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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Movies Echo Life’s Fantastic, Weird, Unusual and Bizarre Deaths

Movies Echo Life’s Fantastic, Weird, Unusual and Bizarre Deaths

Helicopter Decapitation Is Bizarre Death - Zack Clark
Many people lead unusual lives; some end in the strangest, almost unbelievable deaths. Hollywood loves them all: the odder, the better to feed new material.

As art often imitates life, people who’ve died from unusual diseases, accidents (boats, cars, planes, trains, industrial machinery), wars, disasters, murders, suicides, executions and quirks of fate are source material to film-makers. People rubberneck motorway accidents and flock to see where celebrities like Princess Diana or Elvis Presley died, as death is compelling on film or in situ.

People In Extraordinary Departures

Folklore claims in 401 BC, a soldier condemned for murder survived 17 days of scaphism (penned in a trough, head and limbs coated with honey, left to death by insects); and in 207 BC, Greek philosopher, Chrysippus is believed to have died of laughter watching his drunken donkey trying to gobble figs!

Sir Arthur Aston was beaten to death with his own wooden leg during the English Civil War in 1649. In Sweden in 1771, King Adolf Frederick, literally ate himself to death. In 1862, baseball player Jim Creighton died swinging his bat too hard and rupturing his bladder.

Franz Reichelt fell to his death from the Eiffel Tower in 1912, testing the ‘coat parachute’ he’d invented. In 1942, the British vessel HMS Trinidad accidentally torpedoed itself, killing 32 men; US Submarine Tang suffered the same mishap in 1944, killing 74. Kurt Godel died of starvation in 1978 when his wife was hospitalised and he refused to eat food prepared by anybody else.

In Toronto, Canada, Garry Hoy threw himself against a 24th floor window to prove it was unbreakable glass. It popped out of its frame, and he fell to his death. German Bernd-Jurgen Brandes was stabbed and partially eaten by Armin Meiwes who’d posted internet adverts for a person willing to be killed and eaten.

Sometimes only slightly strange deaths happen to famous people, but the effects have lasting, national and international repercussions. Abraham Lincoln (1865), John F Kennedy (1963), Martin Luther King (1968), John Lennon (1980), Sam Cooke (1964), Gandhi (1948) and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1914) whose assassination triggered Word War 1, were all shot dead.

Syphilis is believed to have taken Christopher Columbus, Al Capone and Scott Joplin (1917). Others such as Napoleon may have died from the effects of syphilis treatment. Celebrity Trivia Collection lists such gems as Attila the Hun expiring from a nosebleed on his wedding night; and trombonist Tommy Dorsey asphixiated in his sleep from food in his windpipe (1956).

The Bizarre and Unusual Make Fascinating Viewing

Just as some find war fascinating, so decapitation is popular and more frequent than one may suppose. Horror film maker Michael Findlay was decapitated by helicopter blade (1970); actor Vic Morrow died the same way making Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. Helicopter dismembering featured in 1970’s Catch 22. Welsh racing driver JG Parry-Thomas was decapitated by his car’s drive chain snapping in 1927.

Curses from ancient tombs stemmed from George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon, among the 1923 openers of Tutenkhamen’s tomb being bitten by a mosquito while shaving which led to blood poisoning. The film Invincible was inspired by the blood poisoning death of Zishe Breitbart, circus strongman who drove rusty spikes through oak boards with his bare hands, but pierced his knee.

Ballet dancer Isadora Duncan broke her neck when a long scarf caught in the wheel of an open car in 1927. Playwright Tennessee Williams died choking on an eye-drop bottle cap in 1983.

British comedian Tommy Cooper had a heart attack in 1984 performing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. The audience laughed, thinking it part of the show. While filming The Crow (1993), Brandon Lee was shot by a malfunctioning prop gun. Neither crew nor cast realised, assuming he was acting.

Into the Wild (2007) was inspired by 1992’s death by starvation of American survivalist Christopher McCandless. Open Water (2004) was the true story of scuba divers abandoned on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef after a faulty headcount of divers. In 2001 a homeless man in Fort Worth, Texas was hit by a drug-taking driver and became lodged in the windshield before dying hours later, which inspired Stuck (2007).

British comic Rod Hull died falling from his roof trying to improve television reception in 1999. In 2006, Australian naturalist Steve Irwin expired filming a documentary, Ocean’s Deadliest, from a stingray barb in his heart.

Hollywood Loves a Good Death

The 1986 movie, 8 Million Ways to Die was an American crime film. The notion of many exits from life is the heart of the shock and spectacle that is cinema. Saw (2003 onwards) is about ‘Jigsaw’ trapping victims in games/tests of physical and psychological torture. Hostel (2005) is the sadistic torture/death of backpackers.

Some argue that torture today is acceptable. A generation ago, Marathon Man (1976) featuring a dentist probing a man’s weak tooth’s nerve ending was shocking. Final Destination (2000 & sequels), ‘you can’t cheat death’, is thriller-horror with strings of mysterious freak accidents wiping teenagers, one by one.

Death En Masse on Film

Death by Armageddon and imagined end of the world are Tinseltown cliches. The demise of millions from earthquake, volcano, fire, flood, war echoes what happens regularly, yet still counts as escapist cinema. Stories hang on survivors coping. Flawed personalities, ambitions, relationships make drama.

Waterworld (1995) showed aggressive peoples clinging to floating debris on a flooded earth, before finding dry land. 2009’s The Road followed a father and son escaping dangers to find life on a coast. The Book of Eli (2010), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), On the Beach (1959, 2000), Testament (1983), I Am Legend (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Children of Men (2006) and 2012 (2009) variously showed unlikely/fantastic survival after mass death and mayhem.

Horror suits directors looking for the bizarre, unpleasant, demonic or gruesome. Ghost (1990), What Dreams May Come (1998), The Sixth Sense (1999) and What Lies Beneath (2000), for example, shed new light on death. Trinity Education suggest featuring the dead helping/influencing the living, makes them a serious art-form sub-section.

The movie industry has yet to exhaust ten most bizarre ways to shuffle off this mortal coil, listed at How Stuff Works, which include death by getting stuck head-first in a storm drain, a beard catching fire, a flock of hungry sheep overturning a hay trailer onto the driver, lightning striking metal wiring in bras, cardiac arrest from playing video games, unexplained explosion of a molasses tank, death from excessive junk piles and suicide by jumping off the letter H of the Hollywood sign!

First published on Suite 101, 23 August 2010.

Photo: Helicopter Decapitation Is Bizarre Death – Zack Clark

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