The death of the body is supposed to be the last journey that the physical form goes on in a lifespan. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, all religions tend to agree with the central tenet that the human body is a physical one, meant for eventual decay, and that we will all end up traveling back into the life cycle of the Earth, decomposed and returned to the soil, broken down to the key components that made us alive in the first place.
It is this belief in the finality of physical death that often makes people uncomfortable with the idea of dead bodies. They represent everyone’s fate, that hunk of unmoving dead matter that currently resembles the person it inhabited, and will soon be little more than elements spread back out through the biosphere. Since early man’s days, we have feared being around the dead, fearing perhaps that constant reminder of an end that waits patiently for us.
But there are those certain few who think otherwise. The human body, even when non-functional, is still a human body, after all. Enterprising doctors and scientists learned early on that, even though a dead human body couldn’t react the way a living one did, it could still be useful for learning about anatomy, teaching skills of surgery, and allowing trainees to become acquainted with observation and interaction with humanity before having to dive in fully to work with a living person.
Let it never be said that humanity can find a way to profit from anything, including death. In a time when the science of medicine was in its birth, and the world was still a place where every crime could not be solved with DNA evidence and forensic cleverness, the strange career of the body snatcher was as real as it is bizarre. People whose sole job was to find corpses of different sizes, genders, and maladies, and provide them to medical schools and science academies for study and practice.
The practice eventually became illegal for numerous reasons, up to and including the fact that many religions are opposed to disturbing the body after death. But this wasn’t the only reason it was made illegal, of course; and the truth is a much more disturbing one.
If the human psyche can become comfortable enough around the remains of another human being that they can package and sell that body for money, then what is one more minor leap, from finding dead bodies in a cemetery to creating dead bodies of your own? Body snatching became a crime because the very nature of making money off human corpses encouraged far more serious crimes.
Of course, being illegal never stopped people from trying to profit on something. In 1978, the body of Charlie Chaplin was stolen from its resting place, and his widow received a ransom demand of $600,000 in order for the body to be returned. The two “kidnappers”, auto mechanics from Bulgaria, thought stealing the body would solve their financial problems. They were given time in prison, and Charlie Chaplin was re-buried in a concrete grave to prevent further theft. Unlike many sub-genres in the horror film world, this one is based entirely in fact. Rest in peace, and here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.
You couldn’t ask for a better filmmaking team for a moody horror film than iconic actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, “I Walked With a Zombie” producer Val Lewton, and journeyman director Robert Wise, and they team for the greatest of the body snatching films, “The Body Snatcher”. A driven doctor trying to save a little girl’s life becomes involved with a shady supplier of dead bodies (sometimes more fresh than the doctor expected).
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A fun film lost in a sea of modern releases because of its refusal to stay in one specific sub-genre, “Burke and Hare” is a horror-comedy from “An American Werewolf In London” director John Landis starring Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg, chronicling the (somewhat) true story of the most infamous real-life grave robbers, William Burke and William Hare.
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A thinly veiled version of the Burke and Hare story produced by “The Elephant Man” producer Mel Brooks and directed by cinematographer and “Tales From the Crypt” director Freddie Francis, this one comes from a script by author Dylan Thomas. Boasting an unusual and eclectic cast from Julian Sands and Timothy Dalton to supermodel Twiggy, it’s a surprise that this film isn’t more well-known simply on the curiosity factor alone.
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A fun updating on both the classic body snatcher formula and a loving homage to the classic anthology films from Hammer and Amicus, “I Sell the Dead” is a horror-comedy that finds time to make reference to aliens, vampires, “Eyes Without a Face”, and even squeeze in cameo appearances from Ron Perlman and the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm. A lot of fun to be had in this satirical re-imagining of a classic sub-genre.
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