Cannibal Horror: an examination of cannibalism and the horror movies about it
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Modern dating, the fashion industry, Texas, and cults: what do they all have in common? I’m sure many commonalities exist but for this article let’s pay special attention to one: cannibalism.
Rather naively I assumed the history of cannibalism to be cut and dry (no pun intended). What I found instead is a muddy water source of speculation and anthropological debate speckled with a few islands of solid facts or recorded instances. Most of my research is about coming to terms with the possibility that everything I thought about cannibalism could be propaganda passed down from the colonial period of various different countries or former kingdoms. Not only that, but the possibility that due to this discovery most portrayals of cannibals in horror movies are depictions of the false colonial narrative. If the potentially false history influences the media we consume (no pun intended) does this false image also influence the true crime instances of cannibalism that have occurred in modern times? Is everything we know about cannibalism false? Or is revisionist history skewing towards positivity surrounding cultural practices and norms unlike our own causing this crisis of logic in the first place? Well, yes and no to all of the aforementioned queries. To answer those questions we first have to examine that history; and the various and nuanced horror movie portrayals history has inspired.
So what is cannibalism by definition? Well, it is “the act of consuming another individual of the same species as food,” meaning that for the purposes of this post I will not be addressing demonic possession, zombies, or the animal kingdom as cannibalism. Not because I take issue with them but rather that it would make this already lengthy piece unimaginably long and confusing. Human cannibalism of other sound of mind humans is a deep enough topic.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CANNIBALISM
Historically the analysis, accounts, and documentation about cannibalism and cannibalistic societies comes from Western or European culture. This is an inherent problem as those cultures had a vested interest in painting native societies as “savages” and “uncivilized” in order to justify treating them like shit and stealing their land. One example being the speculation that Columbus, who we can all agree at this point is a piece of shit, lied to the Queen of Spain at the time that the civilizations he encountered in the Americas to be cannibals. Why you may ask, well because she declared that no land could be taken from natives unless they participated in cannibalism. Both the Queen and Columbus had an interest in the natives being cannibals due to the natural resources their land stood atop. Even deriving the word cannibalism from the people on the Island of Carib despite controversy over these legends. The one problem with this is that there is no actual documentation of these practices that isn’t tainted by a vested interest in painting natives as uncivilized savages that did not deserve their land. Imperialists want nothing more than to paint those that they aim to take from as needing their help somehow either ordained by God to teach them religion or to stop them from living in the Western’s view of squalor. In all reality the people of the West also practiced cannibalism, but they viewed their cannibalistic practices as medicinal and therefore acceptable. Let me not get ahead of myself though because there are some documented modern instances of cannibalism.
New Guinea, parts of the Solomon Islands, and the flesh markets in some parts of Malaysia are all examples of human cannibalism. The Maori people of New Zealand, natives to the Amazon basin, and the Congo all have instances of documented cannibalism. Hell, even Neanderthals are believed to have cannibalized one another. The instances of cannibalism for cultural practice is often debated amongst anthropologists if it is morally right or wrong. A tribe in Papua New Guinea had generations of people affected with a disease, called Kuru, contracted by eating infected human brains. Often taking decades for symptom manifestation it became possible to trace Kuru in this tribe in relation to cannibal practices. These natives practiced Endocannibalism, or the consumption of someone from one’s own community as a spiritual ritual when a loved one passed and the family members would consume parts of their body in the belief that it guides the soul of the deceased to the bodies of their living descendants. Examples also exist of cannibalism during war, like that in Liberia and the Democratic Public of the Congo, famine, and in the belief that consuming someone would allow the consumer to possess their attributes or abilities (i.e. increased strength from a competing warrior that is killed in combat), referred to as Exocannibalism, or consuming someone outside of one’s community usually in victory.
Wait, wait, wait, it’s not just different remote Amazonian cultures that have practiced cannibalism, nope, it’s also early modern Europe all the way into the 19th century. Medical News Today wrote an article that talks about the history including that the practice of consuming crushed up mummified humans started all the way back in the 12th century. Mumia, these crushed up remains, widely became considered a cure-all drug being used as a blood thinner, cough suppressant, anti-inflammatory, and cure for epilepsy. Some physicians doubted its usefulness but that did not stop other practitioners to start grave robbing when the supply of mummies ran low.
Before you go judging them, modern Western cannibalism also exists today and is widely accepted and encouraged in some circles. Western mothers have taken to saving and consuming their placenta post birth, which yes is cannibalism. Some companies even offer to dry and crush it up and then place it in capsules for easy consumption. While there is no scientific proof it is believed that there are outstanding health benefits to this.
Another acceptable reference to cannibalism in modern times are the weird terms we use like “good enough to eat,” “I could eat you up,” and calling someone we find attractive, “scrumptious,” or “yummy,” to express this. Of course we all know that these terms aren’t meant literally (we hope so anyways) in their literal terms they imply cannibalistic acts. Yet no one even bats an eye, and why is that? Well many argue it is because our societal views are inherently racist and only a justification for believing we are superior rather than examining other cultural practices and our own critically.
As an American I would be doing a disservice to this topic if I did not address cannibalism that took place in relation to slavery and racism. Vincent Woodard authored The Deletable Negro, a book that examines the different ways in which Black Americans were consumed both literally and metaphorically in America (2014). African slave accounts from the 16th to 19th century often detailed cannibalism on the part of white Americans but these accounts have largely been pushed aside due to, you guessed it, racism. Although some white Americans would probably argue that no such “savage” and “uncivilized” practices could have been carried out by the forefathers of this country for anyone even partially in tune with all of the violence and terror America is built on it’s not hard to believe. I’m certain the cannibals during the slave trade did not believe themselves cannibals and probably would not accept any forms of cannibalism described to them but hindsight is 20/20 and these people are most certainly cannibals of the worst degree.
The closest we get to generally accepted cannibals is those that resort to survival cannibalism. in extreme situations Exactly what it sounds like, survival cannibalism is the consumption of someone for the means of survival typically in scenarios where people have become cut off from society in harsh conditions. Famous examples of this include the Donner Party and Alfred Packer, both of which are instances of being stranded in the wild and resorting to cannibalizing members of the group. Although Packer is a convicted, admitted cannibal who I guess just went ham on a trip he guided through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Fascinatingly enough cannibalism is not illegal or considered a crime but usually the acts associated with it (murder, dismembering a corpse, disturbing a grave, etc.) are considered illegal and are usually what someone is sent to jai for if caught. There has even been an instance of someone consenting to having their body consumed after death by a man who wanted to consume human flesh.
All throughout different cultures legends related to cannibalism exist, Indigenous Americans and the Wendigo legend is one example. The belief being that once someone consumes human flesh they will turn into a monster with an insatiable hunger to continue consuming flesh, Hansel & Gretal is a folk story about a witch that eats children that wander into the woods and the Wechuge, a half monster half human creature that feasts on human flesh. The list goes on and on, needless to say cultures have been addressing cannibalism since we can recall.
Aside from the moral and ethical complications and overall nastiness, what is the big deal? None really, in theory if someone became a cannibal it is a low-cal diet with the same safety risks as eating any other cooked meat aside from the brain which should not be consumed. In fact, Kuru is the only documented disease associated with eating humans. Now one might think that is bizarre but I would argue a similar, widely accepted meat also poses a similar risk, and that is cow meat (or beef) that can cause Mad Cow Disease. Don’t go out eating humans but just for a fun party conversation starter it’s worth mentioning.
Along with cultural examples of cannibals true crime examples exist. A well known perpetrator is Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer that murdered his victims surrounding sexual encounters and attempted to create a “sex zombie” through various cruel and unusual acts against his victims, even consuming some of them after he murdered and dismembered them (often testing different preservation methods with their remains). As mentioned earlier, Arwin Meiwes, consumed someone who volunteered to be consumed and despite that still went to jail because there is no such thing as ethical consumption when it comes to humans.
One study from a French psychiatry unit examined five men who found their way to the secure unit after cannibalistic crimes. These psychiatrists found that patients fell in two categories, severe schizophrenic and mixed personality with sadistic features associated with paraphilia. Half of the cases involved the patient believing that they needed to act in self defense and the only means of doing this was cannibalizing the threatening person (usually a family member they had conflict with in a heated outburst). The other patients examined felt humiliated by their victims and had a lack of taboos, typically having secret plans to cannibalize someone or fantasies about it.
Cannibalism used to be viewed as uncultured groups who were “uncivilized” consuming one another for various reasons but has transitioned to be seen in association with serial killers and the super wealthy and morally bankrupt looking for the ultimate thrill. Even in some religions, like Catholicism, practitioners consume the “body and blood” of Jesus every Sunday so I think most of us can agree that some of our societal norms are influenced by long standing issues like imperialism and colonization.
HORROR GENRE ORIGINS
How did cannibal films come to be? In the 1970’s and 80’s a genre made predominately by Italian filmmakers came to be, generally graphic movies that depicted primitive civilizations of cannibals. Considered exploitation films mostly focused around remote civilizations in South America and the Amazon. Umberto Lenzi is one cited creator of the Cannibal Film genre with Man from Deep River (1972) along with Antonio Climati with Natura Contro (1989).
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is the most well known cannibal movie and often hailed as the true start of popularity for the genre. I could not bring myself to watch this one and instead watched Ryan Hollinger’s 2018 video where he goes into detail about the movie and the controversies surrounding the movie. One of the most famous movies in this category, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) directed by Ruggero Deodato has faced controversy even before its debut. Deodato and the crew took advantage of actual natives, even trapping them in burning huts with no safety precautions, conducted and filmed all of the animal kill scenes in the film, and faced charges for things in the movie.
The film had not been presented as a horror film prior to release and shocked viewers who went to see it, finding it filled with graphic and disturbing imagery. While trying to show the ignorance of Western media Deodato ignorantly believed that his “art” would not be received as a rumored snuff film. A film crew goes to a tribe of cannibals in the Amazon to make a documentary and after going missing another man goes out in search of them and their footage only to find that they orchestrated scenes of the tribe they filmed murdering or cannibalizing people for the sake of the film. After raping, killing, and abusing these people they are killed by them and the footage is to be destroyed letting their positive legacy reign on in the US. This is a perfect representation of the anthropological stance that the true savages are the ones that are documenting the acts of societies unlike their own being the ones living a cruel and depraved way of life. Unfortunately, this message is largely lost due to the overly gruesome depictions of violence.
For a taste of a different portrayal of cannibalism, Soylent Green (1973), takes place in a 70’s imagined 2022 where a corporation makes meat like products called Soylent Green, also Blue, and other colors. At the end of the movie we come to learn that the food being eaten is made from humans. During March I also read some horror fiction including Tender is the Flesh which I highly recommend which has some parallels to Soylent Green. Corporations will go to no end to make profit, even selling human meat to unsuspecting consumers, gross and unethical.
HORROR PORTRAYALS OF CANNIBALS & CANNIBALISM
Another popular portrayal of cannibalism in horror movies is the "family of freaks” that enjoy murdering and consuming unsuspecting trip goers that they cross paths with. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise that recently had a Netflix revival is one of the most known and popular examples of this trope. At this point if you don’t know the premise of Texas Chainsaw Massacre I don’t know what to say other than I’m not deep diving into it. It is what it sounds like, slasher horror that culminates in eating the victims which is how the family sustains itself. One little deviation from the standard story is that Leatherface is somewhat of a horror monster along with being a cannibal and is impossible to kill. He survives injury that would take any normal man out, giving him the energy of a supernatural being hell bent on murdering people with his chainsaw.
In the 2022 revival most of the characters are annoyingly unlikeable gentrifiers who act extremely entitled and stress an elderly woman, who happens to be Leatherface’s mother figure, into a heart attack that kills her. Leatherface goes right back to his murderous ways, ripping off his mother’s face and wearing it on his own, and donning his go to weapon of choice that he had hidden in the walls of their home, a chainsaw. Not a bad revival at all and despite some extremely stupid actions on the part of characters like that of the influencers in the bus massacre scene it’s not a bad watch. Technically no one is eaten in the movie but Leatherface is still a cannibal, having eaten people in the earlier franchise installments and we do not know if he decides to eat the murdered people once the main character gets away at the end leaving him with a large number of his murder victims to choose from.
The Hills have Eyes movies are similarly about a family of people who cannibalize unlucky passing travelers, but in this case they have been victim to side effects from nuclear testing nearby. This testing has caused mutations that appear mostly physical. Influenced by Texas Chainsaw Massacre this Wes Craven created series shows the cannibals to be depraved on various levels. Aside from murdering, sometimes not for the purpose of eating anyone but just to be cruel, two of the family members rape or assault women in many of the different versions of the movie. It seems that an unintended commentary is that those who have physical mutations or birth defects become cannibals and depraved people as a result of that which is not only ableist but fucked up. No explanation exists in any of the four different movies as to why they eat people. They murder the passing travelers and steal their belongings which would indicate that they could sell those possessions in order to buy food or more comfortable accommodations so other than being gruesome I don’t know what the reason for the cannibalism is or if one even exists. In The Hills have Eyes 2 (2007) the story of this family, named after planets in the original and sequel, takes an even more confusing turn when we learn that the family has now taken to capturing and raping women in the hope that they have mutant children to add to their cannibal family slash cult. They even manage to take out a military unit assigned to the nuclear testing village to take out the rest of the cannibal clan. This is horrific just to be horrific, I’d say exploitative but I don’t believe that cannibal mutants exist so I’m not sure who they’re even exploiting. I will mention however that Wes Craven did not direct this installment…but is credited as a producer and writer on it so stay tuned for the posts in April about directors of the decades because we will need to explore this more.
Don't worry, I watched all kinds of cannibal movies including ones like Eating Raoul (1982). Littered with sexual assault and problematic 80’s jokes this movie comments on the culture of LA at the time and points to the cultural practice of incorporating eating into everything including sex and success. Paul and Mary have a dream of opening a restaurant but need money for the loan and decide to get this money they will post a sex ad, have clients over to their home, and kill them. They will then rob them and dispose of their bodies in their trash chute. This plan starts out alright but a thieving locksmith, Raoul, gets involved and complicates the operation. Raoul begins selling the bodies to be turned into dog food that’s consumable by both dog and man and the men’s cars. Raoul and Mary enter into an affair and Raoul confronts Paul but instead of Mary choosing him like he believes she kills him. Having no time and of course no other option for dinner to impress the loan officer Mary cooks up Raoul and they all have a splendid time eating him while securing the loan. This movie is more social commentary and comedy than horror but still cannibals. They do end up getting the restaurant in the end, still believing themselves to be hard working Americans who achieved the American Dream through righteous and honest means. Of course we as the viewer know this to be false.
Let me preface this next one by saying that I am not sure it can be classified as cannibalism but since I had to watch and endure it I want to at least make that not a waste by including this. The first half of the movie I did like and enjoy, extremely corny desires of an 80’s teenage boy who believes he does not fit into his family or “society” are the driving forces behind the events in Society (1989). Believe me however when I say that I would never tell any person, even an enemy, to watch this movie. A species similar to humans breed only the best and most powerful to infiltrate all levels of human society and consume them. That doesn’t sound too bad so let me explain why this movie should be banned. The foul atrocities that are the special effects in this movie will haunt my nightmares, not because they’re bad but because they’re not bad and just simply disgusting having been created from some bad acid trip. This species consumes humans by becoming slug-like and stretchy and literally going inside the bodies and sucking their juices out of them….yeah. In one part a judge shoves his fist up a captive man's ass and it comes out of throat and then the judge goes inside of him? I feel sick even describing it. The teens' family isn’t his family and he runs off with one of the stretchy things that saves him after turning his nemesis inside out. The only reason this is being talked about right now is that since I had to endure it other’s are going to have to too. One thing to mention is that it’s an early nod to what the cannibalism genre is morphing into which is the extremely rich engaging in taboo practices for thrills.
I’m getting ahead of myself though because we have not gone over the true crime era of cannibal horror. In 1991 an instant classic, The Silence of the Lambs, hit theaters. What hasn’t been said about this movie? Great acting, great writing, compelling story. A cannibal psychiatrist is locked in a max security prison and exchanges his help with an FBI case for a transfer. The main character Clarice gets him to share his findings and she cracks the case catching the serial killer who is making skin suits out of their victims. Once the narrative of remote tribes of cannibals in the Amazon and South America fell out of favor the true crime cannibal took its place. With a lot of fascination surrounding cannibal serial killers it makes sense that the genre would pivot in this direction. Rather than facing backlash for painting whole groups of people as uncivilized we could now point to psychiatric reasons that someone would kill and consume people. Like the cases mentioned before cannibalism in this context is the after affect of murder and related to the act of the murder itself, as we can point to in the Dahmer case or the five cases from the French criminal unit.
A nod to a different mentioned cannibalism context, Ravenous (1999), is influenced by legend like the Wendigo and survival cannibalism like the Donner Party and Alfred Pecker. The movie takes place in 1840s California and long story short once someone consumes a human they develop a cure for all of their ailments and death but have an insatiable desire to consume human flesh. Going to any lengths to get humans to eat the main antagonist lures those who wish to help into the wild and eats them only to take over their base for the purpose of eating its visitors. An interesting deviation from the true crime or uncivilized context of other cannibal horror movies it poses an interesting problem when a modern taboo (cannibalism) and crime (murder) become essential for your survival.
The Woman (2011) takes a character, named the woman, who survives through cannibalism and hunting game is taken captive by a self-proclaimed civilized man who is hellbent on “saving” her. What Chris, the man who takes her captive, really wants though is someone to torture and sexually assault freely. He’s abusive to his family and a staunch misogynist. Like the title suggests this movie pays close attention to how men treat and interact with women and how those women survive or fight back against the treatment that is often restrictive. Some very well acted moments occur between the female characters where you can tell that they are sharing a moment of mutual understanding and knowing about what the men are doing and how though only one is tied up they are all facing atrocities at the hands of men. Chris is even grooming his son, Ryan, to become just like him, nodding to how this is learned behavior passed down to young boys from their fathers and their fathers before them. Chris believes and even says in many ways that he is in fact the civilized one who is doing a service for the captive woman. Peggy, the young teen daughter of the family, ends up freeing the woman who goes on to kill the complacent mother, the father, and the son. In the end the woman takes the youngest daughter, the daughter they had caged with the dogs after being born without eyes and the teen girl with her into the woods. The hypocrisy of the family to have one of their members treated like a dog in a shed with other dogs neglected and abused whom they feed someone to in the movie while believing the woman needed to become more civilized is not lost.
Unique circumstances make Raw (2016) stand out as far as cannibal horror goes. The main character discovers a hunger for human flesh after she is made to eat meat by her sister during an initiation into the veterinary school they both attend. The movie contains graphic content throughout and genuinely made my stomach turn but the story itself that builds from a mystery to an intense sibling rivalry between two sisters is compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and found myself sucked into their world as well as shocked when things would shift to intense violence. Our main character awakens next to her dead friend, her sister having killed him and eaten the majority of his upper leg. In this moment she overcomes their rivalry and anger, cleaning her sister up and caring for her in her catatonic state. In the end we discover that it’s a trait passed down to the women in the family, their mother even consuming pieces of their father to get by.
While The Neon Demon (2016) is a commentary on the fashion industry and LA culture more so than cannibalism it still shares parallels to spiritually based cannibalism practices and takes the position that cannibalism is an act carried out in occult rituals as a sacrifice or a means to an end. The main character is a young girl who moves to LA after being orphaned and pursues modeling. Her youth and beauty accelerate her career to the dismay of some older models she has made frenemies with. As their careers falter and hers reaches fever pitch, along with her narcissistic tendencies, the other women participate in an occult ritual and consume her body. The two models who participated are now appealing to people in the industry, irresistible even. The makeup artist that the main character rejects advances from has other more sinister intentions that I assume have to do with demons that she achieves from the ritual. The two models do not want to consume her body but want the effects of consuming her body, the cannibalism is a byproduct of their desires that they’ll go to any lengths to fulfill.
Fresh (2022) dropped in March and inspired my whole deep dive into cannibalism. It’s for lack of a better word a refreshing take on cannibalism. Rather than a poor or disabled family living in the middle of nowhere eating people it is a wealthy, successful plastic surgeon in Portland, Oregon (shout out PDX) who butchers and sells women to disgustingly wealthy clientele. The one percenters who purchase his product pay more for packaged human meat that has come from a living victim so our surgeon takes women on dates, invites them on a weekend getaway and abducts them. They awake to find themselves in his basement, which is rather nice, where he then proceeds to surgically take body parts, like their legs or buttocks, one by one and sell them to his black market clients. He even has a wall of women behind a painting in his murder mansion where he keeps trophies from his victims. Having stumbled into the side hustle, which ends up being a rather large operation even including his Blue Lives Matter wife, he is himself a cannibal. Our main character, Noa, meets Steve the surgeon at the supermarket after some pretty terrible Tindery dates. The oh so desired “Meet-Cute” turns itself into a pun of horrific proportions. Noa manages to convince Steve that she’s really into him and wants to understand his practices, asking if she can also partake. He allows her and on the second more relaxed dinner they have things get hot and heavy and she bites his dick half off. That’s my girl. Her and her also abducted friend who’s had her breasts taken by this madman free his other captive and all three kill him in a satisfying end. Before the movie ends though his accomplice wife tries to take them out but the women band together and take her traitorous ass out. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, likable characters throughout that had me laughing, disgusted, and rooting for them all in the same film. A movie about feminists taking on cannibalism both metaphorically and literally with messages about wealth inequality and the super wealthy lean toward the depraved as well as the modern dating scene.
I am not sure how many cannibal movies I watched in March. I took non-cannibal horror for granted before and I shall not make that mistake again. A lot of the movies I watched simply did not need to be made or had egregious fucked up messages even when they did not intend to. We can all agree that cannibalism is a modern taboo and there is no need for people to eat people in modern society but that we also should not demonize cannibals of remote civilizations because our history is just as cannibalistic and frankly more uncivilized than anything I’ve been able to find about these documented or not-documented cases of tribal cannibalism.
Essentially I’ve learned that this is yet another thing we in the West are hypocritical about. This started as an attempt to understand cannibalism because it’s not talked about often and to see how it’s displayed in the media, specifically the horror genre. I watched a lot more movies that I did not mention due to the cannibal context they fell into already having been mentioned. By far the one that I would recommend the most that is the most nuanced while being the least problematic, not punching down or judging from a glass house, is Fresh (2022). I'd also recommend The Woman (2011) although it's a bit of a harder watch emotionally and is more graphic. Now, excuse me while I cleanse my palette and try to forget some of the things that I’ve seen in the pursuit of understanding. For the next month I’m going back to the typical genres and watching the big directors that have heavily influenced horror with the movies they’ve created.
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