The Laughing Chamber by Thomas Lawrance

trigger warning: torture

The death penalty was reinstated in England in 2036.

In the media, the bill was celebrated with the slogan Back by Popular Demand, though only certain polls demonstrated this sentiment. The prime minister embraced the slogan, explaining that – as the government currently enjoys a large democratic mandate – anything they do is technically ‘by popular demand’.

In the late 2020s, a fringe political party appeared, with a manifesto focused solely on the reinstatement of the death penalty. They attained some popularity, exploiting the narratives of lower-class and migrant crime that arise as a nation recovers from crisis, as in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the 2022 Irish border clashes. The governing party feared that they might lose voters to this rising force, and so reintroduced the death penalty themselves. The opposition leader, unwilling to accept a ‘weak on crime’ reputation, ordered his MPs to abstain on the bill.

At its third reading, however, they pushed for an amendment: execution had to be humane.

A new method was devised.

Capital punishment was abolished in the UK in 1969 (except in Northern Ireland, which experienced a legislative delay of four years). The last execution had taken place in 1964. The majority of executions in modern British history were conducted by hanging, but decapitation remained on the books as a punishment for treason until 1973.

In those days, the prisoner was conducted from his cell at 9am. If troubled, he would be offered a medicative glass of brandy by the prison’s doctor. The criminal was allowed to wear his own clothes. Once in the chamber – a utilitarian room of plain white walls – his hands were secured behind his back with a leather strap, and he was promptly escorted to the gallows. He would stand on the correct spot, find himself hooded and noosed, and the trapdoors were opened. The process took twenty seconds. The only words spoken during this time would be from the lips of a priest.

The modern execution is a less sombre affair. It also less private. In 1896, public executions were phased out, and the practice retreated behind closed doors. In 2036, the public spectacle was phased back in. The new penalty received a grand opening, and was streamed online. Rose West, then aged 82, was relieved of her life sentence and committed instead to the new death row. The appeals process was tightly restricted, and her execution was fast-tracked. Officially, this was due to considerations around her health and age – which threatened to remove her from Earth before punishment could be exacted – but more cynical observers note that her execution happened to coincide with a General Election campaign. The serial killer’s death took eight minutes, and – as the footage attests – she laughed for six of them.

The practice of ‘tickle torture’ has a long history. Recorded incidences of ‘death by laughter’ stretch back to the 5th century. Modifying the bill before it was enshrined in law, the government agreed that a penalty of death by tickling would be humane enough, appropriate enough – and spectacular enough.

In the modern procedure, the condemned is escorted along a hallway – playfully nicknamed ‘The Green Smile’ – to the colourfully painted death chamber. They are strapped to a gurney in a way that permits access to their most sensitive zones, and then elevated to face the crowd of witnesses in the observation room. Several cameras cover the event in multi-angled live-streaming 5K. Certain high-profile cases are subscription-only. Just as yawns pass from person to person, witnesses and viewers often report their own laughter as the prisoner is tickled to death. Psychological theories seeking to explain this phenomenon range from herd empathy to simple mirth (‘gallows humour’, as one paper dryly put it). It is for this reason that the window between the condemned and the witnesses is not soundproofed. The executioners themselves sometimes admit to laughing under their hoods.

There are four executioners assigned to each death. One deals with the feet, another with the midriff, the third with the armpits, and the fourth – the lead executioner – with the neck. If the prisoner is not naturally ticklish, a cocktail of drugs can induce the effects of laughter followed by heart failure. The latest research indicates that 80% of people are ticklish (it is now standard procedure to briefly tickle first-time arrestees, after taking their fingerprints), and the mundanity of this lethal injection is a rare last resort.

A widening pool of offences is now punishable by death. The most recent additions are espionage and ‘treason-adjacent activities.’

Though the Ministry of Justice boasts a proud record of accuracy, rumours circulate that the old nightmare scenario of the ‘wrongful execution’ still occurs from time to time. Critics – on the rare occasions that their voices are published – also refer to statistics demonstrating the disproportionate tickling-to-death of BAME prisoners, and call for an overhaul of the stunted appeals process. The Ministry insist that the appeals process is fit-for-purpose, and that any disproportionate rate of execution only reflects a disproportionate rate of crime in the population. There are no plans to research this.

In recent months, whistle-blowers have reported that arresting officers in local police stations often tickle suspects beyond their remit; sometimes tying the arrestee down, or tasing them into submission. The Home Office has characterised all such whistle-blowers as criminal spies, smearing the police for political reasons. Despite numerous Freedom of Information requests, CCTV and bodycam footage has never been released to the public, for reasons of community and national security.

With that in mind, we must also consider the public response to the death penalty. The government contends that the death penalty is overwhelmingly popular, though it is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of the surveys and polls they point to. Viewing figures for the broadcast deaths are reported only as ‘in the millions.’ Human rights groups, especially, have been almost entirely absent from the mainstream discourse – but not for lack of trying.

In one particularly unfortunate case, human rights activist Paula Khatun attempted to kickstart a public campaign against the reinstatement of the death penalty. She and her new husband, John Dacre, travelled the country, speaking to likeminded groups and drumming up support. She and Mr. Dacre had met at a meeting concerning migrants’ rights, and they soon developed a relationship founded on shared values and a mutual passion for justice. Khatun was a powerful speaker, and Dacre was able to introduce her to human rights groups, both official and underground.

Unbeknownst to Ms. Khatun, however, ‘John Dacre’ was actually an undercover police officer. He reported to his superiors that Khatun was developing ties with various anti-monarchy groups, and she was summarily arrested on grounds of treason. For reasons of national security, her trial will be conducted in secret, and her sentence will depend on the strength of the evidence presented to the judge.

Whatever the true public consensus on death by tickling, the gruesome days of gunshot and hanging are widely regarded as barbaric. The fringe political party that prompted the reinstatement of the death penalty has reformed, and is now pushing for novel methods of resolving the new migrant crisis.

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About The Author

Thomas Lawrance lives in Cork, Ireland, where he writes fiction and performs stand-up comedy. His writing has been published by Literally Stories, Montana Mouthful, and The Bookends Review.

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