Shock value

If you've been dying to know what it's like to get fried in an electric chair, the arcade people have a real treat for you.

September 15, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- The first reaction to Ol' Sparky is priceless.

They come sauntering into the cavernous game room in Dave & Buster's, the yuppie food and fun emporium at White Flint mall, and maybe they're sipping a Corona or savoring the Supreme Nachos they just knocked back when the sight stops them dead in their tracks.

Dude, is that an electric chair?

So they hurry over to investigate, because, tell you what, it sure looks like Ol' Sparky.

It's got your spare oak design, your sturdy straight-from-Alcatraz functionality. It's got your wide arm rests, your glowing panel of Death Chamber lights. Got your worn leather straps for tying the condemned's feet down, got your opening in the back of the chair for the tiny wisps of smoke that will escape from his head once he's fried up real good.

It's even got a warning sign that says "Danger: High Voltage, 13,200 volts."

There was a time in this country when the sight of an electric chair and a sign warning "Danger: High Voltage" would send chills up a person's spine and convince that person to give it a wide berth.

But those days apparently are over.

Because now people fish in their pockets for their Dave & Buster's "Power Card" and swipe it along the key pad and Ol' Sparky rumbles to life.

Now people giggle and whoop and put down their micro-brews and sit in the Chair, which is not a real electric chair at all but a macabre attraction called the Original Shocker, and they wait to get "electrocuted."

Think about that for a moment.

As the New Millennium dawns, people are paying to sit in fake electric chairs and get "fried." (Well, "vibrated" is maybe a better word. More on that later.)

Anyway, the sight of the Shocker -- there is also one on the boardwalk in Ocean City and another in Rehoboth Beach and God knows where else -- seems to spark strong reactions.

Either you think this is in incredibly bad taste and the clearest sign yet that the apocalypse is nigh, or you think this is a hoot.

Very often, it depends on your political persuasion. It depends on your deep-seated feelings vis-a-vis the death penalty. It depends on whether you're a bleeding-heart, Death Row inmate-hugging liberal or a fry-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out conservative or somewhere in between.

But sometimes it just depends on how many beers you've had.

Off to a bad start

On March 29, 1889, a man named William Kemmler murdered his lover, Matilda "Tillie' Ziegler, with an ax. This was in Buffalo, N.Y. The weather was said to be miserable that day.

The following summer, Kemmler was executed in the electric chair in upstate Auburn Prison, the first person ever to be put to death by electrocution.

According to reports of the day, found online at, the execution did not go swimmingly.

The first jolt did not kill Kemmler, a development which proved inconvenient all around.

Not until the current was fired up a second time did he die, and then not before causing a good deal of consternation among the witnesses with his writhing, his suffering, the charring of his flesh, the smoke curling up from his head, and so on.

An account in the New York Herald said, "Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor."

All this comes to mind on a recent Wednesday night as you sip a Diet Coke and stake out the Shocker at Dave & Buster's "Million Dollar Midway," where more than 200 video and other high-tech games are spread over 30,000 square feet of space.

You are here on a clearly defined mission.

You're here to find out what sort of person jumps into a simulated electric chair, and why, and what the whole experience feels like -- even though John Lipscomb, the assistant general manager, warns you it's not the best night for ersatz executions.

"Everyone is back in school," says Lipscomb. "It's a ghost town in here now. You shoulda been here Saturday night."

Saturday night, people were frying in here left and right, he says.

You pay for this

The post-dinnertime lull at Dave & Buster's offers you a chance to study the Shocker in more intimate detail.

Conveniently enough, it's located right next to a shooting game called "The House of the Dead 2," where the object is to kill the dozens of dead-eyed zombies who come at you with huge claws, axes and broken bottles.

Also right next door is a game called "LA MachineGuns," which involves the participant in some kind of simulated urban firefight with SWAT units, bad guys, helicopters swooping out of the sky, automatic weapons and so on.

Theoretically, you suppose, if a customer commits too much mayhem on the two shooting games, you just bring him over to the Shocker and toast him.

No Miranda warning, no arrest, no formal arraignment, no trial.

"We put [the Shocker] in a nice spot," explains Lipscomb earnestly. "It's right near the entrance. People see it as soon as they come in the room."

While we wait for customers to finish their chicken piccata and tossed salad and drift over to electrocute themselves, Lipscomb explains how the Shocker works.

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