The tales told were not new. The accessories of the macabre calling were missing.
But a day visiting Tehran's jails provided an insight into the emotional accusations by Iranians of U.S. responsibility in a quarter-century of torture and repression under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The visits, the brainchild of the National Guidance Ministry, were a shambles in terms of organization. Yet, they were oddly effective in explaining the origins of Iran's revolution, if not in their unstated goal of justifying the continued detention of 50 American hostages.
A jailer from the dreaded days of SAVAK, the shah's secret police, turned up in the same old menial job because, as had been true before, he had a wife and four children to feed.
A former health minister jailed for life claimed he was innocent and acted as an impromptu interpreter for the press.
A high SAVAK official disputed some favorite myths of the revolution.
The special SAVAK section of Chahr-e-Baneh prison in central Tehran is now empty of its jailer and jailed. The paraphenalia disappeared in mid-February when the prison was stormed and its prisoners were released by a triumphant, rampaging crowd.
In such empty, sterile surroundings even listening to victims matter-of-factly recounting their ordeals -- or those of their murdered or maimed relatives or friends - required a major effort of the imagination to escape the banality of evil everywhere.
The parrot's perch, the dry submarine, the horsemen -- as SAVAK torturers labeled some of their feared techniques -- were not mentioned today.
But much cited were the so-called Apollo helmet, which magnified a victim's screams tenfold, or the purely Iranian contribution to the genre involving burning patterns on victim's bodies by placing them on bedsprings heated white-hot.
Reza Deghati, a young photographer who spent three years in SAVAK custody, explained how SAVAK's prey had been treated here. The victims were first beaten with copper wire whips in the courtyard, then over the months underwent various degrees of torture as they worked their way through the cells in the three-tiered circular prison, leading finally to an appearance before a military tribunal.
Korteza Amini told how his sister Fat-meh died, age 33, after six months of torture on the heated bedsprings had reduced her to a paralyzed wreck.
"This is the first time I've been back since my release in 1977," the photographer said. "When I was here, we used to dream of coming back as free men with this place smashed by the people."
And now what does he feel, he was asked. "Not what I had thought because then I thought I'd see a government I'd like."
In north Tehran, the women wait outside Evin prison, Tehran's most modern.
"So many people are here," a young woman said, "it's worse than it was before." Inside, a chosen half-dozen prisoners were ushered in to meet the press.
Shojaeddin Sheikholeslamzadeh was a former health minister who had been arrested 16 months ago under the shah as a scapegoat to deflect angry public opinion from the monarchy itself. Today, he is largely unrepentant.
An orthopedic surgeon by training, he is now Evin prison's doctor, caring for the some 150 political prisoners and 450 criminal inmates.
"Yes," he said, "we did know" about the monarchy's excesses when he served in the cabinet, "but not to this extent and that is why we are in prison."
Star witness Hassan Sana worked for 23 years in SAVAK service and ended up as a key advisor to its director for security, economics and prison affairs.
Among the intelligence services with which SAVAK exchanged information -- as often as not receiving in return information about anti-shah students abroad -- were those of the United States, Israel, Britain, France, West Germany, Pakistan, Egypt "and to some extent" Iraq, and "a little with Turkey, he said.
"Joint activities," however, were limited, he said, to the Cia and Israel's Mossad. The Israelis even wrote SAVAK's manuals and, he said, prepared an ill-fated effort last year to undermine the growing religious impact of the revolution.
The CIA "definitely" trained SAVAK agents in "both physical and psychological" torture techniques, he said, but the Americans did not actually participate in torture sessions.
Iranians themselves prefected American technology involved in using "electrodes on certain parts of the body" he said, by heating the needles before "inserting them."
Sana denied various revolutionary claims that attributed all unexplainable phenomena to SAVAK. For example, he denied SAVAK involvement in stirring up violence between rival religious leaders in Isfahan and especially in the Rex cinema fire in Abedan in August 1978 when nearly 400 Iranians died.
Many observers believe the Rex incident ended the Shah's chances of political survival, although he managed to hang on until the following January.