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The Long History of Severed Heads

I spoke with Francis Larson, author of 'Severed,' to discuss our undying fascination and commodification of decapitated heads.

As far as objects go, nothing beats the decapitated human head. It has amazing nooks and crannies where sensory information is collected. The insides are full of mysterious functions we're still not quite sure what to make of. Each one has its own unique look. And its perfect size means it fits right in our hands. However, a head's inanimate awesomeness belies the macabre fact that it was once attached to a human body. 

Frances Larson's fascinating new book, Severed, tries to reconcile these conflicting attributes by detailing the long history of the decapitated head as object. Larson takes us through the famed shrunken heads of the Amazon, the ghastly trophies of World War II, all things guillotine, the phrenology craze, and even Ted Williams's frozen noggin. To find out more, I gave her a call, and we talked about all sorts of heady things.

VICE: So, why did you choose to write about beheadings?
Frances Larson: I've often asked myself that. I used to work at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. It was famous for its shrunken heads. It just struck me as ironic that visitors came to the museum to be wowed by them. They said things like, "Oh, they're so savage and primitive." But the scientists in the 19th and 20th century were headhunters too. They were collecting heads in some not very agreeable circumstances. So that made me think, Let's turn the whole story around and look at our own cultural history of human heads.

One of the things that struck me was how heads have been used as a type of currency throughout history.
What's really extraordinary is how an artifact—it's hard to know what to call it, because obviously it's still human remains—can go from being this horrific, brutal, mutilated piece of a person to being almost domesticated. People get used to it. They become immune. It can become a commodity or currency that's desired and sought after. When you have enough distance from the act of decapitation itself, a head can become a really valuable and powerful object.

Are heads still being traded?
Since the book's come out, someone emailed me and said, "I have a collection." There are people who have collections of shrunken heads, but from other cultures, so it has that distance. You can separate yourself from it. It's an interesting macabre artifact. But yes, there are still people who are drawn to these things and want to own them. And in museums, they're the most popular exhibits on display.


​ Phrenology, uploaded to Wikicommons by user 

Recently, I've noticed a lot of hip shops selling replicas of phrenology busts. Is that common overseas?
I haven't seen that in the UK. But I think that porcelain phrenology bust with the segmented drawings on the cranium has always been an enduring aesthetic decorative piece. Actually, that's why the phrenologists made them. Those busts became more and more beautiful with every line of production. Phrenologists wanted to become hugely popular. They also wanted to make money, so they tried to make the busts appealing things people would want to have in their house.

Displaying decapitated heads of revolutionaries has been pretty common throughout history to warn others of the penalty of treason. But does the message ever change after it goes up?
Definitely. That was always a risk of someone in authority doing it too much and it becoming a rallying cry, creating martyrs instead of putting down criminals. In a way, a classic kind of example of that is during the 16th century in Britain, when there were a lot of religious executions. The priests who were executed became martyrs to the faith.

Before reading your book, I hadn't heard of the American scientist Robert White and his experiments with head transplants. He seems like one of the only ones trying this out. Do you think we've let science down by seeing the head as such a sacred object?
Personally, just speaking for myself, I don't. Because the thought of such an extreme transplantation process, to me personally, is ethically worrying. We should obviously have open, frank debates about what people think about the possibility of extreme transplants and the implications it would have for someone's identity. The thing is, there's a whole range of practical and financial problems to overcome, never mind the ethical and scientific problems. So I think it's a long way off, if it ever happens at all. But we should know about this stuff and think about it and talk about it.

It's not too far removed from Alcor, the cryogenics lab in Arizona. Would you personally get your head frozen?
No, I wouldn't. But I think that's a really interesting cultural phenomenon. The fact that people are willingly being decapitated very soon after their death for the possibility of coming back in the future is extraordinary, because it transforms what has always been a symbol of cruelty, domination, and tyranny into an act of love and admiration. If you decide you want your head and brain kept, your loved ones will organize your decapitation.

In your book, there are arguments that guillotine decapitation is a more humane form of execution than most methods used today.
Absolutely. The guillotine created one of the most humane ways to kill someone. It's fast. There's very little room for mistakes. It's a swift action. And you could even sedate the victim. It's more humane than lethal injections, or hangings, or other ways people are now killed by the state. It is horrific to see, and it looks terrible, but it is actually one of the more humane ways to go.

Is that's why it's not used? Because of the aesthetics?
I think so. The guillotine was still at work in France until the mid 1970s, so clearly it was an acceptable form of state execution until a few decades ago. I think it has to do with cultural acceptance, and what is deemed to be an appropriate way to die. Now, maintaining the integrity of the body is one of the most important things, whereas a few hundred years ago people were used to seeing people tortured and mutilated on the scaffold. Obviously, that's completely changed. It's a really visual form of killing, too. It produces a trophy that is public proof of conquest, so it's an inherently dramatic.

The Islamic State and Al Qaeda have used beheadings as a form of terror. Is that just an extension of public executions?
In certain respects, because it is that same drama and spectacle, and that same terrible visual. There will always be people who want to watch. They're still drawing a crowd today, but for very different reasons. Obviously, it's very different when it's a state execution through the courts of law and the justice system, and a murderer who is displaying his murder in the most horrific and heinous way.

Any stories you couldn't fit in the book?
One that springs to mind was about a Polish pianist who left his skull after his death to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. He wanted his skull to be used as Yorick in Hamlet. So, according to the terms of his will, it was sent to a local hospital and they prepared his skull and gave it to the company. For a really long time, they never used it. It had a strange taboo around it. But recently, it has been used.

Will your next book be this macabre?
I hope not. It's very socially awkward to have a book like this, because whenever people say, "Oh, you're a writer—what are you writing about?" and you say, "Oh, decapitations and displays of human heads," you can see their reaction change. Their face falls, and they're like, "Oh, she seemed like such a nice girl." I don't think I'm going to write anything quite as gory next time around.

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