If zombies are sometimes said to have eaten pop culture, then the headless certainly have had a seat at the table as well. Michonne has just started decapitating the undead again with her samurai sword on The Walking Dead, and on Game of Thrones the perennial punishment for the mighty brought low is that old feudal command “off with the head”.

Horror has always used the head for bravura moments – remember all those heads exploding in David Cronenberg’s film about weaponised telepaths, Scanners, or the devil getting his due by decapitating David Warner in the first Omen blockbuster? All those nasty Italian horror films used to focus on damage to the eyes, as if to punish what we wanted to look at. Now, though, TV horror multiplies this effect and is full of grotesque images of mounds of zombie heads, or trophy heads lifted to roaring armies.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow exists in that hazy space between history and folk-tale

Every year around Halloween, the American myth of the headless horseman makes its annual return – though it’s a story in people’s imaginations the whole year now because of the US TV program Sleepy Hollow. It draws very loosely from Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which reads as an oral tale collected and re-told in print a generation after the events unfolded. It exists in that hazy space between history and folk-tale.

The story derives from the Dutch settlements north of New York City on the Hudson River. During the Revolutionary War in 1776, George Washington’s army was forced to retreat from Manhattan. At the Battle of White Plains, the British commanders sent forward their Hessian horsemen – merciless German mercenaries with a fearful reputation. On virtually the first cannon fusillade, one of these mercenaries had his head shot off. He was hastily buried in the churchyard of Sleepy Hollow, since the Dutch church had a feel of the homeland. Ever since, he rides out to seek his head – left shattered on the battleground – or to take another’s. It’s unique as one of the few examples of American mythology, of melding the supernatural with actual history related to the founding of the US.

This tale is merely one of many folkloric stories of headless horsemen that stretch from the Teutonic tales of the Brothers Grimm to Scandanavian myth to the Irish Celtic legend of the dullahan, the headless demon careening around on a black horse. It’s even been updated to involve headless bikers riding hogs from hell. Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was substantially reworked by Tim Burton in his 1999 film Sleepy Hollow, with a memorably unhinged Christopher Walken performance as the headless Hessian, all filed-down teeth and pitiless eyes, but betrayed at the last by two sweet American girls in the forest. Heads do roll with somewhat gleeful abandon in Burton’s adaptation.

The current US TV series also sets about multiplying the horrors. It starts in 1776 but Irving’s dubious hero Ichabod Crane is propelled forward to the present day because the horseman has started to ride again. This time, the myth is fused with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the headless horseman is a portent of the US entering the End of Days, as foretold in the weird visions of the Book of Revelation. Just as the mass hordes of gormless zombies build up at the gates, so now do the horsemen.

Losing it

Our dread and fascination with the headless does seem to have become much more explicit. Outside the small niche of splatter horror, severed heads were usually just suggested in the past, as in the ominous box that John Turturro’s character carries with him at the end of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, or in the notorious box that is delivered to Brad Pitt’s detective at the end of the serial killer film Se7en– a film once considered to have pushed the very boundaries of acceptable representation. In the second series of Fargo, released in 2015, both of these boxes are recalled with the postal delivery of a head: this time, the box is opened.

For Freud, decapitation was a displaced symbol for castration

There is also a long tradition going back to the Greeks of ‘brazen heads’ (mechanical heads, automata or robots) that had oracular powers, speaking unspeakable truths. At the end of this tradition lies the robot Ash in Alien. The crew only discovers that Ash is a robot after they’ve knocked his head off. When they plug the head back in to the power, he speaks only to give them their death sentence: they are all expendable. In Dennis Potter’s last TV work Cold Lazarus (1996), set in the 24th Century, a cryogenically frozen head is reanimated, and again speaks unpalatable truths. In The Walking Dead, however, the Governor sits staring at a row of fish tanks holding ranks of zombie heads kept ‘alive’ in his office, their brains undamaged, and yet they have nothing to say.

So what does this mean? Is it merely a case that film-makers are no longer constrained by tight public broadcasting regulations, and that the cable channels must continually push at the boundaries of taste? It is of course possible to offer an account of cultural decline here, that jaded audiences must be stimulated by ever more explicit horrors. This seems less interesting, however, than wondering what the headless might symbolise in contemporary culture.

Oliver Cromwell’s head was removed after his death and only reburied in the 1960s

Some critics have observed that for a century after Sigmund Freud, it was almost impossible to think of decapitation other than as a displaced symbol of the anxiety about castration. This is what Freud famously proposed in his provocative essay The Medusa’s Head. It is certainly the case that Freud was writing at the turn of the 20th Century when there were many plays and paintings about Salomé, the dancer in the Bible who demands John the Baptist’s head, served on a platter – Oscar Wilde’s version is the most famous of these. Along with the other Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, the late Victorians were obsessed with symbolising the threat to male power and potency through stories of symbolic decapitation by a femme fatale. But this is less universal than Freud suggested, and I don’t think has much power to explain our obsession now.

Head games

Of course, beheading has always symbolised the exercise of absolute power. Since we increasingly associate identity with the brain (and less so with the heart), the act strikes at the very essence of selfhood – of memory and rationality. It also strikes at power: this is why the formalised beheading of King Charles still haunts the English imagination. The man who took that power from the crown, Oliver Cromwell, suffered for his acts long after his death – his body was exhumed, the head removed, displayed, reviled and treated with contempt, and unbelievably was only re-buried in the 1960s.

The French state still used the guillotine as recently as 1977

The act of beheading is associated in many cultures with the barbarians at the gates – it is the others, those primitives, them, who perform these ghastly acts. The story that Western democracies tell themselves is that they have moved away from arbitrary acts of violent domination and toward the exercise of law, for instance moving the exercise of capital punishment from large public spectacles to private events a long way from the public eye. In Europe, capital punishment is no longer used – although it is shocking to discover that the French state last used the guillotine as recently as 1977.

When it comes to modern spectacles of decapitation, it is impossible not to think of how Western states have been haunted by the public executions of captives by IS. These horrific acts carry a heavy symbolic weight of historical and cultural meanings, and the terror group is calculated in how they wield those meanings. Their public demonstration has suggested to the Italian philosopher Adriana Caverero, that we have entered a new phase that moves beyond ‘terrorism’ into something called ‘horrorism’ – a whole new level of spectacular cruelty made possible by new media.

No wonder popular culture is trying to work through this in film and television. Game of Thrones returns us to a world of feudal power struggle, of the arbitrary exercise of violence figured at its most extreme through beheading. It looks like the series is heading toward the victory of a champion of freedom, but there has been a lot of exploration of the cruelty and violence of power along the way.

Sleepy Hollow gains its strength from being part of the origin story of the US, the horseman a ghostly echo of the old colonial violence shaken off but threatening a spectral return. The zombie horde is a similar reflection on the limits of democracy, but it is also a very flexible metaphor that can be used in different ways. At times, in The Walking Deada nd in more recent series like In the Flesh or iZombie, it is much more a reflection on how we now locate identity in the neural networks of the brain. The revolution in understanding human neurology is also part of this messing around with the inside of our heads. It turns out that the headless are not just a gruesome Gothic throwback, but a symbol that speaks urgently to our time.

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