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date: 19 February 2018

Corpses, Popular Culture, and Forensic Science

Summary and Keywords

The dead body has a history of being a source of fascination for the living, with ancient narratives relating to mysterious corpse powers that have fed into how the dead are portrayed and consumed by society. Corpses are graphically visible within the 21st-century West (namely America and Europe) in not only news coverage of natural disasters, war, and human-inflicted trauma but also, most prominently, popular culture. Popular culture will be interpreted here to refer to the ideas, attitudes, images, and texts within the mainstream of a given culture (specifically Western) from the 20th century onward that reflect products and activities that are aimed at the taste of the general masses of people. It is often considered “low culture” or unsophisticated, as it is synonymous with consumer culture and mass consumption; however, it can offer a space where new meanings can be made and explored by subverting or overturning taken-for-granted ideas. The manifestations of popular culture are varied, but the main focus here will be on film and television, which are largely unavoidable and visually vivid as a form of entertainment. Consuming the corpse within popular culture is dominated by portrayals of corpse parts via organ transplant mythology, the undead (zombies and vampires in fantasy and horror genres), and the authentic dead (fake corpses played by actors or mannequins most often used in crime procedurals and detective fiction are part of the forensic science process). Viewing death within the fictional context of the undead and forensics has made the corpse, particularly the opened and violated corpse, into an acceptable entertainment commodity. Accusations have been made that these dead bodies within forensics-based television shows and films border on pornographic in that they seek to be shocking and deviant while meeting the expectation to be entertained by violated, wounded bodies. However, we are no longer shocked. We are acclimatized, and the undead and the authentic dead within forensic science in popular culture have been central in this process. Death and the dead are safe when consumed through popular culture, which provides us with a softening lens. Popular culture portrayals particularly of forensic science enable distance between the dead and the consuming viewer. It is a point of safety from which to explore death and human mortality.

Keywords: corpse, crime, CSI, death, forensic science, gaze, popular culture, undead, vampire, zombie

The Corpse in Popular Culture

The corpse is a vivid reminder of mortality and has an ancient and intriguing relationship with the living. The historical relationship with the dead, particularly through associations with mystical healing powers as embodied by corpse medicine and the asserted powers of the criminal corpse, has led to a vibrant tapestry of narratives surrounding the dead. Contemporary American and European society (referred to here as “the West”) has seized these narratives and myths and transformed them into entertainment within various manifestations in popular culture (i.e., television and film). Popular culture refers to the ideas, attitudes, images, and texts within the mainstream of Western culture from the 20th century. It reflects products and activities that are aimed at the taste of the general masses of people and is often considered “low culture” due to its links to consumerism. However, it can offer a space where new meanings can be made and explored by challenging taken-for-granted ideas. As such, the corpse is popularly consumable in bits (i.e., organ transplantation myths), as the undead in the horror/fantasy genre (i.e., zombies and vampires), and as the authentic dead, where the corpse is a mannequin or a live actor playing dead but appearing authentically dead. All these popular culture corpse forms direct the gaze to consume the dead as entertainment. The exposure of the corpse in various popular culture genres to the consumer feeds an apparent desire for the dead. Notably, however, this desire to consume the corpse is not physical cannibalism but instead through the entertainment capabilities of popular culture, which provides a controlled and safe environment to explore death. Popular culture provides space in which to explore human mortality without having to face the full reality of death and the corpse in person.

The Power of the Corpse

There are many accounts from the middle ages up to the 18th century in the Western world of corpses being linked to mystical powers and qualities. These powers are particularly connected to criminal corpses that have been used for corpse medicine, where the cadaver is used as medicine in the belief of its healing power. Corpse medicine has historically been a widespread practice that has even been used by royalty (Sugg, 2011). It revolved around the belief in the power of the predominantly, but not exclusively, criminal, corpse to cure the living of various illness, diseases, and maladies. This included the conviction that skin from the dead criminal could cure skin diseases and that their blood could stop a variety of complaints including epilepsy, while they could also heal scrofula, warts, sores, neck and throat problems, and even cancer (Cannon, 1984, p. 98). The preference of using the corpse’s hand to stroke the afflicted body part largely fell out of use by the 18th century and corpse medicine declined, but some instances have been identified right up to the 1940s in Cambridgeshire (Porter, 1974, p. 47). Access to the criminal dead in order to benefit from healing powers meant that attendance at public executions was popular and led some hangmen to charge a fee for access to the criminal corpse (Black, 1883, pp. 100–101) after it had been removed from the gallows, all of which is reflected in Thomas Hardy’s 1928 short story “The Withered Arm.”

Notably, the power of the criminal corpse is not restricted to just healing but also includes other mysterious properties such as the hand of glory, which was a talisman supposedly popular among thieves and robbers (Penfold-Mounce, 2010). In recent years this item has been brought to the forefront of popular imagination in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series where Draco Malfoy uses it as part of his plot to assassinate Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The Hand of Glory consists of a dried and pickled human hand (predominantly the left one) severed from a hanged murderer who had not been long dead. It was used to either hold a lit candle or was lit as a candle itself with a wick made of the criminal’s hair and was believed to possess a range of functions:

  • the power to paralyze all those to whom it was presented, rendering them unable to awake from sleep

  • the ability to unlock all doors

  • the provision of light only to the bearer of the hand

  • could only be put out effectively by milk

One of the only actual examples of this form of talisman is shown in Figure 1. The Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom, is claimed to be one of its most popular exhibits. Although the powers of the Hand of Glory are dismissed in contemporary society it remains symbolic of both the power associated with the criminal dead and a long standing macabre fascination with the corpse, or at least parts of the corpse belonging to a criminal.

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Figure 1. Whitby Museum’s Hand of Glory.

With kind permission of the Whitby Museum, United Kingdom.

The power of the criminal corpse extends beyond the mystical and fantastical, as it has also influenced science. Nineteenth-century Italian doctor Cesare Lombroso, widely considered to be the father of criminology, made use of criminal corpses (as well as live criminals) to establish his theory about born criminality. Although much of his work has been discredited over time, his collection of criminal skulls, which he used to develop his theories, still exists and is housed in Cesare Lombroso’s Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Torino, Italy. The collection is controversial, like many other collections of human remains, and has even regained some credibility in the light of new forensic practices of reading the criminal body (Horn, 2003). Importantly, the connection between biology and criminality remains a popular public belief and is regularly portrayed in popular culture (Thomas, 2003). So the Museum of Criminal Anthropology highlights not only the power of the criminal corpse within science but also the symbolic power of the corpse via the fascination it stimulates among the consuming public, as well as reflects a trend for dark tourism.

The symbolic power of the corpse inspires fascination and the desire to consume the dead on the grounds of leisure, entertainment, and education. This is evident within the tourist industry, where consumption of the dead occurs within “dark tourism” or “thanatourism.” Seaton (1996) provides one of the most effective definitions of thanatourism, which he describes as entailing travel to: “a location wholly, or partially, motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death, particularly, but not exclusively, violent death” (1996, p. 15). The lure of the dead is so strong that the site of death or the invisible presence of the dead becomes symbolically powerful. It draws morbid curiosity and the malicious indulgence of other people’s suffering (Seaton & Lennon, 2004) as well as a collective sense of identity or survival (Rojek, 1997). Dark tourism sites have varying shades of darkness as classified by Philip Stone (2006), who set up the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (IDTR) in 2012. Stone identifies a dark tourism spectrum ranging from dark fun factories to dark conflict sites and from dark shrines to dark resting places. In all these dark tourist locations the dead are present even if not visible, particularly if an atrocity or criminal act has been conducted at the site. If the corpse is actually present and is infamous in some way or can be consumed as a souvenir, an additional layer of macabre tourist consumption emerges.

A huge range of macabre souvenirs and keepsakes associated specifically with the criminal dead have been collected over the years. Most are now in museums but include artifacts such as a severed skull cap taken as a souvenir from an autopsy and used as an ashtray; medical bags, shoes, and books made of criminal corpse skin; a dried scalp and ear for a book shop window display; criminal skeletons displayed in hospitals; a mummified arm kept by the doctor doing the autopsy of a murderer; and vast numbers of members of the public viewing the criminal dead before burial (Penfold-Mounce, 2010). Souvenirs are not restricted to actual body parts but also include images of events. The book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (1999) and its companion exhibition in 2002 engage with postcard images of lynchings that were taken and often sent to family and friends in the United States at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. These postcards, which could be purchased and either kept or posted like holiday mementos, showed mutilated and sometimes burnt and disfigured black bodies. Garland (2005, p. 793) uses lynching photography to develop an interpretation of the forms and discourses of the lynchers and supporters in justifying and describing these events as criminal punishments, albeit one “shaped by a white supremacist culture and a politics of racial domination.” Meanwhile Polchin (2007) takes a different tack by exploring the controversy of displaying and viewing lynching images. It would seem for both Garland and Polchin macabre souvenirs such as lynching postcards can powerfully engage the public with key sociological issues such as racism, death, and criminality as well as dark tourism and consumption.

The portrayal of dead black bodies continues beyond lynching at the turn of the 20th century; it is a contemporary concern, with the public display of black corpses, particularly those of men killed by the police such as Sean Bell in 2006, Trayvon Martin in 2012, and Michael Brown in 2014. These more recent deaths of young black men are proving to be as stimulating of protest and even riot as the murder of teenager Emmett Till in 1955, which contributed to the beginnings of the civil rights movement in America. The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2012 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman of Trayvon’s murder and has become increasingly vocal in its complaint of the dehumanization of black people. However all this exposure of the black body risks the corpse becoming mundane or normal. As Anderson writes:

We run the risk of reducing them [black dead bodies] to just a death and erasing the beautiful existence many of them had prior to the deadly moments that introduced them to us all. Although these images were often originally intended to demonstrate the gravity of the deaths of those depicted, the quick and careless ways in which they are used often indicate how little this society thinks our dead are worth.

The portrayal and visual consumption of the dead black body continues to have strong historical ties to lynching imagery in the United States, although contemporary images are dominated by bullets.

Macabre souvenir consumption is only reinforced by instances of tourist-like behavior by the public at locations of violent death that are interwoven with celebrity culture and crime: For example, people dipping their handkerchiefs and skirts into pools of blood as keepsakes at the scene where the infamous bank robber John Dillinger was shot to death by the then fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1930s. Even government officials such as J. Edgar Hoover, the original head of the FBI, have not been immune to this tourist-like consuming behavior. Hoover kept a collection of Dillinger artifacts, including his hat, gun, reading glasses, and the pocket change taken from the corpse (Penfold-Mounce, 2010). It would seem owning a memento of the famous criminal dead was not only acceptable but desirable.

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Figure 2. Keeping corpse souvenirs. Public Domain.

Keeping bits of the famous dead, particularly bones, which do not decay rapidly and are transportable, as shown in Figure 2, or items associated with them, has proved popular across the years. Such morbid souvenirs of criminal human remains play a significant role in dark tourism and reflect the enduring symbolic power of the corpse to stimulate fascination with death, the dead, and the macabre.

Yet another form of the symbolic power of the criminal corpse is as a “hero.” Instances have occurred where the burial site of the criminal dead has become a tourist destination or a shrine with tombstones being chipped away as souvenirs. A range of methods to destroy the symbolic power of the famous criminal dead has resulted. The choice of President Barak Obama in 2011 regarding the corpse of Osama Bin Laden, founder and head of the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda and assumed responsible for the 9/11 US terrorist attacks, reflects this drive to undermine criminal corpse power. Bin Laden, who is perceived by many as a terrorist and therefore a criminal but also a hero and freedom fighter to others, posed a problem regarding the disposal of his corpse. It was anticipated that there would be difficulty in finding a country that would accept the burial of Bin Laden in its soil and who would not draw on the corpse’s symbolic power to make him into a martyr. Under Obama’s leadership it was decided that photographs of Bin Laden’s death were not to be released and neither was DNA evidence. Meanwhile the corpse was buried at sea, creating a site that was not readily identifiable or accessible. It prevented the criminal corpse from being a focus of attention or creating a potential shrine. The need to undermine the symbolic power of the criminal corpse also manifests at sites of infamous criminal acts. Efforts are now made to remove the potential formation of contemporary dark tourist destinations. Consequently, such sites, often houses where serial murders have occurred, are completely destroyed, such as British serial murderers Fred and Rose West’s house on Cromwell Street while Soham murderer Ian Huntley’s home (the site of the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002) was also demolished. This process was conducted behind large screens and the house remains crushed and the dust and debris removed to prevent souvenirs from being collected. Strategies have developed over time to prevent any celebration or heroization of high-profile criminals and their crimes and thus restrict the symbolic power of the criminal dead.

Popular Culture and the Corpse

Popular culture portrayals make the corpse a universal medium of connection between the living and the dead (Quigley, 2005). This can be taken further, for the dead go beyond being merely a connection. Instead “the living hover around the dead, demand[ing] that they entertain them, and [try to make] the corpse into manageable, useful entities” (Foltyn, 2008a, p. 103). Nowhere is this more apparent than within popular culture that surrounds the consumer with death and the dead. The power of the corpse is not limited to those with a criminal past. The power exerted by the corpse within popular culture is identifiable in the mythology surrounding the body parts of a corpse and two key forms of popular culture manifestations of the dead: the undead and the authentic corpse.

The Corpse in Bits

The corpse since the mid-20th century faces the opportunity of an afterlife through the donation of body parts to patients in need of new organs. Organ donation and transplantation has a mythology dating back to before it was medically possible and is found in deeply held cultural beliefs, fears, and concerns about the body and bodily integrity. The gothic novel Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is a catalyst for transplantation myths, which have become used as a springboard to explore cultural fears and beliefs of the possible afterlife of body parts. It is these fears and superstitions within the concept of the monstrous and science that play a fundamental role in the development of transplantation mythology in popular culture representations during the 20th century. Popular culture representations play a key role in educating and influencing public perceptions of body part transplantation. It is in the realm of television and film that body part mythology emerges where fears about the dark side of science rooted in superstition and anxiety with man playing God and science out of control (O’Neill, 2006) are played out. Transplantation mythology flourishes in mediated times in the form of entertainment with a hint of fact.

O’Neill (2006) provides a coherent chronological development of film representation of transplantation and in doing so uncovers a range of myths that have taken hold of the public imagination in film between the 1930s and the 2000s. He highlights a range of themes with four dominating myths.

1. The threat of science—exploring the idea of man playing God where science is used to create life and suggesting human attempts to improve or replicate humans is an affront to Nature.

This myth is apparent from the 1930s and peaks in the 1950s–1960s where science is shown to be obsessed with creating life and doing the impossible. The threat to science myth in popular culture shares the underlying message that any human attempt to improve on or even replicate humans is an act of unforgivable arrogance and an affront to Nature (van Riper, 2003). Nowhere is this more effectively portrayed than in fictional (but believable) accounts of compulsory organ donation, xenotransplantation (transplantation from animals), eugenics and cloning that are connected to elements of truth in varying degrees and thereby grant apparent validity to fears. For example pig and cow tissue is now successfully used in some heart valve replacements. At the heart of the threat of science myth is the reinforcement of concerns that social inequality will extend as far as the sanctity of our own bodies. The wealthy can buy the organs of the poor, clone them, or demand them from the young (see The Island, 2005 and Never Let Me Go, 2010).

2. Misplaced trust—suggesting the existence of corruption in the medical system as well as in the procurement and allocation of organs.

The misplaced trust myth emerged in the late 1960s regarding corruption in the medical system and the procurement and allocation of organs. This myth is particularly strong with continuing organ shortages and reflected in films such as Coma (1978), where organs are being retrieved from comatose patients for transplant. The myth within popular culture often has a story resolution involving an ethical discussion between medics—a senior figure and a young idealistic doctor—ending with the senior figure being discredited or killed off and the young doctor left to carry on his or her ethical career. Even The Simpsons has explored this corruption theme: when Marge receives a coveted T-shirt from a television program she is approached by the Springfield town doctor, who offers to put her at the top of the heart transplant waiting list in exchange for the T-shirt. She points out she doesn’t need a transplant, but the doctor warns her that she might one day (“My Mother the Carjacker,” Season 15). The Simpsons program is well known for often being close to the bone in that it covers issues that are close to the truth and might offend some people. It does this through humor and in doing so is able to explore and critique issues such as shared social fears and corruption about organ transplantation. The Simpsons characters are able to transgress socially acceptable boundaries and say things that people would not articulate. For organ donation and transplantation to work, it is crucial that donation is voluntary and bodies of potential donors—living and dead—are protected and not exploited by those charged with their care (Scheper-Hughes, 2001, p. 59). This is undermined in popular culture manifestations where doctors are shown to be manipulating the organ allocation system to favor their patients or lying to hospital committee members about the eligibility of a patient for a transplant, thus placing their judgement over medical realities or fairness of organ allocation (Morgan, Movius, & Cody, 2009).

3. Forced donation—relates to tales of organ theft and the black market for human organs.

This myth propagates tales of “forced donation” relating to organ theft and the black market for human body parts. Anxieties and the ethics of acquiring organs within the fictional realm reflect wider societal concerns about organ donation particularly due to the noted growth in the 21st century of a black market for organs. Fictional accounts of illicit or illegal procurement of organs have created a new set of narratives relating to organ theft. These narratives include a healthy young individual being drugged by a stranger and waking up in pain with surgical wounds and discovering a kidney has been removed. Organ theft narratives are spread via global rumor and urban legends of body part stealing and have provoked resistance to presumed consent in respect to organ harvesting, attacks on foreigners, trafficking children’s bodies and body parts, and coerced gifts from prisoners in exchange for a reduction in prison sentence (Scheper-Hughes 2001, pp. 32, 35). Organ transplantation within this myth is seen as exploitation involving illicit procurement, grave robbing, trade in organs from powerless donors, and allocation of organs to the privileged, fueling fear that people will be killed for organs (Youngner, 1996). This notion of obtaining organs without consent is only exacerbated by suspicions that the corpses displayed in Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition are not all from willing donors but are from questionable sources or from developing or Third World countries. If the suspicions were proved to be true, the exhibition provides very visible evidence to support social inequality fears and forced donation myths.

4. Losing control—where organ recipients find their new body part exerts influence over them following a transplant.

Tales regarding the transplantation of gross anatomy from donors who have committed murder or rape are common from the earliest Hollywood films, such as limb transplants for example in The Hands of Orlac (1924) and in Mad Love (1935), where a pianist is given a hand transplant, not knowing the hands once belonged to a murderer. The hands take on a life of their own and take control with murderous consequences. Meanwhile, in The Amazing Transplant (1970) a man begins raping women wearing gold earrings leading to it being revealed that he had a penis transplant from a serial rapist who preyed on women with gold earrings. In all this popular representation of the limb transplants the solution is to “amputate the organ, to somehow kill the rebellious body part” (O’Neill, 2006, p. 224) to effectively eliminate the puppet master, that is, the organ, by cutting the strings (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Loss of control. Public Domain.

What is notable in this myth of “losing control” is that the donor is regularly portrayed to have been a criminal and the transplant is of largely visible, non-neutral body parts such as hands. There are no tales for instance of a liver donated by a criminal causing the organ recipient to become a murderer. Notions of the body part retaining power to control or influence the recipient continue to the present day and have evolved beyond the simplistic idea of conflict between the grafted organ and the host and a battle for dominance. Instead, the myth of losing control is shifting toward understandings of cellular memory where the dead organ donor lives on via his or her donated organ through mysterious behavioral symptoms and feelings of intense identification with the unknown donor.

The power of the corpse is encapsulated by the continuance of body part mythology within popular culture that contains few positive or even accurate portrayals of the process. This is supported by studies of television shows with organ transplantation storylines and their impact on viewer’s attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors regarding organ donation and transplantation (see Morgan, Movius, & Cody, 2009). Transplantation continues to be represented as exploitative and corrupt, underpinning myths linked to fundamental concepts of control. However, what is most notable about these popular culture–driven myths is that they would not spread or continue to exist unless people found the core ideas credible (Campion-Vincent, 2002).

The Undead

Narratives and fears about death and the dead within the social world are explored through not only popular culture representations of body part myths but also though depictions of the fictional undead. The undead, namely zombies and vampires, and their relations to the living provide valuable insight into the contemporary social world’s views about corpses and mortality.


The undead can be sociologically useful to think about, for “to say that the zombie is fictional is not to say that it does not comment on the real” (Muntean & Payne, 2009, p. 245). This is pertinent regarding the upsurge of zombies in popular culture in the early 21st century, which has been dubbed the “zombie renaissance” (Hubner, Leaning and Manning, 2014). The term zombie is contested, but “zombies do all share a common characteristic: the absence of some metaphysical quality of their essential selves” (Boon, 2011, p. 7). They have no free will and become part of a horde focused on eating humans—who, when bitten, or infected, also become zombies. This version of the zombie is typically traced back to George Romero’s films—Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). These films helped consolidate the Western conception of the zombie, which differs from African and Caribbean diaspora legends and stories that are interwoven with voodooism and voodoo magic (Davis, 2000; Ciekawy & Geschiere, 1998). It is most useful to think of zombies as a recurring cultural motif that is recognizable but that varies in precise form. This is particularly evident in the role zombies play in work theorizing fictional monsters as important social constructions and how they threaten social norms. Zombies such as in Figure 4 straddle the boundaries of human and monster in that they are recognizably still human, that is, wearing clothes but monstrous in their decay and drives to eat human flesh. They are a visual and compelling monster rooted in deep-seated fears about death, decay, physical mortality, and control over the self in terms of body and mind.

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Figure 4. Zombies as the monstrous body. Public Domain.

Cohen (1996, p. 4) argues that the “monstrous body is pure culture” for while the precise form may vary monsters are always the product of the cultural context in which they are created. Monsters are used as a vehicle to construct and represent abject Others. They are social constructs that represent various kinds of lives as Other that are considered as monstrous and deviant. So, on the one hand, the production of monsters can be read as an attempt to fix and control what is different because:

The monster is difference made flesh, come to dwell among us. In its function as dialectical Other … the monster is an incorporation of the Outside, the Beyond—of all those loci that are rhetorically placed as distant and distinct but originate Within. Any kind of alterity can be inscribed across (constructed through) the monstrous body, but for the most part monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual

(Cohen, 1996, p.7).

On the other hand, the very existence of the body of the monster poses a challenge to social norms and conventions. Monsters such as zombies exist beyond social norms and represent a permanent threat to these norms. They force a reflection upon the social and cultural context that creates particular kinds of monsters and consideration of why they are threatening. In this sense the social construction of monsters can be read as both an oppressive move and one that is potentially revolutionary, for monsters have the potential to destabilize social norms:

Monsters are our children. They […] ask us how we perceive the world. […] They ask us to reevaluate our assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression. They ask us why we have created them.

(Cohen, 1996, p. 20)

As a particular type of undead monster, zombies threaten multiple boundaries to the human subject including conventional understandings of death. Zombies are a graphic reminder of mortality as they confront us with a view of ourselves as rotting and decayed bodies.

Moreover, as Austin (2014) points out, they confront us with this view in social spaces where death is never visible because zombies do not stay confined to graveyards and crypts—they invade cities, homes, and the landscape. Mass events such as “zombie walks,” which originated in Toronto, Canada, in 2003, have become popular in which people dressed as zombies raise money for charity, conduct a pub crawl or simply walk for entertainment. The different motivation of the zombie participants does not undermine the enthusiasm for which playing out the role of being the undead in public spaces is embraced, as illustrated in Figure 5. Zombie walks emphasize Dyer’s (1997) analysis of the connection between whiteness and death and how this is represented in horror films in Western culture. Zombie as a social construction of whiteness encapsulates sociological issues and debates about race.

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Figure 5. Zombies are mobile and spread throughout the lived environment. Public Domain.

Zombies are literally a living death in that they are neither fully dead nor fully alive. They are immortal, although they can be killed. They are dead bodies, but they are mobile. Lauro and Embry (2008) argue that in shattering the division between dead and alive, zombies make both categories meaningless given that the value that we place on life is understood socially in terms of not being dead. If death is no longer death, but a kind of living death, namely a corpse reanimated, then how are we to understand the meaning of life? Zombies as animated corpses systematically lack an essential feature of themselves; they are effectively mindless and, moreover, rather than being individuals they are part of a seething mass driven only by bodily desire to consume others. They are effectively bodies without minds and as such threaten Western understandings of what makes us individual subjects, namely a body controlled by its separate, rational conscious mind. This mindlessness is being challenged in more recent zombie genre contributions such as Warm Bodies and In the Flesh, where zombies regain a sense of self and guilt for their actions.

Zombies as a threat to social norms of human subjectivity reflect the sociohistorical context in which they are created and released to the public. One classic zombie film that has been subject to a great deal of analysis on the basis of its portrayal of the relationships between humans and zombies is Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead. The film follows a group of survivors of the zombie apocalypse who take refuge in a shopping mall surrounded by zombies. Jones (2002, p. 163) argues that the film is a satire on the emerging consumer capitalism of the 1970s where capitalist society produced mindless, endless, and destructive consumption, causing no clear difference between the reanimated corpses and the human survivors. Meanwhile Muntean and Payne (2009) argue that depictions of zombies changed fundamentally in the wake of the events of 9/11 and that zombies are being portrayed as a new kind of threat because what is considered a threat to Western human subjectivity has fundamentally changed. Specifically, they argue that Western populations are now constructed as vulnerable to death and violence through the actions of individual, cultural Others who live, hidden, in their midst. Contemporary zombies are therefore used to represent and contain this particular threat. This is illustrated by the shift from slow shuffling zombies of the 1970s to the fast and lethal ones in 28 Days Later in 2002. Additionally Pifer (2011) suggests that Shaun of the Dead offers a critique of working conditions under late capitalism in which zombies are often undistinguishable and unnoticeable in relation to the human workers.

An alternative perspective offered by zombies is that they are productive of social inequality (Behuniak, 2011). Behuniak suggests they reflect social anxieties not simply as a mirror to the social world but that they also construct it and have negative real-world effects. She sees the construction of monstrosity—the portrayal of difference in the body of horrific Others—as something that reinforces social inequalities. Her concern is with the way in which the fictional figure of the zombie has been explicitly imported into scholarly and popular representations of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. As a result we are witnessing that:

the frightening celluloid images of fictional characters called zombies have leaked into the popular and scholarly discourse about real people who have Alzheimer’s disease, constructing them as animated corpses and their disease as a terrifying threat to the social order. […] The zombie instils fear by drawing from cultural anxieties, and then reflecting them back to the population that in turn breaths life and strength into them by applying this fictional representation to social realities.

(p. 72)

Behuniak highlights several ways in which zombie metaphors are used in relation to Alzheimer’s disease including Alzheimer sufferers’ physical appearance and their loss of the self as the illness destroys the brain, making it a literal living death. Many artists are attempting to capture this loss of self and living death; Figure 6 is just one example of this. Here the person in the image is physically losing clarity; her very self is becoming a series of fractured lines. She is losing the self and becoming the living dead.

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Figure 6. Alzheimer’s strips away the sense of self. Public Domain. No attribution required

Alzheimer’s has also been described in terms of cannibalism (which is characteristic of a zombie)—both in terms of the brain feeding upon and destroying itself and also in terms of the toll that the high dependency of Alzheimer’s patients exacts on those who care for them. The disease is described as an epidemic that is ravaging an aging population, placing an intolerable burden on the young and the healthy. Behuniak (2011) argues that these links between zombies and Alzheimer’s patients stigmatize them by evoking disgust and placing those who suffer from this disease in the category of being a monstrous Other who is a disgusting burden upon society, as opposed to a human being worthy of support and respect. So, far from celebrating zombies as socially transgressive, Behuniak argues against the production of monsters, viewing them as a social mechanism by which particular groups become socially disadvantaged.


Vampires have a much longer history as the undead than zombies in terms of both literary texts and on-screen popular culture portrayals. The creation of Western vampirism with its gothic romantic emphasis was first drawn together into a coherent literary form by John Polidor’s The Vampyre in 1819. This short prose tale, followed by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel Dracula, created and established the modern Western understanding of vampirism. The construction of the Western vampire is so strongly rooted in gothic romance that certain quintessential features have emerged to define the visual image of the vampire. This is reflected in Figure 7, which visually (although not explicitly) encapsulates vampirism through black clothing, red lips, the sensual nature of neck biting, and a young beautiful woman as the vampire’s victim.

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Figure 7. Traditional vampire portrayal. Public Domain.

Significantly, in early literary forms of vampirism a gendered monstrosity is presented, where female vampires are more horrifying than their male counterparts. Stoker in Dracula even used the female vampire as a metaphor for the New Woman and her (sexual) independence (Senf, 1982) via the “sisters” that Jonathan Harker encounters in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle. These female vampires are powerful and seductive, commonly referred to as “the Brides of Dracula” although they are more likely to have been his past victims converted to being the undead.

Vampires in the West seek to frighten us into acquiescence and reassert patriarchy, racial superiority, family values, and chaste heterosexuality (Williamson, 2005). This is quite different from Chinese folklore, where the vampire or “jiangshi” is more like a Western conception of the zombie in that it is a reanimated corpse. It “hops” around at night absorbing the life energy of the living rather than sucking blood from victims. (Lam, 2009). Like zombies, vampires, despite being part of the horror and fantasy genre, are social constructs that both reflect and produce aspects of the real social world.

Vampires are both textual and extra-textual creatures; one can even ‘know’ about them […] without actually reading vampire fiction or watching vampire films. In this sense, they are ‘in’ culture; and they may well have (or be mobilised to have) ‘real’ effects

(Gelder, 2002, p. x).

Vampires (and zombies) are being theorized by social science and humanities scholars as social texts. Scholarly analyses of vampires have interpreted them as transgressive of perceived social norms such as heterosexuality and class boundaries. Like their undead zombie relatives, portrayals of vampires “have enacted a host of anxieties and desires, shifting shape as the culture they are brought to life in itself changes form” (George & Hughes, 2013, p. 1). The vampire is liminal; they are marginal, in between life and death, making them “available as a metaphorical figure for the representation of otherness” (Campbell, 2013, p. 100).

Those studying social representations of the vampire have drawn attention to how contemporary vampires in popular culture have changed from the historical origins of vampires as monstrous, terrifying creatures whose lust for human blood was destructive and dangerous. Vampires are shifted during the latter half of the 20th century toward becoming sympathetic creatures who try to contain their monstrosity and consider themselves “vegetarian” by not feeding on humans: for example, Anne Rice’s Louis in The Vampire Chronicles or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel and Spike, both of whom are vampires cursed with a soul. Interestingly, in contrast to these male sympathetic vampires, female vampires remain horrifying monstrous creatures as encapsulated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s brutal and insane Drusilla and Twilight’s Victoria. Despite these monstrous females, among contemporary vampires, “the sympathetic vampire rules. Little remains of Stoker’s monstrous Count or the bestial bloodsuckers of East European folklore” (George & Hughes, 2013, p. 5). Stephanie Meyer’s international bestselling Twilight series is a particularly recent and globally successful example of the sympathetic vampire. Bella the main (human) character builds relationships with the sympathetic vampire Cullen family, who are effectively vegetarian as they drink animal blood and focus on not killing or actively trying to transform humans. The lavish, luxurious lifestyle of the Cullens and the portrayal of vampires as a group who tries to exercise self-restraint and refuses to act on monstrous desires are encapsulated by a scene in New Moon where the Cullens hold a birthday party for Bella. They are a desirable, conservative Other.

The cultural significance of the Twilight saga contributes new issues to public engagement with death and corpses through the undead. As an “Other,” vampires have been used to explore different forms of death, but in the Twilight saga it is not just the notion of mortality and death that is explored but also the manner of death. For example, the Twilight books have been accused of romanticizing suicide (McKay & Maple, 2013). In tackling suicide within the new sympathetic vampire genre it is argued that it is romanticized into something that is unrealistic and overly simplistic. The vampire matriarch of the Cullen family, Esme, is transformed into a vampire after attempting suicide but was “saved” by becoming immortal. Bella’s suicidal tendencies are downplayed and described as being a search for an adrenalin rush and to hear the voice of Edward (the vampire who abandons her in New Moon). For instance the cliff jumping scene, where Bella jumps from a cliff for “recreational purposes,” does not reflect the true reality of such an activity or her mental state. In this instance Bella is saved not by a vampire or by becoming one but by a werewolf’s speed and strength. Here the Twilight saga teaches that if someone loves you, you will always be saved from death. In real life Bella would have most certainly died.

The Twilight saga is also a challenge to scholarship that suggests that vampires are a tool that destabilizes contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality. Vincent (2015) argues that vampire otherness has the ability to embody subverted cultural norms of repressed sexuality, the heteronormative and the gender binary that dictates traditional male and female roles such as in True Blood. However, in complete contrast, the Twilight saga propagates an unapologetic patriarchy, the nuclear family, and the traditional role of women in that family (Silver, 2010). Two examples illustrate this neatly: firstly through the representation of motherhood, which becomes a source of power that is not experienced by single women but which enables Bella to become a self-sacrificing warrior mother, which grants her pleasure, satisfaction, and authority. As such, the model of male/female relationships continues to reflect past traditional understandings of identity, gender, and sexuality rather than offer a challenge. Secondly, it is the sexual relationship or rather abstinence of the two main protagonists, Bella and Edward, that fails to challenge traditional roles and values. As Edward exerts self-control over his blood lust he consistently refuses Bella’s pursuit of sexual contact outside of marriage (Silver, 2010).

The Authentic Corpse

The authentic corpse within popular culture refers to the dead who are either lifelike mannequins or actors within a non-fantasy or horror setting. If the dead do rise and talk it is part of a surreal scene or a character’s imagination. Many authentic corpses appear in detective stories and police procedurals as part of a forensic investigation; however, they also appear elsewhere in popular culture, and it is these that will be focused upon. For example, a landmark engagement with the dead was through the award-winning HBO television series Six Feet Under, which ran for five seasons from 2001 to 2005. The show portrays the life and relationships of the Fisher family, who run a Los Angeles funeral home over a five-year period. To a large extent the show is a conventional family drama, tackling issues such as interpersonal relationships, infidelity, and religion. However, it also has an unremitting focus on death, which is explored in an assortment of ways, including personal, religious, and philosophical. Each episode opens with a death that ranges from a heart attack to murder and from a sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to death in an industrial dough-making machine. The death usually sets the tone for each episode, allowing the characters to reflect on their current fortunes and misfortunes in a way that is illuminated by the death and its aftermath. A recurring plot device consists of a central character conversing with the person who died at the beginning of the episode, while the person is being embalmed or planning or during the funeral. This surreal engagement with the authentic dead to explore key issues such as relationships or cultural fears defined Six Feet Under as a fearless cultural engagement with death and corpses.

Through the show’s focus on human mortality and the lives of those who deal with death and the dead on a daily basis, it unflinchingly uses popular culture to approach societal questions. As series creator Alan Ball reflects on the show’s concept:

Who are these people who are funeral directors that we hire to face death for us? What does that do to their own lives—to grow up in a home where there are dead bodies in the basement, to be a child and walk in on your father with a body lying on a table opened up and him working on it? What does that do to you?1

The members of the Fisher family are consistently shown to experience various crises that are in direct relation to their environment and the grief they have experienced. They are used to explore wider cultural and societal issues in relation to and through death and loss. Once again Alan Ball effectively encapsulates the purpose of Six Feet Under and the connotations of the show, saying:

Six Feet Under refers not only to being buried as a dead body is buried, but to primal emotions and feelings running under the surface. When one is surrounded by death—to counterbalance that, there needs to be a certain intensity of experience, of needing to escape. It’s Nate with his womanizing—it’s Claire and her sexual experimentation—it’s Brenda’s sexual compulsiveness—it’s David having sex with a male hooker in public—it’s Ruth having several affairs—it’s the life force trying to push up through all of that suffering and grief and depression.2

Six Feet Under is not the only television show to use death and the dead explicitly; other such shows include Pushing Daisies (2007–2009), which blurred genres by creating a forensic fairy tale. This television show played with the boundaries of authentic corpses whereby life and death could be granted and taken away at the touch of Ned, the pie maker. Movies also directly use corpses but often as a dark comedy slapstick tool such as in Weekend at Bernie’s (1989 and 1993) and more recently in Swiss Army Man (2016), where a corpse is a main character and key to the survival of a man marooned on an island.

The corpse is also being used and popularly consumed in a variety of still images (photographs). This is largely unquestioned other than acknowledgement that it is provocative and somewhat disturbing. For instance, Entertainment Weekly magazine used an image of Gone Girl (2014) with the two lead characters on its front cover in January 2014. The two characters are lying on a gurney in a pathology lab with the woman looking clearly dead with the tag on her toe, her right wrist at an unnatural angle due to rigor mortis, and the eyes open, glazed and staring. Meanwhile the man is curled around the corpse in an affectionate, intimate manner, his leg and arm wrapped over the corpse in an embrace with his eyes closed in apparent contentment and pleasure at being with her. This image was not questioned as inappropriate; it was not challenged as promoting sexual intimacy with a corpse or potential necrophilia but hinted at love beyond death.

Fashion has also played a role in using the authentic dead but in a controversial capacity. In 2007 W Magazine released images of a fashion shoot featuring a model in fetishized semi-naked poses often appearing dead. This was followed in the same year by an episode of America’s Next Top Model television series in which contestants had to pose as if they had just been killed. Comments from the judges included that one contestant who had been stabbed did not look dead enough while another was told “death becomes you, young lady” and still another was told: “the look on your face is just extraordinary. Very beautiful and dead.” The show effectively illustrated the fetishization of the female corpse within the fashion industry in a popular culture format. This was only reinforced by Marc Jacobs in 2014, who posed singer Miley Cyrus alongside models faking death and Victoria Beckham’s 2015 Autumn fashion line, which used models in corpselike poses playing homage to the 1990s heroin chic. This use of models to “play dead” encapsulates what Foltyn (2011) calls “corpse chic,” where the (largely female) dead are objectified. The controversy over this corpse chic is exemplified by Vice, which in 2013 replicated famous female writers’ suicides as a “Last Words” photo shoot. Ultimately this led to Vice apologizing and removing the images from the website, but they had already spread beyond the magazine’s control. Representing death and corpses via authentic corpses in popular culture creates a morbid space in which to engage with wider issues and understandings of death and life. Although it would appear that society remains uncomfortable with viewing death and the dead, it is the popular culture context and also the type of death and corpse that is portrayed that truly challenge social norms of mortality.

Forensic Science and the Corpse

Nowhere in popular culture manifestations is the corpse (namely, the authentic corpse) and death more naturalized, visible, and acceptable than in the plethora of forensic science television shows. Images of the dead following death (such as illustrated in Figure 8) and during the beginnings of an investigation into the death are commonplace in shows rooted in forensics.

Corpses, Popular Culture, and Forensic ScienceClick to view larger

Figure 8. The corpse as the star. Public Domain.

The prevalence of showing the corpse in a variety of poses and stages of death has led to the dead being heralded as “pop culture’s new star” (Foltyn, 2008b). In police procedural television shows forensic science is shown to engage with death and the dead while maintaining a distance between the viewer and the dead. It provides a normalizing and softening barrier between the corpse and the consumer of death and the dead. The acceptance of viewing the dead in an often graphic fashion through forensic science connects with Seltzer’s (1998) “wound culture,” where he suggests a wounded body (predominantly the corpse) is a matter of mass production and routine, with its openness being normalized and unremarkable. Such atrocity exhibition manifests itself in popular culture forms ranging from fashion to comic strips and from novels to video games along with television and film, all of which embrace the authentic corpse. This notion of the open wounded body as normal and acceptable for consumption allows the corpse to become an art form (Brown & Philips, 2014); a form of entertainment (Ferrell and Websdale, 1999); a celebrity (Penfold-Mounce, 2009); and even an educational tool (see Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition). For example, blood splatter, whether from an actual crime scene or a fake representation as in Figure 9, can become art. It is meant to provoke the viewer through fascination or revulsion. It is about stimulating a reaction.

Corpses, Popular Culture, and Forensic ScienceClick to view larger

Figure 9. Blood splatter as art. Public Domain.

The corpse and its fluids, such as blood, therefore emphasize a crossing point between pleasure and disconcerting disturbance. It encapsulates the morbid and the macabre and is “more than a taste for senseless violence” (Seltzer, 1998, p. 21). Consequently, viewing the corpse through police procedural forensic science allows for a complex process of human engagement with mortality.

Forensic images have become integral to our visual culture (Foltyn, 2008b) in multiple forms and highlight a fervent belief in forensic science capabilities to solve crime and bring perpetrators to justice (Doherty, 2003, pp. B15–16). The most common portrayals are in police procedurals that focus on police forensic examiners or crime scene investigators such as in CSI, NCIS, Cold Case, Waking the Dead, The Body Farm, and Silent Witness, although forensic anthropologists are also portrayed, such as in Bones. The cadaver has become a forensic tool (Timmermans, 2006) with DNA and fingerprints, such as in Figure 10, becoming defining features of the public understanding of forensic evidence and procedure through popular culture representation.

Corpses, Popular Culture, and Forensic ScienceClick to view larger

Figure 10. Fingerprint. Public Domain.

Nowhere is the normalization process of forensics, death, and corpses more evident than in the success of television’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The long-running show and its successful spin-off series (CSI: Miami and CSI: New York) portrayed an exaggerated dramatic vision of forensic science. These portrayals have led to the so-called CSI effect. This effect refers to the impact of popular culture portrayals of forensic science upon public perception and how this has pushed the idea of forensics along with terminology and concepts into popular discourse. Popular perception of the capabilities of forensic science as portrayed in popular culture is not reflected in reality. It is estimated that 40% of the science on CSI does not exist and most of the rest is performed in a way that crime lab personnel can only dream about (Cole & Dioso, 2005, p. 13). Further misperceptions of forensics can be connected to popular culture portrayals of forensic science, which reinforce the notion that physical evidence is reliable and always present, unlike absent or flawed human witnesses (Thornton, 1997). Forensic science on television such as CSI is shown to be not only science but super science that can aid in the conviction of murderers or rapists even after their death or that of the victim. As a result, science and the police are virtually infallible (Deutsch & Cavender, 2008).

Forensic science investigation into death on television and film is often very realistic, suggesting society is comfortable with facing death and the dead. This is not the case for non-fictionalized portrayals of death, dying, and corpses, which remain controversial and uncomfortable viewing. Acceptance and normalization of authentic corpses highlights a degree of being desensitized to atrocity, violence, and death but this does not extend to real bodies. Real cadavers are still shocking; they are too revealing and a graphic of reminder of mortality, with some deserving more respect and attention than others. For example in 2015 the drowned body of three year old Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach provoked widespread horror and demands to help Syrian refugees. Kurdi’s corpse came to stand for all the Syrian refugee bodies washing up on European beaches. The need for dignity and respect for the dead was also highlighted by the July 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over the Ukraine killing all 298 passengers. Concerns were raised over the treatment, recovery, and transportation of the corpses (Walker & Salem, 2014) because of stories and news report images reflecting a lack of respect toward the victims’ corpses, with journalists interfering with personal possessions at the disaster site (Brazier, 2014). The actual corpse requires distance and respect—we continue to be shocked and distressed by the real dead body. In our visually dominated contemporary society the ability to watch the dead is simple and unavoidable. However, reactions to viewing the dead are rooted in whether the corpse is real or an authentic corpse and if either the real or authentic corpse is located within the forensic science realm. If it is within the realm of science that gazing upon the dead gains a degree of respectability and acceptability.

The Corpse and the Gaze

The gaze is about the relationship between pleasure and images, and there is no single gaze. When combined with the corpse, the gaze is revealed as a complex plethora of morbid scrutiny by viewers. Pierson’s (2010) framework of gazes—the voyeuristic, abject, forensic, and autoptic—explores this multiplicity of gazes in relation to the corpse. These gazes have been used to suggest that the gaze can be a softening lens through which the dead are viewed (Penfold-Mounce, 2015). Viewing the dead indulges voyeurism, whereby the gaze focuses on seeing intimately into the private lives of others. Often this is where the viewer can revel in the pain and distress of others or simply observe repugnant or sensational subjects. The voyeuristic gaze can be driven by varying motivations, including:

  • the erotic peeping Tom (predominantly men looking at the bodies of women)

  • the academic researcher

  • the police and the state

  • the news media

  • the innocent bystander of an event

  • racialized visual practices (lynching photos)

  • the tourist (Urry, 1990; Denzin, 1995).

All these gazers are voyeurs. What is distinctive about voyeurism is that it is principally constructed as male. This is reinforced in many police procedurals that investigate homicides that are dominated by beautiful white women; however, the horror genre is likewise heavily gendered in favor of the female victim corpse (Clover, 2015). Mulvey’s (1989) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” explores this gendered voyeurism, suggesting that women are “the (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man” (p. 815). Men are the gazers while women are constructed as fragmented images to be gazed upon and consumed. Typically voyeurism is associated with men watching women without them knowing, often, but not only, when they are in an intimate setting such as while they are undressing or having sexual relations. Voyeurism is effectively reflected in Figure 11, where the watcher is hidden (as evident from the framing of the image whereby the watcher is peering through something) but directing his gaze upon an apparently unaware young woman. She is the female victim of the voyeuristic gaze.

Corpses, Popular Culture, and Forensic ScienceClick to view larger

Figure 11. The voyeur—watching others without their knowledge. Public Domain.

This idea of being watched without knowing in private moments of our lives can be extended to include the intimacy of viewing the dead. The corpse within forensic science television is that of a crime victim, primarily female, as part of police procedurals such as CSI. As such the corpse indulges and stimulates the voyeuristic gaze of the dead body, which is vulnerable to being visually consumed. For example, the corpse is regularly portrayed in a violated state at a crime scene or exposed for autopsy in a pathology laboratory, accentuating its defenselessness to the voyeuristic gaze. The corpse is naked and exposed to the voyeuristic gaze, which is invited to see not just the dead body but often actually inside the opened cadaver.

The abject gaze is interwoven with voyeurism but is fixated specifically upon both the repulsive and attractive components of the corpse. It combines what Glynn and Kim (2009) explore in CSI whereby corpses are constantly referred to as a source of information. The corpse is evidence, part of a puzzle rather than the end of a life. The viewer and characters are constantly reminded that the corpse is a conglomeration of clues and in doing so dehumanizes the body and objectifies it. However although the abject gaze upon the corpse is where modern science undermines magic and unexplainable out of the world, it also seeks to re-enchant the viewer through compelling visual spectacles (Slater, 1995, pp. 220–227). For example, in autopsy scenes such as in Silent Witness or CSI, the authentic corpses indulge the abject gaze under the socially acceptable guise of science. The abject gaze focuses on the corpse as a “profound, horrific reminder of one’s mortality and physical materiality” (Pierson, 2010, p. 185). Or as Kristeva (1982) writes, it is the human reaction of deep and revolting horror to the threat of a collapse in meaning between subject and object or rather self and other. The abject gaze does not respect boundaries and it transgresses identity and notions of order and social norms (Kristeva, 1982). Consequently the corpse becomes the ultimate in abjection. We are repulsed and attracted to it in order to immerse ourselves in it and in doing so protect us from it (Pierson, 2010, p. 194). Popular culture portrayals of forensic science promote this abject gaze through glamorizing and eroticizing the corpse in its dead state. Viewers may be revolted or disturbed by these abject bodies but also culturally fascinated with death and its effects on the anatomized body (Pierson, 2010, p. 195).

The forensic gaze differs from the voyeuristic, abject, and even the autoptic (shortly to be outlined) gazes. This is because this gaze is not directly the viewer’s but rather like a lens through which the viewer sees. The viewer via the forensic gaze sees the corpse but through the eyes of forensic scientists. The forensic gaze is the gaze of science. This definition of the forensic gaze differs from Valverde (2006; 2009), who asserts the forensic gaze to be a way of seeing that is linked to clues about individual criminals and criminal identity in both law and detective. The forensic gaze definition adopted here is “the gaze of science” specifically upon the dead. This forensic gaze constructs a distance and softening lens between the viewer and the corpse, allowing the dead to be gazed upon as macabre entertainment. This distance means the viewer is not going to be directly affected by the smell of decay or burnt flesh; there is no drip of body fluid or squish of organs being removed or bones being severed by a bone saw. It offers audiences a sense of control over crime and criminality because forensic science on television represents truth and the killer being caught; however, perhaps more important, it offers a sense of control over death. The forensic gaze is intertwined with the language of science and investigation (Pierson, 2010). Forensic scientists record their observations through speech about the victim at the crime scene and in the pathology laboratory during autopsy. For example, in Silent Witness pathologists continuously describe and discuss proceedings and findings and answer questions from police detectives who are present and from colleagues. The forensic gaze enables the viewer to experience closeness without true intimacy with cadavers through the softening lens of science.

The final form of gaze is the autoptic gaze. This is interwoven with the voyeur, abject, and forensic gazes but differs in that it is inclined toward eroticizing the cadaver as a visual spectacle within a forensic science setting. Forensic science on television and in film includes heavy stylization of the victim’s corpse, which is consistently reminiscent of pornography (Weissman & Boyle, 2007). Or, as Pinedo (1997) argues, this stylization is “carnography,” where porn and horror expose the hidden recesses of the body. The corpse is passive and beautiful, waiting to be dissected while the viewer is encouraged to gaze at the corpse while forensic experts discuss “penile implants, missing nipples, S & M lash marks, tattoos, and intimate piercings” (Foltyn, 2008b). The performance of forensic science is characterized by an autoptic gaze that is based upon the erotic desire to “see inside the body” and expose hidden secrets (Tait, 2006, pp. 49–50). As such the autopsy becomes a kind of rape (Sappol, 2002) that exploits the nude, young, and beautiful, relying on close-ups and exploration of every inch of the body, which is presented as an outrageous sight (Foltyn, 2008b). Consequently, forensic science in popular culture offers a contradictory space to gaze upon death and the dead in that it is supposedly detached and objective (the gaze of science) while also sensualizing and erotizing the corpse (autoptic gaze).

Review of Literature and Primary Sources

Despite a plethora of research touching upon popular culture, corpses, and forensic science, the work is surprisingly fragmented and inter-disciplinary. Empirical research into the connections between popular culture, corpses, and forensics remains limited and disconnected from each other. Data that has been gathered has largely been conducted by psychologists seeking to make connections between the effect of media on the viewer and CSI and has commonly been used as a case study (see Schweitzer & Saks, 2007). The role of the corpse within popular culture particularly within forensic science still requires further research.

There is substantial work on death and corpses in the past that focuses on the treatment and role of the dead in society and is dominated by historians and archaeologists. This work, such as scholarship by Tarlow and Dyndor (2015) and Sugg (2011), engages with the power of the corpse and how it was used, feared, and disposed of. There are, however, limited links to popular culture and forensic science. Examining the corpse within popular culture has been done by O’Neill (2006) regarding organ donation and transplantation, but much of the literature in this field of corpse parts focuses predominantly on transplantation rates, ethics, and legal disputes. In contrast to this less-rich vein of scholarly work on corpses and popular culture, there is a wealth of research into the undead such as zombies and vampires from a variety of academic disciplines but particularly theater, film, and television and sociology (see Tenga & Zimmerman, 2013). Like that on the undead, much work has been conducted into forensic science within popular culture with particular attention paid to CSI, which has attracted vast attention from sociologists and criminologists to theater, film, and television researchers and even legal scholars since the start of the 21st century (see Jermyn, 2013; Cole & Dioso-Villa, 2009). There is a general lack of consideration of the actual corpse with a great focus on other issues, such as use of music and lighting and links to gender and sexuality and the “CSI effect.”

It is clear that there remains much research to be done in joining together the interrelated research themes of corpses, popular culture, and forensic science in a more coherent and systematic fashion. More work into the use of the authentic dead within popular culture and its potential capacity to desensitize the viewer would be particularly beneficial. Interestingly, this has received far less scholarly attention than the role of the undead in the horror and fantasy genre in the construction of social norms and identity.

What is clear from the research that has been conducted into popular culture, corpses, and forensic science is that popular culture provides a safe, controlled, and stylized way in which to engage with human mortality. Through the undead and the authentic dead, popular culture provides a safe arena from which to explore death and corpses in relative comfort and security. The distance that is created and maintained between the reality of mortality and popular culture portrayals of mortality form a safe space in which to gaze and thereby consume death and corpses. Popular culture portrayals of the undead and the myths surrounding body part transplantation provide a tool that embodies various “threats” to social norms. It facilitates a critical interrogation of these norms while also reinforcing them and aiding in the marginalization of Others. This allows for exploration of our society in a “safe” if somewhat visually graphic fictional genre. In contrast, popular culture representations of forensic science and the authentic dead provide something different to the undead. They provide a space to encourage and nurture public fascination with death and the dead through the lens of science, which makes consuming the dead acceptable, potentially educational, and realistic compared to undead monsters pursuing human flesh.

Further Reading

Bishop, K. (2009). Dead man still walking: Explaining the zombie renaissance. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 37(1), 16–25.Find this resource:

Harrington, E. B. (2007). Nation, identity and the fascination with forensic science in Sherlock Holmes and CSI. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(3), 365–382.Find this resource:

Ley, B. L., Jankowski, N., & Brewer, P. R. (2012). Investigating CSI: Portrayals of DNA testing on a forensic crime show and their potential effects. Public Understanding of Science, 21(1), 51–67.Find this resource:

McCorristine, S. (2014). William Corder and the red barn murder: Journeys of the criminal body. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

McCorristine, S. (2015). The dark value of criminal bodies: Context, consent, and the disturbing sale of John Parker’s skull. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, 13(1), Art-2.Find this resource:

Reed, D., & Penfold-Mounce, R. (2015). Zombies and the sociological imagination: The Walking Dead as social science fiction. In L. Hubner, M. Leaning, & P. Manning (Eds.), The zombie renaissance in popular culture (pp. 124–140). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:


Austin, E. (2014). Zombie culture: Dissent, celebration and the Carnivalesque in social spaces. In L. Hubner, M. Leaning, & P. Manning (Eds.), The zombie renaissance in popular culture (pp. 174–190). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Behuniak, S. M. (2011). The living dead? The construction of people with Alzheimer’s disease as zombies. Ageing and Society, 31(1), 70–92.Find this resource:

Black, W. G. (1883). Folk-medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture (Vol. 12). London: Folk-lore Society.Find this resource:

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Boon, K. (2011). The Zombie as Other: Mortality and the Monstrous in the Post-Nuclear Age. In D. Christie and SJ Lauro (Eds.), Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human (pp. 50–60). New York: Fordham University Press.Find this resource:

Brazier, C. (2014, July 22). MH17: My error of judgement, by sky news reporter. The Guardian.Find this resource:

Brown, N., & Philips, E. (2014, January). Biological art—the grotesque and dark tourism. Paper presented at Negotiating Morbid Spaces Symposium, York, U.K.Find this resource:

Campbell, P. O. (2013). Intersectionality Bites: Metaphors of Race and Sexuality in HBO’s True Blood. In M. Levina & D. M. T. Bui (Eds.), Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader (pp. 99–114). USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.Find this resource:

Campion-Vincent, V. (2002). Organ Theft Narratives as Medical and Social Critique. Journal of Folklore Research, 39(1), 33–50.Find this resource:

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Cole, S. A., & Dioso-Villa, R. (2009). Investigating the “CSI effect” effect: Media and litigation crisis in criminal law. Stanford Law Review, 61(6), 1335–1373.Find this resource:

Cole, S., & Dioso, R. (2005, 13 May). Law and the Lab: Do TV Shows Really Affect How Juries Vote? Let’s Look at the Evidence. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from this resource:

Davis, W. (2000). Passage of darkness: The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Find this resource:

Denzin, N. K. (1995). The Cinematic Society: The Voyeurs Gaze. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Deutsch, S. K., & Cavender, G. (2008). CSI and forensic realism. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 15(1), 34–53.Find this resource:

Doherty, T. (2003). Cultural Studies and ‘Forensic Noir’. Chronicle of Higher Education, 50(9), B15–16.Find this resource:

Dyer, R. (1997). Whiteness. Screen, 29, 44–45.Find this resource:

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(1.) Alan Ball. Six Feet Under: The Complete Series—“In Memoriam” featurette (DVD). HBO Home Video.

(2.) Alan Ball (writer/director). Six Feet Under: The Complete Fifth Season—“Everyone’s Waiting” audio commentary (DVD). HBO Home Video.