I suppose it had to happen eventually. Next step – real-life ‘Battle Royale’ or ‘The Running Man’. What am I on about? Well, British television (specifically, Channel 4) has seen fit to base a Friday night primetime family gameshow on a mass murder. Not directly of course; the producers likely haven’t a clue that the Boomtown Rats song that they chose for their title and theme song was written about convicted murderer Brenda Spencer. Spencer killed two people and wounded nine more, including a number of school children, in a (once) famous spree killing with a .22 bolt-action rifle back in 1979 – the first ever US school shooting. Given the attention afforded school and other spree killings in the world’s media right now, you’d think the creators and commissioners would be a little more aware. Even if you don’t realise that Spencer’s only justification for her violence was ‘I just don’t like Mondays’, it’s throughout the bloody lyrics (abridged below);
The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload
And nobody’s gonna go to school today
She’s going to make them stay at home
Tell me why
I don’t like Mondays
I want to shoot
The whole day down.
All the playing’s stopped in the playground now She wants to play with her toys a while And school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning And the lesson today is how to die And then the bullhorn crackles And the captain tackles With the problems and the how’s and why’s And he can see no reasons ‘Cause there are no reasons What reason do you need to die, die
I mean, don’t these people even know about Wikipedia (I see some wag has already edited the entry to include the new gameshow)? Surely someone, at some meeting, pointed out the possible inappropriateness of the title and song? Apparently not. Or maybe they did, and they just figured that 1979 is ancient history for the target audience, so who cares? Either way, we live in a hyper-sensitive age when TV programmes can be pulled from the schedule if they feature gun violence if a shooting happens to have occurred recently, and yet this makes it to air. What’s next – win the holiday of a lifetime on a Native American Indian reservation in ‘Run to the Hills’, hosted by Davina McCall? Stay classy Channel 4…
I’ve been meaning to write this one up for years. Do severed heads retain any conscious awareness prior to brain-death? After more research, on and off over years, than I’ve done for any other article, I still can’t be truly definitive. The balance of the evidence suggests some level of consciousness for a few seconds, which inevitably raises for many the horrifying possibility that for a couple of seconds at least, you would be fully aware of the traumatic amputation of your entire body, and perhaps even be able to see it. Nice.
Consciousness is one thing, but whether you would be fully cognizant of what was happening to you is harder to prove. Anyone that’s experienced a faint or other sudden loss of blood pressure knows that things get pretty unreal (especially when almost inevitably coupled with your head tumbling to the floor and hitting things on the way down). You’ll be instantly dizzy, your vision will quickly narrow and get fuzzy as you black out, likely much quicker than the typical faint. I am as certain as I can be that despite technically retaining the capacity for conscious thought, actual decapitation is VERY likely to take the shape of a few seconds of dim, dizzy awareness that something is wrong (especially if you knew the killing blow was coming), but almost certainly not long enough to actually process what’s happened to you. One major issue is that the historical ‘evidence’ is mostly anecdotal and almost entirely unreliable. What we read about in old experiments with criminals, or even watch in modern ‘gore’ video clips is just brain death – nerves activating and the brain stem continuing autonomous function, trying to get oxygen where none is available. As one Reddit commenter below points out, you’d need to have someone on an EEG and cut their head off to be sure of what’s really going on. I have decided not to reprise the various historical (hysterical?) accounts of ‘living’ heads – not very scientific ‘experiments’ by Galvani, Aldini, Wendt, Seguret, Laborde, Lignieres, Lelut and Beaurieux (the celebrated 1905 case of the criminal Languille). For these, see chapter 8 of Frances Larson’s great book ‘Severed’. As Larson says, these efforts (many of which were inspired by arguments that the French guillotine was not as humane as it appeared) proved nothing either way and today can be readily explained as involuntary action. The same applies to the present-day ‘gore’ videos that can be found online. For those so inclined, and with an appropriately huge GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING, herearethree showing clear movement of eyes, mouth, and/or other facial muscles. We need to separate the technical persistence of consciousness from the observable effects. A head may be experiencing terrible pain and existential horror (although I doubt this, see below), but its face may or may not be moving at the time – there may well be no connection and chances are that the movement is involuntary as Davey suggested.
Interestingly, scepticism about the phenomenon of ‘lucid decapitation’ is as old as the claims themselves. As this article by James Elwick relates, Edward Rigby’s 1836 paper on the subject was;
‘“…immediately mocked in a rival medical journal’s editorial entitled “The Philosophy of Decapitation.”’
It proved so persistent however that in 1858, James George Davey actively sought to debunk these purely observational efforts with experiments of his own, published in his book ‘The Ganglionic Nervous System’. Depressingly, Davey carried out these tests on kittens, reaching the conclusion that;
‘…when the head is cut off, its irritability remains, as appears by the motion of the ears when pricked or touched with a hot wire ; and, as the extremities are also irritable, it will not be said that consciousness and sensation exist in two separated portions of the same body. Nor can it be admitted that sensibility and consciousness may remain in the head after separation ; for, if mere compression of the carotid arteries abolishes sensation and thought by interrupting the circulation in the brain, how much more must the superior violence of decapitation have this effect?’
This should have been an end of it, but the gothic horror of the living severed head was just too titillating. Despite other criticisms (notable French doctor and philosopher Cabanis, who was convinced that loss of consciousness was instant), for nearly 200 years now the popular media has recycled these claims as a way to send a shiver up the consumer’s collective spine (while they still have one). As ever, the internet has both promulgated these tales and offered the best means to debunk them. The main problem is separating the basic facts from the context. Davey understood the importance of this, but modern popular science outlets seem not to, reporting the facts on how long the brain is technically ‘conscious’ without qualification of just how aware one might be during the experience. Damninteresting.com has a good writeup that concludes that we don’t really know, but emphasises the horrific possibilities;
‘…there is much evidence to indicate that for some, death is not instantaneous, which probably offers a truly surreal experience for those few, brief moments.’
In fairness they only say ‘surreal’, which is certainly likely. But could one really be meaningfully aware of what’s happening? How Stuff Works (quoting a figure from New Scientist) also admits the paucity of the evidence but is slightly contradictory;
‘…most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood.”’
The figures on loss of consciousness are supported by (indeed, may even derive from) data from testing on rodents. Anna Gosline’s “Death special: How does it feel to die?” (New Scientist again, 13 October 2007) and Livescience reported respectively:
‘Quick it may be, but consciousness is nevertheless believed to continue after the spinal chord is severed. A study in rats in 1991 found that it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head; the equivalent figure for humans has been calculated at 7 seconds.’ (New Scientist)
‘In 2011, Dutch scientists hooked an EEG (electroencephalography) machine to the brains of mice fated to decapitation. The results showed continued electrical activity in the severed brains, remaining at frequencies indicating conscious activity for nearly four seconds. Studies in other small mammals suggest even longer periods.’ (Livescience)
Digging down to the actual research level, this study by Rijn & Coenen showed that consciousness fades within 3/4s and may last up to 17s. Brain death comes around 1m. On the face of it, these figures are pretty terrifying. Even two seconds of full awareness would be truly horrifying – 17 doesn’t bear thinking about it. However, the human brain’s oxygen requirements for anything like full function are far greater than any rodent. Again, I suspect it’s very unlikely that you’d be genuinely ‘with it’ during those seconds. To summarise, we have lots of anecdotal evidence for facial movement after decapitation that doesn’t really help answer the question, and a lot of scientific evidence for ‘consciousness’ (tending toward 2-4 seconds) that doesn’t usefully convey what the real-life experience would be like. Short of an EEG and a willing victim, the provisional conclusion has to be that, if you were unfortunate enough to lose your head, yes you might technically still be conscious, but you’re really not going to know anything about it before (to paraphrase Ghostbusters II) your ‘head dies’.
I’ve had some very good comments in response to my previous post about the use of ‘fash masel’ by Bram Stoker in ‘Dracula’, and I’ve come to realise that they have a point. I think I got carried away in addressing the claim that it is somehow ONLY a Doric phrase, and overlooked the plausibility of the claim that Stoker would have got it from Scots rather than Yorkshire folk. This is reasonable. HOWEVER, he must also have known that it was current in Yorkshire dialect, or he wouldn’t have used it, so the implication that it is exclusively Scottish is still misleading. I also realised that one of my links was a duplicate. What I intended to link to under ‘Yorkshire dialect’ was this entry for ‘fash’ in ‘The English Dialect Dictionary’ (under ‘Cum’;
‘n.Yks. Ah’ve no need ti fash mesel’
Now, there is a spelling variance here ‘masel’ is favoured in Scots/Doric and ‘mesel’ is the preferred rendering for northern English, er, English. However, there is no standard spelling for dialect beyond what scholars choose to put in books – it reflects the pronunciation of the word. ‘Masel’ and ‘mesel’ are the same compound word. So, Stoker using ‘masel’, coupled with his history with Doric (he did write two whole books in the dialect) and the lack of the phrase in his notes (where he did record more specific Yorkshire words and phrases) makes it quite plausible that he took ‘fash masel’ from the Doric. But once again, this is also a Yorkshire thing, and is being put in the mouth of a fictional Yorkshireman based upon a real Yorkshireman, and was written whilst Stoker was staying in Yorkshire. To say that it’s a Doric phrase is like saying, for example, that an author of a novel set in Elizabethan England is using a Scots word when they have a character say ‘murther’. Yes, today it’s a Scots word. But for centuries it was also an English one. I do admit that the evidence for it being in common usage is limited, but I suspect that’s due to the attention afforded written Scots in the 19th century.
Surprisingly, I had never heard of Hungarian serial killer and alleged ‘vampire’ Béla Kiss until I watched a recent episode of ‘The Great War’ on YouTube. It’ s fantastic series, and I thoroughly recommend it. However, I was immediately sceptical of the suggestion that Kiss had ‘drained’ his victims of blood and was a ‘vampire’. This is frequently claimed by vampire universalists; people who like to lump absolutely everything they can under the vampire umbrella, regardless of cultural or historical context. The connection between vampires and serial killers is often made, but is entirely spurious other than in handful of cases where killers actually do drink the blood of their victims. Even this doesn’t make them ‘vampires’ per se. More ‘wannabes’ really. Anyway, back to Kiss. I had a good dig about, and the claim of blood-draining/drinking seems to originate with Monaco and Burt’s ‘The Dracula Syndrome’ (1993). Kiss appears on page 156;
‘…what intrigued investigators more were a series of sharp wounds on the necks of each victim — each of whom had been drained of her blood. Other, more fortunate women began to come forward to identify Kiss as their evil, vampire attacker.’
Unless readers can find any earlier claim, I’m calling this one BS – a cheap attempt to make Kiss seem more, well, ‘evil’ and ‘vampire’ than just a plain old nasty murdering f*ck-head. In fact, the whole book appears to be part of the ‘true crime’ movement to romanticise serial killers as somehow other-worldly beings. Which is not to say that the story of a First World War killer that disappeared isn’t interesting; you should definitely check out ‘The Great War’ video on Kiss and the rest of the channel for that matter.
[Edit – I was a little hasty in discounting this entirely. Clarification here.]
Like most readers of ‘Dracula’, I had no idea what the old sailor was talking about when he advised Mina ‘I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss’. I later realised it was intended as Yorkshire dialect; a way of saying ‘I wouldn’t fuss myself about them’ i.e. ‘I wouldn’t worry about them’. Yet, according to some, most notably Bram Stoker’s author descendant Dacre, this was a piece of Doric dialect that Bram Stoker picked up whilst staying in Scotland. This despite the fact that the scene is set, and was written, in the coastal town of Whitby in the North Riding of Yorkshire. I was a little taken aback at first, thinking perhaps that I had it wrong, but sure enough, whereas ‘fash masel’ features in Doric, it’s also well-documented Yorkshire dialect. In fact many words and phrases that are said or implied to be uniquely Scottish are also found across broad swathes of northern England, which is unsurprising to those familiar with the history of the two countries and their shared language. Still other Scots words are also archaic English words, which always gives me pause for thought when the debate over the status of Scots arises. That is, whether Scots is a dialect of English or a distinct language. The whole thing is massively political, and really, it shouldn’t matter. English is just as much a Scottish language as it is an English or British one. Anyway, I digress. Suffice to say that Bram Stoker was not silly enough to put Doric in the mouth of a Yorkshireman. He may have first heard it in Scotland, but he must also have known that it was in wider usage. I don’t blame Dacre Stoker, as a North American, for not realising this, but I think it’s worth correcting this error.
Now, as for the claim in the same Scottish Sun article that Slains Castle ‘matches the floorplan of’ Dracula’s castle, that deserves its own post…
Every year at Christmas I enjoy a viewing of Die Hard (1988), usually as the wife decorates the tree, but this year we had a staff screening at work. Such a good film. Anyway, every time I see it I notice another detail, and this time it was the odd phrase ‘Helsinki syndrome’. Everyone knows that the psychological phenomenon of hostages identifying with and even sympathising with their captors is called ‘Stockholm syndrome‘ after a specific bank robbery that took place in that Swedish city in 1973. I naturally wondered whether ‘Helsinki syndrome’ was a silly mistake, a continuation of an existing mistake (as in, the movie reflecting popular misconception), or part of the movie’s poking fun at the media (the news anchor shows his ignorance by immediately trying to clarify for the audience that Helsinki is in Sweden, only to be corrected by the expert guest). I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t an existing misconception that the writers were referencing, unlike the infamous ceramic ‘Glock 7’ of Die Hard 2 (which was based on an existing media scare; one for another post). The movie seems to have started a meme of sorts, to the point where some people today actually think that ‘Helsinki syndrome’ is a real thing. There is no mention that I can find of it prior to the film. ‘Helsinki’ was definitely in the original script by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza. As to why the writers didn’t just call it Stockholm syndrome and have the presenter mistakenly say that Stockholm was in Finland, I can’t be sure. It may just have been deliberately changed to distance the movie from real-life events, just as Hans Gruber’s ‘Volksfrei movement’ never really existed but had parallels in groups like the Red Army Faction aka Baader-Meinhof Gang. Viewers in the know would realise what was being referenced and would find the ensuing gag extra funny. For those not familiar with the real-life syndrome, the movie explains it and we can all laugh at the daft anchorman together. However, there may be a more specific origin. I did find one reference to Helsinki syndrome as a political comment in The Nation magazine (vol.241, 1985, p.8) made in reference to this hijacking;
‘Most feared of all Scandinavian disorders is Helsinki Syndrome, in which positively charged particles of information afflict the victim’s central ideological system, causing him to question America’s absolute moral superiority in the cold war. Specialists in the field refer to victims of the syndrome as being “‘Finlandized,” thus beyond recuperation.’
It seems plausible, given the amount of satire present in Die Hard, that the writers were referencing this wry comment, which is using its suggestion that Helsinki Syndrome is a variant of Stockholm Syndrome to satirise US foreign policy and, I believe, Allyn B. Conwell. This incident produced two radically opposed views from the hostages; Conwell, who responded with hatred for his captors, and Peter W. Hill, who defended them in the press. Hence whereas sympathy for terrorists would be medicalised as effectively a mental illness (which is the popular understanding of Stockholm Syndrome, implying that the sufferer’s aberrant views can be disregarded), the magazine is suggesting that such people might label any critic of the US government as having a case of ‘Helsinki Syndrome’. It does fit, although I have no direct evidence for this one. I did once manage to get in touch with de Souza about another piece of Die Hard trivia, so perhaps I could find out if anyone is sufficiently interested. Anyway, just in case there is any doubt, there is no such thing as Helsinki Syndrome.
Trying to get back in the habit of posting, and I’m a bit slow on this one, but you probably saw the news around halloween this year that ‘vampires’ were causing problems in Malawi. In fact, it’s still happening. I was interested to read Anthony Mtuta’s take on the phenomenon in the latter account. Mtuta is a lecturer at the Catholic University of Malawi, and believes the vampire mania to reflect the deep divide between rich and poor. He’s clearly onto something. I was not aware of any indigenous African vampire tradition, and wondered if we might be seeing some influence from western pop culture (hence my image choice above). I can’t rule this out as a factor, but have found no evidence of it. The reality is much more interesting.
Partway into my research I discovered that Vice News had actually done my job for me with a very well researched article. This confirmed what I had suspected; these aren’t really ‘vampires’ as we know them, except perhaps in the super-inclusive sense of there being a meme of the ‘universal vampire’. There are no stories (ancient or otherwise) of dead people taking vitality from the living in Malawi. In fact, there is no history of bloodsucking revenant belief anywhere in Africa as far as I know (though I could be wrong). What’s being acted upon in Malawi seemed to me a very recent belief with the hallmarks of a modern conspiracy theory or urban myth, with no traditional folklore to back it up. They’re not talking about walking corpses or even ghosts, but living people using needles to steal blood. Vampires of a sort perhaps, but nothing whatever to do with the European revenant tradition and especially not the ‘true’ Slavic vampire.
I wanted to nail down just how old these beliefs are, as the Vice article only pushes things back to ‘the 1930s’ with a quote from leading researcher in the field Luise White. I only have access to the Google Books preview of her definitive book, but it looks as though the first written account dates to 1923 (for mumiani – see page 39 of White’s book). White’s interviewees, some of whom were born in the 1890s, claimed that the practice ‘…started after World War I in Kenya and in the 1920s in Northern Rhodesia and Uganda’. A variety of names were used in different countries and languages, including mumiani and banyama which seem to be analogous to ‘vampire’ in the literal sense of an entity that draws blood, and chinja-chinja / kachinja, which White lumps together but may in fact represent a distinct belief(which reads to me like a straightforward mythologising of the ‘western’ serial killer – perhaps the belief has changed over time?). How the current Malawian term anamapopa relates to all this, I don’t know. I can’t find it in any dictionaries. In any case, Mumiani is especially interesting because it seems (p.11) to be connected to the practice of foreigners making spurious medicines from the dead bodies of Africans (ancient Egyptians, to be precise). White doesn’t seem to subscribe to the idea (perhaps because she believes her interviewees), but the 1930s-vintage definition of mumiani makes the origin quite clear I think;
‘THE STANDARD Swahili-English Dictionary describes “Mumiani” as “a dark-coloured gum-like substance used by some Arabs, Indians and Swahili as a medicine for cramp, ague, broken bones, etc.”, and further states : “It- is used as an outward application, also when melted in ghee for drinking as a medicine”. It is said to be brought from Persia but many natives firmly believe that it is dried or coagulated human blood taken from victims murdered for the purpose and when a rumour is started that Mumiani is being sought for, the natives in a town are filled with terror and seldom go outside their houses after sunset (Pers. “Mumiyai”, a medicine, with which mummies are preserved).
Variants of the word ‘mummy’ have long referred to folk-medicine preparations made from ancient corpses which, of course, white people had also indulged in as late as perhaps a century prior to this explanation. Interestingly, there was an Indian version of the blood-theft myth current in the late C19th which may be the origin of all of these African variants (White, p.10). In the mid-C19th this was seen as an Indian practice, and the myth was that Abyssinian boys were being killed to produce it. The connection between actual corpse medicine traditions and latter-day myths of blood theft for medical purposes seems clear. White suggests (p.28) that colonial banning of traditional ‘poison ordeal’ rituals in the 19th century might have created a gap in traditional practice that was filled by these stories. This would all fit together as an hypothesis; local tradition is interfered with by foreigners, who then become the butt of a new tradition, itself imported from abroad.
In any case, it’s fair to say that the current violence in Malawi is part of an older traditional belief in bloodsuckers, but is nothing to do with the older European vampire (or the even older revenant). It’s just a shame that a practice that seems to have served as a victimless scapegoat in other parts of the world (the dead bodies ‘killed’ as vampires didn’t feel a thing) is mirrored here by one that involves persecuting and harming real, living people.