Pleased to eat you... our fascination with cannibalism
Ahead of the release of Drew Barrymore's new zombie comedy, Darragh McManus fleshes out our cultural fascination with cannibalism
'I'd published a book about blood-feeding creatures," author and zoologist Bill Schutt says, "and was thinking of a follow-up: a topic that's mystifying or grotesque to people, and how I could demystify, educate and entertain. Cannibalism seemed a natural follow-up. There's an enduring fascination to it."
Grotesque, mystifying, fascinating? Yep, you could say that.
This practice - as Bill points out in new book, Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism - is probably "the ultimate taboo in human society". Yet it remains as magnetically, horrifically compelling as ever, a fact proven by the, ahem, glut of cannibal/zombie movies and TV shows in recent decades.
This week sees the release of Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix's black comedy starring Drew Barrymore as a suburban flesh-eater. She of the sweet disposition and cute face becomes a zombie who must kill and eat other humans to survive, abetted by hunky hubbie Timothy Olyphant.
Early word suggests a camp, gruesomely funny comedy - Shaun of the Dead crossed with Desperate Housewives, maybe. But Santa Clarita Diet is just the latest in a veritable smorgasbord of cannibal-themed entertainments.
Everyone knows Hannibal Lecter and the Living Dead movie franchise. You can't avoid The Walking Dead while channel-hopping. But these famous flesh-munching fantasias are merely the opening course.
We've had arthouse cannibalism (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), Wild West cannibalism (Ravenous), weird-religious cannibalism (We Are What We Are), post-apocalyptic cannibalism (The Road), post-apocalyptic cannibalism in French (Delicatessen).
Cannibal! The Musical presumably features lots of hilarious sight gags using rib-cages as xylophones and lungs as bagpipes. Flesh Eating Mothers is, I assume, a touching drama about mummies who take punishment for dinner-table misbehaviour just too far.
Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death expands the concept, introducing tasty dips like guacamole to the staple "meat and two legs" diet. Bloodsucking Freaks, meanwhile, sounds pretty self-explanatory.
Popular culture is literally and metaphorically stuffed to the gills with cannibalism. As Bill reiterates: "There's an enduring fascination with it, like with blood-drinking and vampires. Food is very strong in our cultures: culinary arts, what we eat and don't eat, what we're allowed eat… Combine this with the greatest taboo, and you have this fascination.
"And these films and TV shows work as a psychological safety-valve. We can face fears and taboos while feeling safe, because we know what we're watching isn't real."
The cheekily titled Eat Me is an enthralling read, a social and scientific history of this bizarre practice in animal and human worlds. The first notable aspect is just how many types there are: sexual cannibalism, parental, sibling, skin, placental, stress-related… and of course, anthropophagy (Drew Barrymore's bailiwick).
The second notable aspect is that Bill decided to almost completely avoid the more notorious examples from human history: Jeffrey Dahmer-type psychopaths.
"There's all this sensationalist garbage out there about human cannibalism," he says, "so I tried to steer clear of criminal cannibalism. You can't totally ignore it, and our fascination with it, but some of these guys are alive - and some of their victims - and I had no interest in prolonging their agony, or giving these guys a shout-out."
A smart, likeable New Yorker, Bill did a PhD in Zoology at Cornell and post-doctoral work at the American Museum of Natural History's mammal department, where he remains as research associate. He's also Professor of Biology at Long Island University. The interest in animals dates back to his childhood: "When I was a kid I had a monkey, a lizard, any animal you could think of. Later at Cornell I wound up studying bats and vampire bats" - which led to his first book, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures.
Roughly the first third of this one is devoted to animals. We've heard of notorious beasties like black widow spiders and praying mantises, but how common is it in the wild? Bill says: "Initially I'd presumed examples would be few and far between, and mostly due to overcrowding, captive situations, lack of food. That wasn't the case. It only seems rare because there haven't been enough studies done, but I'm fairly confident there will be more and more examples of cannibalism in the wild, especially among invertebrates, fish and amphibians.
"It's rare in some groups but extremely common in others."
To this unknowledgeable observer, it seems counter-intuitive that older animals would eat the younger generation. Bill says: "It does, and there are drawbacks. Eating your young decreases the number of your genes in the population. Then there are diseases associated with cannibalism." (Not just for animals: Papua New Guinea tribespeople were stricken by an epidemic of kuru, an illness affecting the brain, after generations of eating their dead.)
One of the most incredible chapters concerns China, which had an uncommon but persistent tradition of cannibalism, sometimes officially sanctioned, until relatively recently.
Bill explains why: "Culture is king, and until recently the Chinese didn't have the input of Western culture, where cannibalism was the greatest taboo. They dealt with it in a different way.
"There were instances of cannibalism caused by famine, but also others: for example, as an extreme example of filial piety. Your parents or grandparents are very sick so you feed them part of your arm to help."
Bill is a novelist too, with "World War II techno-thriller" Hell's Gate published last summer, and another on the way in June. Of Eat Me, he says: "I hope my background in zoology gave me a wider frame of reference for studying cannibalism in humans, and I hope that came across.
"Doing this turned out to be a real eye-opener for me... the learning curve was steep - but it was incredibly interesting."
Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism is published by Profile Books. Santa Clarita Diet airs from Friday
Bone appetit: cannibals on screen
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
At the end of Peter Greenaway's bizarre film, Helen Mirren - having cooked her murdered paramour's body - exhorts her abusive husband to try a particularly tender part of its anatomy. "It's a delicacy," she says chirpily.
Antonia Bird's underrated drama about a US soldier (Guy Pearce) during the mid-19th century, who happens across Robert Carlyle's charismatic flesh-eater.
The movie left out the most infamous scene in Cormac McCarthy's dystopian novel - the baby! - but there's plenty of cannibalism in this screen version.
Visually stunning steampunk fable set in post-apocalyptic Paris. A cannibalistic butcher finds himself at war with vegetarian guerrillas. Really!