The other night, I had the strangest dream. I dreamt of a grim future, in which the human race had spawned a sub-group dependent entirely on human meat for survival. Not because all the other food was gone, but because their bodies demanded it, craved it. These flesh-eaters weren't zombies, but mortal humans, who stalked their prey at night like predators in a jungle, then ripped into them with teeth that had evolved into razor-sharp cutting devices.
What could have inspired my bizarre dream of a messed up, post-apocalyptic, humans-eating-other-humans future? Perhaps it's the anticipation of yet another big-budget zombie movie, this time Brad Pitt's World War Z, which hits theaters in June. It's a successor to over 500 film titles that center around the subejct of human flesh-eating—from the obscure (Attack of the Flesh Devouring Space Worms From Outer Space) to the classic (Night of the Living Dead). Cannibalism has even made its way into prime-time, major network television. On Thursday nights, you can tune into NBC for their hour-long drama, Hannibal, about the life of the practicing cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. So it's rather clear that, as a civilization, we are kind of obsessed with the idea of consuming each other.
And for good reason: cannibalism—clinically termed "anthropophagy"—can be traced back to ancient times. In Greek mythology, the supreme god Kronos ate all of his four children in an attempt to prevent one of them overthrowing him in the future. The Old Testament describes the Hebrews resorting to cannibalism while wandering the African desert.
Cannibalism can be broken down into two broad categories: Learned and Survival. The latter seems to be the more "accepted" type, because it is practiced only as a worst-case-scenario. It was a frequent enough of a practice that by the 19th century, when shipmen went out to sea, the possibility of eating each other in the event of a shipwreck was simply assumed. But only as the ultimate last resort. Dogs, candles, leather, shoes and blankets were all consumed first before turning to human flesh as a food source.
But the other type, the learned one, is a bit more complicated, more sinister; it's the one that we as a society have the hardest time understanding. The kind that is practiced by serial killers and deviant types, who do it because they "can't control it," because it's a need that grows and eventually becomes inescapable. These people realize that they simply have to eat other humans.
Take the case of one Issei Sagawa, known as "Japan's most famous cannibal." In 1981, he shot and then ate a French woman and fellow student when he was studying for his Ph.D. in Literature at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris. He said he did it not only because he had had a gnawing desire to taste human flesh, but also because wanted to "absorb her energy." The meat tasted like "raw tuna," he described. Sagawa was captured by French authorities while trying to dispose of the body in two suitcases in a public park.
He was proclaimed insane and unfit to stand trial, and ordered to a mental institution. But France didn't want this weird Japanese cannibal on their hands, so they extradited him back to Japan. Psychologists there, however, found him to be perfectly sane, concluding that it was his sexual perversion that lead him to kill and cannibalize the woman. Unable to hold him (the French goverment refused to release court documents), they allowed Sagawa to check himself out of the hospital. The cannibal killer has been a free man since August of 1986, never punished for his crime. Today, he admits that he still hungers for human flesh and actively suppresses the urge, in documentaries like this:
If Sagawa's act was difficult to punish, then another case of cannibalism twenty years later proved to fall into an even grayer area. In early 2001, a man named Armin Meiwes from a small town outside of Berlin decided to place an ad on a website for cannibalism aficionados, requesting "well-built men, 18-30, who would like to be eaten by me." Eventually, a man responded and his intentions were serious. He was a Bernd-Jurgen Brandes, a gay (though not publicly out) professional who was living with his partner at the time in Berlin, but had somehow decided that he wanted to be eaten. He met with Meiwes at his secluded and, by all the neighbors' account, creepy-looking house, where he had been building a separate slaughter room in the hidden upstairs section.
Brandes doped himself on sleeping pills, painkillers and Schnapps. Meiwes suggested they slice off Brandes' penis and try to eat it. Brandes agreed. After the removal, Brandes climbed into a bathtub and proceeded to bleed profusely, while Meiwes attempted to fry the appendage. After burning it and finding it inedible, he went to check up on Brandes, who was bleeding to death. At this point, Meiwes drove a knife into his throat, slaughtered him and began to eat him. Over the next few months, Meiwes consumed 44 pounds of Brandes' dead body. The cannibal was eventually arrested, tried and convicted...of murder, but not cannibalism. Further still, is it technically murder if the person being eaten (an act in which death is inevitable) consents to being eaten?
Perverted need or survival necessity, cannibalism is a part of our society, whether we like to admit it or not. Its proliferation, both in real life and popular culture, begs the question: How close are we to consuming each other without seeing the act as an ultimate taboo? After all, we eat pigs, who have demonstrated to possess the intelligence and understanding of a small child. As the creator of Hannibal himself, Brian Fuller, pointed out in a recent interview: "Pigs are even smarter than dogs and more sophisticated emotionally. So if you are having a brouhaha about cannibalism, next time you order that pork slider, you are eating a five-year-old human being." Chew on that.