Are We Starting To Sympathise With… Cannibals?

Once relegated to the insane, desperate villain; unknowing victim; or quirky anti-hero, recent portraits of cannibalism offer up serious food for thought.

Collage of images from Cannibalism movies including 'Bones And All', 'Yellowjackets', and 'Fresh'

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Of all the taboos to haunt the entirety of humanity, cannibalism is one as old as time.

Arguably, it is so discomforting because, like murder, many can see their way to circumstances where its possible. If the alleged cannibal controversy surrounding actor Armie Hammer showed us anything it’s that cannibalism is, at least, a real and genuine fetish.

Like the portrayal of most taboos, on-screen cannibalism is hardly new. Who could forget films like Silence of the Lambs, the many iterations of Sweeney Todd, the unforgettable adaptation of The Road, Soylent Green, the French cult classic Raw or even the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise.

TV cannibals have also been an enduring staple of our cultural landscape. Take the terminus community in The Walking Dead, Bryan Fuller’s cheeky Hannibal series, Drew Barrymore’s MILF cannibal antics in The Santa Clarita Diet, or even the nightmarish Reavers from the edge of the universe in Joss Whedon’s cult series Firefly.

Cannibalism on-screen has typically been portrayed three distinct ways: as the gleeful act of an unhinged mind, a necessary act of survival where no other option is available, or as an activity engaged in unwittingly. The eating of a human by another human has traditionally been presented as an isolated and almost totally individualised choice.

In 2022, it would seem pop culture is hungrier for cannibals than ever before. The last 12 months saw the anticipated release of Luca Guadigino’s cannibal road trip romance Bones and All – a tender bookend to a year that began with Mimi Cave’s disturbing date night gone wrong romp, Fresh.

The Season 3 finale of Atlanta also boasted a high-end restaurant serving human-based cuisine. And who could forget the final episodes of Yellowjackets‘ debut season which has teased a cultish and lawless descent into cannibalism since its very first scene.

Yes, cannibalism is back and taking a bigger bite out of pop-culture than ever before. But where past on-screen cannibalism has been limited to deranged individuals on the brink, this new wave spices things up with one very important twist: community.

No longer are on-screen cannibals doomed to a life of loneliness behind bulletproof perspex, unwittingly chowing down on their neighbours, or even surviving through it — they’re eating with relish, intention, and most notably, with friends.

Fresh, Atlanta, & Providing For A Profit

In Fresh and Atlanta, the melding of late capitalism and casual cannibalism gives consumers a whole new meaning.

Released on Disney+ in February, Fresh follows the initially seductive abduction of Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) by cannibal entrepreneur Steve (Sebastian Stan). Director Mimi Cave presents the first 30 minutes of Fresh as a too-typical whirlwind rom-com, complete with a living room dance montage. But at the half an hour mark, the charmingly handsome Steve reveals their weekend getaway was a cover for abducting Noa as the latest victim in his human meat distribution business.

Sebastian Stan’s Steve diabolically flips from a softly spoken handsome bachelor to a hopped up purveyor of human flesh who uses his skills as a surgeon to slice and dice unsuspecting women, comically preparing their meat for shipment in montages to ’70s and ’80s hits.

Yet Lyle and Nickerson painstakingly weave the Yellowjackets’ past and present into a tapestry of what it is to survive something unsurvivable during your formative years. Of the dozen or so we see stranded, flashforwards to the present day focus almost exclusively on Shauna, Nat, Taissa and Misty — leaving the other characters’ survival status a mystery.

Lyle and Nickerson ensure sympathy is afforded to each of the Yellowjackets. The horror of their ordeal and how it continues to shape their lives is presented with a complex compassion. Scenes where Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), now a mother, guts a rabbit from her backyard with the habitual precision of a hunter in her flowery yellow kitchen contrast with harrowing dinners with the parents of her late best friend who died while they were stranded.

Even Misty (Christina Ricci), arguably the most unhinged of the team before the accident, is not presented without sympathy. Isolated to the point of sociopathy, her “creepy” and gruesome connections and skills become vital when the four need to dispose of the body of their suspected blackmailer.

The main four are a bona fide mess — mentally coping by numbing the pain of the past with drugs, marital affairs, sadism and even the occasional accidental murder. Together, their cannibalism serves as a practical manifestation of the lowest point of their shared trauma. As they say, nothing forges a bond quite like conspiring to eat your teammate as a teenager and then fighting to contain the the trauma of keeping that secret as an adult.

Cannibalism fuels the strength of their friendship in a trauma bond that binds them closer than family; the only ones who fully understand what one another has done and what they’re capable of. But up until now, cannibalism and compassion have almost always been mutually exclusive in stories.

The act is seen as so taboo that even the thought is grounds enough for fearful ostracism. Yet in Yellowjackets, we’re on the inside looking out — rooting for these women who almost certainly ate one of their mates.

Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Bones And All also sees cannibalism take the allegorical place of a traumatic coming of age. Abandoned by their families, Meren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet) are two young “Eaters” who find one another living life on the road. As they make their way across the vast tableau of the US’s southern states and learn more about their shared trials and tastes, the love comes fast.

But not before Meren encounters Sully, the first Eater who lets her know she’s far from alone in her impulses. Sully teaches Meren that Eaters can smell one another. “I could smell you from the yard,” he whispers, meeting Meren at the bus stop. The act of eating another is presented as one that permanently marks and baptises you into a community.

In Bones And All, the Eaters’ cannibalism is a part of a shared identity that sees them shunned by society. Like in Fresh, Their desire to eat other people is presented as a compulsion they can’t help or live without. “Either you eat, you off yourself, or lock yourself up,” Lee tells Meren matter-of-factly. Indeed, when Meren finds her birth mother, it is revealed that she has been institutionalised after eating her own arms.

Beneath sunset soaked landscapes and open roads, the Eaters’ gruesome internal struggle is a stark contrast not dissimilar to the stigma of mental illness, poverty, queerness, or disability. In her essay, Caspar David Friedrich and the Aesthetics of Community, Nina Amstutz writes of how breathtaking narrative landscapes evoke a loneliness shared:

The only sense of community or collectivity that their shared experience of nature evokes is one of “being singular plural”

Through Meren’s mother’s self-mutilation, Sully’s chronic loneliness and Lee and Meren’s inability to make a home or family, Guadagnino uses cannibalism as a tasteful odyssey on community through marginalisation; on being profoundly alone together.

Cannibalism has long been a staple of stories meant to terrorise and titilate. However, this new wave appears to reflect a deeper desire to acknowledge how community and connections built from such taboos.

Fresh and Atlanta substitute misogyny, classism, and racism with the literal act of buying human flesh for the experience of consumption while Yellowjackets and Bones & All ask discomforting questions of compassion — if we can empathise with on-screen cannibal outcasts, then why can’t we find compassion for others with differences that make the dominant culture uncomfortable?

In the wake of a pandemic that further destabilised and divided a world cracking under the weight of late stage capitalism; more than ever, the divide between those who struggle and those who don’t feels impossible to ignore. It’s no wonder that a taboo so concerned with humanity is no longer relegated to the insane, desperate villain; unknowing victim; or quirky anti-hero.

I could be wrong, of course. But I suppose it’s a matter of taste.

Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry.