The act of slaying one or more of your fellow human beings in a ritual, usually as a token to a God or spiritual ancestors, extends back to the first glimmers of the dawn of Man – the stranger fact is that it is still practiced today.
Taking many forms and seen in a myriad of cultures, these ceremonies, though now far rarer than once they were, still hold a fascination for the creative arts, and human sacrifice is one of the go-to platforms for the construction of horror film and literature, from Greek myth to Hammer Films and H.P. Lovecraft to Children of the Corn.
Human sacrifice almost always revolves around appeasing a supernatural denizen of a perceived afterlife – the greatest gift seen to offer an apparently vengeful deity being a living (soon to be dead) offering. The earliest evidence of human sacrifice found thus far has been in the Sudan, where an excavated Neolithic site uncovered evidence of three apparently high-ranking individuals being killed in a ritualistic manner, surrounded by high value ceramics and two slaughtered dogs.
Dating back 5,500 years, this was in the period that Man made the transition from hunter-gatherers to more ‘civilised’ farmers and cultivators. Elsewhere in Africa and seemingly having developed completely separately to this example, bodies have been unearthed in Southern Egypt, dating back to approximately 3000 B.C. which have identifiable marks of having their throats cut prior to decapitation.
Carved tablets from a similar period depict a kneeling person in front of another holding what resembles a sword, a bowl on the ground in front of the former, presumably to catch the spilled blood. A monarch or God in the image strongly indicates that this is a ritualistic killing as opposed to an execution for a crime. Egyptian discoveries feature two of the most common reasons given for killing a human – to appease a God or to ward off potentially disastrous natural events, and to give a deceased elder or leader suitable accompaniment to the afterlife, often buried alive with the less active corpse inside a pyramid or other sealed tomb.
In Asia, similar examples of human sacrifice took place to pay tribute to dead slave owners and high ranking dignitaries – in China, slaves accompanied their masters to the afterlife in both small numbers and mass slayings of up to nearly 200 men, women and children. Across the border in Tibet, pre-Buddhism, the execution of innocent men and women, as well as instances of cannibalism, a practice which rather goes hand-in-hand with human sacrifice, were commonplace – even centuries later, there are a few examples of renegade sects killing people as part of secret tantric rituals.
In India, the South Pacific, many parts of Africa and most famously, South America, sacrificial human offerings are well documented from ancient and not so ancient times. These range from the use of a sharp implement to cut the neck (or remove the head entirely), the resulting blood or body parts often drunk/eaten or used to make potions and body decoration; the impaling of the victim through whatever orifice was seen most suitable, thus allowing the offering to be on display to the relevant God as a totem; poisonings, flayings, live burials and even more inventive methods.
Mayan and Incan sacrificial ceremonies are amongst the best-understood, largely due to the clear documentation left in the form of ornate daggers, beautiful illustrations, mass grave sites and almost impossibly preserved mummies. Particularly prevalent was the sacrifice of children, a recurring Aztec ritual requiring the ‘tears of children’ to appease their rain God. South and Central American offerings were on scale significantly larger than many other cultures – confirmed examples have ranged from several hundred at a time to several thousand. An estimate from one historian suggests up to 250,000 Aztecs could have met their end in this way in just one year.
In ancient Hawaii, ritual killings were largely centred on demonstrating military strength, the capture of an opposing tribal chief being cause for especially brutal torture, with the victim strapped upside down on a wooden rack and pulverised with blunt instruments to tenderise the flesh. The triumphant chief would rub his capture’s sweat upon his body and then gut the unfortunate enemy, naturally not wasting anything and partaking of their innards as a reward.
Though the establishment of the major religions we now see around the world, these practices were either outlawed or were rejected by evolving societies. However, sacrifice of a human (and certainly animals) still occurs throughout the world, largely in secret ceremonies still dedicated to the pleasing of a deity. Killings are found in remote areas of India and Sub-Saharan Africa, as part of religious rites, witchcraft and for personal financial gain and well-being.
Though rarer, the specific practice of Vodun or Vodou /Voodoo is rumoured to occasionally utilise human rather than animal offerings, even in the present day. Other cults, even in Western Europe, still offer sacrifice as part of ceremonies from self-proclaimed messiahs to devil worship – indeed, some serial killers could well be said to do the same, although in a far more ‘lone-wolf’ scenario.
Human sacrifice in Britain was certainly rumoured to have taken place in the Iron Age, though the tendency was for the offering of a slaughtered animal, usually a horse or dog in exchange for forgiveness or good fortune. Druidic rituals did, allegedly, see humans killed, though it is thought these were more often prisoners of war or criminals. Methods of dispatch have been well documented due to the discovery of several incredibly well-preserved corpses found in peat bogs throughout the 20th Century (a phenomenon also seen throughout Scandinavia).
The most famous British example has been dubbed Lindow Man (due to the location of the discovery) and his method of dispatch seen to consist of a mistletoe-spiked drink and several blows to the head, whilst in Denmark, a similarly well-preserved corpse, Tollund Man, displayed evidence of having been hanged, though it has not been able to ascertain whether this was sacrificial or pure punishment for a crime.
Roman texts, penned by the likes of Julius Caesar, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder, reveal outright disgust at the practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism by the Celts. This, it has to be said, is a tad eyebrow-raising, given the Roman’s penchant for impromptu mass-murder and massacre for sport. However, much of this rhetoric has been disregarded as propaganda, an attempt by the Romans to portray the Celts as inhuman savages. Ironically, the most iconic image of human sacrifice in Britain around this time, the looming wicker man, was almost certainly an animal only offering, with no evidence found to suggest that humans were also encased within and set on fire.
The disturbing and often perplexing history of human sacrifice has lent itself to all areas of art for centuries. The Mexicans and inhabitants of pre-Columbian America celebrated the act in wildly elaborate statuary and paintings. The ever-inventive Aztecs’ actions did rather lend themselves to artistic documentation – the removal of vital organs from living victims, starvation, immolation, drowning and cannibalism were all used to give thanks to one god or another. These have appeared rendered on ceramics and codices, whilst often ornate daggers reveal the planning and importance the sacrifices had in their societies.
The Mayans could at least match these feats, sometimes even trumping them with absurd-sounding ceremonies involving live burial, the bow and arrow equivalent of a firing squad and, most intriguingly, the strange entwining of sacrifice and an Mesoamerican ballgame, in which losing teams would often find themselves beheaded, their skulls becoming ‘bats’ for future games.
There is even pictorial evidence of people being bound up with twine until they resemble the large rubber-type balls usually used, the unfortunates batted and kicked around mercilessly until death or victory. As with the Aztecs, many vessels, paintings and carvings have been unearthed featuring these acts, as well, of course, as the sacred pyramids they were usually centred around, including the dedicated altars.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
Human Sacrifice in Horror Films: A Select Filmography
The Mummy (1932 and many times thereafter)
A reanimated Imhotep seeks to reanimate his long-dead lover by mummifying the unlucky Helen
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Boris Karloff, as the diabolical Fu, attempts to masquerade as a resurrected Genghis Khan in order to stir up an Asian uprising into conquering the West. Pre-code, so heady stuff.
King Kong (1933/1977)
Poor old Fay is welcomed to Skull Island to meet their gigantic God for dinner.
The Black Cat (1934)
Satan. Rites. Damsel. Karloff. Lugosi.
The Mole People (1956)
Subterraneran Sumerian crackpots sacrificing elders after mistaking daylight for a mystical oracle
The Devil’s Hand (1959)
Likeable Satanic cult shenanigans, headed by Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the Batman TV series)
The City of the Dead (1960)
Atmospheric, if a little threadbare Christopher Lee vehicle
Immortal jungle queen demands an equally long-living companion by immolation in a mystical blue flame
Blood Feast (1963)
Food catering meets Egyptian rites as Fuad Ramses dispatches local girls to please the God Ishtar.
Eye of the Devil (1966)
The title offers more than a nod in the direction this hugely atmospheric though undervalued film takes. Almost certainly the only film starring David Niven, Sharon Tate, Donald Pleasence and John Le Mesurier.
Brides of Blood (1968)
Mutations on a remote island require virginal sacrifices to a local monster.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Dennis Wheatley, the go-to for Devil-satiating texts, is brought to film in one of Hammer’s greatest offerings. Those sacrificing are seen to be ‘normal’, respected members of society, as opposed to the popular view of dancing, mostly naked hippies.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970)
Standard English village fare – the resurrection of the cloven one through skin growing and sacrificial rituals.
Jean Rollin’s dreamy look at sacrifice in a chateau.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) and sequels…
Though the slowly shuffling zombies are the star of the show, their origins as blood-drinking, Satan worshipping Templar knights at the beginning of this three-film saga are shown in flashback
Enter the Devil (1972)
A grimy entry into the 70’s obsession with Satanic cults
Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1972)
Ted V. Mikel’s uber-schlocky blood-thirsty witches on the hunt for male blood to offer to the Devil.
The Mummy’s Revenge aka La Venganza de la Momia (1973)
Dazzling, if not entirely gripping entry into Paul Naschy’s attempt to play every famous horror monster
The Wicker Man (1973)
Poor Sergeant Howie gets closer to some frightened goats than he’d like, all for the sake of some apples.
Psychotic London-based antique dealer Neal Mottram (Palance) sacrifices women to the statue of African god Chuku in the belief that it will help his ailing finances…
Race With the Devil (1975)
This well-oiled set-up of the inadvertent observation of a human sacrifice leading to a cult in pursuit has rarely been matched.
Tourists visiting a Greek archeological site are being abducted by a strange cult, intent on providing their God – the Minotaur – with a sacrifice!
Mardi Gras Massacre (1978)
Part of the notorious ‘video nasty‘ list, this slaughter for Aztec Gods romp is still unavailable in the UK.
300 years ago, a Mexican Satanic cult cuts of the hands of their victims to please the Devil. Years later a hand causes mischief.
Backwoods ‘cops’ and their demented siblings sacrifice young women in a psychotic attempt to resurrect their mother’s decomposed corpse…
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
Larry Cohen’s hugely entertaining modern day tale of sacrifice in New York, seeing the follower of an Aztec cult sacrificing locals in a bid to appease a huge flying Quetzalcoatl living atop a skyscraper (ironically, a God whom the Aztecs didn’t actually deem as requiring human sacrifice, actually being gifted slain hummingbirds and butterflies)
An ingenious plot sees now iconic masks lulling innocent wearers to their fate at the expense of Old Gods.
Children of the Corn (1984-2011)
Preposterously long-running franchise in which a town’s over-18’s are sacrificed to a cornfield-based deity
Blood Cult (1985)
A local sheriff investigates a spate of sorority slayings that are found to be the work of a satanic cult. One of the earliest shot-on-video releases, it’s a self -sacrifice to sit through!
A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)
Larry Cohen’s almost universally derided follow-up to the much (and, I would suggest, unjustly) revered Tobe Hopper mini-series see the town farming blood from a supply of non-vampiric folk.
Evil Altar (1988)
In the small town of Red Rock, a devil-worshipping cult led by Reed Weller (William Smith), is in league with the local sheriff (Robert Z’Dar). Weller’s servant is The Collector (Pepper Martin) who kidnaps boys and girls for sacrifice…
The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Ken Russell’s slightly rude, slightly berserk and slightly entertaining snake god romp
The Guardian (1990)
William Friedkin’s unfairly overlooked, if rather daft tree-worshipping drama with ancient druids needing blood to satiate their idols
With a Mexican backdrop, a refreshing change to the norm with drug runners and cartels mixing with the more traditional religious cults
The Shrine (2010)
A remote Polish village harbours a terrible secret (spoiler alert: it’s human sacrifice)
Rites of Spring (2011)
A man known only as the Stranger kidnaps and sacrifices young women as part of a pagan death ritual…
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
One of the most divisive horror films of recent years offers up a novel depiction of sacrifice, which audiences either loved or hated
House of the Witchdoctor (2013)
Surprisingly competent teens in peril horror.
House of Salem (2016)
When kidnapping goes wrong…
An ancient pagan religion requires the sacrifice of young women in the Shetlands
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