If it feels like people eating people has been a bit everywhere lately, you’re not wrong.
There’s the cannibal romance Bones and All, starring Timothée Chalamet, that’s now in theaters. Another current film, the darkly comic thriller The Menu, flirts with the subject matter by pairing food and death. Netflix recently had record viewership for September’s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. In January, we had the acclaimed cannibal horror film Fresh. Plus in recent years there was Hulu’s Yellowjackets and the indie breakout Raw, among others.
So as you feast with family and friends this holiday weekend, we reached out to Long Island University biology professor Bill Schutt, author of the acclaimed book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History and Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures. Together we devoured the topic of cannibalism and entertainment, and what makes the biggest Western taboo so tantalizing.
I would assume we are biologically driven to be repulsed by the idea of cannibalism. But is that accurate?
I would say not. I think culture is king. That was a surprise when I started to write a book about cannibalism — that it was so widespread throughout nature. I’m talking about hundreds and thousands of species, from invertebrates to apes, that consume their young for reasons that we knew nothing about until recently. The party line was always that the only reason that you see cannibalism in the animal kingdom is if there were starvation conditions or you jammed creatures into captive conditions that were stressful — except for a few creatures like black widow spiders and praying mantis.
Scientists started to figure out that was not the case. There are all kinds of reasons cannibalism occurs — like parental care or unpredictable environmental conditions or sexual selection. For example, if you’re a codfish and lay 5 million eggs, it’s not like it’s Tony and Tina over there. You’re looking at the equivalent of raisins. They’re nutritious. There’s no danger from consuming them. Probably more fish are cannibals than not.
But humans aren’t codfish. One would think that even if there are some human cultures that do this, that there would be some innateness about finding it wrong — like how we innately find incest wrong, even if it still happens.
With incest, you’re limiting the gene pool, which is the problem. With cannibalism, there are diseases that relate to consuming humans — there was a disease in New Guinea, but I don’t think it was ever spread worldwide.
Culturally, once you get into humans, we are the ones who decide whether it’s OK to consume grandma after she dies because it’s paying homage to her in some way — or if that’s disgusting and you think she needs to be buried.
In Western culture — from the time of the Greeks and then passed on to the Romans and everyone else — there was this idea that cannibalism was the worst thing you could do. It ties into the idea of the Other. If you’re a good Ancient Greek, you’re not eating bodies. But those other guys do, so they’re not even human. A lot of people jumped on that bandwagon in the West. It became arguably the number one Western taboo. If other cultures were practicing cannibalism when the Westerners showed up, they insisted this behavior was not going to cut it.
So in a world that became dominated by Western culture, any vestiges of cannibalism as a ritual went out the window. The guys handing out the T-shirts were not gonna stand for it. But there were cultures that did not have that Western influence where cannibalism took place for up until relatively recently for things like funerary rights. There were South American groups that were freaked out to hear from Western anthropologists that we buried our dead. So I don’t think there’s something evolutionary, or there’s a gene, that prevents us from cannibalism. I think it’s cultural.
Interesting. You noted it’s the No. 1 Western taboo. Putting taboos in cinema is as old as cinema itself. But I cannot recall there ever being so many projects referencing this subject matter in such a short period of time.
Yeah. I got a hypothesis about that. Let’s say cannibalism is the No. 1 taboo. Now you add food to that and you have a fascination. There’s this sort of gory aspect to it that’s attractive to people when looking at it through a filter of fiction, or these stories about crazy murderers, and you have an attraction. Twenty years ago, it was Hannibal Lecter; now it’s Timothée Chalamet.
Why, if were you to guess, do you think there’s been a surge of projects about this lately? Why here and now?
We are really numb to violence on screen, especially when you can put a filter of fictionalization on it. Now you can have the blood and guts and gore that people get off on, but also have this idea of food. There may be another reason, but to me that’s the explanation for why this is so popular.
I suspect — and this sort of cross pollinates a bit with what you said — that it’s also an issue of content maximization. There are regularly more than 400 scripted shows per year, plus plenty of movies. We’re running out out of taboos to be taboo.
I think it started with Bonnie and Clyde, the movie in 1968, when you could splatter blood all over the place. We have become desensitized to extreme gore and violence. Also, there’s a built-in attraction when you hear the word. You have a knee-jerk reaction when I say the word “cannibalism.” So whether you’re writing a news article or writing fiction, you’ve got a built-in hook.
True in the case of this story, as well. This feels awkward to ask, but I’m thinking about the romantic thriller Bones and All, and, to a lesser extent, projects like Fresh: Is there something sexy about cannibalism?
Good question. I’d say cannibalism is titillating in much the way vampirism has been — though the former is even more extreme. And once again, these topics only produce that effect if they can be viewed through a filter of fictionalization. Food — which is often viewed as sexy — plus taboo equals fascination.
There was also the Armie Hammer scandal. The idea of cannibalism as a real-life fetish is disturbing. How common is that?
I’m not a criminal psychologist, so I’m not a person who feels comfortable talking about this spectrum of criminality. There were many disorders that can lead to that type of behavior. I believe it might seem prevalent because it jumps off the page. If you hear somebody got stabbed death, then it doesn’t make the newspapers. But if you hear somebody killed and consumed somebody, then everyone’s hearing about it on the news.
Have you been surprised by the number of projects about this, the amount of interest?
I’m not. There was a fascination with the Donner Party and stories of survival cannibalism in the 1970s and with the book Alive — which was made into a very badly made movie.
Instead of Alive, are there movies or shows that tackle this subject matter that you thought were particularly, uh, well done?
There’s a lot of good work that continues to be done on the Donner Party, which is arguably 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’s been topped [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 be interested to know?
People often ask me what were the two most stunning things I came away with from writing the book. The first was how widespread cannibalism was in nature. But the second was that given the Western taboo regarding cannibalism, how widespread it was for hundreds of years in Europe. There was medicinal cannibalism, where just about every part of the human body was used to “cure” every type of illness or psychological malady. Body parts were prepared and powdered or drunk. And this lasted right up to the early 20th century. It was even in the Merck Index, the big pharmacological encyclopedia. Then it just disappeared from the history books. They just erased it.
The last vestiges of that now are people who consume their placentas after giving birth. That’s the remnants of medicinal cannibalism. It’s fallen into alternative medicine under the idea that if you consume your placenta, you are replacing the hormones that might have been lost after birth. That’s not something that’s widespread worldwide nowadays. It’s mostly Americans that started in the 1970s.
And with that, I hope readers enjoy their cranberry sauce today.