There's just something about a severed head.
It gets us right in the gut. Whether it's saving Hitler's brain, keeping brains alive in cryonic suspension, or watching the headsman's axe drop, it's striking. The visual impact of a head being removed from its body is shocking.
Within movies, particularly horror movies, the severed head is vitally important. Zombie movies like Dead/Alive and Evil Dead often feature heads hopping around and wreaking havoc even when removed from their bodies. One of the more disturbing scenes in Labyrinth features strange monkey-like beings interchanging their heads, until the heads are kicked away. In the Re-Animator movies, a severed head becomes an important character, surviving the first film in an atrocious state and undergoing a remarkable healing process before entering the second movie. When we are told that immortals in the Highlander universe cannot be destroyed unless their heads are cut off, it makes perfect narrative sense, and we don't goggle at the absurdity.
Where does this power come from? Why is the severed head such a powerful image throughout movies and within our heads? I want to begin by taking us back to some prehistoric conceptions and myths surrounding severed heads, and then move to some more contemporary science fictional ideas.
The severed head as item of power
Historically, the head has been a focus of power and strength, a sought-after trophy in many societies. Popular among native peoples throughout much of the world (the Solomon Islands, India, the Phillipines, Amazonia, New Guinea) the tendency to take heads has entered fiction as a fearsome element, not unlike the cannibal tradition of certain natives (like the Caribs or the Fore of New Guinea). While nowadays we tend to view headhunting as an eccentricity of these faraway peoples, in antiquity it was commonly attributed to the Celts, who were spread over much of Europe in Neolithic times, and who were the forebears of many modern European societies.
The Romans accused the Celts of maintaining a "Cult of the Severed Head." The early Roman historian Diodorus Siculus relates that the Celts would take the heads of their opponents, fasten them to the necks of their horses, and dance and sing songs about them. Distinguished enemies were embalmed in cedar oil and preserved in chests, then shown as trophies to strangers. Heads, Siculus tells us, were quite valuable: chieftains would brag about how much they had been offered for their heads, or how much they paid for them, and some were literally worth their weight in gold.
Still valuable today as a curio is the shrunken head, another practice which evolved from a belief in spiritual power. The Jivaro people of Ecuador, responsible for this addition to the horror canon, are a group of fierce warriors who actually managed to remain unconquered into the 20th century. Legendary among South Americans for their ferocity, they defeated the Incas under Huayna Capac, then defeated Spanish colonizers in a successful revolt in 1599. Isolated for a century and a half, they were visited by a Spanish trading mission in 1767, and gave the traders skulls of the defeated Spaniards as gifts. Their reputation helped to enhance the reception for their unique productions: their tsantsa, or shrunken heads, started to become valuable in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
According to anthropologist Michael Harner, the practice of creating tsantsa exists to ward off the avenging soul of a killed man. Upon a violent death, a portion of the victim's soul, the muisak, can emerge from the body and take the form of a deadly animal, such as an anaconda, and exact vengeance upon its killer or upon the killer's family. The act of shrinking a head, however, traps the muisak within the head, and makes its spiritual powers available to the head-taker. The preparation involves removing the skull (a gift for the anaconda spirits), boiling the skin, drying and scraping the skin, scorching it with fire-heated stones, baking it with hot sand, and then coating it with charcoal. It takes about six days, and repeated applications of hot sand and charcoal, to produce the tiny little withered trophy which the hunter will then wear around his neck.
These shrunken heads are now a valuable commodity. In fact, the Jivaro complain that several neighboring tribes have stolen their technique of making shrunken heads, not out of a desire to protect their souls from the vengeful ghosts of murder victims, but rather in order to make some fast pesos. It is illegal to sell shrunken heads in Ecuador, but unscrupulous retailers often pass off monkey heads as the real thing, and sometimes the real thing does come on the market. Prospective buyers, be sure to read the fine print: the "Jivaro shrunken head MUST SEE" currently available on eBay is, alas, made of goat skin.
The commodification of the shrunken head attests to its effectiveness as a visual image. Within fiction, the shrunken head is a horror staple, showing up often as a prop, to indicate "generic witch doctor" -- it's a visual cliche, not unlike the Jacob's ladder in the mad scientist's lab. It's often in this capacity that it shows up in movies -- although the shrunken head is such a cliche that it does allow for jokes, such as in Beetlejuice, where a vexed witch doctor scatters some magic powder on the title character, shrinking his head into a helium-voiced miniature.
The prophetic head
Other ancient tales allow a severed head to provide wisdom . . . for a time.
Welsh mythology has a famous story of a severed head within the Mabinogion (the source for Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain). The tale of Bran the Blessed is found in the story of "Branwen Daughter of Llyr." Bran, king of Britain, invades Ireland and is wounded by a poison dart in battle with the Irish. Knowing he is about to die, Bran commands his surviving followers (including the bard Taliesin) to cut off his head, bring it back to England, and bury it so that the head faces France. Bran proceeds to prophesy good fortune for his men, and indeed, after his men follow his instructions, this burial ensures eighty years of prosperity, known as "yspydawt urdaul benn," or the "Hospitality of the Noble Head." However, after disobeying one of Bran's instructions, one of his men breaks the spell of good omen, the Welsh become miserable, and they are forced to pick up Bran's head and rebury it in London, where its miraculous powers cease.
The early medieval scientist Roger Bacon was often alleged to have worked with a "brazen head," which he left in the care of his apprentice. Gifted with oracular powers, it was able to speak and to answer questions, although it only managed to answer "Time is," "Time was," and "Time's past" before shattering, due perhaps to the poor keeping of Bacon's apprentice.
Within Greek mythology, one legend suggests that the singer Orpheus was torn apart by maenads after refusing their sexual advances, and his body parts thrown into the river Hebrus. His head kept singing its beautiful songs until it reached the island of Lesbos. The head uttered prophecies at a cave in Antissa, luring pilgrims and truth-seekers away from Apollo's shrines, until finally Apollo ordered the head to be still. While it maintained Orpheus' gifts of music, and a newfound gift of prophecy, it was not Orpheus.
In these instances, the head seemingly channels a greater wisdom into the world, bringing divine power and allowing it to speak through the organs of speech. It's almost as if, by removing the rest of the body, what remains is purified and given the ability to be a conduit into a higher realm.What is missing is an idea that the consciousness of the original thinker remains in the head. Some sort of power clings, still, but it's not the power of the original person. (A similar idea motivates Tanith Lee's "The Thaw.")
Of course, the ancients (and the native peoples discussed earlier) did not have a conception that being resided in the head. Early theories suggested that life resided with the pneuma, or breath; or perhaps in the heart. Descartes, famously, linked the soul with the pineal gland, within the forehead -- and his idea, and those of others like him who linked consciousness with the head, allowed a subtler, more existential horror to evolve.
The consciousness of the severed head
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.
This obsession with the consciousness of the head, which may or may not survive death, became the impetus for the classic science fiction tale Donovan's Brain. The original novel Donovan's Brain, published in 1942, was made into three different movies: The Lady and the Monster, Donovan's Brain, and The Brain. It was the first novel to feature the cliché of the brain in a vat, which rapidly began to spread through the movies. Late author Curt Siodmak was better known for his film work than for his novels: he wrote the screenplay for the horror classics I Walked With A Zombie, The Beast With Five Fingers, and The Wolf Man. Thus, the novel, though it includes elements of science fiction, fits more within the horror tradition, and indeed it's not the science that matters here, but the loss of humanity that's the hallmark of horror.
Donovan's Brain features a noted scientist, victim of a car crash, who's been taken in and kept alive through a special treatment. As the plot of the movie develops, the brain, absent from its body, develops both a malignant, dark streak and tremendous psychic powers, which allow it to control others within the laboratory, including Nancy Reagan. By remaining alive as a brain in a vat, Donovan loses his soul, and becomes an inhuman monster with no regard for human life.
The influence of Donovan's Brain can be seen today in movies like City of Lost Children, with its brain which cannot dream, and in Futurama, which features brains-in-a-vat every week. While on a pragmatic level it allows the writers to feature contemporary celebrities in a cameo role, a technique perfected in the Simpsons, it also serves as yet another sarcastic reminder of science fiction gone awry.
Even philosophical inquiry has been infected by these games with severed heads. One well-known thought experiment in philosophy is the "Brain in the Vat" scenario, first proposed by Hilary Putnam in Reason, Truth, and History. The Brain in the Vat is a Matrix scenario, where real life may really just a simulation: if we were really just brains, hooked up to computers which could transmit electrical impulses to us that were identical to those a regular body would transmit, how would we know we were just brains in a vat?
While knowledge of neurochemistry and behavior have no doubt contributed to the framing of this problem, so has the powerful image of a brain in a jar. There's an idea that the brain-in-jar would somehow be inferior or less than the original; its isolation and differentiation makes it seem like a poor choice to our embodied existence. Here's an example of Donovan's Brain feeding into the popular consciousness.
How important this head imagery has become can be considered through the development of something like Frankenstein. When Frankenstein was written, for instance, there was no specific discussion of brain surgery. The mind of the monster is not inherent in the brain, but rather seemingly created by the genius of Victor Frankenstein; its mind is described as unformed, a blank slate, and its acquisition of language and reason is lovingly described by the author. In the film versions, the acquisition of a brain requires much effort and confusion, and the monster is clearly affected by the criminal's brain that is inserted into it -- similarly, in Young Frankenstein, a joke about a brain marked "Abbie Normal" can be made with the audience getting all the humor, and understanding that the brain transplant is crucial to the mental state of the finished creation.
Trading heads: Dr. Robert White
I want to end this article with a discussion of a man described as a "modern day Frankenstein," Dr. Robert White. On March 4, 1970, Dr. Robert White performed the first successful head transplant, attaching the head of a recently-decapitated rhesus monkey to the body of another recently-killed monkey. The head, as soon as it regained consciousness, attempted to bite the finger of the experimenter (perhaps understandably!), leading him to proclaim the experiment a success. White's original transplanted heads were unable to achieve any control over the rest of their bodies, but a newer round of experiments, performed in 1997, have been able to establish respiration within the brains and their adopted bodies, keeping them alive for a lengthy period of time. Unable to reattach the spinal cord to the transplanted brains, White hasn't yet managed to create a monkey which could control its new body; but he remains hopeful.
White has offered for many years now to perform a head transplant on humans, but hasn't yet found any takers (that we know of). He prefers to call the procedure a "body transplant," since in his belief his technique would be extremely useful for paraplegics and those with no functioning in the lower body. A medical adviser to the Pope, and deeply involved with questions of ethics, White nevertheless grants interviews to tabloids, and enjoys posing for pictures in lab coats with weird medical equipment around him. He's living out his Frankenstein fantasy, and not afraid to adopt some of the trappings of the myth to make his point.
White's head transplants have provoked outcry and shock from animal-rights activists and bioethicists, which have been used by supporters as evidence that the environmental movement is bankrupt and anti-progress. Indeed, his research holds out hope one day for serial immortality: shifting heads around onto younger host bodies. He conducted some pioneering experiments in preserving brains at low temperatures, endearing him to cryonics supporters. However, his ideas remain shocking and extreme to most, probably because of the heads.
The severed head is a profound image. It provokes ideas of sacredness and horror, prophecy and mystery.