Shock Tactics: Meet the 'Mad Professor' who administers electro-shock therapy

The box in front of me is a portable, trans-cranium electro shock therapy device. 

That's exactly what you think it is. Used to 'cure' homosexuality in the 1940s, it was attached to a patient's temple and fried them with half the mains electricity of a house. 

"It's very sad," says the machine's owner, Boris Van Galvin. 

Is it weird to own that box when you know its history? 

"Um," he says, "it's the only one I have, and it doesn't come out much. It's kept in a cupboard at home." 

The rest of Van Galvin's collection of electroshock therapy devices is largely machines like "home medical devices for nervous diseases" or early massage devices (we'd know them as vibrators) for 'curing' hysteria in women.

He's been collecting them for six years now and has between 30 and 40 devices. It's a hobby, a nice distraction from his day jobs of being an inventor, engineer, sex toy developer and jeweller.  

It all started when he was given what was supposedly a crystal radio, but turned out to be an early electroshock therapy machine. He restored it and began collecting them. 

Van Galvin knows of only a couple of other collectors in New Zealand, and he's the only one in the country who actually performs with them. 

So what exactly does the self-proclaimed mad scientist actually do with the machine?

Well, he shocks people with them. Consensually, of course, he doesn't just creep up to people in Countdown's fruit aisle. 

It's a form of entertainment; a shocking one man show. It's been snapped up by everyone from the Fetish Ball, to nightclubs wanting an edgy opening night. 

It's even a form of corporate entertainment for companies who are bored with promo girls and canapés.

Electroshock therapy is often thought of as a sexual fetish, but it's actually a much broader entertainment form. 

"What I do crosses this boundary of fetish and not fetish," explains Van Galvin. "It's a bizarre thing...a point of interest for people who aren't in the fetish scene, a stepping stone for people interested in the fetish scene."

And the people who are in the fetish scene? 

"They think it's great!" 

But he doesn't really make it sexual. 

"I tend not to turn it towards the sexual side," he says with a well-practiced firmness. 

Has he ever, though? What about events like swingers' parties? "I've done a few," he admits with a grimace, "but I don't really do sexual play...I won't shock people below the hips." 

Van Galvin says the most common assumption people make is that doing this must turn him on.

"I've never thought about this in a sexual manner!" he says.

He did ask himself why he'd never seen it in a sexual light and concluded he had a level of demi-sexuality (when you are only attracted to someone who you have an emotional connection with).

It explains why he's happy to shock anyone, not for instance just pretty young women. 

But if he's not doing it for sexual gratification then why is he doing it? Do people collect these because they like pain? 

Yes, but not him.

"Some people do collect these machines because they like pain,"  - both to inflict on themselves and on others, he says. But these collectors tend to amass modern electrotherapy devices, which are higher voltage and therefore more painful than the vintage ones Van Galvin collects.

For him, it comes back to the mad scientist thing. In his life, Van Galvin has been everything from a stripper, to a jeweller, to a blacksmith. But he's also built computers from scratch, worked for large-scale engineering companies doing something too complex to explain (he tried, I failed to get it), and he once built a city wide wifi network from scratch.

So it makes sense that he would be drawn to collecting and rebuilding complex electrical machines. 

"I enjoy showing people something different and new, sharing knowledge about it and changing their opinion of electricity," he says. "People think it's scary but it doesn't need to be."

You can see it in the way he touches the machines: gently, carefully, as if to preserve the fragile magic inside. 

So the challenge of sharing the knowledge of a bizarre, often misunderstood niche is "a good distraction...I'd say it keeps me sane but..."

He starts to laugh. He wouldn't call himself sane.