Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson, book review: Decapitation, then and now

Though Larson’s elegant history of head-taking precedes the advent of Islamic State (above), references in her epilogue pertain all too closely to fanatical jihadists

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The Independent Culture

Who knew beheading would make such a comeback in the modern world?

Though Larson’s elegant history of head-taking precedes the advent of Islamic State, references in her epilogue pertain all too closely to fanatical jihadists. “The physical detachment of a person’s head is often preceded by an assumed social detachment that separates the perpetrator from his victim. This social detachment has often taken the form of racism,” she observes. This “can turn a person into an object before they are even dead”. Furthermore, “geographical remoteness” also plays a part, for example for the American soldiers she quotes, who, during jungle warfare, found previously unsuspected levels of brutality within. This distance “can allow the perpetrator to assume an alternative identity and occupy an alternative reality, one where normal codes are inverted”.

The process of turning people into things can be both mundane and powerfully magical. “Taking the drama out of death is a dangerous ideal,” Larson notes. The guillotine, created during the French Revolution to be humane, terrifyingly accelerated the production line of execution and effected the Terror. The initial spectators felt cheated. Its action was too quick for the eye to see; there were no enjoyable writhings or screams. Larson relates how this led to a deep uneasiness about the exact moment of death, and urban legends about cheeks that blushed angrily, and eyes that swivelled after decapitation.

Larson’s most telling case study is the saga of the shrunken heads that can be seen today in museums. Collected avidly by 19th-century explorers and scientists, they seemed proof of the bestial nature of native peoples, and the West’s superiority. Yet, as Larson demonstrates, the market was created by such collectors, who often unwittingly bought shrunken monkey-heads or caused murder to be committed. Whites themselves were seen as head-hunting ghouls by indigenous people, even as they supplied the demand.

Saints, sinners and geniuses have all had their heads reaped for contemplation and study. Larson surveys the severed head in art, medicine, religion and criminology; her book is packed with bizarre and horrifying stories, fascinating facts and philosophical conundrums. The pictures are stirring too, including one from Life magazine that horrified and disgusted America in 1944: Miss Natalie Nickerson contemplating the thoughtful gift her Navy boyfriend has just despatched from New Guinea – the skull of a Japanese soldier.

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