that he is locked in a tomb, but then he discovers that he is in a cell. He decides to explore the cell by placing a scrap of his robe against the wall so that he can count the paces around the room, but he faints before he can measure the whole perimeter.
When he reawakens, he discovers food and water nearby. He tries to measure the cell again, and finds that the perimeter measures one hundred steps. While crossing the room, he trips on the hem of his robe and falls, his chin landing at the edge of a deep pit. He realizes that had he not tripped, he would have fallen into this pit.
After losing consciousness again, the narrator discovers that the prison is slightly illuminated and that he is strapped to a wooden frame on his back, facing the ceiling. Above him is a picture of Father Time, with a razor-sharp pendulum measuring "one foot from horn to horn" suspended from it. The pendulum is swinging back and forth and slowly descending, designed to kill the narrator eventually. However, he is able to attract rats to him by smearing his bonds with the meat left for him to eat. The rats chew through the straps, and he slips free just before the pendulum can begin to slice into his chest.
The pendulum is withdrawn into the ceiling, and the walls become red-hot and start to move inwards, forcing him slowly toward the center of the room and the pit. As he loses his last foothold and begins to topple in, he hears a roar of voices and trumpets, the walls retract, and an arm pulls him to safety. The French Army has captured the city of Toledo and the Inquisition has fallen into its enemies' hands.
Poe makes no attempt to describe accurately the operations of the Spanish Inquisition, and takes considerable dramatic license with the broader history premised in this story. The rescuers are led by Napoleon's General Lasalle (who was not, however, in command of the French occupation of Toledo) and this places the action during the Peninsular War (1808–14), centuries after the height of the Spanish Inquisition. The elaborate tortures of this story have no historic parallels in the activity of the Spanish Inquisition in any century, let alone the nineteenth when under Charles III and Charles IV only four persons were condemned. The Inquisition was, however, abolished during the period of French intervention (1808–13).
Poe places a Latin epigraph before the story, describing it as "a quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris". The epigraph was not Poe's invention; such an inscription had been reported, no later than 1803, as having been composed with the intention (possibly facetious) of having it placed on the site, and it had appeared, without attribution, as an item of trivia in the 1836 Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical to which Poe contributed. It does not appear, however, that the market was ever built as intended. Charles Baudelaire, a French poet who translated Poe's works into French and who viewed Poe as an inspiration, said that the building on the site of the Old Jacobin Club had no gates and, therefore, no inscription.
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a study of the effect terror has on the narrator, starting with the opening line, which suggests that he is already suffering from death anxiety ("I was sick — sick unto death with that long agony"). However, there is an implicit irony in the reference to the black-robed judges having lips "whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words," which shows that he has survived and is writing the story after the events. Unlike much of Poe's work, the story has no supernatural elements. The "realism" of the story is enhanced through Poe's focus on reporting sensations: the dungeon is airless and unlit, the narrator is subject to thirst and starvation, he is swarmed by rats, the razor-sharp pendulum threatens to slice into him and the closing walls are red-hot. The narrator experiences the blade mostly through sound as it "hissed" while swinging. Poe emphasizes this element of sound with such words as "surcingle," "cessation," "crescent," and "scimitar", and various forms of literary consonance.
Poe was following an established model of terror writing of his day, often seen in Blackwood's Magazine (a formula he mocks in "A Predicament"). Those stories, however, often focused on chance occurrences or personal vengeance as a source of terror. Poe may have been inspired to focus on the purposeful impersonal torture in part by Juan Antonio Llorente's History of the Spanish Inquisition, first published in 1817. It has also been suggested that Poe's "pit" was inspired by a translation of the Koran (Poe had referenced the Koran also in "Al Aaraaf" and "Israfel") by George Sale. Poe was familiar with Sale, and even mentioned him by name in a note in his story "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade". Sale's translation was a part of commentary and, in one of those notes, refers to an allegedly common form of torture and execution by "throwing [people] into a glowing pit of fire, whence he had the opprobrious appellation of the Lord of the Pit." In the Koran itself, in Sura (Chapter) 85, "The Celestial Signs", a passage reads: "...cursed were the contrivers of the pit, of fire supplied with the fuel... and they afflicted them for no other reason, but because they believed in the mighty, the glorious God." Poe is also considered to have been influenced by William Mudford's The Iron Shroud, a short story about an iron torture chamber which shrinks through mechanical action and eventually crushes the victim inside. Poe apparently got the idea for the shrinking chamber in the "Pit and the Pendulum" after Mudford's story was published in Blackwood's magazine in 1830.
"The Pit and the Pendulum" was included in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843, published by Carey & Hart. It was slightly revised for a republication in the May 17, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal.
William Butler Yeats was generally critical of Poe, calling him "vulgar." Of "The Pit and the Pendulum" in particular he said, "[it does] not seem to me to have permanent literary value of any kind... Analyse the Pit and the Pendulum and you find an appeal to the nerves by tawdry physical affrightments."Several film adaptations of the story have been produced, including the early French language film Le Puits et le pendule in 1909 by Henri Desfontaines. The first English language adaptation was in 1913, directed by Alice Guy-Blaché.
The 1961 film The Pit and the Pendulum directed by Roger Corman starring Vincent Price and Barbara Steele, like the other installments in the Corman/Price "Poe Cycle", bears minimal resemblance to the Poe story: the torture apparatus of the title makes its appearance only in the final 10 minutes of the film. The reason for this is that the story was too short to be made into a feature-length film. The plan was to have a third-act which would be faithful to Poe, while the other two would be written in a manner that the cast and crew hoped would be similar to a Poe plot. A novelization of the film was written by Lee Sheridan adapted from Richard Matheson's screenplay in 1961 and published by Lancer Books in paperback.
The 1964 French film The Pit and the Pendulum was directed by Alexandre Astruc and stars Maurice Ronet.
A 1967 West German film adaptation of Poe's story called "The Blood Demon" was directed by Harald Reinl and stars Christopher Lee.
In a 1970 episode from the animated cartoon series The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, entitled "London Town Treachery", the Hooded Claw has captured Penelope and attempts to kill her using a pendulum that swings lower and lower, as in Poe's story.
In 1983, Czech Surrealist Jan Švankmajer directed a 15-minute live action short film called The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope, based on this story and the short story "A Torture by Hope" by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. It is a fairly faithful adaptation of both stories, featuring a unique first-person camera perspective and segments produced in Švankmajer's trademark stop-motion and cut-out animation. Most of the art design was done by his wife, Eva Švankmajerová.
In 1991 a film version of the story, directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Lance Henriksen, was released. The plot was altered to a love story set in Spain in 1492.
In 2006 an award-winning stop-motion animated adaptation of the story was produced under the 'Ray Harryhausen Presents' banner.
The 2009 horror film directed by David DeCoteau bears little resemblance to the original story but, like the 1961 version, utilizes the large swinging pendulum in the penultimate scene. The film follows a group of university students who visit a hypnotherapy institute lorded over by a sinister hypnotist who wants to use the students to experiment with the possibility of breaking the pain threshold.
The 2012 horror/mystery film The Raven, starring John Cusack in the role of Edgar Allan Poe, contains multiple reenactments of Poe's horror stories. Included is a scene where the "Pit and the Pendulum" scenario is recreated and successfully kills its victim.
The 2015 animated anthology Extraordinary Tales includes "The Pit and the Pendulum", narrated by Guillermo del Toro.