Cannibalism is a gristly topic at the best of times, never mind when depicted on the big screen in all its gory glory. Although it has seen a surge in popularity in recent years with the release of films such as The Green Inferno (2013) and the more recent Raw (2016), the topic has been nauseating audiences for decades, yet it continues to conjure the same effect.
When it comes to standard serial killing or tedious torture we barely bat an eyelid, so what is it about the consumption of human flesh that sends our stomachs churning? Is it to do with the unsettling cases we have all read about in history books, or perhaps the scary psychological implications that drive someone to butcher one of their own? Maybe, we are just fearful that exposure to such a topic might trigger something within ourselves that has been lying dormant all our lives.
Although not fiercely common, criminal cannibalism is utterly gut-churning simply for the fact that actually exists within civilized society. One of the most striking and well-known cases occurred in Germany 2001 when computer repair technician Armin Meiwes posted an advertisement on a cannibal fetish website, seeking out "a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed." A few people had volunteered themselves and backed out before Bernd Jürgen Armando came forward with a serious desire to be eaten. The pair made a video tape of the process that featured the amputation of specific parts of Armando’s body, which they then attempted to dine on together. Once Armando had finally been killed, Meiwes stored his corpse and consumed up to 44 pounds of his flesh over a 10-month period.
Ironically, since his arrest, Meiwes has converted to vegetarianism and has expressed a desire to write his own book with hopes that it would guide others away from the path he ventured down. Scarily, he estimates that there are roughly 800 active cannibals currently in Germany alone. There's no wonder that films depicting criminal cannibalism are so unsettling when the antagonists could be lurking among us every day.
While the prospect of cannibalism makes us fearful from a victim’s viewpoint, the psychological aspects that drive a person to consume the flesh of another can be just as scary as the act itself. There are countless theories knocking about that suggest cannibalism stems from childhood trauma, which can resurface in adulthood when triggered by severe stress. Dr. Clancy McKenzie — professor at Capital University in Washington D.C. — theorizes that children who experience extreme separation anxiety following weaning may actually fantasize about devouring their own mother. This desire can return in adulthood, leading the person to seek fulfillment through the consumption of human flesh.
Cannibals commonly share characteristics with sufferers of schizophrenia and other forms of personality disorders. Many have said to experience blackouts and hallucinations during and surrounding their activities. Extreme loneliness is another psychological factor that might turn someone to cannibalism. It has been suggested that for someone who is extremely isolated, consuming another person ensures that they are never alone, as that person is now a part of them. Such information leaves you wondering whether the hunger for human flesh is lying dormant within ourselves, waiting patiently to be ignited.
The Feral Future
We have seen various extreme incidents throughout history that have forced people into cannibalism through no more than sheer survival instinct — the Donner Party and the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 being just two examples, with both events having been recounted in various cinematic productions. The prospect of such disasters occurring on a larger scale and affecting our own lives is one that makes you shudder to even contemplate, but luckily it’s just the stuff of fiction, right?
Zoologist Bill Schutt argues otherwise. In his book, Cannibalism, A Perfectly Natural History, he suggests that cannibalism is an evolutionary trait that may very well become a global necessity in near-future Earth.
In a world where global climate change is taking place before our very eyes, there may be little to prevent famine-related cannibalism from happening again, especially in the poorest and most unstable countries in the world.
The thought of finding ourselves caught in a situation where cannibalism is our only means of survival is more than enough to get the bile pumping. Suddenly, the French post-apocalyptic, black comedy Delicatessen seems a lot less funny.
Not only do cannibalism films make our stomachs quiver due to their naturally graphic content, they also force us to confront a part of ourselves that we would rather keep buried, leading to further strain on our psyche. Such films have portrayed cannibals as both villains and victims, meaning that, at times, we can relate to characters a little more closely than we are comfortable with. Also, given the theories regarding our own future, stories once far-fetched are made to feel dangerously real.
What is it about cannibalism films that you find the hardest to stomach?