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Some information on the motif of cannibalism in horror films and on the eating habits of warlike putti

The urge to delve deeper into the facets of this motif came while I was working on some poems that were to make up the slim volume Die Nacht der Hungerputten. Cannibalism had emerged unexpectedly and yet organically in the text, and the results of my subsequent work convinced me that I was on the right track.

Linguistic corporeality. Brazil, 16th Century. In Como Era Gostoso O Meu Francês / How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971), a Frenchman escapes execution by his countrymen only to fall into the hands of a group of Portuguese and Tupiniquim, who are defeated a little later by some Tupinambá. And since in this tribe co-operates with the French, the prisoner tries to prove his nationality with nothing other than a poem. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work out. Mistaken as Portuguese, he is ritually slain and consumed – but not before he has lived with the Tupinambá for a while, fought alongside them and spoken their language. If he dies, his beloved says, she will be unhappy, and she is also looking forward to the part of his body intended for her, his neck. Nevertheless, this is on the whole an accommodating approach to food – and that can’t be taken for granted.

If you study anthropophagy, the vastness of the existing literature, whether ethnological, psychological, nutritional or cultural, swiftly becomes apparent. That’s why I want to focus, here, on an isolated aspect: the horror film. As previously in the shadowy realm of myths and legends, the modern cannibal finds a fitting home in the horror film, assigned to the class of half-beings. But typical characteristics are also apparent in the black comedy How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman: a fight with the censors, in this case not because of the depiction of violence but because of the film’s unadulterated nudity; the audacious handling of fact and fiction; the use of dubious sources; fabrication. Since the term cannibalism is itself the result of mystification, misunderstandings and false statements, there is room for manoeuvre.1 The same applies to other terms in this semantic field: from Herodotus’ people of the Androphagoi to William Shakespeare’s “speak like an Anthropophaginian” (The Merry Wives of Windsor) – pejorative othering. In what follows, the terms cannibalism and anthropophagy are used synonymously (despite various attempts at definition, perhaps arbitrary, as they have always been). It is important to bear in mind the xenophobia of these terms, which aim to differentiate and dehumanise. Evidence has been discovered which shows that the Washoe people tried to provide food for the Donner travelling party, who were snowed in in the Sierra Nevada in 1846-1847, but they were shot at. Instead, the group made use of the flesh of their dead.

Let’s get an Italian. Like the most famous putti, the most famous cannibal films come from Italy, historically concentrated in the 1970/80s. What the specialised literature regularly describes as the cannibal boom began with Il Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio (1972; Man from Deep River).2 The film’s opening captions are a nod to the documentary form: ‘Only the story is imaginary’. The so-called Mondo films, along with their exoticizing, often racist view of non-European cultures, should be mentioned as precursors. In the cannibal films of this period, emphasis is placed on distant locations and indigenous actors, although the occasional “civilised” hairstyle is sometimes visible beneath wild manes.

The protagonist in Man from Deep River is a photojournalist, claiming objectivity with his camera. He is captured and gradually accepted by a tribe, this time in the tropical forests of Thailand. Although the tribe itself is not squeamish about punishing rule breakers, and infamous real animal killings form part of the jungle idyll, the cannibals are the others here and only towards the end does this enemy tribe of cannibals bite. In the counterattack, the man-eaters get their tongues cut off. How to explain these eating habits? How to say: it was all a misunderstanding! The photojournalist manages to learn a few words of the tribal language and communicate a few more to his bride. Intercultural exchange takes place between these two characters, but the cannibal is barely able to get a word in edgeways and appears uncultured, especially when devouring meat raw (and occasionally whilst still alive). A relic from the Stone Age. And when the cannibal’s mouth is full, he looks a bit like a putto, doesn't he? In subsequent films, the anthropophagic act becomes the highlight of the film and a centrepiece of the horror genre – fittingly so, since for many this genre amounts to a similarly culture-free zone.3

Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823)

On the one hand, locating this act in the fictional realm corresponds to the tradition of countless cannibal creation myths and fairy tales (the image that appears most frequently as decoration in horror films is, alongside Fuseli’s Nightmare, Francisco Goya’s Saturn). On the other, this act is connected to the (popular) scientific discourse that was beginning at the time, as we see in William Arens’ The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology & Anthropophagy (1979), which investigated sources, methods and beliefs, probably a little too extensively. Nevertheless, these are reasons for limiting my research to fiction. After the successful integration of a photojournalist in Man from Deep River, an entire film crew arrived in the Amazon in 1980: Cannibal Holocaust is the most disreputable product of Italian cannibal film exports. There were rumours about legal proceedings and suspicion that director Ruggero Deodato had murdered his cast. Once again, the boundaries are blurred, not least moral ones, in line with the film’s plot. To ensure the success of their documentary, the filmmakers in Cannibal Holocaust staged massacres before the camera, but the ensuing cannibalism aims at extermination rather than fusion, for the safety of the community.

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Trailer for the film Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

This all leaves the anthropology professor responsible for the footage wondering who the real cannibals are, even more so after his own participation in a tribal feast. There’s more captivity in Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1977; Jungle Holocaust), again directed by Deodato. The cannibals act like children, comparing their genitals with those of the stranger and trying to eat his wristwatch. But they can’t find a common language. Even an expert describes theirs as incomprehensible. Understanding takes place on another level, and in the melee of the film’s final minutes the hero also bites into an organ, a liver, I would say. A little later, a text provides information about what happened to him afterwards (four months in hospital in the Philippines, now living with a wife on a farm in Mexico). The consequences for the director: another court case, this time not for killing an actor, but for killing an animal. The imagery of these films is based on the omnipresence of eating and being eaten, in close-up: snakes, monkeys, bats, giant tortoises, crocodiles, piranhas, ants, people. In terms of content and form, they tend towards the repetitive, reusing shots, sets and actors.4

Eye to eye with the mouth. How to start a conversation? How to do so at eye level? The view of the cannibal is often a racist, colonialist one, as the term was used by slave traders to justify their lucrative business operations. In Cannibal Ferox (1981), the locals also have to resort to excessive cruelty before they can be on a par, at eye level, with the European visitors. Only a feeding frenzy can compete with a frenzy fuelled by drugs and the cynicism of civilisation. In Terreur Cannibale (1980; Cannibal Terror), a rapist is tied to a tree, a whistle is blown and the nearby cannibals, acting as nature’s health police, take care of his disposal. The familiar horror film topos of the monster’s intrusion and its destruction is somewhat inverted; by eating this character, danger is averted. There is no ritualised interaction between warriors here, the aim of which would be to acquire desired attributes, as the two models in The Neon Demon (2016) do, for example, when they devour the more successful model. Perhaps it is simply hunger.

In the same way, worship, whether of the technically superior (weapon), or of the blonde, white beauty, prevents one from being on level terms, as in La Montagna Del Dio Cannibale (1978; Slave Of The Cannibal God) or Mondo Cannibale (1980; Cannibals) – although the cannibals’ war paint gets smudged when they bite. Perhaps self-cannibalism offers a solution, from the moment one becomes alienated enough from one’s own body to view it as an object, as some exciting piece of foreign meat (Dans Ma Peau/In My Skin, 2002; Eat, 2014).5 In horror films, humans once again become the prey: the DNA still remembers how it was, prehistoric conditions prevail, nothing matters. “The crown of creation, the pig, the human being,” wrote Gottfried Benn (Der Arzt II) – or, Meat Is Meat (Lo Strangolatore Di Vienna, 1971). When Hans Staden (1999) is abducted and taken to the village of the Tupinambá, he has to announce himself with “A Junesche been ermi vramme” (“I, your food, am coming”). However, he is – a historically correct fact – not eaten. The fact that human bones were processed in a similar way to animal bones is an archaeological criterion for proving cannibalism. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), people find their place on hooks and in freezers. A family of slaughterhouse workers is rendered unemployed thanks to technical progress, but their skills can still be put to good use, a déformation professionnelle.

Poster for the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), this same family has long been winning cookery competitions – thanks to their “prime meat”. And my personal anecdote about Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990): one of the cannibals, Viggo Mortensen, is also a poet and signed his new volume and the DVD for me after the reading. In The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), the market-orientated West strikes. Tagline: “They came as friends and became sausage”. “With the man-eaters, everything is so easy – bang grind cut fry lard! – and the dear belly is delicious sun...” says Hans Carl Artmann’s Der handkolorierte Menschenfresser (”The hand-coloured cannibal”). The production of “Farmer Vincent’s Meat” in Motel Hell (1980) seems comparatively complicated to me: fattened guests buried up to their necks, severed vocal cords, hypnotic lamps.

In various myths we encounter unknowing cannibalism, such as Lycaon’s feeding Zeus human flesh and being turned into a wolf in return. This occurrence is echoed in The Horror of Dolores Roach (2023), when the son is served his father’s flesh in an empanada. Dolores Roach, whose humanity is also at stake, is a masseuse with golden and deadly hands, and the film is also an update of the barber Sweeney Todd story (the first depiction of these much-filmed series of murders being in the penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls). Todd’s accomplice, Mrs Lovett, has had much success with her “meat pies”, just as Dolores’ lover Luis has with his empanada creations. Disposing of corpses combines the necessary with the savoury. And the money’s good.

Pragmatism is also the order of the day in Hong Kong cuisine. In the infamous CAT III films (a reference to the release regulations there) such as Bat Sin Fan Dim: Yan Yuk Cha Siu Bau (1993; The Untold Story) or Yi Boh Lai Beng Duk (1996; Ebola Syndrome), cannibalism is just one of many taboos that are routinely broken. See also the erotic dramas from Singapore enriched with the ingredient of anthropophagy, when the remains of the lovers in Siew Lup (2016) hang side by side from the restaurant ceiling. In Blood Feast (1963), supposedly the first splatter film (the oft-used quote from director Herschell Gordon Lewis: “I’ve often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It's no good, but it was the first of its type”), a ritual is prepared in honour of Ishtar; here an Egyptian goddess, otherwise a Babylonian one. “They take all the young girls and they cook them to satisfy their gods,” but the dinner party is able to be spared from unknowing consumption. It is only in the remake of the same name (2016) that a communion with wife, daughter and Ishtar succeeds. There’s more success in Ostatnia Wieczerza (2010; Hellhole): the force-feeding of human flesh leads the Chosen One to his destiny as a demonic messenger of the apocalypse. The starvation cannibalism of the Yellowjackets women’s football team (2021-) after a plane crash is increasingly mystical in nature. The atmosphere of the woods and the hallucinations (visions?) of a female teammate suffering from schizophrenia manifest themselves in the commandments of a nature religion – complete with hunting rituals. Fresh (2022) can be read as a commentary on the flesh trade in the context of dating pressure and apps; women are lured in by a charming doctor, then sold piece by piece.

Then there’s the not ‘too hungry’, but ‘too rich’: man-eating cast as the pleasure and privilege of an elite, as a transgression of boundaries that one must have the means to afford. In Hostel: Part II (2007), customers of the Elite Hunting Club act out their sadistic fantasies, one of them reaches for a knife and fork, a cameo appearance by Cannibal Holocaust director Deodato. (Hostel director Eli Roth staged The Green Inferno in 2013 – the same title was given to the sinister documentary in Cannibal Holocaust – activists save a piece of rainforest and end up in the hands and stomachs of its inhabitants). The association in Masters of Horror: The Washingtonians (2007) can be traced back to the man-eating first president of America. And in Eat the Rich (1987), the tables are turned once again.

This text is becoming increasingly list-like, as I feared it would, and I can’t sell it as a concept with a clear conscience – the theme eats itself, or something like that. To put it simply, these variations appeal to me more than an interpretative in-depth study (and please don't hesitate to skip the last part, quickly memorise the Kästner quote, then call it a day), but it is painful to have had to omit so many titles. Instead, here are a few book tips for further reading: Kannibalische Katharsis – Literarische und filmische Inszenierungen der Anthropophagie von James Cook bis Bret Easton Ellis by Christian Moser (Aisthesis Verlag) or Vom Fressen und Gefressenwerden – Filmische Rezeption und Re-Inszenierung des wilden Kannibalen by Paul Drogla (Tectum Verlag) or Meat is Murder! An illustrated Guide to Cannibal Culture by Mikita Brottman (Creation Books). Generally speaking, the cannibal in horror films is now mostly found in civilisation and questions it accordingly. Cannibalism serves as a multifaceted metaphor: consumer behaviour, capitalism, loss of control, unwanted emotions, self-empowerment and self-destruction, animal rights.6

There are many ways to the stomach. How do you become a cannibal? The nightmare logic of the horror film demands no explanations. On the birth of Jupiter: “This Thing she give me, something happened. He was so big, he came out sideways and almost tore poor Martha apart.” Possibly an evolutionary step, but in which direction? In The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Jupiter rules over his cannibal family – the film is one of many that can be traced back to the legend of Scotsman Alexander “Sawney” Bean, the head of an incestuously growing group that fed on travellers. Although cannibals have left the jungle behind, they still inhabit virtually impassable terrain – caves on the coast of Maine in Offspring (2009), the forests of West Virginia in Wrong Turn (2003). Sniffing out their prey characterises the cannibals as dehumanised animal beings. The Jupiter cannibal family hunts in the Nevada desert, provided that the desert itself hasn't long since made “human French fries” out of its visitors. The German dubbed version offers a different explanation, which possibly attempts to mitigate the brutality through additional dehumanisation: they are not humans but aliens. The antagonists are unquestionably different. Michael Berryman, the actor who plays Pluto, has no sweat glands. The desert thus is dangerous for him, too. A repeatedly used tagline: The family that slays together, stays together.7

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Trailer for the film The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

In The Hills Have Eyes, Ruby doesn't just think about dinner when she catches sight of a baby. In the remake of the same name (2006), it is not only the arbitrariness of genes, but also of state nuclear weapons tests that leads to otherness (the fact that they live in uranium mines might also explain the oddness of the tribe in Slave of The Cannibal God), an otherness that is more clearly recognisable than in the original through the grotesqueness of the bodies. The evolution of the cannibals or “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers” in C.H.U.D. (1984) begins with the improper disposal of radioactive waste. As we see in The People Under the Stairs (1991), the motif of retribution resonates: the marginalised strike back. Remoteness allows entire villages to resort to eating human flesh – such as in Die Yuk Mo Moon (1980; We're Going to Eat You), where only kung fu can help the visitors, but for the urban anthropophagus, adaptation is a necessary survival strategy because there, they must fear incomprehension and persecution.

Recurring family structures form a safety net and also an arena for the old nature-versus-nurture debate, as well as for the obligatory rebellion of the next generation; even deviant norms can be challenged. The son in Parents (1989) does not eat meat, much to the chagrin of his cannibal parents, while the daughters in We Are What We Are (2012, a remake of Somos Lo Que Hay, 2010), eat their father. Hunger is regularly passed on; in Frightmare (1974), it passes from mothers to daughters, as is also the case in Grave/Raw (2016, where a vegetarian diet can quell the hunger, for now). It is a small step from a social group to a new species. The “eaters” in Bones and All (2022) recognise each other by smell, as a way out of loneliness.8

Poster for the film Raw (2017)

Poster for the film Parents (1989)

Enjoying eating each other is something Dionysian, more or less cute aggression. In My Bloody Valentine, an episode of Supernatural (2005–2020), a couple, surprised by their own passion, go to the depths. Bloody fingerprints remain on the postcard on the fridge, which depicts a Cupid. (However, the deadly ecstasy is not caused by a god of love, but by one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Guess which one!) At the beginning of Eating Raoul (1982), someone remarks of Hollywood that “The barrier between food and sex has totally dissolved”.9 In Trouble Every Day (2001), kissing and biting are also combined, while Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer (2006) ultimately descends into a mass orgy which results in the initiator being polished off.10 The goal of the cannibalistic serial killer and psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal (2013-2015) is to be on equal terms with FBI profiler Will Graham, which requires a transformation. “See, this is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For both of us,” says Dr Lecter after they commit their crime together. “It's beautiful,” replies Will. Together, they fall into the abyss.

Poster for the TV series Hannibal (2013-2015)

It would be appropriate to mention, here, films such as Rohtenburg (2006) and Cannibal (2006), which draw on – or cannibalize – the case of Armin Meiwes (there’s also greedy assisted suicide in Feed Me, 2022). And for the sake of completeness: Tenderness of Wolves (1973) is a film about the Fritz Haarmann case and Dahmer (2002) is about Jeffrey Dahmer, who was arrested in 1991 – the same year Bret Easton Ellis published his novel American Psycho and the cannibal arrived in mainstream cinema through The Silence of The Lambs, albeit with a doctorate. But let's not venture too far out of the realm of fiction.

The descendant of someone buried in London’s underground during construction work in 1892 (Death Line/Raw Meat, 1972) is capable only of uttering the phrase “mind the doors”. The Woman (2011) speaks at least a few scraps of Gaelic. The “troglodytes” (Herodotus also helps here) in Bone Tomahawk (2015), about man-eating Native Americans, communicate by whistling with the help of a bony implant. The highly specialised cavemen in The Descent (2005) only need snarling and clicking sounds, but here the limit of the definition of cannibalism is probably attained, or at any rate it is in The Cannibal in The Jungle (2015), which portrays specimens of Homo floresiensis, which, according to studies, are not representative of Homo sapiens. (Not only the past is voracious, but also the future, as presented in various post-apocalyptic visions, with cellars – The Road, 2009 – or stables – Hell, 2011 – full of two-legged provisions.)

The Woman occupies the middle ground between a pack-like social alliance and a deviant individual case, continuing the plot of Offspring: a cannibal matriarch becomes the passion project of a tyrannical father, who takes her from the woods to the workshop – using cables, no less. “That is not civilised behaviour,” he shouts when she bites off his ring finger, although she spits out the wedding ring. She’s not a fan of oatmeal either. In the end, he’s dead and she moves back into the woods with a fresh family.

Men eat women, men eat men. And women who eat either men or women are mostly young, or sometimes they want to stay young or become young again. Dumplings (Gaau Ji, 2004) reflects customs of fairytale witches from all over the world – children's meat is preferred (always a guarantee of success for demonising conspiracy myths). When women only eat men, it is often for ideological reasons. In the spa clinic in Die Weibchen (1970; The Females), Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto isn’t just lying around, but is taken at its word (at least as far as the dubious breakdown of the acronym – Society for Cutting Up Men – is concerned). Women in the kitchen, men in the saucepan! The boundaries are blurred between delusion and will, between the psycho and the somatic. A girl’s passion for a singer of the German New Wave in Der Fan (1982; The Fan) is diagnosable; he ends up becoming part of her.

One way of marking the taboo appetite as a foreign body lies in the motif of infection: in Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), a virus is rampant in Atlanta, a souvenir of some soldiers from Vietnam that manifests itself, for example, in the desire to bite the girl next door. A little later, cannibals are chased through the sewers with a flamethrower. Perhaps a metaphor after all. Spider Baby (1967), an alternative title of which was Attack of The Liver Eaters, sheds light on the family life of the Merryes, who all begin to suffer from a hereditary disease around the age of ten: “It is believed that eventually the victim of the Merrye Syndrome may even regress beyond the pre-natal level, reverting to a pre-human condition of savagery and cannibalism.” A mutation of BSE leads to similar results in Carne Cruda (2011; Fresh Flesh 2011). And cannibalism also harbours health risks for the cannibal, thanks to the prison diseases. The diagnosis of Kuru in Gannibal (2022-) (or the Fore people in Papua New Guinea at the time) or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in The X-Files episode Our Town (1995) includes the revelation of corresponding eating habits. The repertoire of horror films goes far beyond scientific explanatory models. Although the endemically occurring Wendigo psychosis (depressive and cannibalistic symptoms in North American natives, questionably confirmed) is mentioned in psychiatric diagnostic systems, in Ravenous (1999) we can observe an undeniably supernaturally motivated gluttony, the actual transfer of the life essence of those eaten: “this time our hunger was different”. How unbearable is hunger, how important is one’s own life, that of others? (Or does nothing else taste so good?)11

Another cause of anthropophagy is necessity. A nuclear family has gone missing, adrift on a lifeboat, and only the Antropophagus (1980) survives. A doctor on a desert island can make competent use of his own limbs (Survivor Type segment in A Creepshow Animated Special, 2020, the adaptation of Stephen King's short story). I want to avoid the so-called real events – based on true events is a popular tagline on horror film posters – as far as possible, but if you find yourself lost in the wilderness, a cannibal tribe is less likely to attack than your own hunger is. In Supervivientes de Los Andes (1976; Survive!), the first cinematic reconstruction of the months-long struggle for survival after a plane crash in the Andes in 1972, there is a discussion for a while about whether the flesh of the deceased may be used. Fear of societal condemnation speaks against it. The presumed will of the deceased speaks in favour, and the Bible is also consulted. The analogy between cannibalism and communion is old hat. (But please read the poem der kannibale by Norbert Conrad Kaser).

Another attempt at self-exoneration is made in Hunger (2009): a child who survived two weeks in a crashed car by feeding on his mother, now an adult, locks a group down in a well and measures the passing time. Then a scalpel appears, together with a message: a body can survive thirty days without food. In Treehouse of Horror XVI (2005), more precisely the segment Survival of the Fattest – an adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, Richard Connell’s short story, which has been filmed several times since 1932 – Homer Simpson reaches for human flesh after just six hours in the forest. Just a few more words about true facts. In horror films, historical horrors are often upgraded as if the real happenings were not enough. The first season of The Terror (2018) adds the hunger of a monstrous creature to the suffering and hunger of the crews of the HMS and HMS Erebus, who were frozen in the Arctic for years.12

Van Diemen’s Land (2009) speculates on Alexander Pearce’s escape from a Tasmanian convict colony, his provisions in the wilderness: his companions. Although Pearce is executed, the change in diet continues for generations in Dying Breed (2008). The hunger remains. The same applies to the Donner travelling party in Donner Pass (2011). And similar historical events in Alferd Packer: The Musical (1993) are embellished with song and dance – tasteless? In the Ukrainian-Czech production Ghoul (2015), a documentary film crew travels to Ukraine to shed light on cannibalism during the Holodomor, but falls victim to the ghost of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. In general, anyone who delves into the subject, even if they only want to write poetry, needs a strong stomach. You start out reading a fairy tale that suddenly turns into a forensic case study; or some ethnological research that turns into a conspiracy fantasy about child-consuming stars and politicians. Since the time of pre-Christian travelogues, the cannibalism motif involves a clash, a confrontation, with what is alien to us – despite all the films – or with what we would rather remain alien to.13 Erich Kästner’s poem Über Anthropophagie und Bildungshunger ends with the hopeful line:

One knows so little...



©Dirk Skiba

Georg Leß, born in 1981 in Arnsberg (Sauerland), lives in Berlin. His poetry collection Schlachtgewicht was published by parasitenpresse in 2013, Hohlhandmusikalität in 2019 and Nacht der Hungerputten in 2023, both by kookbooks. Selected poems have been translated into numerous languages, set to music and made into films.

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