Cannibalism in popular culture

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Cannibalism in popular culture is a recurring theme, especially within the horror genre, and has featured in a range of media that includes film, television, literature, music and video games. Prominent artists who have worked with the topic of cannibalism include Ruggero Deodato, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Bret Easton Ellis.

In literature, film and television[edit]

As a cultural norm[edit]

Main article: Cannibal film

Many works in popular culture depict groups of people for whom cannibalism is a cultural norm. Herman Melville's Typee is a 19th-century literary example. Typee is a semi-factual account of Melville's voyage to the Pacific Island of Nuku Hiva, where he lived for several weeks among the island's cannibal inhabitants before fleeing.

Many horror films, known as cannibal films, have exploited the theme of cannibal tribes. This subgenre experienced a period of popularity through the work of Italian filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s. These films commonly concern the discovery of cannibalistic tribes by documentary filmmakers or anthropologists. The first major film of this type was Umberto Lenzi's Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio ("The Man from the Deep River", 1972). Later filmmakers followed, and the genre reached its peak in the cannibal boom of 1977 to 1981. The best known of these films was Ruggero Deodato's influential Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Considered one of history's most gruesome movies, Cannibal Holocaust was commonly believed to be a snuff film, and Deodato was brought to trial on suspicion of having killed his actors.[1] Other genre films include Ultimo mondo cannibale (1977)[2] and Cannibal Ferox (1981).

Later horror films to feature cannibal groups include The Hills Have Eyes series, with its clan of cannibalistic savages, and the cannibalistic mountain men of Wrong Turn and its sequels. The film Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, 1971), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, details the alleged cannibalistic practices of the indigenous Tupinamba warrior tribe against French and Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century.

In the science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein, some human culture is transformed as a result of the Martians' practice of eating one's dead friends as an act of great respect. Aboleths in the Forgotten Realms setting of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game consume their parents on birth, and in so doing receive their parents' memories. The Anne Rice novel The Queen of the Damned references an ancient culture who practiced necro-cannibalism, as they believed that consumption of their loved ones' remains was a more fitting funeral rite than burial or cremation.

The Sword of Truth series feature the Mud People, a wild tribe which consume dried meat of their enemies before important events and rituals, believing it a way of gaining their wisdom. The series being fantasy, they were known to sometimes receive visions about the intentions of the victims and their people, and Richard himself received such a vision during one of the times he had to eat it in order to participate in such an event. Kahlan, being aware of that custom, pretended to be a vegetarian whenever visiting the tribe.

In Tennessee Williams 1957 play and its subsequent film version, Suddenly, Last Summer. The fate of the deceased son of Mrs. Venable is revealed to have been death at the hands of natives who then ate his remains.

As a means of survival[edit]

Cannibalism historically has been practiced as a last resort by famine sufferers, and popular culture has portrayed true stories of such acts of cannibalism. The story of the survivors of the 1972 Andes flight disaster[3] was chronicled in Piers Paul Read's 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors; in Alive, the book's 1993 film adaptation; and in the 2008 documentary Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains.

Two similar stories that have provided inspiration for popular culture adaptations are the accounts of Alferd Packer and of the Donner Party, both of which involved people who ate human flesh in order to survive snowbound entrapment in the mountains. The 1999 film Ravenous combines elements of both stories. Packer's tale is retold, with artistic liberty, in the 1980 film The Legend of Alfred Packer and in Trey Parker's black comedy Cannibal! The Musical. Stephen King's short story Survivor Type follows a shipwreck victim who, stranded on a remote island, is driven to eat his own body parts in order to survive. In The Buoys' 1971 Rupert Holmes-composed pop song "Timothy", two trapped miners are implied to have eaten their companion. "Timothy" was banned on many radio stations, but rose to no. 17 on the Billboard charts. The Australian novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) by Marcus Clarke uses the historical events in Tasmania surrounding the cannibal convict Alexander Pearce as background. Two biographic films about Pearce have also been made: The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce and Van Diemen's Land as well as Dying Breed, a fictional horror film about Pearce's cannibal decedents.

Post-apocalyptic narratives have also featured cannibalism as a means of survival. The 1991 French film Delicatessen is set in an apartment block led by a butcher who deals with the food crisis by luring new tenants to the apartment, killing them, and serving them as meat to the other residents. In Max Brooks' 2006 post-apocalyptic zombie horror novel World War Z, American survivors head north into Canada to escape the undead, and are forced to cannibalize their dead in order to survive the harsh winters. Some of the survivors in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road and its attendant film practice cannibalism, as persistent and ubiquitous atmospheric ash has eliminated virtually all other sources of food. A scene in which the protagonist and his son discover a baby roasted over an open fire was edited from the film, but appeared in some versions of the film's trailer.[4] A group of cannibals appear in the graphic novel The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman. Samuel J. Stuhlinger was in Call of Duty: Black Ops II Zombies was in a group who eat undead to survival but became in infected with Element 115.

Unaware cannibals[edit]

Popular culture depictions of cannibalism sometimes involve people who are unaware of their act, and have been served human flesh by a murderous host. In Greek mythology, Tantalus served the Olympian gods the flesh of his son, Pelops. None of the gods were fooled except for Demeter, who ate part of his shoulder. In another myth, the Thracian king Tereus raped his wife Procne's sister Philomela and cut out her tongue to prevent her from telling anyone. Philomela nevertheless notified Procne, who gained her revenge by serving Tereus the flesh of their son, Itys.

The victims of legendary murderer Sweeney Todd are baked into meat pies, which are then sold in the streets of London. A variation on this theme occurs in The Untold Story series of Category 3 films.

In William Shakespeare's late 16th century play Titus Andronicus, the character Tamora is unknowingly served a pie made from the remains of her two sons. In C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, the protagonists stay in a castle of Narnian giants, who serve them venison. It is revealed that the venison came from a talking stag, which in Narnia is tantamount to cannibalism. In a 1964 short story by Arthur C. Clarke, The Food of the Gods, a synthesized-food corporation produces the "Ambrosia Plus" line of dishes, designed as a synthetic copy of human flesh, causing competitors to go out of business, and leading to a Congressional investigation. A more recent literary occurrence is in Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, in which investigators are unknowingly fed the barbecued ribs of a man whose murder they are investigating.

The most famous cinematic example is the 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green, based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison. In the movie, the Soylent Corporation produces rations of small green wafers in response to a food crisis. These wafers are advertised as being produced from "high-energy plankton", but are actually the processed remains of human corpses. This film has been the subject of numerous parodies and popular culture references. In the 2001 French film Trouble Every Day, cannibalism is portrayed purely as a sexual act. Director Claire Denis explores the ability to love as a hunger, with the portrayal of characters that seem to have originated from a "diseased culture".[5]

This theme has been used in parodies and black comedies for its humorous value of dramatic irony. The 1975 musical parody The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a scene in which Dr. Frank N. Furter kills the character Eddie and serves his flesh to his dinner guests. In the 1987 film Eat the Rich, a disgruntled waiter and his friends kill the management and arrogant clientele of a restaurant and feed the bodies to unsuspecting customers. In the "Scott Tenorman Must Die" episode of the animated sitcom South Park, Eric Cartman takes revenge on classmate Tenorman by having his parents killed, cooking them into chili, and feeding them to him.

As an accompaniment to killing[edit]

Some artistic and entertainment works are influenced by the morbid fascination surrounding real-life cases of cannibal murderers.

The Armin Meiwes cannibalism case in Germany inspired many feature films. Rohtenburg (2007) tells of an American criminal psychology student who studies cannibal killer Oliver Hartwin for her thesis. Hartwin fulfills his dream of eating a willing victim found on the Internet, and is modelled on Meiwes, whose complaints that his personal rights were violated led to a ban on the film in Germany.[6] Cannibal (2006) depicted the event, and also was banned in Germany.[7][better source needed] Other films based on the case include Rosa von Praunheim's Dein Herz in Meinem Hirn (Your Heart in My Brain) and Ulli Lommel's Diary of a Cannibal (2006). Many heavy metal, death metal and grindcore bands and horrorcore rappers discuss cannibalism in their songs or depict it in the cover art of their albums, because of the act's taboo nature. A number of metal bands were inspired by the Meiwes case, including Rammstein, whose 2004 single "Mein Teil" featured the refrain "you are what you eat,".[8] Vocalist Till Lindemann said "It's so sick that it becomes fascinating and there just has to be a song about it."[9] Other songs inspired by Meiwes include "The Wüstenfeld Man Eater" by American death/thrash metal band Macabre, "Eaten" by Bloodbath,[10] "Let Me Taste Your Flesh" by Avulsed, "Cannibal Anthem" by the German electro-industrial project :wumpscut:, and "Menschenfresser [Eat Me]" by Suicide Commando. "Human Consumption" by hip-hop artist Necro makes reference to the incident, and the title of the 2007 Marilyn Manson album Eat Me, Drink Me was inspired by the case.[11]

A number of significant works were based on the activities of Ed Gein, who served as inspiration for the characters of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), Ezra Cobb in Deranged, and Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and its sequels.

A notable cannibalistic serial killer from fiction is Hannibal Lecter, a character created by author Thomas Harris. Lecter appears in the novels Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Hannibal (1999) and Hannibal Rising (2006). Lecter was a background character in Red Dragon, and his cannibalism was not a plot point. Public fascination with the character led Harris to feature him in the sequel The Silence of the Lambs, where his cannibalism became a central feature of his character. The film of the novel won several major Academy Awards, which rarely are awarded to horror films.

In science fiction[edit]

Works of science fiction sometimes include elements of cannibalism that serve purposes different from those already discussed.

  • In Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, cannibalism and drugs are used to gain the memories of the dead. A parasitic infection causes its victims to become cannibals in Scott Westerfeld's novel Peeps.
  • The post-apocalyptic novel Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, features a band of survivors from a comet impact who turn to cannibalism not only as a means of food, but also as a way of binding members to their group.
  • Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite explores a human culture planted on a world whose biochemistry is toxic to humans. Cannibalism is an essential part of both social and religious life, as food is a precious commodity and the only significant source of meat is the humans themselves.
  • The Sharing of Flesh by Poul Anderson depicts a planet where the colonists exhibit a mutation preventing puberty in males unless they be given a boost of exogenous testosterone. A rite of passage has developed where boys of the right age eat enough flesh of an adult male to jumpstart sexual development.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Steve Rose (15 September 2011). "Cannibal Holocaust: 'Keep filming! Kill more people!'" (Article). 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 29 April 2012. 
  2. ^ Shipka, D (2011). Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960 – 1980. p.318
  3. ^ Josh Clark. "Survival Cannibalism". How Cannibalism Works. HowStuffWorks, Inc. Retrieved 29 April 2012. 
  4. ^ Meredith Woerner (2 December 2009). "Why The Road’s Baby Scene Was Cut, And Why Its First Trailer Sucked" (Interview). Interview with director John Hillcoat. Retrieved 29 April 2012. 
  5. ^ ANDREW O'HEHIR (7 March 2002). "Trouble Every Day". Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc. Retrieved 21 May 2012. 
  6. ^ Landler, Mark (2006-03-04). "Cannibal wins ban of film in Germany". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-06-24. 
  7. ^ Cannibalism in popular culture at the Internet Movie Database
  8. ^ "Shock'n'roll circus". The Times. 2005-01-29. Retrieved 2009-06-24. 
  9. ^ "German cannibal inspires hard rockers Rammstein to new hit". 2004-08-24. Retrieved 2009-06-24. 
  10. ^ Alon Miasnikov (17 September 2004). "Interview with: Bloodbath's Jonas Renske.". Retrieved 21 May 2012. 
  11. ^ Dan Epstein. Feeding Frenzy, Revolver, reported by The Heirophant May 2007. Last accessed March 23, 2007.