The science behind the most horrific deaths in Game of Thrones

Warning: spoilers. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

There’s death everywhere in Game of Thrones. Blink, and perhaps you won’t get blood in your eye. From a rat in a hot bucket that burrows into a human body to avoid being turned to charred ember, to the mass slaughter on what was intended to be the best day of a person’s life – their wedding. The show’s non-apologetic stance, Valar Morghulis” (translation: "All men must die"), has left viewers both awed and disgusted.

In an open letter explaining the abundance of death in Game of Thrones, a George RR Martin fan writes:

Allow me to pose this question to you – how many of you have heard of William GODDAMN Shakespeare? If you illiterate shitlords aren’t familiar, he’s the most famous, accomplished, well-known author in human society – and a guy who would kill off characters in insanely brutal ways like it was nothing ALL OF THE GODDAMN TIME […] Let’s just say Macbeth makes the Red Wedding look like a bridal shower […] That dude’s a fucking psycho [...] PS  Do you know what else has a ton of crazy deaths in it? The Bible [...] Everyone dies in that thing. FUCKING DEATH dies in the Bible”

Well, that settles it then.

Most deaths in Game of Thrones are perfectly plausible. “As far as I understand it Martin did not want his world to be utterly fantastical, and to have some sort of grounding in a reality his readers could recognise, so did intend that many of the deaths are indeed physically possible, Ian Simmons, Science Communications Director at Newcastle’s Centre for Life, tells me. "There are limits of course; being killed by a White Walker or eaten by a dragon is not exactly reality-based, but they are made more believable by being seen in a context where there are all too realistic deaths from poisons and crossbows,” he adds.

So far (from season one to five), there have been roughly 1,902 deaths in Game of Thrones (discounting Jon Snow’s “death”, because it has not been confirmed yet).

Some of the most horrific deaths in Game of Thrones are as follows:

Death by a molten gold crown

Viserys Targaryen, Daenerys' jerk of an older brother, was desperate to sit on the Iron Throne and be crowned king. Drogo, tired of his whining and inflated sense of entitlement, gave the “true king” his crown – in the form of molten gold. As cruel and as incompetent as Viserys was, it’s difficult to remain apathetic towards his death. Gold has a melting point of 1,064 degrees – that’s not that far off the Sun, which has a surface temperature of 5,505 degrees.

Let’s be real, the campfire used to melt the gold wouldn’t suffice in reality – and what a waste of expensive gold! Molten lead/gold alloy would have done the job, and at a much lower temperature.

This isn’t the first time molten gold has been used for an elaborate death. In 260 AD, the Persians captured the Roman Emperor, Valerian the Elder, after the Battle of Edessa. King Shapur I turned him into a human footstool, and after many years of humiliation, Valerian offered the king a large ransom for his release. In response to his generosity, Shapur executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat. 

Researchers in a 2003 study published in the Journal of Clinical Pathology filled a dead cow’s larynx from a local slaughterhouse with 750 grams of pure molten lead (around 450 degrees). The researchers immediately noticed large amounts of steam appearing at both ends of the organ, and within ten seconds, the lead congealed again, completely filling the larynx.

Death by rat

Image: HBO

In the fourth episode of the second season of Game of Thrones (“Garden Bones”), there is a scene where the Tickler has a bucket strapped to a prisoner's chest with a rat inside. He interrogates the prisoner about hidden gold, the whereabouts of “the Brotherhood” and his accomplices. When the prisoner denies knowledge, the Tickler heats the bucket with fire, forcing the rat to chew its way through the prisoner’s ribcage. After a short time, the prisoner denounces a butcher named Gains and his son, but the Tickler continues to torture him until he’s eventually dead...

There’s nothing more painful than having a disease-infested rodent tunnel through your insides, possibly emerging out of your mouth or anus. Although the scene is hard to forget, torture devices with rats were customary in medieval dungeons. The torture method originates from ancient China and has appeared in literature and film, such as Octave Mirbeau's novel The Torture Garden (1899), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and the popular film adaption of Jeffrey Deaver's novel The Bone Collector (1999).

Death by joust

In the fourth episode of the first season of Game of Thrones (“Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things”), Ser Hugh, a freshly made knight, ends up on the business end of the jouster’s lance – he’s stabbed through the neck, puncturing his trachea (windpipe), causing him to bleed profusely and cough up blood:

(You can't help but pinch your neck when you watch it.)

Jousting was a popular pastime for royalty in the Renaissance era. Injures were common, and the eye was particularly at risk from splinters off wooden lances. Jousting turned Henry VIII into a tyrant and killed Henry II of France. It just isn’t worth a stab.

Death by wildfire

During the Battle of Blackwater, Stannis Baratheon’s men are burned alive when Tyrion Lannister sends them to an unnamed ship loaded with “wildfire”. Wildfire is made by the Alchemists’ Guild and can burn even under water. So you’d expect the damage it inflicts on humans to be absolutely horrific, to say the least.

Greek fire was a secret weapon of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantines normally used it in navel battles to great effect – it would even burn while floating on water. Greek fire is now believed to have contained naphtha, which, in Ancient Greek, was used to refer to any sort of petroleum or resin.

Death by poison

Image: HBO

The Red Wedding ended in bloodshed, as did the Purple one.

The tyrant ruler Joffrey Baratheon suffered something akin to an epileptic fit when he ingested a rare poison called “the strangler”. While I imagine most viewers were dancing around a maypole, many were left wondering whether a poison that could cause one’s blood vessels to strangle one’s own brain existed.

Deborah Blum, a professor of journalism from the University of Wisconsin, and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, thinks cyanide bears similar characteristics to the strangler – they are both deadly and come from plants.

Cyanide can be found in fruits with seeds such as apple, apricot, peach and cherry. As little as 0.2 grams of cyanide can kill, and will do so quickly, producing most of the symptoms Joffrey exhibited, apart from the bleeding eyes. If you don't want to die like Joffrey, don't eat too many seeds.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar.