A death erection, angel lust, or terminal erection is a post-mortem erection, technically a priapism, observed in the corpses of men who have been executed, particularly by hanging.
The phenomenon has been attributed to pressure on the cerebellum created by the noose. Spinal cord injuries are known to be associated with priapism. Injuries to the cerebellum or spinal cord are often associated with priapism in living patients.
Death by hanging, whether an execution or a suicide, has been observed to affect the genitals of both men and women. In women, the labia and clitoris will become engorged and there may be a discharge of blood from the vagina. In men, “a more or less complete state of erection of the penis, with discharge of urine, mucus or prostatic fluid is a frequent occurrence … present in one case in three.” Other causes of death may also result in these effects, including fatal gunshot wounds to the brain, damage to major blood vessels, and violent death by poisoning. A postmortem priapism is an indicator that death was likely swift and violent.
- In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, art historian and critic Leo Steinberg notes that a number of Renaissance era artists depicted Jesus Christ after the crucifixion with a post-mortem erection. The artwork was suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church for several centuries.
- The 2003 Channel 4 documentary on the Jack Sheppard case, The Georgian Underworld, Part 4: Invitation to a Hanging noted that his hanging caused an erection.
- The “Cyclops” section of James Joyce’s Ulysses makes multiple use of the terminal erection as a motif.
- In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon relates an anecdote attributed to Abulfeda that Ali, on the death of Muhammad, exclaimed, O propheta, certe penis tuus cælum versus erectus est (O prophet, thy penis is erect unto the sky). This understanding of the anecdote, however, is based on a mistranslation of the Arabic source by John Gagnier, who translated Abulfeda’s Life of Muhammad into Latin.
- Also a recurrent theme in Naked Lunch and Cities of the Red Night, by William Burroughs.
- In Thomas Harris’s novel Hannibal, one of Hannibal Lecter’s victims has this condition after Lecter throws him out of a window with a noose around his neck.
- Death-erections and orgasm from hanging are mentioned multiple times in the Marquis de Sade’s works, for example in Justine.
- In the HBO television series In Treatment, in the second episode of the first season, a patient tells his psychotherapist that when he had a heart attack, all he was afraid of was “angel lust”. They then discuss the phenomenon in detail.
- The main characters in Waiting for Godot contemplate hanging themselves in order to achieve this.
- In Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth, character Kumar presents this condition after his death by being hauled into space by the Magellan ship.
- In the 1985 movie Flesh & Blood, set in the year 1501 there is a scene (at about 30 min) in which Steven (Tom Burlinson) and Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) come upon two hanged men. Steven recounts that hanged men ejaculate, and where their semen falls, a mandrake plant grows. Agnes has read about the magic powers of the mandrake in the convent library. She digs up a mandrake that she finds beneath one of the hanged men, and says that if they each eat part of the root, they will love each other forever.
- In the TV series Six Feet Under, it is referred to this phenomenon as “angel lust” when the characters Federico Diaz and Nate Fisher pick up a deceased in the second episode of the first season (episode title: “The Will”).
- In the TV series American Dad in the episode titled “The Most Adequate Christmas Ever” episode 08 of season 3 Roger shouts ‘death boner’ after Stan makes a reference to Michael Hutchence of INXS hanging himself.
- In the video-game Hitman: Absolution, after the player has shot Wade, he states, as he lay dying, that he has an erection.
- In Robertson Davies’ 1972 novel The Manticore, a convicted murderer, sentenced to be hanged, jeers at his guards and says “I’m gonna piss when I can’t whistle!”, which mystifies his lawyer until he witnesses the hanging and notices a damp spot on crotch of the executed man’s pants. The executioner informs him it is an emission of semen, and says it happens all the time.