Sunday, September 28, 2014

On Cannibalism

Okay, so this post is going to be a little light on the type of pictures I planned on having because doing a Google Image Search for "cannibalism" was kind of dumb. Overall, it's probably not as bad as you'd expect, but there are a few pics that I would very gladly unsee if I could. But that gets right to the question that this post planned on addressing anyway: "What is it about cannibalism that weirds us out so much?" Much of the discussion of zombies and what makes them so unsettling, even frightening, centers around their display of cannibalism. Well, “cannibalism,” at least.

I tend to agree with Dr. Millard Rausch (eye patch guy), from Dawn of the Dead, who declares that zombies are not cannibals: “Cannibalism, in the true sense of the word, implies an intra-species activity. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other. That’s the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh.” Right. So, “cannibalism,” got it? Anyway, the idea is that seeing human-like creatures feeding on humans is unsettling for audiences (remember our discussion on uncanny dread on the zombie meatloaf face post?) because we are not used to seeing ourselves rendered food, to seeing our bodies disembodied.

Here’s where the post gets messy. Initially, my plan for this post was to contend that we are more disturbed by the concept of eating human flesh - by seeing ourselves as viscerally carnivorous, as gluttonous consumers of flesh - than we are by the idea of being consumed. But then I saw  a picture of several human body parts being… prepared(?) and a can’t-possibly-fucking-be-real (but-really-seems-to-be) picture of a Papua New Guinea man walking around munching his baby (I’m not linking it, you shouldn’t search for it, consider yourselves warned), and now I don’t know what the hell I think. Other than my McNuggets aren’t sitting so well anymore.

Wait, let’s Tarantino this post a bit and jump back before all the stuff I just said. The inspiration for this post showed up in the comment section of And Now I Want To Eat A Zombie’s Face. Stage Fright posted a link to a Facebook
article, “‘Human Flesh’ Burger Will Let You Indulge Your DarkestCuriosity.” Yeah. What the eff? For you non-link-clickers, apparently a couple of British chefs consulted the firsthand accounts of several cannibals (including W.B. Seabrook, for any zombie super-nerds out there), to create a burger that mimics the flavor and texture of human flesh to celebrate the premier of season 5 of The Walking Dead. Because, you know, all the cool zombies are doing it…

After reading the article, I brought it up at school and work (Brick Oven Bistro) and the general consensus was, “Why would anybody... yeah, no. No.”

A confession: I would totally eat people. If we were stranded somewhere, starving, and you passed before I did, you are lunch. Straight up. And I’ll go a step further. If I was on an expedition somewhere and we happened across some cannibalistic peoples and they invited us to a feast, and the main fare was the flesh of their enemies or some poor
I just don't need these kinds of problems
ceremonial dead person, I would seriously consider it. In fact, I’d probably do it. And only partly because I would be afraid of offending the people that eat people (not wanting to be dinner tomorrow is a pretty decent excuse, I think). I’d do it because, like W.B. Seabrook, I like telling good stories. And that would be a bad ass one to have in reserve. “Oh, you tried balut? That’s fascinating, did I ever tell you about the time I tried person?” Who beats that food story? No one. Ever. BUT, in either case, whether extreme exigency or minding my jungle manners, I would eat human flesh with many many misgivings. ALL the misgivings. I would do it, but I don’t want to do it. At all. It seriously freaks me right out. Just like it freaks most people out.

Back to the burger. The idea of a faux flesh burger is unsettling to me. There are a couple of things noteworthy about that feeling. First, it affects me in a way not dissimilar to the way watching the biker get eaten in Dawn of the Dead does. Obviously, trying the burger wouldn't be actual cannibalism but, like watching a movie, it offers a facsimile not only of the human meat itself, but also of the horror or dread one might feel if it was real. 

The other thing I notice, is that my unease at the idea of eating human, real or pretend, is palpably different from the discomfort I would feel about eating cat or dog. Or even monkey. It’s wrong in its own very unique way. Watch. Read Seabrook’s description of the people meat he tried (he convinced a medical intern to give him a chunk!). This is all completely familiar food talk. And yet…

It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable
(excerpt from Jungle Ways, taken from Wikipedia).

Where did it creep you out? It was the first “stringy” wasn't it? That’s what bugged me. The idea of human flesh pulling apart in strips makes my skin crawl. That doesn't happen when I think about eating any other animal, no matter how exotic or human-like. I mean, monkey meat feels really weird and wrong, but it's a different kind of weird and wrong, isn't it? (not you, vegetarians) Similarly, the idea or sight of a person eaten or torn apart by an animal doesn't seem to give me the same heebie jeebies as the idea or sight of a person being torn apart and eaten by a person. Or even a semi-person, or how ever we decide to categorize a zombie. 

So what the hell is going on?

Well, a lot. The more I think about it, the more I let it bother me, the more I poke and probe and prod at how it bothers me, what I come up with is the answer that I least wanted: all of the above. Both sides of it - the idea of eating a person and of being eaten, the thought of rending flesh and of being dismembered - strike a chord deep within most members of our culture (not this guy) that this act is just awful and wrong on a very basic level. This is not something that people are supposed to do to one another. It is just not. It is something animals do, sure. And monsters, of course. But that any person thinks this is okay to do to another is incomprehensible. 

And that's really the problem isn't it? As much as we don't like the idea of being eaten or torn apart, what really nags at us is the idea that people exist who think this is okay. Indeed, who enjoy it. And we - well, I at least, and hopefully you too - simply cannot make sense of them. And because we cannot account for them, we fear them and their awful appetites. They exceed our abilities to comfortably classify their behavior, so we resort to myth, folklore, and outright fiction to help us categorize them as ogres, werewolves, ghouls, and zombies, to help us see them not as people, but as monsters. There's something even worse than believing that cannibals are horrific monsters, though: believing that they aren't. 

Ultimately, I think what got under my skin the most about the picture of the Papua New Guinea cannibal was that he, despite the thousands of miles between us, the even larger gulf between our cultures and worldviews, and the fact that he was eating an infant, was the fact that he was a man, a person, a human, and therefore maybe not that different from me. While there are plenty of real world cannibals who are intentionally malevolent in their appetites, there are as many, if not more, who just unaccountably flip their shit and start eating people. If they can just lose their minds and begin devouring friends, neighbors, and strangers, what's to say that the same thing couldn't happen to me? The staggering banality of this particular evil is so unsettling because it prevents our non-cannibal Self from completely distancing itself from the cannibal Other half of an Other-Self binary. The vacant, blood-smeared stare of an infant-eater is most horrifying because it subtly, almost imperceptibly, gestures to the possibility that it could one day be my own; that I could lose my mind and my self so thoroughly, and become a mindless me who's not me that craves human flesh. Sound familiar? On this level, the cannibal question and the zombie question seem inextricably linked.

What do you think? Does the idea of cannibalism gross you out? Why do you think that is?


  1. speaking of cannibals....ewwwwww

  2. Wow. Okay, I understand that the court has an obligation to put this guy away, and for as long as possible, but how can you possibly say that he was "not suffering from any form of mental illness"? Isn't wanting to eat children like the definition of "mental illness"? And if it isn't, then what the hell is?

  3. I understand what you are saying here, Manny, but I am wondering something. Is our desire to read cannibalism as madness really just an elaborate way to comfort ourselves? In other words, isn't it comforting to suggest that anyone who would deviate from such a nearly universal standard be representative of a monster or a victim of madness? What is desire to read this man as a monster or insane? Does it allow us to draw certain and comfortable conclusions? As Hannah Arendt points out, perhaps evil something is not extraordinary (hence madness, monstrosity), insofar as it may be, more terrifyingly, simply banal and everyday. Do we want to say that cannibals are insane because it is comforting to us, rather than accept the more troubling implications that they may be perfectly lucid, and still cannibals?

    1. I actually go the other way. I think that defining madness exclusively as some mis-wiring or malformation of the brain, or some correctable chemical imbalance, is how we comfort ourselves.

      I don't think that cannibalism itself is inherently insane. I could have done a better job of articulating that. If you live in a cannibalistic society, and were brought up seeing the consumption of human flesh as commonplace, then being a cannibal would be perfectly rational and sane. However, we (and, more to the point, this man) are not in a cannibalistic society. We have grown up with strict, though often unspoken, prohibitions about eating people. We see evidence of this in the sheer sensationalism that arises whenever this particular taboo is violated in our culture. It is a big deal. It is decidedly NOT everyday or ordinary. Though isolated instances have occurred throughout the history of western civilization, each time they are regarded as shocking and new.

      Being lucid and a cannibal in our society, deviating that sharply from the norms that have been ingrained in you since birth, is madness. It's not supernatural. It's not evil. It's not even necessarily immoral. But it is insane, even if his brain works perfectly fine.