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Dying for a laugh? The true tale of Burke and Hare is no laughing matter

Debate rages over whether decision to portray real-life killers’reign of terror for laughs is a grave mistake


The new John Landis film “Burke and Hare” was released in the U.S. a few weeks ago to eager American cinema-goers, desperate to see the latest offering from a film director with iconic status and who had been off centre stage for such a long time. For those that missed the American screenings in September the movie was released on DVD on 20th December. But is this film worth the wait? And how will American audiences perceive a film which raises laughs over such a macabre subject as the murder of innocent people?

Burke and Hare” was released to audiences in the U.K. last year to mixed reviews. One of the criticisms there so far has been the fact that Landis has taken a horrifically true story and put a comedy spin on it to try to raise laughs for a modern audience. Many who have seen the film question the morality of making light of the gruesome murder of innocent people for profit, despite the fact that those murders were committed nearly two centuries ago.

So, who were Burke and Hare? William Burke and William Hare were two Irish immigrants who came to Scotland in the early part of the 19th century to work as labourers on the construction of the Union Canal. They settled in Edinburgh and their names have passed into infamy as Scotland’s most prolific serial killers, who murdered at least sixteen innocent people and sold their bodies to the local anatomy school for dissection. Their shocking crimes, referred to as the West Port murders, outraged the people of Scotland, a fact which is portrayed in a new documentary by Orickle Limited, a Scottish-based media company which sets out to tell the truly horrifying story of the Edinburgh murderers.

Said Leona Tyrie, producer of “The Body Merchants: The Shocking Truth About Anatomy Murder”, “People watching the Landis film about Burke and Hare may find it to be a whimsical piece of entertainment but it bears no relation to the true story of events and gives the false impression that Burke and Hare were two hapless rogues when, in actual fact, they were callous, brutal murderers. They have gone down in history as grave robbers but the evidence suggests that they never robbed a single grave, preferring to murder their victims, young and old, in cold blood before selling them to the local anatomy school for dissection and simply for profit. The documentary seeks to tell the true story of events and also encompasses the reasons why there was such a shortage of bodies for medical students to practice upon.”

The documentary also focuses on the modern-day sale of body parts for profit and, as Leona explains, “We like to imagine that the dark days of underworld trade in bodies has been confined to history but research shows that this nefarious practice still survives to this day in parts of the world and that truly is a chilling discovery.”

In Scotland, the subject of Burke and Hare is still an emotive issue two centuries later. If there are any living descendants of the murderous duo, they are wisely keeping quiet but the general opinion, at least in the U.K., seems to be that tackling such a subject matter in a comedic fashion is distasteful. 

Time will tell whether American audiences who have no direct connection to the West Port murders will feel the same way.

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