In movies such as Cannibal Holocaust, Silence of the Lambs, and The Green Inferno, cannibalism is an essential staple of the plot. Most audience members understandably cringe at the sight of a human devouring another person, even if the movie itself isn’t necessarily grounded in reality, because cannibalism is a social taboo.
It’s generally accepted that cannibalism is an animalistic act that is reserved for other species that are not quite as evolved as the human race, since normal human beings don’t tend to enjoy their neighbors’ flesh for dinner.
So, when a story breaks that cannibalism was involved in any kind of criminal act, the public is captivated by the fact that the offender has crossed the line from human to animal. However, despite how upsetting the idea of cannibalism is, it is by no means a rare occurrence.
One of the most prevalent examples of cannibalism in American pop culture is the image of the Donner Party, the pioneer group traveling in the 1800s to the West coast who became tragically stranded in an awful winter storm. After their supplies ran out and members of the caravan began to die, the remaining survivors consumed the deceased in order to survive.
This horrified people at the time, but, according to Isavel Caceres, a paleocologist who has studied the subject, “Cannibalism is an ethological behavior widespread among human primates and non-human primates.” Caceres’s research further noted that cannibalism is a behavior that has roots beginning about 780,000 years ago, with our ancestors.
Historically, there have been several other examples of cannibalism in the past, like the infamous Aztec custom associated with sporting competitions. The heart of the captain of the victorious team was always eaten by his fellow teammates to serve the dual purpose of consuming their captain’s glory and to sacrifice him to the Gods.
And, even in the religious rituals of tribal groups, cannibalism was practiced after a loved one died in order to keep a part of their family member forever. But in most cases, people who would partake in cannibalism often would be in life or death situations with no other access to food sources.
This type of behavior was seen during the Crusades, WWII, and even in the throes of the 1990s famine of North Korea. Although cannibalism is not a sole action of the forgotten past, what about well-known, famous cannibals such as Albert Fish and Jeffery Dahmer?
Fish was a notorious cannibal who tricked a family into letting their daughter into his company, before proceeding to kill her and consume her flesh. He then wrote to the mother after the search for their beloved daughter had begun, describing how he had left her unmolested and just enjoyed the taste of her young meat.
Jeffery Dahmer is, of course, the serial killer who was attempting to make a zombie sex slave that wouldn’t leave him, but at each unsuccessful attempt, he would dismember the bodies and keep their parts for later consumption. Even though he wouldn’t succeed in making a sex slave, he would still eat their remains so they would never leave him.
These latter types of cannibals are obviously not eating others for survival or religious purposes, but because of sexual fetishes that revolve around the consumption of flesh. Although there is not one root cause of these fetishes, the main one suggests that sexual cannibalism is someone’s ultimate act of being a predator, eating the prey in complete domination. In essence, the cannibals themselves were often prey too, highly victimized (most likely in their childhood) and they believe that by eating their victims, they can transform themselves from prey to predator.
However, aside from these special cases, there is an almost constant thread of stories in the news, dealing with people high on some new drug who are eating someone else’s face. A couple years ago it was bath salts, then it was synthetic marijuana, and now it is flakka, but honestly, in most of these cases mental illness is the main culprit, not flat out cannibalism.
The man that was shot by police after chewing another’s face off in Miami, for example, was reportedly on bath salts, but it was later revealed that he was actually an acute schizophrenic with no access to medical care or medication. When cannibalism shows up in these random cases, diseases like schizophrenia are generally to blame, but a less complicated story of blaming drugs, or a more scandalous tale of cannibalistic feasting, more often emerges.
The major taboo of cannibalism is not just confined to the silver screen, or in primitive tribes that are seen as uninvolved in our modern world, it’s alive in crime and in popular culture.
Besides mentally ill or serial killer cases, there are instances of the wealthy buying human meat just to try it. Additionally, there is research that suggests unless the person being consumed is diseased there are no negative side effects for the consumer.