Columns > Published on July 15th, 2014

LURID: Barbecue Season - Cannibalism for Connoisseurs

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

It’s summer.  A piquant aroma drifts on the evening breeze. The neighbors must be cooking out – again.  What is that? Pork? Chicken? Beef? Alligator? Ostrich? Kangaroo?  Ah. It’s those neighbors, the distinctive-looking family with peg teeth and weird taste in jewelry, strings of what look like dried-up mushrooms dangling on their chests.  They're having quite the party this evening outside their ramshackle place tucked way back there in the woods, a long lean carcass roasting on a spit and two pots bubbling away in the coals beneath.  But who’s that knocking at my door? It’s their children, carrying filthy garden tools and mewling in some wordless language. Must be an invitation to the feast…

Barbecue season has a dark side:  fire, flesh, blade, ritual.  It tickles something deep in our lizard brains, a flickering tribal memory of the many, many occasions, from prehistory to this century, when we have consumed one another.  Our eagerness to cannibalize our own has been crucial to our survival as a species.  In times of famine, we broil infants and old women. When the gods are angry, we placate them by tearing out and devouring the hearts of young men.  In times of war, we dismember our enemies, cook their limbs for nourishment, and gobble their livers for courage.  Cannibalism is embedded in our myths, folklore and religious practices. We are what we are.  We are what our ancestors have eaten.  We are the monsters who crave human flesh.

Cannibalism is the act of any life form consuming others of its own species and it's rampant throughout the animal kingdom. Birds do it, bees do it  — sometimes for the same broad reasons (overcrowding or overpopulation) and sometimes for reasons best known to themselves (many types of female spiders devour males after mating). 

Cannibalism is hardwired into our genetic heritage.  Anthropologists have found evidence of humans sucking the bone marrow out of human bones across all continents and cultures.

Humans chow down on other humans (a practice also known as anthropophagy) for different purposes.  Endocannibalism (eating family and friends, or members of your tribe) may be part of mortuary traditions, whereupon eating the recently deceased is a sign of respect and ensures their passage into life everlasting.  Exocannibalism happens when you eat those from outside your social circle — prisoners of war, love rivals, or strangers off the Internet.  People eat people because they’re hungry, or because it’s an accepted ritual practice within their community, or because they get off on it.

Cannibalism is hardwired into our genetic heritage.  Anthropologists have found evidence of humans sucking the bone marrow out of human bones (and then using those bones to scrape the tastiest leftovers out of the cooking pot) across all continents and cultures.  It may even play a key role in the rise to supremacy on this planet of Homo sapiens — Spanish scientists suggested last year that Neanderthals became extinct after too many of them were eaten by their Cro-Magnon cousins. Western popular imagination tends to associate cannibalism with folklore or primitive cultures, othering it as a barbaric (and fading) practice carried out by supernatural monsters or naked tribespeople in the plains of Africa and the jungles of South America. But we don't have to look too far into European history (see: the siege of Stalingrad), or, indeed, the daily news headlines to discover that cannibalism isn't something limited to ogres in fairy tales or a far-off, nearly-extinct, primal Them.  It's Us. It happens in our major cities. It's now.

A quick survey of 2014 headlines around the world yields plenty of gristle for the cannibal mill. Cape Town police arrested a man who was in the process of eating (with a knife and fork) the heart of 62 year-old Mbuysielo Manona, who had apparently been murdered as part of a bizarre love triangle. Former New York Cop, Gilbreto Valle, caused shock waves with his online fantasies about cooking his wife alive and serving her up like a Thanksgiving turkey — his conviction for attempted murder was quashed on appeal as he hadn’t acted his fantasies out. Pakistani brothers, Mohammad Farman Ali and Mohammad Arif Ali, were arrested in April after admitting to making curry from the body of a child they exhumed from a nearby graveyard — the brothers had already served a two year jail sentence for similar offenses committed in 2011. A Christian militiaman in the Central African Republic was caught in the act on several camera phones; after beating a Muslim man to death, setting the corpse on fire, then ripping his leg off, he bit chunks out of the nearly-raw flesh, and swallowed them whole.

Although cannibalism is one of the last remaining taboos, an activity that still elicits shock in an audience, whether it occurs in a news headline or a horror movie, it's not something we appear to be able to put behind us as a species.  That's the power of the concept.  Cannibalism, like all the other stuff we repress, while outwardly frowned upon, is an integral aspect of our shadow selves.  We’re simultaneously compelled and revolted — the perfect subject matter for a horror story. 

Fee Fi Fo Fum

People-eating people (of normal and giant proportions) feature majorly in fairy and folk tales.  Many are cautionary creatures, warnings to children to stay within the confines of their villages, not to wander alone in the woods, and to refuse all invitations from a kindly old lady living in a cottage with a roof made of gingerbread.  Cannibalism is presented as a simple, tangible threat: steer clear of strange witches, trolls and ogres who are likely to grind your bones to make their bread.

Yet these are the sanitized versions, collected and written for mass consumption rather than whispered by a private fireside. Charles Perrault (who published Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé - subtitled Tales of Mother Goose in 1697) collected folk tales to be retold in presence of a royal audience, and removed elements of the originals that he felt to be too crude, shocking or offensive. In 1812, with Children's and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen), the Brothers Grimm re-shaped the stories with the moral instruction of children in mind.  They rewrote the essentially pagan stories to fit a Christian and patriarchal world view, changing endings to hammer home a moral message, replacing bad mothers with wicked stepmothers and unrelated witches (Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, after all), and removing Bluebeard figures (male cannibals and sexual predators), defaulting instead to kindly Woodman/Prince types riding in on a prancing stallion to save the day.

Even after all this whitewashing, plenty of horrific elements remain, and cannibalism is a strong thread through several of the most popular stories. It was even more present and potent in the original oral versions.  Digging deeper into these tales suggests that they contain coded warnings about endocannibalism, the very real and present danger of being consumed by your own parents.

In common with many mammals, humans throughout history have practiced infanticide as a way of dealing with deformed or unwanted newborns.  This may involve eating the child, either to remedy famine or overcrowding conditions that made the birth problematic in the first place (one more mouth to feed becomes a way of feeding existing mouths) or as a symbolic way for the mother to reabsorb the flesh, so it can be born again at some more propitious time.  In some cultures (such as certain Australian Aborigines or the Chavantes tribe in Uruguay), young parents routinely killed and consumed their firstborn, healthy, child, believing it gave them unique strength and fecundity to create a family in the years ahead. 

Viewing children as a potential food source...casts a different, more sinister light on  traditional European fairy tales.

In southern China, it was customary to eat naturally aborted fetuses or stillborns as a way of restoring the mother's strength — and the practice of eating fetuses for health reasons (including supposed anti-aging benefits) was rumored to be happening in Shenzhen as recently as 1995. The 2004 Hong Kong horror film, Dumplings (starring Bai Ling) re-imagines the story with relish.  Women all over the world still believe there are benefits to eating the placenta after giving birth, and share the delicacy as a privilege with close family and friends.

This — viewing children as a potential food source until they are grown enough to be more useful to the family unit in other ways — casts a different, more sinister light on traditional European fairy tales. Maternal cannibalism seems to be a particular problem. Snow White's Wicked Stepmother (in oral versions, her real mother), orders the huntsman to rip out the child's heart and liver so she can eat them, and so consume beauty, youth and vitality to help regenerate her own. In The Juniper Tree, another Wicked Stepmother decapitates her stepson accidentally-on-purpose, and hides her crime by cooking him in a stew for his father (who declares the dish delicious, and gobbles everything but the bones). Hansel and Gretel deals with exocannibalism at the hands of a strange witch, but the parents are complicit, sending their children out into the woods alone. Early versions of Sleeping Beauty have Beauty giving birth to two children while she sleeps (naughty Prince!).  The Prince's mother, the Queen, asks for the children to be brought to her specifically for the purposes of eating, and goes into great detail about how she will season their tender meat.

One of the strangest tales is Mary's Child, a blend of ancient earth goddess myths, Marian veneration, and a classic cover-up.  It tells of a young girl who lived with the Blessed Virgin Mary in heaven, until she was cast out for telling a lie.  Unable to speak, she lived like a wild woman naked in the forest, until a king stopped by, decided she would be his bride, and took her back to his castle. When she gave birth to her first baby, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her, and gave her the chance to confess to her lie. The girl refused, and as punishment, the BVM took her infant away.  The king and his people suspected the girl of eating the baby — she was a wild woman from the woods, after all — and, as she couldn't speak, she couldn't refute their accusations.  When two more infants were born and vanished under similar circumstances, the king sentenced his wife to be burnt at the stake.  Cue a last minute reprieve by the Virgin, who restores her progeny to her, as sturdy children rather than vulnerable infants, along with the power of speech.  There are so many disturbing undercurrents to this story, suggesting perhaps a prisoner-bride, seized from an enemy tribe, who would have conformed to the cannibalistic traditions of her people and eaten her own babies as a protest against her captivity were it not for the intervention of a kindly Christian enforcer.

Hills. Eyes.

Folk tales echo dark truths about cannibal practices in pagan Europe, but they also contain practical warnings about the horrors lurking outside centers of civilization in the deep, dark woods. There's evidence that cannibals did — and, if a gazillion low budget horror films are to be believed, still do — exist on the fringes of society, preying on unwary travelers, often for generations.  Cannibals such as the Scottish Sawney Bean and his incestuously-bred clan, who, so the story goes, terrorized the Galloway coast in the 16th century.

The lurid legend of Sawney Bean first appeared in English chap books (the forerunners to penny dreadfuls) in the early 18th century, and there are many doubts about its veracity.  Supposedly, Alexander “Sawney” Bean grew tired of digging ditches in East Lothian and, along with the notorious Black Agnes (“a woman as viciously inclined as himself”) ran away to live in a sea cave at Bennane Head.  Over the next twenty five years Sawney and Agnes spawned eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen granddaughters, and fed their growing brood with the flesh of travelers, attacked and murdered on Galloway’s lonely roads.  While the surrounding farmers and innkeepers struggled to make a living, the Bean clan generated surplus meat, tossing unwanted arms and legs into the sea, alarming locals when they washed up on shore. Legend has it that the Beans killed and ate a thousand people before an outraged posse, led by King James (I or VI, the details are hazy) used bloodhounds to track the cannibals to their lair, where the true extent of the carnage was revealed:

[King James’ soldiers]… were all so shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into the earth. Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and children were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, with watches, rings, swords, pistols, and a large quantity of clothes, both linen and woolen, and an infinite number of other things, which they had taken from those whom they had murdered, were thrown together in heaps, or hung up against the sides of the den.

— From the Complete Newgate Calendar

The entire Bean clan was dragged off to Edinburgh and executed, as monsters rather than people, without trial (“it being thought needless to try creatures who were even professed enemies to mankind”).  The men had their genitals, arms and legs amputated, and bled to death. The women and children were burnt at the stake.  The torrid tale has been used to terrify (and delight) generations of British children, since the early 18th century, and has proven a great boon to the Edinburgh tourism industry.  Currently, you can visit a live, interactive version of the Bean Family Cave at the Edinburgh Dungeon.

It might all be fiction, of course.  Nowhere in the official record is there any evidence of a thousand missing persons, or a righteous troop of 400 led by avid witchfinder King James, or the grisly mass execution of the tribe. Yet the story bears some similarities to the real, verifiable history of Christie-Cleek’s cannibal rampage through the Grampians in the 1340s. Christie, along with other villagers, was driven into the hills by severe famine, forced to scavenge for food along with the local wolves. When the rabbits ran out, a woman in the group died of starvation, and Christie, a former butcher, cut her up, fed her to his fellows, and thus gave them the strength to live and fight another day.  Once they crossed the cannibal divide, there was no looking back, and they perfected a technique (involving a long metal hook, a cleek or shepherd’s crook) to yank passing strangers from their horses, whereupon they slew and ate both beast and man.  After murdering thirty victims in this manner, the cannibal crew were rounded up and executed, but Christie himself escaped, and supposedly re-entered respectable society and lived out a normal life under another name.

While Sawney Bean may be a fantasy figure, the truth of Christie-Cleek (and many other accounts of cannibalism in time of privation) gives the tale narrative authenticity, and it’s proved to be a robust paradigm for modern horror writers to follow.  Wes Craven used elements of it in his screenplay for The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the movie which spawned a thousand imitations, reboots and sequels.  Jack Ketchum updated the setting to the modern-day coast of Maine for his infamous first novel, Off Season (1980), which was considered almost too grisly for publication and heavily edited on first release, but has since become a cult classic.  Ketchum’s version of the Bean family also live in a remote sea cave, swelling their ranks through incest and preying on solitary fishermen, hitch-hikers and transient holiday-makers in the fictional town of Deep River.  In Off Season, they face off against a group of New Yorkers and local police, ending with a fight to the death when the boundary between the savage and the civilized becomes totally blurred.  The sequel, Offspring (2006) picks up the story fourteen years later, and delves deeper into the cannibal psyche, exploring how the tribe survived and repopulated — and how they came to be up to their old tricks, terrorizing the residents of Deep River.  The third in the brutal trilogy, The Woman (2011), offers a direct nod to the narrative’s Scottish origins, in the name of the main character, Christopher Cleek, who hunts down his very own cannibal and locks her in his cellar.  Once again, Ketchum scrutinizes the dividing line between the supposedly civilized and our cannibal cousins and finds that we are not so very far removed.

Barbarism Begins At Home

Not all cannibals attack with incisors bared. Some take a more sophisticated approach, and will come after you with an exquisite set of Japanese kitchen knives.  While we thrill to fictional depictions of wild men and women with matted hair and bones in their ears, we should also heed the warnings inherent in our oldest fairy tales: sometimes the friendliest smiles conceal the sharpest teeth.

Cannibals can be urban and urbane. I’ve written before about the enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter, who, perhaps paradoxically, makes a habit of eating those who offend his impeccable good taste, and Patrick Bateman,  who snacks on human flesh while waiting for that elusive table at Dorsia.  Anthropophagy isn’t limited to the upper classes, however. The 2010 Mexican horror film, Omos Lo Que Hay presented a subdued family of city-dwelling cannibals who seemed very ordinary from the outside, as did their villager counterparts in the 2013 American remake We Are What We Are.  In both narratives the families could have continued quietly eating other people and living undetected in their communities, had the rare kuru disease (contracted only by consuming the brains of other humans) not manifested in their senior members and attracted law enforcement's glare.

Natalie Young adds to the urbane cannibal subgenre with Season To Taste Or, How To Eat Your Husband, published in the USA today. Here protagonist, Lizzie, is a respectable 50-something Surrey housewife who kills her husband (with a spade), then chops him into pieces, freezes him, and piece by piece, eats him.  Part recipe book, part chick lit satire, Young’s debut novel doesn’t shirk the gory details of how best to process human flesh and bones in a blender.  Cannibalism turns out to be the saving grace of Lizzie’s relationship with her husband, Jacob, bringing them closer together than ever before. In consuming his body, she finds the sustenance, love and inspiration that was lacking in her marriage for thirty years.

From Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus) to South Park (Scott Tenorman Must Die),  cannibalism is ingrained in our culture. Unlike the zombie, rendered monstrous and mindless in its quest for braiiiins, the cannibal is a sentient predator, as smart as, if not smarter, than their prey — us. It seems that, despite our veneer of civilization, any one of us could be a bad dose of bath salts or a missed week of meals or an ambiguously-worded Craigslist ad away from anthropophagy and loving it.  Next time those neighbors invite you over for a barbecue, and offer your a greasy portion of meat that could be pork, could be chicken, why not give it a go?  It's always better to eat than to be eaten, surely?

Header Image via Atlasobscura

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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