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Related: Acéphale - severed - head

Decapitation in mythology: Judith - Salome - Medusa

Salome, c. 1530 - Cranach [Wood, 87 x 58 cm Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest]

Judith I, 1901 - Gustav Klimt [Oil on canvas with gold plating. 84 x 42 cm. Vienna, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.]

Heads Severed (1818) - Théodore Géricault

See also: André Masson’s cover for the first issue of Acéphale. (1936).


Decapitation, or beheading, is the removal of a living being's head, inevitably resulting in death. Beheading typically refers to the act of intentional decapitation, e.g., as a means of murder or execution; it may be accomplished, for example, with an axe, sword, or knife, or by means of a guillotine. Accidental decapitation can be the result of an explosion, automobile or industrial accident or other violent injury. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decapitation [May 2005]


Most of the modern fascination with heads comes from the guillotine.

The guillotine is the emblem of the French Revolution. While the French government refuses to allow guillotines to be filmed in France, choosing to project a different image of the Revolution (the liberte, egalite, fraternite part), in most people's heads the guillotine remains the image that describes the entire revolutionary period.

Fewer people died by the guillotine than died in the earlier St. Bartholomew's day massacre. But the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre is boring; I can only remember one piece of fiction that mentions it, D. W. Griffith's didactic Intolerance. The guillotine is much more exciting. It was held up for years as the be-all and end-all of revolutionary violence; the example which damned the entire enterprise of the French, rather like the Canaanites sacrificing their kids to Moloch, or the Greek tendency to pederasty.

The guillotine produced its own fictional hero: the Scarlet Pimpernel, who rescued aristocrats from their deaths by donning disguises for feats of derring-do. Dickens' Tale of Two Cities also mines the guillotine for its force, as does Sandman #29, "Thermidor," where Neil Gaiman links the Jacobin orator St. Just and the severed head of Orpheus -- the scientific/political view of the head and its earlier prophetic, mythical significance -- in a very unsettling way.

Why was it so shocking, startling, and titillating?

Partly, I think, because the guillotine also led to a public and heated discussion of whether or not those severed heads retained sensation. The presence of so many severed heads naturally led to amateur experimentation as well as more rigorous testing. A famous example involved Charlotte Corday, the young woman who stabbed Marat to death. After Corday was guillotined, her head was displayed to the crowd, and the executioner proceeded to slap both of her cheeks. Members of the crowd claimed that she blushed, and that her face assumed an indignant expression at the affront.

The guillotine was held up as a scientific marvel which would painlessly end the existence of evil-doers, and if it in fact did cause pain and suffering, if the heads retained sensation after being shorn by the "revolutionary razor," then the whole project was a bad idea.

In the end, the scientists of the day were unable to come to consensus on the subject of whether the heads could feel after their death. Many heads did show some sort of response to stimuli, whether it be blushing or moving the lips, or something more complicated. Doctors were occasionally able to get heads to respond to their names by focusing their eyes and blinking. However, the heads proved unable to communicate in any way to show they understood what was being asked of them. In 1836, for instance, the murderer Lacenaire promised to close one eye and leave the other open once he was beheaded, and proved unable to do so. Eventually, experiments like these were stopped, considered "torture" on the bodies of those already killed.

But with the French revolution came the idea of the severed human head as an item of intense observation and scientific experimentation, and its horrific possibilities became manifest. Its consciousness was suddenly in doubt, and the guillotine, along with the scientific forces at play here, forced an evaluation of the severed head, making it a potent image for exploration in fiction. --Guillotines and Body Transplants: the Severed Head in Fact and Fiction by Fred Bush, 30 September 2002 via http://www.strangehorizons.com/2002/20020930/severed_head.shtml [Jul 2005]

Der Nackte und der Satan/The Head (1959) - Victor Trivas

The Head (1959) - Victor Trivas [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Art direction and pulp fiction merge in this story of a head grafted onto another's body. David Del Valle traces the history of brain transplants and living detatched heads.[*]

James Whale's head

The first tie that binds the aberrant behavior of our infamous Dr Ood would begin during the French Revolution, when a certain Dr Guillotine devised a scientifically expeditious way of separating man's head from his body. Much time would pass until the Théâtre du Grand Guignol would present "The Man Who Killed Death" in 1928. The brainchild of Rene Berton, the drama tells of a prisoner unjustly guillotined whose head is kept alive on a table.[1] The irony of this production is that the actor who portrayed the hapless head on stage, none other than James Whale, would go on to direct the most celebrated Faustian tale on man daring to emulate god, Frankenstein (1931).

Dr Frankenstein has always been the preeminent archetypal mad scientist. All other scientists, good, bad, or Ood would take their experiments in transplantation from his gothic laboratory. Films depicting disembodied heads elicit the frisson tingling along the suture of the mind/body split.

Old heads, new bodies

Dr Ood (Horst Frank) is the mad doctor in writer/director Victor Trivas's uniquely trashy Der Nackte und der Satan (literally from the German, "The Nude and the Devil," aka The Head, West Germany, 1959). It is Horst Frank's persona, with his entertaining, Conrad Veidt-like demeanor and demented sense of focus, that gives this film its centre. My introduction to The Head comes via American director Curtis Harrington, whose enthusiasm for the film was contagious. He was especially taken with the set design and atmosphere. Harrington discovered that Hermann Warm, the set decorator for Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Germany, 1919), had come out of retirement this one and only instance to give Trivas's film the nightmarish décor and ambiance that somewhat balances the trappings of the Edgar Wallace krimis inherent in the film itself.[2]

Der Nackte und der Satan exudes a spidery fascination as it opens on a full moon accompanied by the unsettling score of Jacques Lasry and Willy Mattes. The credits are suitably offsetting in a manner Tim Burton is fond of emulating. We are introduced to our mad doctor straightaway. He is seen in shadow approaching the laboratory/residence of Professor Doktor Abel (played by the distinguished Michel Simon). The residence is depicted in the manner of Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, France, 1959). The latter film's ambient tone is very much apparent in Der Nackte und der Satan, almost to the point of homage.

Dr Ood approaches the house and our first glimpse of Horst Frank is as he picks up a tortoise and slips away into a nest of dead branches which silhouette his bleached-white features. He observes and eavesdrops on the arrival of Dr Abel's hunchbacked nurse (Karin Kernke), whose appearance harkens back to the Universal Monster rallies of the 1940s. This whole sequence sets the tone for what is to follow. As we are led into Dr Abel's home, it is apparent that we are in an abode filled with futuristic trappings whose centrepiece is a Bauhaus staircase straight out of Edgar Ulmer. --http://www.kinoeye.org/02/06/delvalle06.php [Apr 2005]

Wolf C. Hartwig .... producer

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