The recent CNN video featuring Reza Aslan eating human brain and drinking from a human skull at a feast with Aghori, a Hindu cannibal sect, shows that over the past thirty years an important shift has occurred in our perception of cannibalism and, more generally, in our understanding of what can and cannot be eaten.
This analysis is based on my book The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture that has just been released by the University of Michigan Press. In this book, I propose an explanation for the current fascination in popular culture with cannibalism, vampires, and violent death. I argue that an important shift occurred in popular culture in the late 1980 – early 1990s. One component of this shift is that human protagonists have been replaced by idealized monsters. Cannibals, vampires, and zombies have taken over the place of humans as main heroes of movies and novels. Audiences are supposed to identify with these murderous monsters and not with their victims. Another component of this shift is that for the first time in the Western culture people can be considered, in literature and visual arts, as food for monsters. I argue that this shift plays a critical role in the fascination with violent death. I explain this turn in public opinion on the attitudes to people by the rejection of human exceptionalism and antihumanism and its conversion into a fashionable commodity. These philosophical ideas, put forward by French Theory in the late 1960s –early 1970s and valued by several other cultural movements, such as animal rights movement and transhumanism, won over the popular culture by the late 1980s.
Indeed, we are living through an alteration in our perception of and attitudes to people. It is best demonstrated by the shift in the cultural role of monsters over the past quarter of a century. The cannibal movie Raw by Julia Ducournau (2016) exemplifies this shift. In Raw, the heroine and the main protagonist is a cannibal. Some critics acclaimed this film and its heroine especially because she “differs boldly from her predecessors” in that her urge to eat human flesh “has nothing to do with revenge, anger, or even self-defense. It’s just something she wants, and Raw is a movie about wanting.” Ducournau said in an interview that she was influenced by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), the first film she watched at the age of six.
Even the most superficial comparison of these two movies shows an important difference. In Hooper’s movie, the protagonist, a girl named Sally, escapes from a disgusting monster, man-eater Leatherface. The audiences are supposed to identify with the victims, the girl and her unfortunate friends, not with the horrific cannibals who are indubitably considered criminals. This perspective shifts drastically in Raw. Now it is a cannibal, Justine, whose experience of craving and eating human flesh and feelings about this process are the focal point of the viewer’s attention. Moreover, viewers are expected to identify and sympathize with her because the movie “does such an incredible job getting to the truth of what it’s like to be a [sixteen-year-old] woman.”
This film demonstrates how philosophical ideas become popular culture commodities. Strictly in accordance with Jacques Derrida’s theory of animality and “carnophallogocentrism,” which holds that killing animals and devouring them is “displaced cannibalism,” Raw’s heroine, initially a vegetarian, is forced to eat raw chicken liver which leads her to discover her cannibalistic nature.
Among numerous examples of this cultural shift, the Hannibal Lecter books, movies, and television series occupy a special place because they profoundly influenced our perception of cannibalism. Lecter debuted as the protagonist of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon and of the film adaption of Harris’ second novel The Silence of the Lambs, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins played the cannibalistic serial killer. Lecter’s legend has only grown through sequels and prequels, culminating in the latest iteration, the television series Hannibal, which ran from 2013 to 2015 and starred Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter.
For all his elegance and allure, Hopkins’ Lecter is undeniably and unmistakably a monstrous criminal in the books Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and the films The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. It was precisely the stark contrast between his great sophistication and his penchant for cannibalism (which was, at the time, still considered the utmost denial of civilization) that made him an intriguing protagonist.
This changed with the TV series Hannibal (2013- 2015). Hannibal is staged as the true protagonist of the series. No longer heinous, Lecter is portrayed by the dashing Mikkelsen as the very embodiment of elegance and high culture. He, too, hates “rude people” and eventually punishes them by killing them and dining on their remains, but this is not his primary motivation. As Justine, he eats humans because he “likes” it.
Most importantly, the TV series put considerable effort into showcasing Lecter’s skill in the kitchen. Viewers are prompted to appreciate his sophistication in the cooking of human flesh and his ability to pair those dishes with the perfect wine. Hannibal is nothing short of an entertaining master class in the serving and consumption of humans as food. The names of the episodes further highlight this theme: all the titles of first season’s episodes are taken from French haute cuisine and in the second from the Japanese.
So, what distinguishes Mikkelsen’s Hannibal of 2013-2015 from its predecessors is that cannibalism is shown not in contrast to, but as an integral part of Hannibal’s urbane attraction, not incompatible with society but the most sophisticated part of it.
Certainly, by winning five Oscars in 1992, The Silence of the Lambs launched a cult following for Lecter that fueled the public’s fascination. This “aestheticization” of the cannibal and serial killer could not have happened had the public perception of monsters and the value of human life not already been undergoing a profound change. While prior to the late 1980s and the 1990s, serial murder and cannibalism had been categorized as a prehistoric atavism and animal savagery, and serial killers were compared to beasts of prey such as tigers, by the early 1990s, the intense interest in equating people with an object of predation became an overarching cultural theme. Against this background, the fact that, as of August 2015, a surprisingly well-documented YouTube clip on cannibalism titled “What does human taste like?” had racked up 138,999 likes and only 5,349 dislikes, from a total of 9,544,547 views, comes as no surprise at all (last checked May 11, 2017 ).
Obviously, equating people and chicken, the slaughter of people and of animals, to the point of comparing the Holocaust and the mass confinement and butchery of chickens – the discourse of animal right defenders – legitimates such attitudes to people.
In the academic discourse, the representation of people as food in popular culture is regarded as par for the course as “the underlying theme of many narratives.”(1) This trivializing denial of human exceptionalism opens the door to statements about “death for food.” “Food approach to death” and assertions that “we are all food, and through death nourish others,” and that “mortuary practices might affirm death as an opportunity of life for others in the ecological community” epitomizes the new attitudes to people.(2)
In this climate, today’s obsession with food as a subject of scientific research and the growing debate on an international scale about what can and cannot be eaten seems symptomatic for the reconsideration of our basic food taboo.
Let us now consider how monsters have been repackaged as an object of idealization. René Girard pioneered the interpretation of the monster as scapegoat and extended it to various marginalized groups. An understanding of the monster as a symbol of all that is sidelined, dominated, or oppressed was further developed in the works of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Pierre-Félix Guattari, who chose vampires and ghosts as symbols and metaphors incarnating this idea. Departing from Marx’s use of the vampire metaphor (who originally treated them as a metaphor for capitalist evil), Deleuze and Guattari contributed to this transformation by considering the vampire as a “hybrid” that “infects” and therefore ushers in difference and the anomalous.
These works set the stage for a paradigmatic shift in the understanding of monsters, making them a focus of attention in the humanities. Vampires have been interpreted as symbolizing the victims of political oppression and as embodying the radical criticism of capitalism, of gender intolerance or as symbols of racial or ethnic discrimination or economic inequality. These studies are inspired by the idea that the monster stands for the Other and should therefore be treated with sympathy, dignity, and respect. Monsters and monstrous behavior are to be understood on their own terms. Nina Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves (1999) is a down-to-earth formula proved extremely prolific. “Our Monsters, Ourselves” became a slogan of the time, and in the two decades following Auerbach’s publication, titles such as Our Cannibals, Ourselves, Our Serial Killers, Our Superheroes, and Ourselves, Our Zombies, Ourselves, and Our Animals, Ourselves flooded the press and the bookstores.
The inflation of the concept of the Other, originally an expression of cultural and political tolerance, has been instrumental in normalizing murderous monsters and no longer only as an incarnation of and metaphor for the victimized and marginalized. The monster becomes the Other and “our deepest self.” Readers and viewers are expected to see the fictional world through the eyes of a vampire, a zombie, a cannibal, a serial killer, and to empathize with that Other rather than with their victims. These interpretations blind critics to the antihumanistic significance of monsters as cultural representations, in that audiences identify with them not only against unjust institutions and political or economic oppression but also against humanity and humanistic ideals in general.
Back in the 1990s, cannibalism was still seen as a dire threat to civilization. By the 2000s, the “monster turn” had made it seductive and appealing. As numerous studies demonstrate, the images of vampire and the image of cannibals has merged in the 1990s. It could be argued that this fusion was inspired by the radical questioning of the food taboo forbidding the consumption of people. The image of a vampire with its implicit glamour and romantic associations proved to be not drastic enough to express the utmost instrumentalization of humans and the ultimate rejection of human exceptionalism. The most recent example of this transition is offered by a writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, whose 2014 vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was followed by the intense cannibalistic movie The Bad Batch (2017).
The shift from the view of murderous monsters as criminals to an object of idealization that has given rise to a subculture of zombies and vampire fans, and to cannibal celebrity culture should be seen as an important hallmark of a change in cultural history. Objectification of people as food is what has rendered the image of the vampire/serial killer/cannibal so attractive to the mass audience over the past two decades. A part of a larger cultural movement – the cult of death that rejects human exceptionalism and promotes antihumanism as a fashionable commodity– it is an ultimate expression of disappointment with humanity, its culture and civilization.
(1) Fabio Parasecoli, Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2008), 65.
(2) Val Plumwood, “Tasteless: Towards a Food- Based Approach to Death,” Environmental Values 17, no. 3 (2008).
Dina Khapaeva is Professor of Russian at Ivan Allen College of Arts, Georgia Institute of Technology
Image: Man Holding Fork And Knife Isolated On White. Stock Photography – Image: 30108952