PARIS -- This city is exhibiting pain.
To visit Paris's new museum on the history of European torture is to have Louis XVI's guillotined head tumble at your feet, and a 14th-century knight foam at the mouth while being burned at the stake before your eyes. All in the interest of history, of course.
The museum, called the Martyrs of Paris, opened last month to rave reviews but some official discomfort. The macabre attraction in Paris's massive shopping complex, Les Halles, has attracted an eager 1,200 visitors a day, who pay 40 francs (about $9) apiece to enter its dark, doom-filled corridors.
But last week the police banned entry to children under 13. Police spokesman Jean Dufour explained that the city's youth commission was afraid some of the torture scenes might traumatize youngsters.
The Marquis de Sade would have felt right at home here; life-size displays include the rack, pincers for blinding, the water-drip torture, the iron maiden (a coffin lined with iron spikes) and the wheel. One of the more horrifying tortures depicts a rat, caged on a man's chest, whose only way out is by gnawing through the human being.
"It is meant as a family attraction," said Emmet O'Hanlon, the museum's British manager, who lamented that he turns away up to 20 percent of the museum's visitors because of the new restriction. "We've yet to get a bad reaction. People are coming out and wanting to know if there is any more."
All of the torture scenes are documented as having been used in medieval Europe, and some as late as the 19th century. Torture in a garroting chair, a note in French and English beside the exhibit explains with sangfroid, "was considered a relatively sophisticated form of punishment and could evidently be performed in a ritualistic form and was much enjoyed as a spectacle."
The museum succeeds in fascinating as it horrifies, providing historical insight into the European roots of human cruelty and social deviation. One scene portrays Madame de la Motte, a Paris thief in 1786 who was branded on her breast for her crimes.
A talking head on a silver platter explains the tale of the Polish aristocrat Madame Jabirovska, who lived in Paris in the 1680s. She lured men to her home, had them murdered and kept their heads on silver trays in her study. A film of an actor's face projected onto a plaster model makes the talking head look eerily real.
The museum also portrays the dubious history of its location, Les Halles, which was a fish and produce market for 300 years before being developed into a complex of shops in the 1970s.
In 1425 Les Halles was the site of a cemetery where people in death costumes would dance over an open, mass grave; in the same century a woman recluse entombed herself for 48 years in a stone hut in the cemetery with only a small window to the outside world. From the 13th to the 18th century the area was the refuge of thieves, murderers and society's rejects.
"It's rare to see things like this. It's very realistic," said Herve Provo, 23, who had been standing mesmerized in front of the rack. "We don't learn things like this in school."
He philosophized, "Actually there has always been physical and moral torture -- only the instruments have changed. But torture will always exist in some form or another."
The museum bills itself as the first of its kind in Europe though it is modeled after two similar exhibits in London and York, England. O'Hanlon said the owner of all three museums, a British company called Kunick, was referring to the European land mass in its advertising.
"I think everyone has a sort of macabre interest in the past," he said, as a ticket-taker in vampire costume asked him to okay someone's identity card. "Everyone knows this stuff went on -- the rack and boiling oil -- but to date it's been badly documented."