I’ll admit, even on a good day, the humor on this site can be a bit obscure. For example, last week I posted a cartoon about religious prejudice and crawling severed hands. Definitely not an SEO post.
The reason for the religious angle you can probably guess pretty easily. But as for why the hands, well, that depends on whether or not you know you’re familiar with all the killer hand flicks released throughout the decades. Let’s take a tour of that particular genre’s cinematic history with 11 movies featuring evil severed hands.
The Beast With Five Fingers (1946)
The granddaddy of all crawling hand movies! Peter Lorre chews up the screen in this tale of a deceased pianist whose hand isn’t ready to stop playing yet.
Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)
A needle sprouting severed hand AND little green men with bulbous heads who kill their victims with alcohol poisoning? Yes, please!
The Crawling Hand (1963)
Okay, so it’s actually an astronaut’s whole arm crawling around instead of just his hand, but that only makes this MST3K staple all the more silly.
Dr. Terrors House of Horrors (1966)
One of the stories in this venerable anthology features Christopher Lee as an art critic tormented by the disembodied hand of the artist he drove to suicide. A bit of wish fulfillment fantasy from the writers of bad movies perhaps?
And Now the Screaming Starts (1973)
The poster prominently features the “dead hand that crawls”, but most folks just seem to remember the woman who gets assaulted and impregnated by a ghost. Go figure.
The Hand (1981)
A film about a cartoonist’s severed hand putting the squeeze on people starring Michael Caine and directed by Oliver Stone? Yes, it happened. And oddly enough, it’s not considered Stone’s worst film.
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
If you don’t already know about the evil crawling hand in this film, you probably arrived at this site by accident.
Severed Ties (1992)
Another film with a full arm, but this time the experiment gone wrong grows a tail as well. Scientists never learn, do they?
Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)
Technically, the sinister severed hand in this story made it’s debut in the first Waxwork, but it gets a lot more screen time in this one. Bruce Campbell shows up for a few minutes, as well. Guess he likes these hand movies.
Quicksilver Highway (1997)
An anthology composed of stories by Stephen King and Clive Barker sounds like a no-brainer, right? It would, if only those stories didn’t feature a set of killer chattering teeth and a bunch of hands that rise up against their oppressive human overlords.
Idle Hands (1999)
And finally, it’s the part killer hand/part 90s stoner horror comedy that no one was asking for. It always reaches this point, doesn’t it? If this setup had been done in the 40’s when the whole crawling hand business had just gotten started, it would have been an Abbot & Costello movie. Without all the marijuana, obviously.
So, as you can see, the severed hand genre has been around for a while. Still, we haven’t seen any new evil crawling hands at the theater for some time now. Where’s our reboot of The Beast With Five Fingers? Maybe the lack of dastardly digits in cinemas is because modern writers haven’t figured out an angle to approach the subject matter yet. I mean, what is it about disembodied hands that is supposed to be so unnerving anyway?
It’s possible the whole genre could just be filmmakers playing around with the notion of “Limb Phobia”, the irrational, constant fear of losing a part of your body (not to be confused with Apotemnophobia, the fear of people with amputations). The problem with that is Limb Phobia would account for the horror in seeing the hand cut off, but not so much in its coming back.
Another psychological explanation might lie in Freudian analysis. In his work, The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud discussed Wilhelm Hauff’s fairytale, The Story of the Severed Hand. It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that the good doctor reached the conclusion that the amputation in that story “certainly has an uncanny effect, and we have traced that effect back to the castration complex.” Basically, anytime a body part comes off in a story, Freud blames it on the author’s unconscious fear of castration as punishment for inappropriate sexual urges. That’s our Freud (cue laugh track). Again, though, the problem with that hypothesis (one of the problems anyway) is that it only accounts for the fear of losing the appendage, not in having it return.
To get to an idea that includes both separation and return, it might be helpful to look in the Bible. Jesus is quoted in a couple of places as saying, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” He was speaking metaphorically, of course (only certain atheists take stuff like that literally). It was a clever way of telling us we need to completely detach ourselves from whatever sinful habits we may have or immediately remove ourselves from occasions of sin we may find ourselves in.
But as anybody who has ever tried to kick a habit or break an addiction can tell you, that’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. Whatever sins troubled us in the past always seem to find a way to come back and try to snare us again. As the Catechism puts it, “If we do not allow the Spirit to lead us, we fall back into the slavery of sin.”
And that’s the subtext likely to be found in a number of these movies. Evil Dead 2 and Idle Hands are the most obvious examples, with demon possessed paws coming back to cause more trouble even after their owners have lopped off the offending appendages. But it works for most of the others as well, with miffed off mitts returning to exact a toll for past sins. Oh sure, you get the occasional social allegory such as with Barker’s story in Quicksilver Highway, but for the most part, crawling hand movies do a fine job of visualizing the difficulty in escaping those parts of our inner selves we’d be better off leaving behind.
All those who agree, please raise your hands. If you’ve still got them, that is.