“So we’re getting paid 40 dollars for one hour, that’s right?” The young lady had a slight skeptical look people make when trying to get such clarity, her eyes locked with clipboard-lady but turning her head slightly to the left. Most animals do this when showing a quizzical nature, without even realizing it. Someone watched her make this move from a camera hidden in the wall. The watcher nodded to himself. He looked at the number pinned on her shirt, then at the sign in sheet, and found a name next to the number 13: Erica. This group ought to be very interesting.
“Yes! We’ll pay in cash.” With that, Erica seemed satisfied, thanked the clipboard-lady and returned to the seating area.
“Any idea what this is about?” the man sitting next to her asked as she folded her legs and bounced her foot jovially.
“Nope! But how easy is 40$ for one hour of questionnaires?”
“Exactly my thinking.” He was handsome and she noticed he was also holding a group-A ticket, so they’d be in the same group together, which was alright with her. She looked around trying to think of something to say; it was a plain waiting room, no magazines. Simple chairs. About a dozen people sat around looking at their phones or quietly talking.
The door opened and a young man with glasses and a lab coat rushed in and called loudly: “Group A!?!” 6 people stood up. The young man looked impatient, ushering them through a door to an uncomfortably narrow hallway. “Go to the end of the hall – 3 on the left, 3 on the right; close the doors please”. Then, he hustled off in the other direction, before there was time to respond.
Quietly, they shuffled down the hall, and silently but slowly breaking into two groups after turning around and politely surveying the group. Erica and the man she’d been sitting next to in the waiting room ended up in the same room. It was a medium sized room, empty of everything except for a large mirror on one wall – one way, Erica thought to herself. Before they’d had time to say a word or look around, another door opened and someone wheeled in a cart.
He seemed bored and spoke like he had to do this a thousand times a day and was sick of it. “Everybody take a chair, two on one side of the cart, one on the other. You’ll be the questioner,” he pointed to the man who’d been sitting next to her, “#9 you’ll be the test-taker and #13, you’ll handle the adjudication.”
They arranged the folding chairs, with #9 on one side facing the other two – he was wearing pink shorts, an overpriced blueish shirt, and over gelled his hair. The lab coat attendant handed them each a packet of papers, with the role written on the cover, Erica looked at the word highlighted on her paper, adjudicator.
A series of questions started to unfold between the man on her right and #9. So far it felt like the opening round of “who wants to be a millionaire”, softball questions. Erica was scanning along diligently with them, mostly by saying “Yes”. Or “Correct.”
“Mmmhmm.” She said in response to another correct answer.
Question: “Name the prime minister of the UK.”
Answer: “Tony Blair?” It said this on everyone’s sheet. He dutifully asked quizzically; he knew it was wrong. His confidence had evaporated in an instant.
Erica: “Wrong” The tester was now directed to tut and shake his head, which he did dutifully.
More questions, and more often they were answered incorrectly. “Wrong.” Said Erica with a deep breath inward and and a pursing of her lips.
“Who is the president of the United States?” For a second the three of them were silent. Then the test taker said quietly, slowly, the wrong answer.
Erica didn’t break stride, simply reading, but something felt off. “You fucking idiot. It’s Trump now. Bush was 2 presidents ago.” It was slightly uncomfortable, and she laughed for a moment, but the man in the lab coat holding the clipboard coughed and interrupted this. She felt immediately serious.
They kept reading, and before they were aware of it, a half hour had gone by. Questions, answers, many of them wrong.
“You are such a retard.” She heard herself say it, and even though she felt like something was off about it all, something about it felt like such a relief. Everyone knows that was in California! She let out a breath like a laugh and felt a sense of comfort – it’s not like I’m the one saying this.
The toll seemed to wear on #9. He wasn’t having any fun. He looked whipped. Erica saw her next instruction and froze momentarily. She looked at the “proctor” or whatever he was, and angled her paper towards him. Hesitating.
“Please, continue.” It was all he had said since beginning. She turned up one corner of her mouth in a kind of futile gesture, and … she flicked #9 on the hand.
“Wrong again; are you even trying to pay attention AT ALL??” She said almost with a feeling that she was serious.
“Ouch!” he whispered quietly.
The man sitting next to her sounded exasperated. “Shut up dummy. It wasn’t that hard a flick, your hand is FINE.” He was reading from the script but you could hear some frustration in his voice. Erica wondered if he just wanted to get through this, or if he was really annoyed with #9.
Before long she found herself saying “God WHY can’t you do anything right? We asked you to remember 3 simple numbers.” She looked back at the man in the lab coat incredulously, “Good god I don’t want to actually slap him, can I just pretend?”
The proctor looked up from his clipboard. “The experiment requires that you continue.”
She took a breath, and gently, slapped #9 in the face. He looked like he could cry but, seemed to hold it together.
The tester said his next line “You’re lucky she’s being gentle, I can tell. Next time, it’s going to be worse. PAY ATTENTION.” He screamed the last words, as instructed by this little play of horrors.
Back to the questions.
Adjudicator: “WRONG. FUCK! You are WORTHLESS.”
Question: “What is the capital of idaho?”
“Uhm, boise?” A pause. Erica looked at the experimenter shaking her head, with her mouth open in disbelief.
He looked up again and said sternly: “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
Erica took another deep breath and turned back. “Boise? No you fucking retard. That’s not it. A god damn child knows that’s not right.” She was caught up, and didn’t register that she’d hit him harder until she noticed a sting on her hand and a red mark on his face. She felt herself shaking. She looked for a sense that he was ok and he gave her half a smile and shrug of reassurance.
The abuse continued. The script had markings for substituting the test taker’s number, and they had started to call him simply “Nine”. Then, in the stage-directions, a box was referenced that had been discretely sitting on the lower part of the cart, and she got it out as directed.
Opening it, she saw inside was a black handgun, engraved with gray lettering that said “Beretta”, it was the kind of ubiquitous black semi-auto handgun with a slide instead of a revolver. She looked at the proctor in surprise. He shifted, and waited a moment. She pulled the gun from the case and the other two’s eyes became wide. It wasn’t her line at this point, and nine said “I’ll do better.” His line.
The tester didn’t miss a beat. He seemed to act like this was perfectly normal. “I can’t see how you wouldn’t, Nine, I mean, these questions are so easy, even a total moron like you should get them.”
It was Erica’s line, and she felt the heft of the gun in her hand and she looked back at the proctor. He said grimly: “You have no other choice, you must go on”.
She pointed the gun at the ceiling and said “I’m going to have this out just in case, but I’m sure you’ll be able to do better.” She enunciated each word with an increased crispness and had a laugh within herself about how silly it was that she was holding this pretend gun for such an absurd situation. She read the lines but was feeling a somewhat dull sweaty nausea, but she had nowhere to go, boxed in by the momentum of this group. The experiment must have to do with how much you disliked this guy for giving incorrect answers, maybe even considering if you still disliked him when he gave a correct answer. Maybe they wanted to ask them later when they could all laugh about it, and she could reassure Nine, give him a hug. She would offer her number to the handsome tester – and they could laugh about this story later when people asked how they met.
“Ok this question is really easy, Nine. I’m SURE you’ll get it. It’s the last one. If you don’t get this one question right, if you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to live. You are a real piece of shit.” Nine broke into tears and moaning that grated on her ears. Her teeth clenched together.
The answer came – incorrect – and she felt a wave of frustration and anger. She was sure now that the gun was somehow a prop. It was heavy but felt good in her hands. She shook her head, pointed the gun at his chest. She felt the dimples of the handle and her finger touched the trigger and she imagined a mock kind of play moment of a shooting in a scene from a movie, and suddenly the gun leap in her hand with a blinding flash and a wild puff of smoke and her ears felt the smack of the report, instantly deafening. She felt unable to move or think, she felt like she was just watching, and she could just barely hear the tinkle of the brass casing rattling on the floor.
A bright red fountain of blood seemed to erupt from the man’s chest. Erica stared in a mixture of all of her deepest emotions with fear, uncertainty, relief, anger, and shock. I won’t be at fault. I thought this was a prop. It had to have been a mistake. They won’t put me in jail. She felt such a relief at this, and her mind wound around and around this.
The “proctor” quickly grabbed the gun from her by the barrel. “I thought it was a prop” she hoarsely gasped at him. He quickly ushered her out the door into another room, where there was a group of six older-looking people, well dressed, waiting at a table. They didn’t all look at her as she came in the room, but a couple of them were clearly horrified, and seemed to recoil from her. Another had his head in his hands as though he were… sleeping? No, as though he was dealing with the horror of all this. “I thought it was a PROP!” She started to shout.
Then one of the ladies gestured towards a chair: “Miss, please sit down – don’t worry – if you look through this one-way mirror you’ll see that your… victim is still quite alive. He and the other man were actors, and yes, the gun was a prop. He was fitted with a blood bag wired for the report of a gunshot, if you look you’ll see he’s fine.” A wave of relief washed over Erica, but then when looked at the faces around the room, a creeping sensation wound its way down to her stomach, and a violent and cold wave of nausea swept over her, and she collapsed into the chair lest she fall down. “We have more questions for you. You did think just until now that you’d killed him?”
I was originally thinking of doing a much more horror oriented version of this, a-la the Saw trope, so some of the elements at the beginning might feel like they’re heading in that direction. I left them as mis-direction.
This story imagines a world where the so-called “Milgram experiment” never took place. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
The results of this experiment forever changed the field of psychological research ethics, and no such experiment would actually be allowed to take place in the modern era. But what would they find if they tried this experiment today, with the kind of hypothesis involving the hyper-critical nature the internet has engendered in people? Have you ever written something awful to someone else on the internet, because they were wrong, or have you always written to strangers the way you would write to people who were in the room with you? Does the Milgram experiment seem possible to you? Would you continue?