If it feels like people eating people have been a bit all over the place lately, you’re not wrong.
There’s the cannibal romance Bones and all, starring Timothée Chalamet, now in theaters. Another topical film, the darkly comic thriller The menu, flirts with the subject by linking food and death. Netflix recently had record viewership for September Dahmer – Monster: The Story of Jeffrey Dahmer. In January, we had the critically acclaimed cannibal horror movie Fresh. Plus there was Hulu’s in recent years Yellow jackets and the indie outbreak Rawamong other things.
So while you’re celebrating with family and friends this holiday weekend, we reached out to Bill Schutt, Long Island University biology professor, author of the acclaimed book Cannibalism: An Entirely Natural History and Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures. Together we devoured the subject of cannibalism and entertainment, and what makes the greatest western taboo so tantalizing.
I would assume we are biologically driven to be repelled by the idea of cannibalism. But is that right?
I would say no. I think culture is king. That was a surprise when I started writing a book about cannibalism – that it was so widespread in nature. I’m talking about hundreds and thousands of species, from invertebrates to monkeys, that eat their young for reasons we didn’t know until recently. The party line has always been that the only reason you see cannibalism in the animal kingdom is if there’s a famine or if you put creatures in stressful conditions in captivity – except for a few creatures like black widow spiders and praying mantis.
Scientists began to find out that this was not the case. There are many reasons why cannibalism occurs, such as parental care or unpredictable environmental conditions or sexual selection. For example, if you’re a cod and lay 5 million eggs, it’s not like Tony and Tina are there. You’re looking at the equivalent of raisins. They are nutritious. There is no danger in consuming them. Probably more fish are cannibals than not.
But humans are not cod. You would think that even if there are some human cultures that do this, there would be something innate to think it’s wrong – like how we naturally think incest is wrong, even if it still happens.
With incest you limit the gene pool, and that’s the problem. With cannibalism, there are diseases associated with consuming humans – there was a disease in New Guinea, but I don’t think it ever spread worldwide.
Culturally, we’re the ones who decide if it’s OK to consume Grandma after she dies because it’s somehow a tribute to her — or if that’s disgusting and you think she should be buried.
In Western culture – from the time of the Greeks and then passed down to the Romans and everyone else – there was an idea that cannibalism was the worst thing you could do. It ties in with the idea of the Other. If you’re a good old Greek, you don’t eat bodies. But those other guys are, so they’re not even human. Many people jumped on that bandwagon in the West. It became perhaps the biggest Western taboo. If other cultures were practicing cannibalism when the Westerners showed up, they insisted that this behavior wouldn’t cut it.
So in a world dominated by Western culture, all traces of cannibalism went out as ritual. The guys handing out the T-shirts didn’t want to take it. But there were cultures that didn’t have that Western influence where until recently cannibalism took place for things like funeral rights. There were South American groups who panicked when they heard from Western anthropologists that we buried our dead. So I don’t think there’s anything evolutionary, or there’s a gene, that prevents us from cannibalism. I think it’s cultural.
Interesting. You have noticed that it is the No. 1 western taboo. Laying taboos in the cinema is as old as the cinema itself. But I don’t recall ever seeing so many projects referencing this topic in such a short time.
Yes. I have a hypothesis about that. Let’s say cannibalism is taboo #1. Now you add food to that and you have a fascination. There’s this kind of gory aspect to it that appeals to people when they look at it through a filter of fiction, or these stories about mad killers, and you have an appeal. Twenty years ago it was Hannibal Lecter; now it is Timothée Chalamet.
Why, if you were to guess, do you think there’s been a flurry of projects about it lately? Why here and now?
We’re really numb to on-screen violence, especially if you can put a filter of fiction on it. Now you can have the gore and guts and gore that people go for, but also have this idea of food. There may be another reason, but to me that’s why this is so popular.
I suspect – and this kind of cross-pollination sort of echoes what you said – it’s also a matter of content maximization. There are regularly over 400 scripted shows a year, plus numerous movies. We’re running out of taboos to be taboo.
I think it started with Bonnie and Clyde, the 1968 movie, where you could splatter blood everywhere. We have become desensitized to extreme blood and violence. There’s also a built-in attraction when you hear the word. You react hastily when I say the word “cannibalism.” So whether you’re writing a news article or writing fiction, you have a built-in hook.
Also true in the case of this story. This feels awkward to ask, but I’m thinking of the romantic thriller Bones and alland, to a lesser extent, projects such as Fresh: Is there anything sexy about cannibalism?
Good question. I’d say cannibalism is just as exciting as vampirism, although the former is even more extreme. And again, these subjects only produce that effect if they can be viewed through a filter of fiction. Food – often seen as sexy – plus taboo equals fascination.
There was also the Armie Hammer scandal. The idea of cannibalism as a real fetish is disturbing. How common is that?
I’m not a criminal psychologist, so I’m not one to feel comfortable talking about this spectrum of crime. There were many disorders that can lead to that kind of behavior. I think it might seem overbearing because it jumps off the page. When you hear that someone has been stabbed to death, it doesn’t make the papers. But when you hear someone killed and consumed, everyone hears it on the news.
Are you surprised by the number of projects on this, the amount of interest?
I am not. There was a fascination with the Donner party and stories of survival cannibalism in the 1970s and with the book Empathize – of which a very poorly made movie was made.
Instead of Empathizeare there any movies or shows that cover this topic that you thought were particularly good?
Much good work continues to be done on the Donner Party, perhaps the most famous example of cannibalism in United States history. The silence of the lambs was a great thriller for many reasons. I don’t think it has been surpassed [as a project with] aspects of cannibalism.
Was there anything I didn’t ask about cannibalism and pop culture that you think our readers would like to know?
People often ask me what were the two most amazing things I wrote the book with. The first was how widespread cannibalism was in nature. But the second was that given the Western taboo on cannibalism, how widespread it was in Europe for hundreds of years. There was medicinal cannibalism, using just about every part of the human body to “cure” any type of illness or mental illness. Body parts were prepared and powdered or drunk. And this lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. It was even in the Merck Index, the great pharmacological encyclopedia. Then it just disappeared from the history books. They just erased it.
The last remnants of that are now people who consume their placenta after giving birth. Those are the remnants of medicinal cannibalism. It has fallen into alternative medicine with the idea that if you consume your placenta, you replace the hormones that may have been lost after birth. That is not something that is widespread worldwide today. It is mainly Americans who started in the 1970s.
And with that, I hope readers enjoy their cranberry sauce today.