Surviving History

TV review by
Melissa Camacho, Common Sense Media
Surviving History TV Poster Image
Scary devices reveal the dark side of history.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

While there's some teaching here, much of the show's focus is on highlighting the painful, gruesome impact that historical devices had on people. The team is male and Caucasian; occasionally a female administrative assistant participates in some of the experiments.


Lots of discussions about and demonstrations of how devices were used to torture, punish, and/or kill people. Lots of fake blood and gore, including gruesome re-creations of the injuries incurred. Some of the design team members are shown using swords and other devices to "kill" mannequins after they're used in experiments.


Historical illustrations occasionally show people being tortured in various stages of undress; bare breasts are sometimes seen. These images aren't sexual and are shown in a historical context. One of the devices studied is the chastity belt.


Words like "ass," "hell," and "brass balls" are audible, while curse words like "f--k" are bleeped out.


Prominently features The Scare Factory company; many of their scary re-creations are visible throughout the factory floor.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this series follows a team of artists and craftsmen who re-create and test ancient weapons and torture devices, trying them out on both on mannequins and willing humans. While there's an educational component to the show, much of the focus is on the destruction, pain, and suffering that these devices caused. Although no one gets hurt, the fake-but-gruesome images of blood and gore -- as well as the endless discussions of fear, torture, and death -- make the show pretty iffy for younger viewers. Also, most of the experiments are extremely dangerous and should not be imitated.

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What's the story?

SURVIVING HISTORY combines education, experimental archeology, and craftsmanship to take a fresh look at some of history's most notorious inventions. In each episode, a team of artists, welders, and carpenters from The Scare Factory -- a master prop company -- re-creates ancient weapons, tools of torture, and punishment devices from all over the world (including some used as recently as the Vietnam War) in an effort to understand how each device worked while it was in use. With the help of a historian, the team studies drawings and documents in order to replicate the mechanics of each invention. After each is built and tested (on mannequins), a "lucky" team member gets to try it out -- usually after the device has been carefully modified to prevent bodily harm -- in order to experience what it was like to use them centuries ago.

Is it any good?

The series is both educational and sensational, offering explanations about the design and construction of each device while at the same time detailing the exact physical and psychological injuries that they're supposed to cause the people unlucky enough to face them. It's often sobering to hear from the team members who personally test the contraptions -- many say how frightening the experience was and speculate on what it must have been like for real victims hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Surviving History demonstrates how re-creations and experiments can be used to learn about history in a fun way. It also shows how historical research can be combined with other disciplines -- like art and engineering -- to learn more about ancient civilizations. But the series' focus on re-creating objects and activities intended to cause pain, torture, and death makes it too dark for kids. The images of some of the gory props -- as well as scenes of people actually undergoing simulated torture or being put in a punishment device -- are a little scary (even though no one gets hurt). And some of the experiments are dangerous, too. But teens and adults may find the subject matter interesting and the approach to history appealing.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the different ways that people can learn about history. Does re-creating things from the past and using them now really help people understand what life was like centuries ago? How does media technology assist in these re-creations? Families can also talk about the dark side of history. Do you think it's important to study how people were tortured or punished in ancient times? Why or why not? How does knowing these things help us think about our culture and society today?

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