From Alice in Wonderland through The Omen to Re-Animator, there's no doubting that movies are fascinated with decapitation. It's a visual spectacle and a perfect horror movie set-piece - but what about the science behind it?
Living a Headless Life
We've all heard that chickens can run around with their heads cut off. In fact, a Colorado chicken known as Miracle Mike survived for a year and a half without a head due to his species' biological layout: his major artery and brain stem were left intact, depriving him of senses but keeping his organs functioning long after decapitation. Human beings are a different matter...
What Happens in the Moment
If your head is severed, every organ in your body loses contact with your brain, so they stop working. It's literally like the control center of an organization being obliterated: no instructions are sent to the component parts, so nothing happens. But what about those few seconds?
The Few Vital Seconds
Debate still rages in the medical field about how long we remain conscious after decapitation. Blood remains oxygenated for around 12 seconds even after the heart stops beating. Surely, the severed head has a moment or two to see and react to its situation before death?
A Clean Cut?
In a lot of movies - such as the iconic scene in The Omen - show beheading as a neat, swift moment, but this is not reality. The cut arteries will actually spurt for around 30 seconds after the head is removed. This explains why it was such an effective method for public executions in more barbarous times, but is considered too shocking for civilized society today.
Two Types of Decapitation
Not many people know this, but a person can be 'beheaded' in two ways: internal and external. External decapitation is the visible form of head removal, produced by a guillotine, for example. Internal decapitation is when the head is still attached, but trauma has rent the spinal column in two, which happens when a victim is hanged.