Using chloroform as a knockout drug has become a standard trope in thrillers. You’ve probably seen it done onscreen a thousand times and thought nothing of it. The villain sneaks up on his victim and places a cloth doused in the stuff over their mouth, rendering them completely unconscious. From here, it’s easy to bundle them into the boot of a waiting car or tie them to a chair. The only problem is, it’s a big fat lie.
In this series of blog posts, I’m going to investigate a few unrealistic tropes. The idea is to explain why they are myths, look into the reasons writers cling to them, and discuss how to handle these situations without sacrificing authenticity. Some other topics on my hit list include: silencers, hacking, and taking a glass bottle to the face. So, without further ado, let’s get into why using chloroform as a knockout drug is the worst idea ever.
Along with ether, chloroform was used as an anesthetic when surgery was in its infancy. As in the movies, the liquid is sprinkled onto a cloth and held over the patient’s face. Unlike the movies, however, the cloth had to remain in place for minutes until the patient slipped into unconsciousness. So, first thing writers should bear in mind, if they really are dead set on using chloroform as a knockout drug, is that initially, it will only render a victim woozy. If they aren’t restrained or already partially incapacitated with say, diazepam or alcohol, they can easily fight off an attacker.
The other problem that arose during early surgeries was dosage. It’s really hard to get this right and there were quite a few tragic deaths caused by excessive use of the sedative. On 28 Jan, 1848, for instance, Thomas Meggison and his assistant Mr. Lloyd, unwittingly killed Hannah Greener in her own home in Newcastle during a procedure to remove an ingrown toenail! Too much of the drug was administered and she chocked to death. So, if chloroform is going to be used as a knockout drug, the writer needs to make sure their villain has the wherewithal to calculate the right dosage.
Where the myth arose
Around the same time that surgeons were tinkering around with chloroform, criminals were also exploring its potential. In particular, a famous case involving chloroform hit the headlines in the late 19th century. Serial killer H. H. Holmes used it to knock a victim unconscious before burning him alive. However, it later transpired that Holmes had administered the drug post mortem to make it look as if his victim had committed suicide. Another prominent case was the murder of William Marsh Rice – this time, the drug was given as the victim slept – firmly fixing chloroform in the public consciousness.
It’s easy to imagine that it was a quick hop skip and a jump to the silver screen, where chloroform is portrayed as a ridiculously simple and effective knockout drug. However, I’m not convinced that the chloroform trope arose so easily. The first instance I could find of it being used in film was in 1924. Hot Water, a lesser Harold Lloyd slapstick, features an incident in which the hero accidentally chloroforms his mother-in-law and is convinced he’s killed her. Here, we can plainly see an awareness of the lethal dangers of chloroform that later slips from the public consciousness.
Once writers got their hands on this easy shortcut, it began to be used with more and more frequency. And to this day, chloroform remains a staple in the fictional kidnapper’s arsenal. Arguably a worrying state of affairs, given that actual predators might emulate those in fiction, leading to real life tragedies. But writers continue to cling to this dangerous anesthetic as a convenient way to move the plot forward.
How to properly knockout victims
I feel like fiction works best when it most closely follows the rules of reality. So, as I mentioned before, writers need to respect scientific truths to make their fiction credible. For instance, a victim could be sleeping, or they could already be incapacitated with alcohol or a sedative. Alternatively, more modern drugs could be used. The date-rape-drug Rohypnol, for instance, slipped into an unsuspecting person’s drink can make them easy prey. Many stories have come to light of people being drugged and abducted this way, making it a far more realistic method to use in fiction. Readers will likely respond more strongly to this scenario than the cartoonish use of the rag doused in chloroform.
When I was writing my novel, The Insect Room, I really wanted to use chloroform, but a chat with a real life doctor discouraged me. However, having to think outside the box drove me to come up with a creative solution to the problem. Often I find that if I discard the low hanging fruit, and instead aim for harder to reach solutions, the plot becomes that bit juicier and more original.
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