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How to Make a Shrunken Head

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shrunken heads on display

If you are expecting this to be an instruction manual on the ancient practice of Tsantsa, or the making of an actual shrunken head, then you have come to the right place. We are going to look in detail at the process by which severed human heads are reduced to the size of an orange, the reason behind this process, and the trade in human heads that started a veritable massacre of ancient tribes.

The Jivaro Tribe known for head shrinking.

The tribes known to practice head shrinking are the Jivaroan tribes found in forests of Ecuador and Peruvian Amazon. The Jivaro Indians were brought to the world’s attention because of their unusual custom of shrinking the heads of their enemies, as well as being one of the very few societies to have revolted against the Spanish Empire. There are various dialects in the Jivaroan tribes – the AShuar, Aguaruna, Huambisa, and the most famous of them, the Shur, and this will be the tribe we look at in this post.

Shuar tribal male

The Jivaro Indians were highly superstitious and impulsive and would often war between each other. Shamans and medicine men would normally fall victim to attack, accused of sorcery or black arts. These people did not have any concept of natural death and saw each death as having a supernatural cause and thus needed to be avenged. At the tender age of six, young Jivaro males were instructed in hatred for neighbouring peoples, and the death of an opponent meant reward in blessings, long life, riches and the death of one’s enemies.

A shrunken head, Jivaro Indian, Ecuador, S.America

How to prepare a shrunken head.

1- After an attack on an enemy the members of the Shur tribe would kill their victims and quickly decapitated them with a machete. Occasionally the captured enemy would still be alive while the head was removed.

2 – The head is removed below the neck and a piece of skin from the chest and back is also taken off with it. The entire process is meticulously carried out in order to preserve the original likeness of the victim.

3 – A slit is made up through the nape of the neck and up the back of the head, the warrior now peels the skin and hair very carefully off the skull. The victim’s skull is discarded by the warrior and left by the river as an offering the anaconda or Pani.

4 – The eyes are sewn shut with a natural fibre, the lips are also sewn together but these are later skewered shut with little wooden pegs. The pegs are later removed after the boiling process.

5 – The head skin is then transferred to the cooking jars and cooked for around 90 minutes; any longer and the hair falls out so it is important to remove before this time.

6 – The skin takes on a dark colour, rubbery and about a quarter of its original size.

7 – The skin is then turned inside out and any flesh that is still sticking to the inside is scraped off.

8 – The skin is then turned right side out and the slit at the back of the head is sewn up.

9 – Stones from the fire are then placed through the neck of the skin and rolled around to stop them from burning the inside. This makes the skin shrink even further, and when the point comes that the neck becomes the same size as some of the smaller stones, they are removed.

10 – Hot sand is then poured into the head via the neck, and this gets into all the smaller areas to shrink the skin further and shape the detail in the heads features.

11 – Any excess hair is burnt off and the skin hung above the fire the harden and go black.

12 – Then three chonta palm pins are put through the lips and they are sewn together with a natural fibre.

13 – The whole process from start to finish takes around 1 week, usually with the warriors working on them on their way back to the village.

14 – Before the warriors enter the village for the tsantsa celebration, they make a hole in the top of the head so that it can be hung around the neck.

Shrunken Head

You can also watch a reconstruction here…

Significance of the shrinking of an enemy’s head.

The original reason behind the practice was a religious one; the tribe believed that by shrinking the head of an enemy, they could harness that person’s soul and make it do their bidding. Another reason was to stop the soul from returning to hurt the living and avenge his or her death.

shrunken_head_worn

The Shuar tribe believed in 3 fundamental spirits.

Arutam – A vision or power that protects a person from a violent death
Muisak – A vengeful spirit who comes into being when a person carrying an Arutam spirit is murdered.
Wakani – Innate to humans and is a guardian spirit

To stop a Muisak from using its powers, the head of a victim is shrunk and the mouth and eyes are sewn together to paralyze the spirit. This prevents that person’s soul from leaving the head and take revenge upon the murderer. This would also stop the victim’s soul from entering the afterlife and harming the murderer’s dead ancestors.

Shrunken_head_compared_with_normal_human_skull

Many Jivaroan warriors heading into battle would consider any victory as incomplete if they did not return with a trophy, and the possessing of a tsanta would mean good fortune for the warrior and appease his ancestors. The warriors believed that killing the enemies of their ancestors not only meant that they would bestow a good harvest and fortune upon them, but that they themselves would not be at the mercy of malevolent ghosts.

The trade in human heads.

Westerners began to become intrigued by the Jivaro Indian tradition of tsanta, so much so that they would trade firearms and ammunition in return for the shrunken human heads. This not only revolutionized the tribe’s warfare but escalated the death toll of their enemies as demand for the heads rose to satisfy the traders.

shrunken heads on display

The demand increased killing on such a large sale that the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments had to pass a law prohibiting the traffic of human heads to the West.

In 1910 heads were sold for 1 Peruvian gold pound; in 1919 the heads were worth around $4.00, the equivalent of $57.33. Then in the 1930’s victim heads were made to order for around $25.00, which is around $275.02 in today’s economy. By 1952 a head was advertised in The Times for $250, which would be $2,231.36 now.

Shrunken head from the amazon

Many other tribes began to produce counterfeits heads using heads stolen from morgues, or those of monkeys or sloths, and it is said that over 80% of shrunken head displays in the world’s museums are fake. The Jivaroan warriors, however, did on occasion use a sloth heads instead of that of an enemy as the Jivaro believed themselves evolved from sloth.

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Brennan Went To Film School

Brennan Went to Film School: Unlocking the Hidden Meaning in Insidious: The Last Key

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“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS DETAILED SPOILERS FOR INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

Blumhouse had quite a year last year, didn’t they? In addition to having three number one hits on their hands, the racial satire Get Out is their first horror entry to get awards traction thanks to its deeper themes. Now that everyone is starting to take the company and its work a little more seriously, it’s time to bring out the big guns and dive right into some deeper analysis into a much more unlikely subject: Insidious: The Last Key. The fourth entry in their tentpole haunted house franchise might not seem like it at first glance, but it’s the Get Out of the Me Too era, telling a story of women’s struggles while predicting the downfall of powerful, abusive men that started to occur during its production process with eerie accuracy.

No, seriously. Let’s start by taking a look at the villain. Unusually for this franchise, the baddies are both paranormal and human: halfway through the film it is revealed that the haunting victim who has called Lin Shaye’s Elise and her crew is also a sadistic killer who has chained up a woman in his basement. This is also revealed to be the very same thing Elise’s father did many decades before. The film implies that both men are being influenced by the key-wielding demon that inhabits the house.

Key imagery is very important to the film as a whole (I mean come on, it’s literally in the freakin’ title), and its themes of Elise arriving to her childhood home to unlock the secrets of her past. But there’s more than one meaning to that imagery, and understanding those meanings is the key to unlocking the subtext of the film, if you’ll allow me a really obvious pun.


The demon KeyFace might be influencing the men, but they’re still receptive to the idea. That’s because he’s awakening something that was already inside them. Keyface represents the pure male id; the unconscious, animalistic desires and drives that lay buried in the psyche. He’s not forcing them to behave in this way, he’s just unlocking their darker impulses.

It’s no coincidence that the demon’s lair is the bomb shelter basement. The house has now become a road map of her father’s mind, with his strongest emotions (and the literal place where he keeps his abused women secreted away) hidden in a sublevel that isn’t visible from the surface. This is the very same basement where he locked up Elise while punishing her for insisting that her visions were real. He wanted her to keep her psychic gifts locked away, probably so she wouldn’t discover his own submerged secrets.

Elise encounters a variety of keys during her journey that allow her to penetrate deeper and deeper into The Further, the house, her past, and the hideous truth about the men in her life. These keys unlock doors, suitcases, chains, and cages, but the most important unlocks the truth… and turns the attention of the evil upon her and her two nieces.

The probing of these women ignites the fury of Keyface and he takes her niece Melissa into the basement (another buried sublevel that must be unlocked), inserting a key into her neck and rendering her mute, then stealing her soul with a second key plunged into her heart. He is only vanquished when Elise and her other niece Imogen team together and use a family heirloom – a whistle – to summon Elise’s mother’s spirit.

On the surface, this seems like an inspiring story of three generations of women helping each other to face a great evil. This is certainly true, but now we have the key to understanding exactly what’s happening here. When a young woman discovers the abuse being perpetrated in her house, the figure of pure, wicked male desire literally steals her voice, silencing her. In order to restore that voice, another woman who knows the truth must very literally become a whistleblower.

…Did I just blow your mind?

At its heart, Insidious: The Last Key presents a world where women must rely on other women to provide them a voice and their very survival in a world dominated by powerful men and their ugly, dirty secrets. Secrets that they will do anything to keep locked away. There may be slightly more ghosts in Insidious than in real life, but that’s a frighteningly close parallel with the ugliness currently being revealed in Hollywood – as well as the world at large. It probably won’t tear up the Golden Globes next year, but this film is just the next important stepping-stone after Get Out in Blumhouse’s use of the genre to dig deep into the real life horrors plaguing our society.


Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!


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Why Brad Anderson’s Session 9 Scared the Hell Out of Me

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“Hello, Gordon.”

Invariably, working for sites such as Dread Central, I am always asked the question, “What is the scariest movie you have ever seen?” And, well, truth be told, movies don’t tend to scare me that often. Sure, there are my go-to flicks time and time again such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Lake Mungo. But sure enough, every time I spout out that list to a fellow horror fan, they always follow up with, “Well, what is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen that ISN’T found footage?” Fair enough question.

Now, while I’m not going to go into what I consider to be the scariest non-found footage horror movies (we’ll get into all of that at some later date), I do want to point out a movie in particular here today. The way it goes is that when I tell people my list of scariest non-found footage films, they always nod in agreement. Until, that is, I get to a film called Session 9. It is at that point that whomever I am talking to cocks their head to the side and says, “I’ve never heard of that one.” Which is a shame, and it happens far too often. So today I want to, yet again, give anyone and everyone who’s willing to listen the recommend.

Let’s begin with a quick rundown of the film. Session 9 was written and directed by Brad Anderson, who is a name you might recognize as the creative force behind such films as The Vanishing on 7th Street, Transsiberian, and the “Christian Bale is as skinny as a skeleton” mindfuck The Machinist.

But as good as those film may (or may not) be, without a doubt Anderson’s masterpiece is Session 9. Written specifically to be filmed inside the Danvers State Mental Hospital, the film stars David Caruso (don’t let that stop you), Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas, and a few other gents as a group of asbestos removal guys who are possibly haunted within the walls of the institute while on a job.

If that rundown isn’t the best, here is the film’s official synopsis: “A tale of terror when a group of asbestos removal workers starts work in an abandoned insane asylum. The complex of buildings looms up out of the woods like a dormant beast. Grand, imposing…abandoned, deteriorating. The residents of Danvers, Massachusetts, steer well clear of the place. But Danvers State Mental Hospital closed down for 15 years is about to receive five new visitors…”

Brrr… freaky enough, right? Well, trust me; the actual film is leaps and bounds better than even that creeper synopsis lets on. And best of all, with all horror and terror aside, the film is a tight flick about a group of men and how they interact as a team. While that may not sound too appealing, the actors – yes, even David Caruso – make for a lovable group of grumps that I enjoyed spending 90 minutes with.

Let’s talk about the horror for a second. You have to wait until the end, but once it hits (full force), it is well worth the wait. The first two thirds of the film is creepy but mostly about the men and the job. Horror looms in the background at all times, sure, but it isn’t until the final act that the shit really hits the fan. And boy, does it. The final act is as bloody as any slasher you could ever hope for and even features a fun, very cool cameo by Mr. Larry Fessenden himself. But it is the final, give or take, 30 seconds of the film that still haunts me to this day.

You see, the film is constantly playing a game of “Is it ghosts? Is it all in your head? Or is there a human element to the horror?” And that game comes to nightmarish reality in the film’s final moments. I specifically remember having fun with the film until its last frames. That was when I needed to turn the lights on. But that still didn’t help. The horrors that Session 9 presents in its final moments are horrors where there is nowhere to run, no way to prevent it from finding you in the darkness, and no way to save yourself, or your loved ones, if it finds you.

“I live in the weak and the wounded.”

Being that I am prone to being one of those dudes that lets shit bottle up inside until I explode (sad but true), this film is fucking terrifying to me. I get it. I fear it. And I hope you will too. As kids, we need cautionary tales, and let’s not forget that we as adults do too sometimes. Session 9 is a warning for grown-ups. You almost deserve it for yourself and your loved ones to see this film and allow it to sink in. Just don’t expect to sleep for a few nights…

In the end, why did Session 9 scare the hell out me so bad? Was it that voice that haunts my dreams to this day, or was it what the voice says? I’m still not sure. But trust me when I say that Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is one of the absolute scariest films I have ever seen. If you haven’t given the film its day in court yet, remedy that ASAP and thank me (or hate me) later.

You can buy Session 9 on Blu-ray HERE. And while you’re at it, make sure to check out Villmark Asylum (a similar film to Session 9) now on VOD.

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The Nuclear Explosion Scene in Terminator 2 Still Haunts Me After More Than 20 Years

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A beautiful, bright, sunny day on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Children frolic and delight at a picturesque playground. A merry-go-round spins lazily, a see-saw goes up, then down, then up, then down, over and over, a swing set glides back and forth, ever higher. It should be the setting of a moment of happiness and joy. Instead, it is the canvas for one of cinema’s most nightmarish and enduring scenes.

A bright flash goes off in the distance and everyone, parents and children alike, duck on the ground only for their bodies, and the ground itself, to smolder, smoke, and then burst into flame from the intense heat. The buildings in the distance evaporate, blown apart by a growing dome of fire that burns hotter than the core of the sun. Cars and busses are blown away like leaves off a tree on a windy day as infrastructure crumbles.

Back at the playground, all those miles away, everyone is screaming as their bodies blister and char, turning their limbs into brittle ash. The shockwave reaches them and they disintegrate, their bodies becoming little more than clouds of their former selves.

If you need a reminder how horrific Sarah Connor’s nuclear explosion nightmare was, here you go.

A testament to the hard work of effects company 4Ward Productions, the nuclear bomb nightmare in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day has been hailed by scientists has being one of the most realistic depictions in a film. Created by using incredibly detailed miniature sets, matte paintings, air cannons, and prosthetic body doubles, the sequence required multiple takes, went through a myriad of issues, and ultimately ended up as Cameron’s, “…favorite fucking shot in the movie.” [Source]

For me, it’s just as haunting today as it was when I first saw it over 20 years ago. Seeing innocent children quite literally explode in front of my eyes was a shocking moment for someone who, at a young age, thought kids were exempt from being harmed in movies. Then seeing Sarah’s flesh peel away to reveal a skeleton clinging to that fence as her chilling scream echoed through the air? That ruined me then and it still makes me wince and turn my head now.

Even knowing that it’s all a part of Connor’s nightmare doesn’t detract from the terror of that vision. After all, what can a nightmare add to a nuclear explosion to make it more frightening than it already is?

If you want to read an incredibly in-depth piece about how the sequence was created, from inception to actual filming, there’s a wonderful article over at Cartoon Brew that details every aspect of the scene. If you want a mini-version, you can watch the below video.

Also, some quick interesting facts about that scene: Linda Hamilton’s twin sister, Leslie Hamilton Gearren, played the happy Sarah Connor in the playground and the infant John Connor is played by Hamilton’s own son, Dalton Abbott. The more you know!

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