In my previous post we explored the ways heads have been separated from bodies through history. If there’s one thing we can be sure of when considering decapitation, it’s that it is a sure-fire way of killing a person instantly.
Or is it? According to folklore, in revolutionary France sometimes the executioner would lift a severed head out of the basket to show the amassed throngs and it would blush, blink or look at the executioner accusingly. Whether these reports are reliable or apocryphal is unclear, but the idea that a head can go on living separate from the body is a pervasive and alluring one.
If we were given the choice between death and going on living as a conscious and communicative, but ultimately disembodied, head, I imagine at least some people may choose the latter. Somehow we think that being just a head we would still be “us” somehow.
This is a common theme in science fiction, from Dennis Potter’s eerie television play Cold Lazarus (above) to the cartoon series Futurama, where preserving the heads of famous people in jars is a regular, absurdist feature (below).
One science fiction film revolving around a living, severed head is The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962): after a car crash a nefarious scientist keeps his wife’s head alive while hunting for a new body to graft the head onto. When it inevitably goes horribly wrong, the moral of the story seems to be, as in much science fiction, not to go so far in our scientific hunt for knowledge that we unleash some unnatural, horrific consequence. A trope that goes all the way back to Icarus.
While this plot may seem somewhat far-fetched, the idea of head transplants is now being seriously discussed in the scientific community. Head transplants on animals have been tried with some success in the 20th and 21st centuries and now Italian scientist Dr Sergio Canavero has claimed that he will perform the first head transplant on a human next year.