“A Taste For Cannibalism” is the title of The New York Times' latest controversial article. When it first popped up on my feed, I was positive it was intentionally provocative, so naturally I clicked on it.
They released the article last week, noting the recent rise of books, movies, and TV shows revolving around the theme of cannibalism. Two notables are Fresh, a show that premiered on Hulu back in March, and Bones and All (out November 2022), a film that follows the relationship of two homeless, teenage cannibals. The director calls the film “extremely romantic.”
A rather macabre subject, the article asked the question, Why? Why is cannibalism becoming more popular in entertainment? It provided many interesting answers, but I feel, overall, that the whole topic deserves expounding and that the dark forces possibly at play behind the scenes deserve to be brought into the light.
The Latest (and Darkest) Trend
Alex Beggs’ NYT article interviews several of the authors and producers responsible for the latest surge in cannibalism-themed media. She asks them their opinion on why there have been so many works that focus on cannibalism lately. Why do certain subReddit boards, dedicated to dissecting book passages and film clips, have tens of thousands of followers? She wonders why there seems to be such an “appetite” for cannibalistic content.
Some of the creator’s answers are disgustingly inaccurate and grotesque, some are reasonable but (in my opinion) wrong, and some waver along the tightrope of accuracy but ultimately, fall short. They all, however, agree that there has never been a better time and place than right now to produce and consume this particular fad. Never mind that what we're actually talking about here is humans literally eating other humans. Pause and think about that for a moment. You'd have to be seriously disturbed to realize and picture the sad, dark reality of that and accept it as just another "fad" or as a way to entertain viewers, and when taken to the extreme, an acceptable route to take in our future.
One of these authors, Chelsea Summers, recounts how she became so disturbed by her own writing in A Certain Hunger (published 2020) and the character she created, that she went “full raw vegan for two weeks.”
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Lapova (published 2020) and vegetarian, states that she wrote her book at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic from her home in Los Angeles. She says, “I wrote it in such complete isolation that I felt this incredible freedom to go wherever I was being led," and she felt led to write about a different pandemic, in a different time, where the main character (a vegetarian) resorts to cannibalism to survive.
Chelsea Summers became so disturbed by the character she created she went “full raw vegan for two weeks.”
When the authors were asked what they believe might be fueling the craving for such appalling material, they blame things like “the pandemic, climate change, school shootings and years of political cacophony.”
Summers offers that capitalism might partially be to blame, saying, “Cannibalism is about consumption and it's about burning up from the inside in order to exist. Burnout is essentially over-consuming yourself, your own energy, your own will to survive, your sleep schedule, your eating schedule, your body."
Ashley Lyle (producer of Yellowjackets, a show that premiered in 2021), when asked for an explanation, says she thinks “we're often drawn to the things that repulse us the most…I feel like the unthinkable has become the thinkable…and cannibalism is very much squarely in that category of the unthinkable.”
Bart Nickerson, also a Yellowjackets producer, says he “keep[s] coming back to this idea of, what portion of our revulsion to these things is a fear of the ecstasy of them?”
Lastly, Moshfegh suspects “that it might be an antidote to the actual horror of what’s happening to the planet.”
What’s Going on Here?
So what’s actually going on here? We can’t deny that there has been an uptick in media featuring cannibalism. We also can’t deny that it currently has a significant fan base. However, am I satisfied with the answers provided to my (and Alex Beggs’) question as to “Why?” Not really.
Cannibalism is the extreme conclusion of the idea that humans – and their bodies – do not have inherent value that demands respect. American society has been traveling down this philosophical road for a while. It started with legalizing abortion: After Roe v. Wade in 1973, any baby born or killed was just a “choice” at the mercy of their parents. They were not recognized as having inherent value with rights to their body or their life. More recently were the mandatory lockdowns, mask wearing, and vaccinations for Covid-19. Again, a lack of respect for human bodies and for our ability to make decisions for ourselves occurred. The encroachment on human dignity could potentially continue to progress into cannibalism – where the bodies of others have no inherent meaning, value, or sacredness that separates them from the animals we do rightfully and naturally eat. It's basically applied nihilism.
Cannibalism is the extreme conclusion of the idea that humans don't have inherent value that demands respect.
The NYT article references Professor of Biology at Long Island University Bill Schutt's 2017 book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, but, notably, there’s nothing natural about the human-related situations he cites (he also examines animal cannibalism). His book contains details about mentally ill individuals, groups of people becoming lost and/or trapped like the Donner Party, and “famine-induced cannibalism in China in the 1960s.” Unnatural situations. Unnatural responses.
I also don’t think capitalism is the cause of this cannibal craze, as Summers suggests. Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism is what is standing between us and societal collapse. Capitalism is why we're not eating bugs and weeds.
As Schutt wrote in his book, the cannibalism that took place in China in the 1960s was due to a famine. This famine was directly caused by Mao Zedong’s aggressive communist policies. The ruthless, communist dictator made it impossible for people to take care of themselves. It was the largest famine in the world: 20-50 million people died, and it's estimated that 30 million pre-born baby lives ended as well. China isn’t alone in this, however; many of the other heavy hitters for the communist party have experienced significant famines also, some of them ranked among the top 10 most deadly in the world, such as North Korea in 1994-98 and the Soviet Union in 1921 and 1932-33.
Cannibalism is an unnatural act caused by unnatural situations, such as famine. Famines of food, famines of human contact, famines of free will, famines of failing to recognize the inherent and inalienable dignity of the natural human body from womb to tomb. I believe, based on these simple observations of nature, that whenever our society strays into famine (unintentionally or willfully), we stray away from a fascination with the beautiful, into a fascination with the ugly.
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