11 Details About What It's Like To Be Skinned Alive

Being skinned alive (also known as "flaying") was first documented around 800 BCE, and in just about every century since, it has been used as a form of torture somewhere on Earth. The ancient Aztecs practiced it, as did ancient people in Greece, China, and Africa. It was also performed all over medieval Europe, especially as a punishment for traitors and other heinous criminals.

While flaying is no longer common, a morbid curiosity surrounds the practice and its historical context. Below, we'll delve into the gruesome history of flaying.

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  • The Flesh Is Tenderized To Make Skinning Easier

    In the past, some cultures would warm the skin in order to loosen it from the muscles and make it easier to peel off.

    Two commons methods were used to achieve this result: The first method involved leaving a prisoner out in the hot sun all day until their skin was burned, which both tenderized the skin and prolonged the torture; the second method was to boil the victim alive, which could also lead to blindness and scorched lungs.

  • Skinning Typically Began With Long Cuts

    Torture that involved flaying would begin with specific and calculated cuts. Historically, the first area of skin peeled off would be the face. After that, the body would be scored in various places to allow easy removal of the skin in one piece.

    These cuts would be incredibly deep and extend through multiple layers of skin in order to reach the muscle itself. Reportedly, sharper knives made the process less excruciating for the unlucky person being flayed.

  • Skin Is Usually Removed In Large Sections

    As referenced above, skin would be removed in large sections so that it could be displayed as a warning to others.

    In addition to historical accounts of flaying, there is also physical evidence. In particular, the ancient Church of Hadstock in Essex held a legend of a Dane who had committed sacrilege and was flayed as punishment. It was said that his skin was spread out and nailed to the door of the church as a sign to others. When the door needed repair, pieces of human skin were found under the door nails, indicating the size of the skin sheet once held there.

    Meanwhile, at Worchester Cathedral, there is a "large 'slab' of human skin" belonging to a Viking who tried to steal the church's bell.

  • The Recipient Can Feel Every Nerve Ending Being Severed

    Because nerve endings extend deep into the skin and muscle, flaying was a particularly painful process. The ripping motion of removing large portions of skin meant that nerve endings were torn rather than cut, making the pain arguably much worse.

    Although the initial sensation of having the skin ripped off would be agonizing, that pain would have been temporary. The process of flaying would damage both the nerve endings and the fatty layer around them (called myelin); because of this, the body would begin to go numb.