ROCKVILLE -- The first reaction to Ol' Sparky is priceless.
They come sauntering into the cavernous game room in Dave & Buster's, the yuppie food and fun emporium at White Flint mall, and maybe they're sipping a Corona or savoring the Supreme Nachos they just knocked back when the sight stops them dead in their tracks.
Dude, is that an electric chair?
So they hurry over to investigate, because, tell you what, it sure looks like Ol' Sparky.
It's got your spare oak design, your sturdy straight-from-Alcatraz functionality. It's got your wide arm rests, your glowing panel of Death Chamber lights. Got your worn leather straps for tying the condemned's feet down, got your opening in the back of the chair for the tiny wisps of smoke that will escape from his head once he's fried up real good.
It's even got a warning sign that says "Danger: High Voltage, 13,200 volts."
There was a time in this country when the sight of an electric chair and a sign warning "Danger: High Voltage" would send chills up a person's spine and convince that person to give it a wide berth.
But those days apparently are over.
Because now people fish in their pockets for their Dave & Buster's "Power Card" and swipe it along the key pad and Ol' Sparky rumbles to life.
Now people giggle and whoop and put down their micro-brews and sit in the Chair, which is not a real electric chair at all but a macabre attraction called the Original Shocker, and they wait to get "electrocuted."
Think about that for a moment.
As the New Millennium dawns, people are paying to sit in fake electric chairs and get "fried." (Well, "vibrated" is maybe a better word. More on that later.)
Anyway, the sight of the Shocker -- there is also one on the boardwalk in Ocean City and another in Rehoboth Beach and God knows where else -- seems to spark strong reactions.
Either you think this is in incredibly bad taste and the clearest sign yet that the apocalypse is nigh, or you think this is a hoot.
Very often, it depends on your political persuasion. It depends on your deep-seated feelings vis-a-vis the death penalty. It depends on whether you're a bleeding-heart, Death Row inmate-hugging liberal or a fry-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out conservative or somewhere in between.
But sometimes it just depends on how many beers you've had.
Off to a bad start
On March 29, 1889, a man named William Kemmler murdered his lover, Matilda "Tillie' Ziegler, with an ax. This was in Buffalo, N.Y. The weather was said to be miserable that day.
The following summer, Kemmler was executed in the electric chair in upstate Auburn Prison, the first person ever to be put to death by electrocution.
According to reports of the day, found online at www.TheElectricChair.com, the execution did not go swimmingly.
The first jolt did not kill Kemmler, a development which proved inconvenient all around.
Not until the current was fired up a second time did he die, and then not before causing a good deal of consternation among the witnesses with his writhing, his suffering, the charring of his flesh, the smoke curling up from his head, and so on.
An account in the New York Herald said, "Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor."
All this comes to mind on a recent Wednesday night as you sip a Diet Coke and stake out the Shocker at Dave & Buster's "Million Dollar Midway," where more than 200 video and other high-tech games are spread over 30,000 square feet of space.
You are here on a clearly defined mission.
You're here to find out what sort of person jumps into a simulated electric chair, and why, and what the whole experience feels like -- even though John Lipscomb, the assistant general manager, warns you it's not the best night for ersatz executions.
"Everyone is back in school," says Lipscomb. "It's a ghost town in here now. You shoulda been here Saturday night."
Saturday night, people were frying in here left and right, he says.
You pay for this
The post-dinnertime lull at Dave & Buster's offers you a chance to study the Shocker in more intimate detail.
Conveniently enough, it's located right next to a shooting game called "The House of the Dead 2," where the object is to kill the dozens of dead-eyed zombies who come at you with huge claws, axes and broken bottles.
Also right next door is a game called "LA MachineGuns," which involves the participant in some kind of simulated urban firefight with SWAT units, bad guys, helicopters swooping out of the sky, automatic weapons and so on.
Theoretically, you suppose, if a customer commits too much mayhem on the two shooting games, you just bring him over to the Shocker and toast him.
No Miranda warning, no arrest, no formal arraignment, no trial.
"We put [the Shocker] in a nice spot," explains Lipscomb earnestly. "It's right near the entrance. People see it as soon as they come in the room."
While we wait for customers to finish their chicken piccata and tossed salad and drift over to electrocute themselves, Lipscomb explains how the Shocker works.
To play, you swipe your pre-paid Power Card (purchased for $1, $5, $10, or $20) and sit in the chair. Then you hit one of two buttons -- "Low Power" or "High Power" -- depending, of course, on how much of a coward you are.
Then you place your hands on the handles and the chair kicks to life. Despite the scary warning sign, no electrical impulses course through the chair; rather, the handles begin vibrating.
"They're strong vibrations and it gives a shocking sensation," explains Lipscomb.
Some people find the sensation uncomfortable, some don't.
If the person in the chair manages to hang on and grip the handles for a full 30 seconds or so, little puffs of smoke emanate from the top of the chair, just like those that, presumably, would emanate from one's head if one were actually frying for real in the Big House.
Oh, and here's a nice touch: The longer you endure the Shocker, the more of those little game tickets you win, just like when you play Ski-Ball on the boardwalk.
Still, "a lot of people are kind of nervous about the Shocker at first," says Karen Evans, a young employee known as Captain Game Pro who demonstrates the various video games throughout the floor. "They see the high-voltage sign, you know."
But, hey, if you can win game tickets ... well, who wouldn't put up with a few thousand volts coursing through his or her body?
"It attracts groups of people," says Lipscomb. "Someone gets in the chair, everyone screams and laughs and then more people [are attracted.]"
Last week alone, the Shocker zapped 1,633 patrons, according to Dave & Buster's records. But in the three years that the restaurant has featured the Shocker, says Lipscomb, it has yet to generate a single complaint from a customer, not even from some anti-capital-punishment do-gooder.
Just as he dispenses this tidbit, five clean-cut young guys descend on the Shocker. It turns out they're all counselors at a Christian day camp in Silver Spring called Camp Sunshine.
The irony of Christian counselors firing up Ol' Sparky is lost on no one.
One of them, Jesse Landis, 23, steps forward for a go at it. It's a "guys night out," he explains, and apparently nothing bonds a group of guys like hitting an electric chair together.
His buddy, Mike Charbonneau, 28, seems a little leery of the Shocker and generously allows Landis to go first.
"I'm, uh, kind of wondering what the fun is here," Charbonneau says softly.
A swipe of the Power Card, a punch of the High Power button, and Landis' hands are vibrating like he took a Mike Mussina fastball on the handle of the bat.
Hanging in there
He's wearing a tight smile, but easily manages to last the full 30 seconds. He jumps nonchalantly from the chair and pronounces the experience "relaxing."
"The vibrations kind of relax your arms," he elaborates.
Guys being guys and the air redolent of machismo now, there is no backing out for Charbonneau.
He hits the Low Power button at first, and jumps and yells "Ahhhh!" when the first jolt of vibrations hits.
But soon he's enduring the Shocker at full power, and when it's all over, he pronounces the experience "exciting."
And with that, Landis and Charbonneau move on to other games, although not before they allow that, no, they haven't been drinking.
Over the next 90 minutes, 19 more people will eagerly test out the Shocker. Samara Zink is one of them. And she has been drinking.
Well, she's had half a Corona, anyway. But the 26-year-old court reporter from Centreville, Va., seems clear-eyed and sensible as she climbs into the oaken chair and awaits her fate with a smile.
"It feels pretty weird!" she says as the juice is turned on and her companion, Baltimore attorney John Cox, 27, looks on serenely.
Then, as the Shocker approaches full power, her eyes widen and she yelps "Oh, my God!" But she still manages to endure the full "execution."
"It's a feeling you don't, um, get every day," she says when it's over. "I do get to go home now, right?"
Right. And maybe that's the essential beauty of the Shocker, if there's any beauty here to behold.
Maybe what the Shocker does above all else is provide a cheap, harmless thrill, a taste of the electric chair without all that messy business of them zipping you into a body bag and hefting you onto a stretcher and lugging you down to the coroner's van past the prison-gate protesters.
Here, you get fried and you get to go home.
And maybe if you're really lucky, you get to try one of Dave & Buster's famous Philly cheese- steak sandwiches in-between.