From Hannibal to Santa Clarita Diet, why we’re living in a golden age of fictional cannibals
“Before we begin, I must warn you… nothing here is vegetarian.”
This cautionary message from Dr. Hannibal Lecter may qualify as the culinary understatement of the decade. His last on-screen incarnation, played by Mads Mikkelsen, put the Food Network to shame with some of the most visually enticing dishes on television. There was the exquisite tongues en papillote harvested from a “chatty lamb,” a tantalizingly juicy osso buco made from fall-off-the-bone human leg and a classic lung and loin bourguignonne using a not-so-classic meat source. It’s safe to say human flesh never looked so appetizing – so much so that the show’s food stylist released a Hannibal-inspired cookbook after the series ended (minus the human ingredients).
Hannibal isn’t the only cannibal to grace our screens lately. In fact, we’re living in a golden age of fictional cannibals. Hit series The Walking Dead features not only zombies eating humans, but desperate humans eating each other in order to survive. Eli Roth’s latest horror flick, The Green Inferno, is a throwback to the notorious Italian cannibal films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. French art house film Raw – which saw audience members passing out and ambulances called at its TIFF screening – and Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral explored the philosophical side cannibalism to critical acclaim. Drew Barrymore comically slurps human smoothies on recent Netflix hit Santa Clarita Diet and Katy Perry is graphically kneaded into dough, seasoned with vegetables and boiled in her eerie new “Bon Appetit” music video.
Cannibals haven’t received so much pop culture attention since the “cannibal boom” of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when exploitation films were at their peak in Grindhouse theatres. Perhaps the most infamous and controversial of the bunch was Cannibal Holocaust, which saw director Ruggero Deodato arrested after its Milan premiere when officials mistook its found-footage style for an actual snuff film. The film is still banned in several countries.
This new class of cannibals is a different breed, though. Their appeal isn’t based in pure horrific gore, shock value or racist notions of native tribes – these are nuanced depictions of cannibals that explore larger societal themes. These multi-faceted characters have earned the nickname “gourmet cannibals.”
Unlike many other fictional evils such as vampires and werewolves, cannibals have a basis in reality. They, after all, are humans just like us. Although rare, there have been real-life instances of cannibalism out of necessity in extreme conditions. As such, they’ve come to represent extraordinary social breakdown and tend to appear en masse during times of social and economic unrest.
The cannibal boom of the early ‘80s coincided with the last great recession, mass unemployment in the West and the Iranian Revolution and its global aftereffects. It was also in 1981 that the infamous Hannibal Lecter was introduced in the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. The first Hannibal film, Manhunter, premiered a few years later in 1986.
It’s no coincidence that in a time of economic, social and political uncertainty combined with ubiquitous security threats that cannibals have made a formidable comeback.
While traditional depictions of cannibalism often centred on poor, underprivileged people and societies, the new cannibals are often members of the upper class. Hannibal has never appeared more aristocratic than in NBC’s series, husband-and-wife team Joe and Sheila are successful realtors in Santa Clarita Diet and Raw takes place in a veterinary college. Their consumption of others raises themes of capitalism, consumption, class, religion and power.
Between Michelin star-worthy human feasts, Mikkelsen’s Hannibal offers up provocative quotes like, “Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in God’s image?” He also adheres to a perverse, but strict moral code; in his eyes there’s no greater sin than rudeness and he will happily punish people for it. Hannibal’s narrative is less about his own unique blend of evil, but rather his quest to corrupt others. The show leaves us to ponder what exactly is evil, what drives its ability to spread, our tendency to overlook it when it comes from a place of prestige and the increasing moral ambiguity of our world.
Raw raises similar questions by asking what if there was a way to responsibly practice cannibalism without having to murder people? Santa Clarita diet also struggles with the ethics of murder in the name of cannibalism and how to minimize carnage. Cannibalism is no longer a black-and-white endeavour where the hunter is automatically cast as the villain. We increasingly face similar grey areas of morality on a daily basis. How do we balance the need for national security with our desire to be inclusive of all cultures? Do we look out for our own jobs and self-interests when it comes to climate change, or prioritize the greater good and future generations? Do we emphasize free speech or political correctness? The list is endless.
Another trend that can’t be overlooked is the rise of the female cannibal in the wake of a revitalized feminist movement. Women with an insatiable appetite for blood and human flesh represent social anxieties about female sexuality, ambition and empowerment.
Female cannibals aren’t just motivated by hunger, but also sexual desire. There’s the oft-used archetype of the femme fatale that will lead men to their deaths – these ones will literally eat you and unapologetically spit out your bones.
In Raw, Justine learns to subvert society’s expectations about eating and embrace her abnormal cravings. Santa Clarita Diet sees Sheila shed her stuffy, society-approved professional mom persona. These are stories of female liberation and fulfilling oppressed needs and lusts, all while flipping traditionally gendered hunter-prey roles upside down. When her husband comes under suspicion for murder instead of her, she quips, “So Dan assumes you killed Gary? That’s sexist.”
In a bizarre twist, fictional cannibals are no longer the ultimate villains that once haunted our nightmares. These days, they’re just like us.