In the 9 months following the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution in 1789, 15,000 people were guillotined. That’s an average of 55 a day.
Decapitation as a form of execution has existed for centuries. The Guillotine removed the executioners direct, haptic relationship to the condemned person’s body. It also removed the idea of death as an agony for the punitive authority and the spectator.
“On the guillotine death was reduced to its bare physical fact, no longer either ‘tragédie’, nor battlefield for a soul. The guillotine, in spite of the efforts of the Revolutionary authorities, was certainly no longer a theatre of vice punished; it was not even a theatre of cruelty; it became perilously near to being a ‘théatre du néant’ Outran p118)
If the mass beheadings in Revolutionary France inured the public to its horrors, beheadings are still used today for sensational moral and political purpose. ISIS have been posting videos of decapitations online for some years. In May 2013, Lee Rigby was decapitated on a Woolwich street by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. In Saudi Arabia public executions, including beheading, continue (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/02/saudi-arabiabeheadings-reach-highest-level-in-two-decades). It is the accessibility of such events – performed man-on-victim and available online today – that brings disturbance, confronting us with the horror and heritage of decapitation as ultimate punishment by death: the severing of face/brain/identity/personhood from body.