If you feel that cannibals are popping up everywhere lately, you’re not wrong.
There is cannibalism romance bones and all, starring Timothée Chalamet, is out in theaters now. Another current film, the dark comic thriller Menu, flirting with the subject by pairing food and death. Netflix recently had a record viewership in September Dahmer – The Beast: The Story of Jeffrey Dahmer. In January, we had the acclaimed cannibal thriller New. Plus in recent years there’s Hulu’s yellow jacket and independent breakthrough roughamong others.
So, as you’re partying with family and friends this holiday weekend, we reached out to Long Island University biology professor Bill Schutt, author of the hit book Cannibalism: An Entirely Natural History and Dark Party: Blood and the strange life of blood-sucking creatures. Together we mull over the subject of cannibalism and entertainment, and what makes the West’s greatest taboo so compelling.
I suppose we are biologically driven to be repulsed by the idea of cannibalism. But is that correct?
I would say no. I think culture is king. It was a surprise when I started writing a book on cannibalism – that it is so common in nature. I’m talking about hundreds and thousands of species, from invertebrates to apes, that eat their young for reasons we didn’t know about until recently. The party line has always been the only reason you’ll see cannibalism in the animal kingdom is if there are conditions for starvation or you’re keeping the creatures in stressful captivity — with the exception of a few creatures. like the black widow spider and the praying mantis.
Scientists are beginning to realize that is not the case. There are all sorts of reasons why cannibalism happens — like parental care or unpredictable environmental conditions or sex selection. For example, if you’re a cod and lay 5 million eggs, it’s not like Tony and Tina are over there. You are viewing the equivalent of raisins. They are nutritious. There is no danger from consuming them. Perhaps more fish are cannibals than are not.
But humans are not cod fish. One would think that even if there were some human cultures doing this, there would be some innate sense of seeing it wrong – the same way we innately see incest as wrong, even while it still happens.
With incest, you’re limiting genetic resources, that’s the problem. With cannibalism, there are diseases associated with cannibalism — there was a disease in New Guinea, but I don’t think it ever spread worldwide.
Culturally, once you become human, we are the ones who decide if it’s okay to eat her after she dies because it pays her respects in some way – or if it’s disgusting and you think grandma needs to be buried.
In Western culture – from the time of the Greeks and then passed on to the Romans and everyone else – there is an opinion that cannibalism is the worst thing you can do. It is associated with the idea of the Other. If you were a good ancient Greek, you wouldn’t eat corpses. But others do, so they’re not even human. A lot of people jumped on that movement in the West. It is arguably the number one taboo of the West. If other cultures were practicing cannibalism when Westerners appeared, they asserted that this behavior would not stop.
So in a world dominated by Western culture, any vestiges of cannibalism as a ritual are discarded. The people handing out t-shirts won’t support that. But there are non-Western cultures where cannibalism persisted until relatively recently because of things like funeral rights. There were groups of South Americans who were terrified to hear Western anthropologists say that we have buried the dead. So I don’t think there’s something evolved, or there’s a gene, that prevents us from cannibalism. I think it’s culture.
Exciting. You have noted that it is the number 1 taboo of the West. The introduction of taboos into cinema is as old as cinema itself. But I can’t remember how many projects have covered this topic in such a short amount of time.
YES. I have a theory about that. Let’s say cannibalism is the #1 taboo. Now you add food to it and you have a passion. There’s a gory side like this that will appeal to people viewing it through the filter of fiction, or stories of crazed killers, and you have a charm. Twenty years ago, it was Hannibal Lecter; Now it’s Timothée Chalamet.
Why, if you guessed, do you think there are a lot of projects about this lately? Why here and now?
We’re really numb to the violence on screen, especially when you can put a fictional filter on it. Now you can have the blood and guts and gore that everyone started with, but also the idea of food. There could be another reason, but to me that’s the explanation why this is so common.
I suspect – and this type of cross-pollination is somewhat consistent with what you said – that it is also a matter of content maximization. There are regularly over 400 scripted shows per year, along with a plethora of films. We are about to run out of taboos to become taboos.
I think it starts with Bonnie and Clyde, the 1968 movie, when you could shoot blood everywhere. We have become susceptible to blood and extreme violence. In addition, there is a built-in attraction when you hear the word. Do you have a startled reaction when I say the word “cannibalism”. So whether you’re writing an article or writing a novel, you’ve got a hook.
True in the case of this story, as well. It’s a bit difficult to ask, but I’m thinking about a romantic thriller bones and alland, to a lesser extent, projects such as New: Can eating cannibals have anything attractive?
Good question. I’d say cannibalism is provocative in the way that vampireism has been – although the former is even more extreme. And again, these themes only produce that effect if they can be viewed through a fictitious filter. Food – which is often considered sexy – plus taboo means fascination.
There is also the Armie Hammer scandal. The idea of cannibalism as a real-life fetish is unsettling. How popular is that?
I’m not a criminal psychologist, so I’m not one to feel comfortable talking about this range of crimes. There are many disorders that can lead to that type of behavior. I believe it looks popular because it jumps off the page. If you hear someone stabbed to death, it doesn’t make the news. But if you hear someone being killed and eaten, everyone hears about it on the news.
Are you surprised at the number of these projects, the amount of profit?
I do not. Has a fascination with the Donner Party and stories of cannibals who survived in the 1970s and with the book Alive – was made into a badly made movie.
Instead of AliveIs there a movie or show that deals with this subject that you consider special, uh, well done?
There is a lot of good work continuing to be done for the Donner Party, arguably the most famous example of cannibalism in American history. The Silence of the Lambs is a great thriller for many reasons. I don’t think it was topped [as a project with] aspects of cannibalism.
Is there anything I don’t ask about cannibalism and popular culture that you think our readers will want to know?
People often ask me what are the two best things that I have achieved while writing this book. The first is the prevalence of cannibalism in the wild. But the latter is due to the Western taboo of cannibalism, how common it has been for hundreds of years in Europe. There is the practice of cannibalism for healing, in which nearly every part of the human body is used to “cure” any kind of illness or mentality. Parts of the body have been prepared and ground into powder or taken. And this lasted until the early 20th century. It was even included in the Merck Index, the great encyclopedia of pharmacology. Then it disappeared from the history books. They just deleted it.
The last vestige of that is now people consuming their placenta after birth. It is a remnant of the custom of cannibalism. It has become alternative medicine with the idea that if you consume your placenta, you will replace the hormones that may have been lost after giving birth. That’s not something that’s common around the world today. Mostly American starting in the 1970s.
And with that, I hope readers enjoy their cranberry sauce today.