Taken at the turn of the 20th century, the faded snapshot depicts two wealthy men in formal clothes. Between them, a servant presents a platter bearing a somewhat unexpected item: the severed head of a mustachioed companion. But this isn’t the result of a dinner party gone horribly wrong. It’s one of the strangest photographic trends to come out of the Victorian era.
Between the grim expressions of their subjects, the prim and proper clothing and the dim lighting choices, Victorian portraits have often had something of a creepy air. But towards the end of the 19th century, a startling new fashion began to emerge. For decades, headless photography was in vogue – and the results remain terrifying.
Incredibly, members of Victorian society once lined up to get these fantastical portraits done, their formal dress contrasting with the bizarre and macabre poses on display. But what was the appeal of these gruesome snapshots? And how did photographers working long before modern editing software manage to master this chilling effect?
Today, many of these images have survived, featuring men, women and children who are apparently headless in appearance. In equal parts spooky and entertaining, the photos’ impact is a testament to the skilled artists who created them more than a century ago. So what’s the story behind this weird phenomenon of the Victorian age?
By the time that Queen Victoria took the British throne in 1837, the era of progress that would come to be associated with her name had already begun. And across the country, various innovations were transforming every aspect of daily life. From electric lighting to flushing toilets, this was a time of incredible change.