I will flay the skin from your flesh and the flesh from your bones and scrape your bones dry. And still you will not have suffered enough.
—Greven il-Vec, Magic: The Gathering (Hatred flavor text)
We as humans like our skin to be intact. It protects everything inside the body from various diseases, and contains a great quantity of nerve endings — meaning that to have it forcibly removed is excruciatingly painful, and being stripped of enough of it will lead to a horribly slow death. As a result, flaying is the signature method of Cold-Blooded Torture for some of the nastiest Complete Monsters.
Scalping is a form of this that was particularly prevalent in Injun Country. In real life it was probably more common to take the scalp from a dead foe than from a living one, as their main purpose was to turn in for bounty (more portable than the whole skin.) But there were certainly some documented cases of people surviving a scalping.
Anime and Manga
- Taken Up to Eleven in the seinen manga Burning Hell. One of the two villain protagonists is a Korean military medic turned serial killer who has this as his modus operandi, priding himself from his ability of keeping his victims alive through the whole process. When sent to a remote island as a punishment, he made a waxhouse-like garden out of the posed and preserved bodies of all the other convicts sent there. Then he tops that when it turns out he can do the same using a sword instead of a scalpel — an over-the-top variation of a Clean Cut that blows his opponent's whole skin clean off his body.
- An episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex features a serial killer who removes the skin of women in the shape of a T-shirt. It turns out he was one among many who were ordered to use the technique as a strategic terror weapon. Batou found the unfortunate survivors, and wasn't very happy...
- In the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga, Dark Marik uses the Millennium Rod knife to skin his father, removing the sacred tattoos from his back, then kill him. The father, however, had been stabbing Rishid with red-hot knives just before this, so no one should feel too sorry for him...
- In Soul Eater, Shinigami skinned Asura alive and made a bag out of it to be his prison.
- The fate of Tito in Anatolia Story.
- In A Certain Magical Index, Aureolus Izzard uses his Reality Warper powers to instantly do this to Stiyl Magnus.
- Just one of the many horrors visited upon Griffith in Berserk during his year's worth of Cold-Blooded Torture.
- Also used in the Retribution arc to a priest of the Holy See.
- Exaggerated in Preacher. The Saint of Killers is so full of pure hate that when he dies and goes to Hell, his mere presence freezes everything in its wake. So the Devil attempts to flay the hatred out of him, whipping him on the back until there's nothing but bone left. It doesn't work.
- Also, shortly before his death, the Preacher came across a group of bandits celebrating mass murder, the leader of which having just scalped a live man.
- Hack Slash villain Doctor Gross apparently did this to himself.
- Done by Freddy to Stephanie in Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash: The Nightmare Warriors. Thankfully, she dreaming when it happens..
- Happens off-panel in the Graphic Novel Joker to a crime lord who tests The Joker's patience just a little bit too much...
- The male hero of the horror movie Timber Falls received quite the nasty whipping for being disobedient to the villains, leaving him with brutal gashes all over his back.
- In the Silent Hill movie, Pyramid Head does this rather quickly. He just rips the skin off with a hand motion and he's done.
- Big Trouble in Little China. During an interrogation, this is used as a threat.
David Lo Pan: Mr. Burton, if you have an influence over your youthful friend, you better exert it now. Otherwise I will send both of you to the hell where people are skinned alive! It's that simple, understand?
- The Torture Porn horror flick Martyrs has a particularly graphic example of this. Oh God.
- In 1934's The Black Cat Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) does this to architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) with very good reason.
Werdegast: How does it feel to hang on your own embalming rack, Hjalmar?
- Happens quite a bit in the various Hellraiser movies.
- Leatherface almost completely skins a still barely living man with an electric carving knife in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and in The Beginning he flays Dean's arm with a knife (apparently For the Evulz) before running him through with a chainsaw.
- Both House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects is showing Otis' idea of spending free time.
- The final onscreen victim in Return to Sleepaway Camp is killed this way, and its meant to be a callback to his earlier shown hobby of skinning frogs.
- In Saw 4, one of Jigsaw's victims is trapped in a device designed to slowly scalp her by pulling her hair.
- Happens to one of Dr. Furano's mooks in the opening of Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl.
- Predators do this (and hang the corpses), but usually with dead people.
- The Imperial Japanese Army does this to a significant character in Zhang Yimou's first film, Red Sorghum. This is done to remind about the brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which the film is set.
- Train opens with this happening to a guy, though unlike the rest of the film's victims, he is mercifully unconscious.
- In Dagon the local drunk, Eqezuiel, has his face peeled off with a sharp blade by inhuman captors (who have the same thing planned for the hero).
- This is a tradition of House Bolton in A Song of Ice and Fire, who are based at the Dreadfort and whose sigil is an image of a flayed man. Roose Bolton's bastard, Ramsay Snow, takes particular delight in it.
- In Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons, the villain and protagonist Elethiomel was fond of this. "The first messenger we personally sent came back without his skin!"
- Various characters in Sword of Truth suffer this fate. In the second book, two graduates of the Wizarding School, who have been lifelong friends for hundreds of years, are informed that one of them will be forcibly conscripted into the service of the Keeper, and will have to flay his friend alive as part of his initiation.
- The Big Bad of one of the Anita Blake novels does this to the Rafael, king of the wererats, in part because the villains couldn't control the rats without his participation, but mostly For the Evulz. He only survives because of the preternatural healing abilities of lycanthropes.
- In Polystom, two deserters convicted of murdering an aristocrat are executed using a device called a "skin-frame": their skin is cut around their ankles and attached to hooks and they are forced to hang onto the frame until their arms tire and they let go.
- In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, one character tells the story of his time in the war where he ended up captured and was Forced to Watch his comrade skinned alive. The narrator only escaped torture by pretending that he didn't understand Russian.
- The short story The Anatomy of Desire by John Theureux is about a man who was skinned and is still alive, and falls in love with a nurse at the hospital.
- This is a favored tactic of the Black Mages from the Mithgar books; their victims need to be in pain in order for the Mages to wrench the life essence needed to power their spells, and so most become adept Torture Technicians. This is a particularly common form of it, and at least one character, Baron Stoke, was almost a junkie getting his fix by flaying his prisoners and leeching their life-force.
- Jason does this quite a bit in Jason X: Planet of the Beast.
- He kills the sheriff this way in Friday the 13th: Hell Lake.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street: Suffer the Children has Freddy cause Goth girl Kat's tattoos to come to life and peel themselves, and the skin their printed on, off her body. In the very next book, Dreamspawn, he cuts a girl's face off with a box cutter.
- The Novelization of Escape from New York reveals this to be the fate of Fresno Bob.
- In Boris Starling's Messiah the serial killer Silver Tongue flays a man named Bart Miller alive. The police later discover that Silver Tongue is murdering men based on how the apostles died and Bart Miller was unlucky enough to share his name with St. Bartholomew - who was flayed alive.
- In The Black Gryphon, the Big Bad Ma'ar had invented a spell that flayed whatever it hit. Most people to end up on the receiving end of it die of blood loss.
- In Larry McMurtry's novel Comanche Moon this was one of the methods used by the Mexican Big Bad to torture his prisoners.
- In Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold, one of the tortures used by Baron Ryoval on Mark Vorkosigan is spraying his skin with a chemical that slowly eats it away.
- In Turn Coat, Shagnasty the skinwalker tortures Thomas by tearing off strips of his skin and wearing out his regenerative energy to make him hungry enough to feed on humans again. For no other reason than to hurt Harry.
- In The Master and Margarita, when Margarita apologises to the demon Azazello for being naked in front of him (It Makes Sense in Context), he reassures her that he's totally fine with it, for he'd seen not only naked women, but also completely flayed ones.
- Used with great enthusiasm in the opening of the Night Lords book Blood Reaver.
- In Kushiel's Dart, Waldemar Selig attempts to do this to Phedre.
- The third season of Dexter featured a serial killer known as The Skinner, who liked to remove the skin from his victims.
- In one of the final episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 6, Willow, in full-on snap-out mode after Tara's death, does this to Warren, Tara's killer, when she catches up to him. It was fairly gruesome for standard television, but he didn't survive for very long after his skin had been removed (mainly because she then followed up by burning him). He got better in the comics continuation, though. Somewhat he still had no skin, and was being kept alive by magic. When magic ended, he died instantly.
- Fan Nickname: Willow the Vampire Flayer.
- You're owed a date with Willow for that one.
- Then, in the Season 7 episode Same Time, Same Place, the demon Gnarl rips its victims' skin off in strips, and eats it, while the victim is still alive. It's in the process of eating Willow's skin (irony?) when Buffy catches up with it, and kills it.
- Not just irony: since Willow accidentally set up the whole "she and the Scoobies can't see each other" just by convincing herself that she couldn't face them after what she did, did she accidentally create the whole Gnarl situation by convincing herself that she deserved to be punished for flaying Warren?
- Glory threatened to do this to Spike in Season 5 (think I can do it all in one strip, like an apple?) but doesn't make it very far.
- The Skin Taker in Candle Cove often threatened Pirate Percy and Janice—although he couldn't get away with it on a kids' show.
- Criminal Minds
- A deranged cult in the episode "The Tribe" does this to a group of university students, making sure to prolong the suffering of the victims for as long as possible.
- In "About Face" the villain cuts his first victim's face off while she's still alive. Earlier in the same episode, Reid mentions Rossi once helped put away a guy nicknamed "The Scarsdale Skinner."
- Reavers from Firefly are rumored to skin their victims to make clothes out of their skins. If victims are very lucky, this happens after they are already dead.
- The X Files episode "Hellbound" has a serial killer who prefers to flay his victims alive. Reyes feels especially drawn to the case because it turns out the whole thing is a repeat from history, with the victims, killer, and investigator from an old crime sentenced to play it all out again via the cycle of reincarnation.
- Done very graphically in The River, thanks to a really vengeful demon.
Religion, Folklore, and Mythology
- The satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest, flute against lyre. There are several versions (either Apollo made a new condition that made it impossible for Marsyas to keep up, like singing or playing the instrument upside-down; or the judge was Midas who declared Marsyas the winner), but both end in the same way: Apollo flays Marsyas alive.
- The apostle Bartholomew is said to have been flayed alive by an Armenian prince after the latter's brother, the king, converted to Christianity; and indeed, he is often represented in art as holding his own flayed skin.
- The Dark Eldar of Warhammer 40,000 use flaying as a standard torture technique. Fabius Bile even has a lab coat made of human skin.
- Necron Flayed Ones have this as their signature ability. They use their long flensing knive-like talons to skin their victims and then they wear the skin as a terror tactic. It works. They also like burrowing out of the ground while wearing the skins of their new victims friends. Flayed Ones have no concept of 'torture', however, and their victims tend to be quite dead by the time they go to work.
- Chaos is unique in that they have learned how to power war machines by ritualistically flaying someone. The victim is put in the machine the machine is promptly locked in every way possible to prevent the daemon doing the flaying from escaping. Then they hope the cannibalised dreadnought charges the enemy lines rather than their own.
- In the Eberron setting of Dungeons & Dragons, members of Dragonmarked Houses who commit a terrible crime against the House would be expelled from membership. This was known as "excoriation," after the (mostly) discontinued practice of having the shamed member's Dragonmark flayed from the skin. If the excoriate survived, the Mark would grow back elsewhere, but would be very painful to use.
- In the Planescape setting of Dungeons & Dragons, this is often the fate of those who run afoul of Sigil's de facto ruler, the mysterious Lady of Pain.
- Although to be fair to her, this is not a torture method but an execution one: Anyone whom the Lady's shadow falls on dies quite instantaneously (if painfully).
- Magic: The Gathering: The Machine Orthodoxy, New Phyrexia's white-aligned faction, is especially fond of doing this to friend and foe alike. The flavor text of Inquisitor Exarch illustrates it best.
"Skin is the prison of the blessed and the stronghold of the heretic."—Argent Etchings, plate 64, passage 17
- In Mass Effect 2 you walk in on Liara threatening a person with this.
- A few fatalaties in the Mortal Kombat series flay instead of directly kill. Unsurprisingly, they are among the cooler looking ones.
- The Lonesome Road expansion for Fallout: New Vegas introduces the Marked Men, whose skin has been torn off by the vicious sandstorms constantly ravaging the Divide. Unfortunately the area's background radiation has also ghoulified them, prolonging both their lives and their suffering.
- Some vengeful trees peel off chunks of Carl's skin in one episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
- Despite it's status as a kids show, In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Plankton's Regular," Plankton's new customer moves the Chum Bucket door over the lying Spongebob, peeling his yellow flesh. It was very, very detailed
- In the same episode, Plankton flays himself.
- In another episode, Patrick Star rips off the front skin of himself. SpongeBob's reaction: Eww.
- The Krusty Crushers has a wrestler blow the skin of another one off.
- In "A Yard Too Far" from The Ren and Stimpy Show, Ren, in a Zany Scheme to steal hog jowls from a windowsill, tears off Stimpy's skin. The camera pans away from Stimpy before his skin is pulled off... and after Ren pulls it off, it pans back to Stimpy, who is now completely skinless. Skinless Stimpy shows up again later, reacting to his skin being mauled by the baboon.
- In an Itchy and Scratchy episode, Itchy nails Scratchy's feet to an escalator, which peels away his fur and skin, but doesn't kill him. Later on, the skinless cat is wearing his fur as if it were a coat, and then is beaten to death by anti-fur militants.
- During the Regular Show Halloween Episode, Muscle Man is dragged of by The Wizard. He returns a few moments later, totally skinned, declares "I told you I was ripped" and falls over dead.
- Numerous historical figures practiced this, including Ivan the Terrible and Vlad the Impaler.
- Non-torture usage: In cases of severe or extensive burns, doctors may have to perform what is called a debridement - that is, removing the dead skin so that healthy skin may regrow, by either scrubbing at or peeling the burns. The exposed dermis is likely to complain regardless.
- Removal of sections of skin is necessary in many plastic-surgery procedures, or when skin must be harvested from other areas to cover third-degree burns. In amputations, the surgeon may salvage skin from the amputated appendage to cover the stump.
- Happened to the Greek philosopher Hypatia who annoyed the Christians in her neighbourhood by being a pagan and female, who decided to drag her naked along the streets and ultimately skin her alive with sharp seashells or pieces of broken pottery, depending on the version.
- According to Herodotus, the Achaemenid Persian shah Cambyses did this to a judge who was found guilty of corruption: He then proceeded to have the judge's skin upholstered onto the judge's seat, and then forced his son to succeed his father as judge. Granted, this is Herodotus, but on the other hand, this isn't too far off of more recent sentences by Middle Eastern despots that can be more easily verified...
- The Assyrians used to punish people by doing this to their children.
- Accidental flaying, as when someone's hair gets caught in machinery and their scalp is torn off, is known as "de-gloving".
- Pierre Basile, a young crossbowman, managed to kill Richard the Lion Heart in 1199. Mercadier, Richard's mercenary captain and right-hand-man, was not particularly pleased to have his 15-year-old working relationship end this way. He retaliated by having Pierre flayed alive.