Murnau’s Missing Skull

Horrifying consequences to a lifetime working in the film industry. – Joe Williams explores the effect horror films have on society. 


SOURCE CREDIT – “British Film Institute”

Are Horror films solely responsible for horrible actions in the real world?

If you were to ask the Berlin City police on what should have been a lazy July morning in 2015, the answer would be a stern “Duh”.  Realistically, the main attraction of the Stahnsdorf South – Western Cemetery in Berlin is that it isn’t exactly lively.  So, when the grave of legendary film maker F. W. Murnau was found desecrated one morning, it was sure to spice things up. The coffin lid had been pried open, the crypt was littered with the red droplets of candle wax, and most importantly of all, the skull of Murnau was strangely absent.

The cemetery manager Olaf Ihlefelt, as well as the German police blamed the grave-robbery on an underground group of ‘Satanists’, using Murnau’s skull part of a makeshift occult ritual. The presence of red candles in the crypt, and the blatant absence of a skull seem to point this way. In particular, blame was placed at the foot of Murnau’s own work, with Ihlefelt arguing that the type of films Murnau made were the reason the long-dead director was targeted.

It’s quite ironic, as a group of Satanist grave robbers could have been a plot taken from any of Murnau’s films. Primarily active during the heyday of Silent Cinema, F.W. Murnau was most known for his 1922 silent classic ‘Nosferatu’, arguably one of the most famous films in Horror, and one of the most enduringly popular silent films ever made.

Due to the director’s use of blood and gore, combined with striking Gothic sets and plots centred around all things occult, many in the German media argued the robbery was a consequence of Horror films, even ones older than the aeroplane, warping the minds of Germany’s impressionable citizens.

Entirely fair. If anything, it’s a professional hazard becoming a director of Horror films. One too many gory scenes and you end up having your skull stolen by Satan worshipers, and then getting blamed for the situation in the first place, some eighty years after your death. No rest for the wicked, eh?

While the thieves of Murnau’s skull may have enjoyed horror films, particularly his, to say that Horror films are a cripplingly bad influence on the impressionable is an oversimplification.  Off the top of my head, I can think of many horror directors, and many more horror fans. In the same vein, I could probably count the number of those same directors missing their skulls on one finger. Humans aren’t one dimensional, and for every choice made, there isn’t one defining and all-encompassing stimulus. To say that I’d go out into the middle of the night and steal a skull because of watching a horror film negates the variety of other influences on my life.  Maybe my father was murdered by a skull and I’m drooling for revenge, maybe they go for a few euros on ‘Etsy’, maybe I just think skulls are a sort of shabby-chic, and F. W. Murnau’s was the first one I fancied in the cemetery.  In the same way one could watch ‘Castaway’ and not want to get stranded on a desert island, one can surely watch ‘Nosferatu’ and not have the sudden urge to grave rob creep over them.

Whilst watching a horror film could influence the mentally disturbed, the same could be said of most Rom-Coms and the wannabe stalker. I’d argue it isn’t the fault of the film, it’s the mind of the individual. For Murnau however, his story is still ongoing. In the almost three years since the grave-robbery, his skull still hasn’t been found.

For those feeling the urge to watch a horror film and not desecrate the dead, the Horror Society shows films weekly from 7:00pm every Tuesday (Peter Lanyon, Lecture Room 1).

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