Shrunken heads are human heads that have been sliced open, had the skull removed and replaced with a wooden ball, the Mouth Stitched Shut, and is then boiled in treated water then dried out. The boiling causes the skin to shrink, and the drying process, using heated stones and sand, shrinks it even further. The effect produces a head that is considerably smaller than the original, often has deformities that give it an appearance that ranges from comical to nightmarish, and is essentially mummified. The process is detailed here.
In fiction shrunken heads can appear anywhere with a tribal setting, sometimes in fantasy, or just when creators need to make it clear that viewers are not in familiar territory anymore. What the heads are used for varies as well, sometimes being in the background among the possessions of a Nightmare Fetishist or Collector of the Strange. Other times they appear as the still-attached head of someone who ran afoul of some mystical tribe or Witch Doctor. Others will be an Oracular Head.
The practice originates with the Jivaroan tribes of the Amazon Rainforest, but has come to be associated with witch doctors. It did have religious significance, but when European explorers arrived, they became curiosities and there began to be a demand for them among the communities. Demand also sparked a rise in headhunting around the areas. Replicas can still be obtained in the Amazon from the same tribe, now made from goat skin. In fiction, however, they can turn up in just about any culture that has a jungle/tribal setting.
- EC Comics: Haunt of Fear #8 had the story "Diminishing Returns". Greedy New Yorker Vincent Beardsley goes to Ecuador to steal a tribal diamond. When the locals catch on, he sells out his friend, who is made into a shrunken head. Vincent gets his in the end, of course.
- In the Tintin book The Broken Ear, Tintin and Ridgewell are captured by the Bibaros, who cut their enemies' heads and shrink them. They escape thanks to Ridgewell's ventriloquism.
- In Violine, on being asked whether the pygmies will eat them, Kombo answers that they are not savages, and are only going to shrink their heads to pingpong balls and make toothpicks out of their bones. The doctor immediately calls him out on this, though, noting that only the Jivaros make shrunken heads. Humorously, a pygmy immediately comes in with a shrunken head, confirming Kombo's statement, to the doctor's protests.
- In one of the final Pre-Crisis Batman stories from 1986, an axe-murderer does this with the head of an ex that he killed out of jealousy, just before sending it to one of her friends to make some kind of sick point. Batman mentions that the chemical that the killer used to shrink her head is similar to that used by the Jivaros, though as mentioned above, the actual technique that the Jivaros used to shrink heads was much different.
- In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the first boy to get a visit from Jack as Santa gets a shrunken head as a present.
- Hotel Transylvania has shrunken heads on the room doors that seem to act as the "Do Not Disturb" cards in normal hotels. They also yell at the maids when the room needs to be cleaned.
- In The Princess and the Frog, Dr. Facilier, the evil Witch Doctor states "I'm a royal too on my mother's side" during his Villain Song, and shows a woman's crowned, shrunken head to the prince he sings the song to.
- At the end of Beetlejuice, BJ runs into a hunter who has a shrunken head, and starts chatting with the Witch Doctor next to him, asking if that's his work, while he steals the witch doctor's line number. He gets his head shrunk himself in retaliation.
Beetlejuice: Is this a good look for me?
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. During a conversation with Captain Teague (his father), Jack Sparrow asks, "How's Mum?" Teague shows him a shrunken woman's head.
Jack: She looks good.
- The film of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has a number of talking shrunken heads, most prominently the one on the Knight Bus that speaks instead of Ernie, the bus driver. They are mostly wise-cracking Plucky Comic Relief characters, although they also provide some exposition. They don't appear in the book, though J.K. Rowling has said she wishes she'd thought of it.
- The film Shrunken Heads from Full Moon Features is about three murdered teens whose shrunken heads are reanimated through Hollywood Voodoo.
- In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the main villain's Crown of Horns is adorned with what looks like one of these.
- In the Land of the Head Hunters portrays the Kwakwaka'wakw native people of coastal British Columbia as keeping the shrunken heads of enemies. (They didn't really, although the film is quite faithful to Real Life aside from this.)
- While one doesn't physically appear in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rodrick asks for one on his Christmas list. This is normal for him.
- Moby-Dick. The innkeeper tells Ishmael that Queequeg is off in the town trying to sell his head, much to Ishmael's confusion. Ishamel freaks out later when Queequeg shows up in the shared bedroom with a shrunken head.
- Goosebumps: In How I Got My Shrunken Head, the protagonist receives a shrunken head from his aunt, who's a scientist researching the island of Baladora. He later finds out that it glows because he possesses "Jungle Magic".
- At the end of The Laundry Files short story "Pimpf", Bob's boss Angleton is seen playing with a Newton's cradle. Upon closer inspection the balls turn out to be the shrunken heads of the story's Big Bad Duumvirate, implied to be still alive and aware despite the treatment.
- Robert A. Heinlein's short story Magic, Inc. While performing his duties as a "witch smeller" Dr. Royce Worthington carries around a pouch of magic-related items. One of them is a wrinkled black object the size of a man's fist, which turns out to be a mummified human head. Dr. Worthington explains that it's the head of his grandfather, whose spirit gives him advice in his work.
- Robert Bloch's short story "The Cure", which like many Bloch stories centers around a punny twist— you can probably guess what given that it's listed here. Later adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
- In Sherlock Holmes and the Crosby Murder by Barrie Roberts, the murder victims have their heads shrunken by an Apache warrior. The Shown Their Work notes at the back of the book acknowledge that there is no historic evidence for this practice among the Apache (although they did collect heads as trophies), but that's what Watson said happened.
- In more than one episode of Gilligan's Island the castaways, and especially Gilligan himself, are worried that the cannibal tribes from nearby islands will eat them and shrink their heads as souveniers.
- In The X-Files episode "Our Town" the semi-Mundangerous Perp of the Week has some shrunken heads he claims are fake, non-human souvenier trinkets from his travels as a young man. But then it turns out that he and his small town/family are Older Than They Look, keeping themselves young through ritual cannibalism which he had learned from Hollywood Natives during those same travels.
- Featured in one Night Gallery segment "Logoda's Heads". The Witch Doctor Logoda maintains power over his people since he knows how to make his shrunken heads speak to him. He comes into conflict with British authorities when they accuse him of murdering an explorer (who happened to be the brother of one of the men investigating him, meaning It's Personal). They try to get a local young woman to help them, but she demurs out of fear of Logoda's power. Then Logoda is torn apart off-screen. The young woman reveals that she knew Logoda was guilty and wanted to take matters into her own hands. She is actually a more powerful witch doctor who knows how to make the shrunken heads kill. The segment ends with the camera zooming in on the shrunken heads, revealing traces of blood and flesh between their teeth...
- Auction Kings: Paul has pointed out when a woman brought one in that selling human body parts is illegal. Paul also pointed out that the shrunken head was fake. Needless to say, he didn't accept the piece.
- Calvin and Hobbes: Calvin has an interest in them:
Mom: Eww, you stitched their mouths shut?
- Among the ingredients Calvin's mom uses to make dinner, or so he thinks.
- He also makes snow scupltures of them.
- "A hundred shrunken heads of popular cartoon characters."
- Piranha Club: Some South American headhunters kindnap Uncle Sid's pet piranha, Ernest, and replace him with the shrunken head of Jimmy Hoffa.
- Pampero Firpo carried a shrunken head to strengthen his wild man from Argentina image. He would talk to and use to demonstrate what he would do to his opponents.
- The Escape episode "Price of the Head" has a drunken loafer befriended by a South Seas islander; eventually the drunk commits murder and the islander offers to take him to his own home island. It turns out the loafer has a fine head of bright red hair, and having it as a trophy will make the native very powerful among his tribe...
- In World of Warcraft, Trolls are savage creatures (well, some of them) and practicioners of Hollywood Voodoo. Shrunken heads often show up in their culture, as trophies collected by their Headhunters or magic items used by their Witch Doctors.
- The Necromancer from Diablo II can use shrunken heads as a shield, boosting his powers at the same time.
- The Witch Doctor in Diablo III can use shrunken heads as a charm for their powers.
- A non-horror/superstition example. A case in L.A. Noire features a shrunken head as a prominent clue. However, being a movie prop, it isn't actually real.
- The Secret of Monkey Island: At one point, Guybrush trades a book called How to Get Ahead in Navigating for the shrunken head of a navigator how helps him through a labyrinth.
- Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island: Yamo is just a shrunken head who can't be understood, except by Papa Doc.
- Heroes of the Storm: The Witch Doctor carries a shrunken Troll head.
- Ed, Edd n Eddy: The Mis-Edventures: When the player collects a specific Easter Egg by chasing down a chicken, they will unlock the ability to shrink or grow the Eds' heads.
- Beetlejuice has a character who appears to be based on the hunter at the end of the movie, in that he has a tiny head and his lips seem to be sewn together.
- Having fled the mansion of the Mad Scientist, Josie And The Pussy Cats are soon captured by a tribe of Amazon natives. Lovable Coward Alex Cabot wonders what the natives will do with their captives. Gadgeteer Genius Valerie shows him some shrunken heads, and replies, "Do these answer your question?" Fortunately, the Pussy Cats are able to use the natives' superstition to effect an escape.
- The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror XII - Hex and the City": Homer sets off the fire sprinklers in the shop of a Fortune Teller and the shower re-hydrates the shrunken heads that she was keeping on a shelf.
Head: Wait a minute, this isn't Cedars Sinai!
- The Fortune Teller is later seen using a hair-dryer to re-shrink the heads.
- There are trees around Camp Lakebottom with shrunken heads hanging from the branches that snap at anyone who gets close.
Squirt: Ahhh! Shrunken head! Can you eat shrunken heads?
Gretchen: No, but they can eat us!
- In Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "X Marks The Ed", Eddy gets a giant pimple on top of his head. Rolf uses a home remedy to get rid of it, though it has the unfortunate side effect of shrinking Eddy's head.
Eddy: (High pitched voice) What happened to my head?!
- There are a few examples of entire bodies which have been shrunken, though their provenance as actual Jivaro relics is highly doubtful. Mary Roach discusses them here. Sadly, the Caroline Alexander article she mentions is apparently unavailable online.