In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.
Dracula. The Wolf Man. The Frankenstein Monster. If there’s one thing that all of these fellows have in common, it’s that they all have heads. Dracula and The Wolf Man use the mouths embedded in their heads to bite you. The Frankenstein Monster’s head is what houses the abby-normal brain that sends him on murderous rampages. Without their heads, these guys are much less threatening. They probably couldn’t do much of anything at all.
This is not true of all monsters. Some manage to accomplish quite a lot without possessing the most essential of all body parts. Their lack of heads is precisely what makes them so disturbing. One can survive and love and kill without one arm, even two. Same goes for the legs. But having no head is the wrongest of the wrong. Oh, some of them do hold onto their heads, which remain animated despite no longer being affixed to their necks, but that detail does little to lessen their horridness.
We need our heads. Without them, there’s nothing to steer the anatomical ship. Yet headlessness does not necessarily mean death. This bizarre possibility was offered as far back as 1795 when anatomist S.T. Sömmering published a letter in Le Moniteur describing how witnesses had witnessed heads decapitated by guillotine grinding their teeth and grimacing. Sömmering was convinced that they could still think, and if the plumbing was still hooked up, they could talk too. His letter caught the attention of one Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin, not the man who’d invented the guillotine, but a guy who’d lobbied so hard for its use as a more “humane” alternative to the sword or axe that they named it after him. Guillotin was horrified by Sömmering ‘s letter, and started lobbying for experiments to test the assertion.
The project went to Jean Baptiste Vincent Laborde. He collected some of the plentiful guillotined heads rolling through Paris at the time and managed to make some move their jaws and eyes with electric currents. That, of course, is not the same thing as discovering heads actually continued to live of their own accord after decapitation. Confirmation of Sömmering’s hypothesis would have to wait until 2011, when Dutch researchers measured the brain waves of freshly decapitated rats and confirmed that consciousness does continue for as many as fifty seconds after clean severing by an instrument such as a guillotine. The subjects only died after losing sufficient amounts of blood.
The concept of headless people goes back a lot further than 1795 (and certainly, a lot further than the headless rats of 2011). The akephaloi, or Blemmyes, of mythology have no proper heads, though they do keep their eyes, noses, and mouths planted in their chests. Local myths of headless people in Guiana were so convincing that explorer Sir Walter Raleigh was totally convinced of their veracity.
What of the headless being’s potential for the sinister? Well, no one harnessed that quite like Washington Irving. Irving published the most famous tale of headlessness in his 1820 short story collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, an itinerant and very gawky schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane vies with a hulking meathead known as Brom Bones for the affections of Katrina Van Tassel. Ichabod’s encounter with the ghost of a headless Hessian soldier shaves a corner off that love triangle. Irving heavily implies that the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is none other than Brom Bones in a Halloween costume, and notorious scaredy-cat Ichabod was merely frightened off by his romantic rival and not spirited to the land of the undead by a cranially-challenged ghost. No matter. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” would still stand as the most famous—and frightening—of all headless horror stories, inspiring an uncountable glut of TV and cinematic interpretations (the best and most faithful being Disney’s 1949 short in it’s Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad double-feature).
Irving would not publish an unambiguously supernatural tale of headlessness until four years later, when he put his “Geoffrey Crayon” pseudonym behind Tales of a Traveller. This collection includes a short story called “The Adventure of the German Student”, in which the title character meets an apparently mourning woman weeping near the guillotine in Paris. Moving things along at a steady clip, they marry that night. The next day, he finds her dead in his room. The scene confounds the police since the new bride had been guillotined the day before. The student undoes the diamond clasp fastening a black ribbon around her neck, and off rolls her head.
This disturbing story of love gone horribly wrong would be simplified and enter the oral ghost story tradition as “The Green Ribbon”. Hearing my mother recite it at a slumber party when I was very, very young inspired years of nightmares. What so disturbed me? Perhaps it was the revelation that someone who seemed alive, in love, and healthy in every way had actually been dead all along. Making this version of the story all the more disturbing is the fact that the woman is alive right up until the moment her new husband pulls the ribbon. But a larger factor was the queasy image it conjured in my mind: her body and head alive one moment, separated the next, her eyes likely still open as her head slumps forward and plops on the floor.
I wonder how it would have affected my reaction if the body then grabbed the head and stumbled off for a stroll. Would it have pushed “The Green Ribbon” from the realm of abject horror into that of comedy? As grotesque as it is, the headless creature is a fairly silly image too. I’m not the only one who thinks so, because more often than not, it has been reserved for horror-comedies and unintentionally funny grade-z camp horrors. Who can forget the scene in Stuart Gordon’s tongue-in-cheek adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert-West Reanimator” in which a severed head attempts cunnilingus on a naked Barbara Crampton? Or the one in Sam Raimi’s equally gonzo Evil Dead II in which the head of Bruce Campbell’s recently deceased girlfriend ends up in his lap and clamps down on his hand so hard he can’t even get it off by slamming it against a table? How about Christopher Lloyd’s relentless headless teacher in the classic “Go to the Head of the Class” episode of “Amazing Stories” or the two head-toting ghosts from the “Cash” episode of “The Young Ones” (in the previous episode, “Bambi”, it was punk young one Vyvyan who served as headless monster)? Less conscious of her own hilarity is Virginia Leth’s motor-mouthed disembodied head in Joseph Green’s camp-classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.
Perhaps the innate goofiness of a monster chatting or running about without its head attached to its body is why such a creature has never become pervasive in serious horror. The ambiguity of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is why that story persists, even inspiring a series currently on Fox TV. It’s also why adaptations that try to iron out its ambiguity, such as Tim Burton’s 1999 version, fail.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (1820)
“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving (1824)
“The Green Ribbon” (unknown)
Stiff by Mary Roach (2003) (my main source for the details about S.T. Sömmering, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, and Jean Baptiste Vincent Laborde)
“‘Wave of Death’ May Not Be Last Gasp” (Science News) by Laura Sanders (2011) (my source for the 2011 Norwegian study)
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959)
“The Young Ones”: “Cash” (1984)
“Amazing Stories”: “Go to the Head of the Class” (1986)
Evil Dead II (1987)