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(pop culture)

One of the surest and most common means of destroying the vampire and making sure it did not return to a semblance of life was to cut off its head. This was clearly illustrated in Bram Stoker‘s novel, Dracula. Arthur Holmwood, Lucy Westenra‘s fiance, and Lucy’s other friends could not bring themselves to cut off Lucy’s head after her death. They consented only when Dr. Abraham Van Helsing demonstrated to them that Lucy had joined the undead. He and Arthur carried out the decapitation. Van Helsing did not, however, decapitate the three vampire women in Castle Dracula; they disintegrated before his eyes after he staked them. In like measure, Dracula disintegrated after Jonathan Harker and Quincey P. Morris stabbed him.

Carmilla, the vampire in Sheridan Le Fanu‘s tale, lost her head as part of the process of being killed, thus continuing the trend in European folklore. Severing the head to destroy a vampire was common throughout Germany and Eastern Europe. When a vampire was reported in a village, and its identity determined, the body would be disinterred. Commonly, it then was impaled on a stake and its head cut off. Decapitation prevented the head from directing the body in its wanderings. In northern Europe (Poland and Germany), the head might be placed between the knees or under the arm. There also were reports of the head being placed under the body and buried separately, so that it could not be returned to the neck and reconnected. It was also possible that the vampire could return with the head held in its arms. In some cultures, the exact instrument for severing the head, a shovel or a sword, was prescribed.

As the vampire was dramatized, the process of decapitation was, as a whole, left behind. It was a much too indelicate means of death to present to a theater audience or show on a movie screen. Nevertheless, it was not forgotten. In the reworking of the vampire legend by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, her hero St. Germain feared only two things that would cause the “true death”—fire and the severing of the spine (which decapitation would accomplish). In Blood Games (1979), he faked the death of his love Olivia as part of a plot to free her from the clutches of her husband. After vampirizing her, she died, but was revived by St. Germain and his helpers. He gave strict instructions to be followed so that the “true death” would not overtake her.

The movies from Hammer Films raised horror films to a new level with their depiction of flowing blood in full color. As society became more permissive in the last generation, directors responded to audiences’ thirst for blood, developing the so-called “splatter” movies. In this atmosphere, decapitation returned to the vampire myth, not in the traditional manner, but as the climax of a fight or similar intense interaction between two characters. However, in spite of splatter movies, decapitation has remained a rare occurrence, at least for vampires.

In the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, decapitation was rarely used, as vampires immediately turned to dust upon dying. Thus, while a vampire might be killed by decapitation, staking was the overwhelmingly preferred method. It was, of course, not possible to copy the model in Dracula of staking a vampire and subsequently decapitating it as further means of preventing its future return. In the “Twilight” book series, decapitation still offers the possibility of a vampire’s return. The chosen method is thus complete dismemberment and a scattering of body parts in dfferent locations, or even better, cremating them.

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(1) Cutting off the heads of animals in physiological and biochemical experiments. Decapitation is used in order to remove nervous and humoral (through the blood) influences of the brain on the spinal cord, organs, and tissues. (Decapitation is necessary, since, when the spinal cord is cut below the medulla oblongata, only the nervous influences are excluded, and the humoral ones are retained.)

(2) Removal of the apical point from the stem of a plant.

What does it mean when you dream about decapitation?

Dreams of being beheaded are not usually omens of death or even of punishment, although they may indicate anxiety about punishment. Because of the complexity of symbolism associated with the head, decapitation can have a wide variety of different meanings, from losing touch with one’s emotions (a split between the mind and the body) to losing control (as in the expression “losing one’s head”). As with all dream symbols, the feeling, tone, and setting of the dream indicate which interpretation is appropriate. (See also Beheading, Guillotine).


See also Headlessness.
Antoinette, Marie
(1755–1793) queen of France beheaded by revolutionists. [Fr. Hist.: NCE, 1697]
lulled to sleep and beheaded by Hermes. [Gk. Myth.: Metamorphoses, I]
Boleyn, Anne
(1507–1536) beheaded by husband, Henry VIII, for adultery and incest. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 325]
Gawain, Sir
challenged by the Green Knight, Gawain cuts off his head. [Br. Lit.: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Benét, 934]
Grey, Lady Jane
(1537–1554) English queen beheaded at 17. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 1146]
Guillotin, Joseph
(1738–1814) physician; advocated humane method of capital punishment. [Fr. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 164]
Assyrian commander-in-chief beheaded by Judith. [Apocrypha: Judith 13:4–10]
nine-headed serpent beheaded by Heracles. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 489]
John the Baptist
head presented as gift to Salome. [N.T.: Mark 6:25–28]
beheaded by Perseus. [Gk. Myth.: Hall, 206; Rom. Lit.: Metamorphoses]
More, Sir Thomas
(1478–1535) English statesman beheaded by King Henry VIII. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 1830]
Queen of Hearts
constantly orders beheadings. [Br. Lit.: Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland]


This dream suggests that the dreamer is losing control. In a decapitation there is a dramatic and violent separation of the head from the body. Under normal circumstances the mind controls and directs the body. This dream suggests that the dreamer may be under the control of his bodily drives and may be separated from rational thoughts and feelings. Disassociation may be occurring in regard to some behavior or issue in life. However, this dream may have other meanings. This includes excessive concern about punishment and indicates that there may be severe pressure and anxiety in the dreamer’s life.
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