Why are there so many books and shows about cannibalism?
An image came to Chelsea G. Summers: a boyfriend, accidentally hit by a car, a quick job with a corkscrew, and his liver served Tuscan-style, on toast.
This figment of her twisted imagination is what prompted Ms. Summers to write her novel, “A Certain Hunger,” about a restaurant critic with a taste for (male) human flesh.
It turns out that cannibalism has a time and a place. In the stomach-churning pages of some recent books, and on TV and movie screens, Ms. Summers and others suggest that this time has come.
There’s “Yellowjackets,” a Showtime series about a high school girls’ soccer team stuck in the woods for a few months too many, which premiered in November. The movie “Fresh,” released on Hulu in March, involves an underground trade in human meat for the wealthy.
“Lapvona”, Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel published in June, depicts cannibalism in a medieval village defeated by plague and drought. Agustina Bazterrica’s book “Tender Is the Flesh”, released in English in 2020 and in Spanish in 2017, imagines a future society that raises humans like cattle. Also released in 2017, “Raw,” a film by director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau, tells the story of a vegetarian student vet whose taste for meat intensifies after consuming raw organ meats.
Still to come “Bones and All,” with Timothée Chalamet. The film, about a young love that grows into a craving for human consumption, is slated for release later this year or early next. Its director, Luca Guadagnino, called the “extremely romantic” story.
Can you stomach?
A fascination with cannibalism, perhaps unsurprisingly, can walk a fine line, as Ms. Summers learned while writing ‘A Certain Hunger’.
When fact-checkers came calling about the frenzied scenes in which the book’s anti-heroine grooms her murdered lovers with a grotesque, epicurean flourish, their questions about the intricacies of human butchery disturbed Ms. Summers so much that she went “raw vegan for two weeks”. The designer was horrified by her own monster.
Publishers may have been too. When Ms Summers, who uses a pseudonym, bought the book in 2018, it was rejected more than 20 times before Audible and the no-name press made an offer.
If she sold ‘A Certain Hunger’ today, Ms Summers, who is 59 and lives in New York and Stockholm, thinks it would be easier. “God bless the ‘yellow vests’,” she said in a Zoom interview, which was then interrupted by her dog, Bob, vomiting in the background.
Released in December 2020, her book began to experience a boom in popularity on social media – actress Anya Taylor-Joy wrote about it on instagramand it received plenty of applause in the corner of TikTok known as BookTok – about a year later, around the time “Yellowjackets” debuted on Showtime.
The pilot episode of “Yellowjackets” shows a teenage girl trapped, bled like a deer, and served on a platter in a terrifying ritual. Bloodthirsty fans continue to dissect the scene on Reddit, where a subreddit message board dedicated to the series has more than 51,000 members.
The tension of the series is that you know cannibalism is coming, but when? And why?
“Yellowjackets” creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, who live in Los Angeles, say they wanted the plot to imply that human consumption wasn’t just for the survival of the characters. It not only adds creepiness to the already dark story of the football team stranded in the desert, but also separates it from the real-life story of a Uruguayan rugby team trapped in the Andes in 1972, whose members resorted to cannibalism. to survive. (This event was later dramatized in a 1993 film, “Alive,” with Ethan Hawke.)
“I think we’re often drawn to the things that repel us the most,” said Ms Lyle, 42. Mr Nickerson, 43, replied: “But I keep coming back to this idea of what part of our revulsion for these things is a fear of ecstasy from them?”
Nor is “Lapvona,” by Ms. Moshfegh, overtly cannibalistic; unlike “A Certain Hunger”, there is no bouquet garni braising. But a scene involving a fingernail is heartbreaking.
Known for her disturbing, dark-spinning stories, including “Eileen” and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” Ms Moshfegh, 41, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote “Lapvona” in the spring of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. “I wrote it in such complete isolation that I felt this incredible freedom to go wherever I was led,” she said.
The character eating another human, the biggest sin of her religiously vegetarian village, does so in an act of “depraved desperation”, said Ms Moshfegh, herself a vegetarian.
Tales as old as time
Bill Schutt, the author of “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” says fictional plots about eating human flesh are as old as literature itself.
“When you take something this horrific and put it in this fictionalizing light,” he said, “we’re burdened with it, but we know we’re safe.” At least most of the time: Dr. Schutt only read halfway through Hulu’s “Fresh” before he had to shut down the movie. “It was almost too well done,” he said.
But as his book documents, cannibalism has occurred all over the world throughout history, giving these fictional tales a sickly whiff of “What if?”
Historical examples in the book include ‘mumia’, a practice of using crushed mummified bones to soothe various ailments that was popular in 17th-century Western Europe; the infamous Donner Party pioneers who found themselves trapped in the Sierra Nevada in 1846; ritual cannibalism that took place in Papua New Guinea until the 1950s; and starvation-induced cannibalism in China in the 1960s.
Dr. Schutt’s book also features the story of the so-called Cannibal Cop, a former New York City Police Department officer who was arrested in 2013 for participating in fetish forums fantasizing about the cannibalization of women, and later acquitted. The New York Post has published more than 30 articles on the case, including a suggesting Halloween costume in a police uniform with a severed hand on a plate.
Flavors of this saga can be found in the more recent sexual and physical abuse accusations against actor Armie Hammer, which included that he allegedly sent cannibalistic messages to a romantic partner. Mr. Hammer denied the charges and, through his attorney, declined to comment for this article.
After the allegations became public, he was dropped by his agency, in rehab and is now, Variety reports, selling timeshares in the Cayman Islands. Coincidentally, Mr. Hammer worked with Mr. Chalamet and Mr. Guadagnino on “Call Me by Your Name.”
As for what may be fueling the desire for stories of cannibalism today, Ms Lyle, the co-creator of ‘Yellowjackets’, said: “I think we’re obviously in a very strange time.” She listed the pandemic, climate change, school shootings and years of political cacophony as possible factors.
“I feel like the unthinkable has become the thinkable,” Ms. Lyle said, “and cannibalism is squarely in that category of the unthinkable.”
According to Ms. Summers, cannibalism is always symbolic. For the protagonist of her novel, eating human flesh can be seen as a way to hold on to a relationship that has ended. For Ms. Summers herself, the plot of ‘A Certain Hunger’ cannot be divorced “from my own personal experiences with eating disorders, with the sagging of female appetites, the way the media chews and spits out writers, candle eating — and candle woman eating,” she said.
More generally, Ms Summers thinks the recent wave of cannibalistic plots could also be a commentary on capitalism. “Cannibalism is about consumption and it’s about burning from within to exist,” she said. “Burnout is basically an overuse of yourself, your own energy, your own will to survive, your sleep schedule, your eating schedule, your body.”
Ms Moshfegh said her theory was ‘it could be an antidote to the real horror of what is happening to the planet’. Like Ms. Summers, Ms. Moshfegh sometimes couldn’t stand her own work, describing the writing process about cannibalism in “Lapvona” as “a little disturbing.”
“I had to think about what part of the body would be an interesting place to start,” she said, “and what it would feel like to hold someone’s severed hand in yours.”
The props team on “Yellowjackets” had an equally nerve-racking task figuring out what to use as fake human flesh in the show’s pilot episode.
Should it be the lab-grown human steak from stem cells that sparked outrage in a London museum? The animal-free chicken, beef, salmon, and dairy substitutes that some companies are creating using similar technology?
In the end, the prop team went with venison.
But they will have to find an alternative for future episodes, Ms. Lyle and Mr. Nickerson said, because many of its actors are vegan.