Death Row at the Arcade

By Rowan Philp ---Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday July 6, 2000 .... Some treated their families to apple pie picnics in the park over the Fourth of July weekend. Others offered home-movie reruns of a favorite uncle returning from the war. And a few hundred watched their loved ones fry in the electric chair.

Parents stood with uneasy grins as their children, gripping steel "electrodes," howled and jiggled on Ol' Sparky, the sound of electricity crackling in their ears and smoke rising over their heads. Wives zapped their husbands with zeal; teenagers shouted, "But I didn't do it!" from the chair while their friends said "I know" in Hannibal Lecter voices before giving them the juice.

The "Original Shocker"--an amusement ride modeled with staggering look-alike accuracy on the electric chair--has been one of the favored attractions this week at Dave & Buster's games arcade at White Flint Mall in Rockville. The arcade, which has had the ride since 1996, estimates that 2,000 people rode it over the long weekend. Apparently, the only thing better than experiencing fireworks in the capital on the Fourth is experiencing capital fireworks. The Shocker comes complete with oversize oak throne, leather limb restraints and a numbing vibration system that seeks to simulate the "13,200 volts" threatened on the side. Admission is about $1.

What next? A vet video game where the object is to see who can put the most dogs down? The Shocker was built by a company called Nova in England--the same nation that's made a killing guiding American tourists through the Tower of London. ("I'm telling you, Lionel, the Yanks will go for this like tiny tots to a matchbox--look at the sport they got out of a double-murder trial with that Simpson chap.") Anyway, they've exported others to places like Ocean City, Md., Atlanta and, of course, Dallas, and they really went the extra Green Mile on the design to simulate a real execution. (Both Maryland and Virginia execute people for real by lethal injection, but we can rest assured that even the English will be stumped trying to get a laugh out of an IV ride.)

Brett Faircloth, 10, of Prince George's County, approaches the chair reverently while his friend fusses over the preparations, such as making sure every one of Brett's fingers are in contact with the twin steel "electrodes" on the armrests. Brett punches the "High Power" button, giggles excitedly and listens to the loud clang of a heavy steel door being closed and bolted. A heartbeat is broadcast beneath the sound of an electric generator winding up. His mother, Deborah Faircloth, winces slightly as his feet suddenly jerk and shake to the sound of shrieking static. A gathering of eight people --some lining up, others witnessing-- watch the boy's mouth turn into a harmonica and the cords stand out of his neck with the effort of holding on. Then-- unbelievably-- a thick curl of smoke rises, seemingly from Brett's hair, after about 15 seconds, followed by a flat line on his "heartbeat monitor."

"It's weird, but it's cool--he loves this ride," Faircloth says. "It's great!" Brett shouts, having been revived by others queuing for the chair. "It shocks--I held on till fzzzt." If you can't take the vibrations, you can release the "electrodes" but lose the rest of the ride, so the idea is to see who is man enough to be successfully electrocuted. And there's the nut: The larger goal of this game is not only to die, but to die as the bad guy. For the British, of course, this is no big sacrifice: They would, after all, rather die than be embarrassed. But for good-guy-wins Americans, it strips away every traditional value except courage, and that just might make this the ultimate Independence Day activity.

One spectator, Bob Koran of Silver Spring, observes: "It borders on bad taste-- especially the smoke--but that's Americans for you: Europeans tour torture museums; Americans participate. Look at them." Indeed. An entire family--Nathaniel, Lorna and Jamal McKnight, 11, of Baltimore--is having a whale of a time on the Shocker. And this despite the fact that it is surrounded by high-tech, good-guy-wins games, such as Daytona. Says father McKnight: "The first time I saw it, I was shocked. It is weird, and that's what makes it cool." Even stranger, the Shocker--with its black and yellow chevrons and "high voltage" warning signs--stands out here like a Corvair in a parking lot of BMWs. It's not retro, it's primitive. Says arcade game tech Lij Malithu, 17: "It's amazing that people love this thing--says something about people, I guess. I don't think any other country in the world would have a game like this." In fact, Dave & Buster's has its own death row in the form of "L.A. MachineGuns," "The House of the Dead 2" and the Shocker, all in a row.

Brett Faircloth returns for a second death ride. His mother says: "You know, there is a lesson to be learned from this machine--they know if they get into trouble, they might just face the real thing." Hang on-- the Shocker an educational tool? Why not? Imagine police officers lugging the Shocker into the school auditorium along with the handcuffs and the CPR dummy. "I am a police officer, and it sounds good to me," says Officer Jerry Hampton of the Hyattsville police--maybe joking, maybe not--as he watches his daughter, Heather, 15, get fried. "The electric chair is a symbol of law enforcement. Heather loves this kind of thing, but all teenagers are innately twisted." Says Dave Joy, general manager of the Rockville Dave & Buster's: "We've had no complaints--everyone loves the Shocker. People are surprised that so many women like it-- ladies have their pictures taken on it for bachelorette parties.

But, no, we wouldn't offer a last meal to go with the ride--that might bother people for real." _________________________________________________

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