[Originally appearing in Creators Unite Magazine, May 2020]
The term cannibal first originated with Spanish explorers to the West Indies who, on meeting local tribes who may (or may not) have practiced cannibalism, gave them the name Caribales, from the root word “caribal” or “savage”. The proper scientific term for cannibalism is anthropophagy.
It’s generally accepted amongst anthropologists that our Neanderthal ancestors practiced cannibalism, and that their successors- Homo sapiens- in turn killed and ate their hominid predecessors. Butchered human bones from the dawn of humankind have been found in burial sites from East Asia to Africa and Europe. Up until relatively recently, cannibalism was still practiced within tribal cultures in the Lesser Antilles, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Melanesia, Fiji, New Zealand, the Congo, and in North and South America. Cannibalism has also lurked in the shadow of misfortune and privation throughout civilization. Most of us know of the infamous 1846 Donner Party incident. Fewer might have heard of a 1884 case in which the crew of the capsized yacht Mignonette chose to eat their own cabin boy. The 1972 Argentinian airline crash (wherein members of the Old Christians rugby team were forced to consume their dead in order to survive for 72 days in the Andes Mountains) was made famous by the 1993 film Alive.
So the awful reality is that at some point, WE ALL were cannibals. Whether it was practiced as a means of survival, ritual, or a method of predator control (the smell of decomposing dead would lure carnivores right to the habitats of early humans), cannibalism is an inescapable part of our shared history as humans. It’s a shameful secret that we all, to some unconscious degree or another, likely suspect to be true. And whatever dwells in the secret places of peoples’ minds eventually emerges as fantasy. We create myths and legends as a way of coping with the truths we can’t openly admit to.
Cannibal stories abounded in early European folk tales such as Hansel & Gretel, and cannibals were a dread fixture in 19th century seafaring novels like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Stories of this era reinforced the idea of the cannibal as a savage figure, and almost always as a non-white character. It would take until the advent of film for this racial stereotype to begin to be altered.
1964’s I Eat your Skin (aka Zombies) and 1968’s Night of the Living Dead ushered in a new take on the zombie as a flesh-eating ghoul, spawning an untold number of films featuring cannibalistic corpses. But it was a decade later that the cannibal film came into its own as an exploitation genre, beginning with Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive and Ruggero Deodado’s Cannibal Holocaust. Copycats of varying degrees of quality followed, including Lenzi’s own follow-up film Cannibal Ferox.
As civilized people, we view cannibalism as the ultimate symbol of a primitive culture, and we usually impart savage or brutal connotations to the word itself (“we had to cannibalize the motor for parts”). But anything this forbidden in our culture runs a high risk of becoming fetishized: and in its inherent taboo, there is a kind of tribalistic allure to anthropophagy that some find alluring. Sexual cannibalism (the killing and devouring of copulating partners) is omnipresent among insects and invertebrates: most notably the praying mantis, but also several species of spiders and scorpions. In the majority of these cases it is usually the female doing the devouring. Next to feeding, sex is our most primal urge, so it’s little wonder that these two base instincts can become conflated for some individuals.
In just the first few months of 2020, many of us have seen just how easily everything we take for granted can be upended. It’s never been clearer to us that our civilization, its comforts and its norms, all balance on a very tenuous rope. So it’s worth noting that there is also a special place for cannibals in dystopian horror and science fiction films like Book of Eli, The Road, and Snowpiercer (I included cannibals in my own post-apocalyptic zombie film State of Desolation)… there seems to be a shared idea that some if not many amongst us abstain from something as gruesome as eating our own (even children) ONLY because of society’s norms. Remove these moral goalposts – and any threat of legal penalty – and we could easily surrender our humanity and indulge our most degenerate appetites.
Cannibal films walk a similar tightrope: simultaneously being both cautionary tales, and exploitative stories intended to titillate their audience. They remind us that the most dangerous monster is one who wears a human mask, and they confront us with one of our most primal fears: that we, Earth’s apex predator, can very easily become prey ourselves. Their constant warning to us is: we came from this, and if we’re not careful, we’re going back to it.