Cannibalism is one of those subjects that is a little touchy to talk about, at least in real life. As a culture, we have a dark fascination with real life stories involving it, whether it is the historical account of the Donner Party or the the real life events of the famous 1972 Andes Plane crash. Yet it is a subject that we seem to be more comfortable discussing in fiction rather than in fact…. In mainstream films, the topic is rare: One of the few films on the subject is the 1989 film Parents, a creepy, detached, understated piece set in 1950s suburbia, where a young boy begins to suspect that his parents are cannibals.
Fiction seems to do a little better at tackling the subject. And, in science fiction particularly, cannibalism is not new at all. In fact, it is such a common trope in the genre, it has its own mention on the Cannibalism in Popular Culture Wiki page.
We see the trope in its traditional sense in the Time Machine, H.G. Wells’ classic novel which was published back in 1895. Wells describes two groups, the Eloi and the Morlocks. In the novel, the Eloi are presented as almost angelic lotus eaters and the Morlocks, who practice cannibalism, are portrayed as evil monsters.
Science fiction master Robert Heinlein used the concept in his Hugo award-winning novel, Stranger in a Strange Land(1961). This book was particularly noteworthy because he challenged the usual stereotype and the moral view that cannibals are bad by having his hero, Valentine Michael Smith, practice cannibalism. He also mocked traditional religion by comparing the ritual of the Eucharist to cannibalism in the same book.
And, don’t forget about Soylent Green, the film based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room! Make Room! While the focus of the book is overpopulation, not cannibalism, the movie gave birth to a pop culture catchphrase with that unforgettable scene in the film where Charlton Heston shouts: “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!”
Recently, we’ve been seeing a lot of cannibalism in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, in both the Young Adult and Adult fiction categories. I must note that for the purposes of this discussion, like the expert in George A. Romero’s 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, I do not consider zombies themselves cannibals (cannibalism is an intraspecies activity; zombies do not eat each other…).
Max Brooks deals briefly with the issue and its aftermath in one section of his book, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. In the book, the absence of food and a harsh North American winter forces a group of survivors into cannibalism. It is a very emotional and memorable section of the book.
In one of the most culturally significant of these recent books, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a man must protect his child from being eaten by cannibals. The film adaptation caused a controversy of its own by showing a human baby being roasted on a spit, a scene that was later cut from the film but survived in some of the trailers.
There is no denying that this book is considered culturally important. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize, this book has spawned academic treatises discussing its significance. Look at Styles of Extinction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Adventures in Reading Cormac McCarthy and see what I mean.
A disclaimer here: Due to descriptions of its totally depressing nature, I have not personally read The Road. As a parent, the idea of trying to protect my child against cannibals is more than I can bear to think about and is certainly more than I can handle as entertainment. I prefer a dash of hope with my apocalypse….
I recently talked to two of my favorite authors who have used cannibalism (quite effectively) in recent novels. Mike Mullin is the author of Ashfall. This award winning novel shows what happens when society falls apart after the eruption of the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. In the sequel, Ashen Winter, groups of cannibals known as flenser gangs endanger survivors .
Keith C. Blackmore is author of Mountain Man and its sequels, Safari (Mountain Man Book 2) and Hellifax (Mountain Man Book 3)The Mountain Man series is set in Canada two years after a zombie apocalypse has destroyed civilization. In the latest installment, Hellifax,as food becomes scarce, a vicious group of cannibals emerges.
As they talked about their approach to using cannibalism in their novels, I noticed that there were some striking points of similarity and differences.
According to Mike Mullin, “Cannibals crept into Ashfall without much planning on my part. I wrote the scene in which Alex encounters an escaped convict, Target, roasting a chunk of mystery meat and realized that many would assume he was eating human flesh. That seemed cool in a slightly disgusting way, so I purposefully left that scene open-so that the reader can interpret it however she wishes. But writing that scene did spur me to do more research on cannibalism, and, ultimately, to include more explicit cannibalism in Ashen Winter. ”
Keith Blackmore, on the other hand, deliberately chose these characters for their villainy.
“Well, cannibals,” according to Keith, “that is to say, folks who kill other folks solely for pleasure and then devour them–represent an evil, a base savagery, which I find terrifying. Killing a person and eating them is fucked up (can I say that here?) er… screwed up and a person’s instinctive reaction is to be horrified by the act or even the willingness to carry out such an act. It triggers a primeval revulsion, of something gone way too far. It’s not a wild animal, but a person willing to devour another person for sustenance, and at the very worse, you probably won’t realize it until it’s too late. In a zombie story, it fairly easy to spot a zombie and avoid it. Not so with a living, breathing, honest-to-gawd person who’s reverted to cannibalism. Having a character in a story who is capable of such an act is damned frightening, so having several characters should be terrifying… or so I hoped.”
The two authors differed in their approach to researching the flesh-eaters as well:
Blackmore admitted that since he chose them for the fear factor, he really didn’t do a lot a research into his cannibals at all. “I’ve read some articles on Jeffery Dahmer and the guy who actually posted an ad online seeking out a person to kill and then eat, and there was a more recent Russian (Ukrainian?) who was executed for it. It’s the stuff of nightmares.”
The process was different for Mullin: “After I wrote the scene with Target, I read epidemiological research on the Donner party and the book Alive by Piers Paul Reid. But the book that was most influential to my portrayal of cannibalism in Ashen Winter was Collapse, by Jared Diamond. It examines what happens when whole societies break down, rather than localized, temporary disasters like the Donner party or the Andean plane crash. That case-ecological disasters that ended whole societies like the Mayans or Easter Islanders-is a better analogue to the aftermath of a supervolcano.”
Both Mullin and Blackmore agree that there is a tremendous difference between eating those who have died for survival purposes (such as the Donner Party and Andes plane crash scenarios) and overtly attacking people for the purpose of eating them.
According to Mullin, “Yes, there’s a huge ethical difference. If you eat my carcass after I’m dead and it helps you to survive, I’m totally fine with that. If I’m still kicking as you try to carve off a flank steak, then you and I are going to have a problem.”
However, he goes on to say, “I attempted in Ashfall and Ashen Winter to portray the full range of ethical behavior that would follow a collapse of our society-from groups who won’t even cannibalize the dead (a couple of the people in the Andean plane crash died for their ethics in exactly that way) to groups who are totally self-interested and will do absolutely anything to survive.”
While Blackmore agrees that there is “a huge difference” between the two extremes, he says that he really didn’t factor those ethical considerations into Hellifax. He does note, however, that “in those survival stories I imagine there was a huge amount of reflection upon a person’s spirituality, not to mention the reluctance of actually going through with the deed in order to survive, followed by the self-revulsion/loathing (or so I expect there would be some self-loathing) and having to live with that knowledge thereafter.”
In both authors’ books, certain people seem to turn almost gleefully to cannibalism as a source of food. So, I asked both authors how realistic they thought that scenario is, given our cultural taboos against it. Surprisingly, their answers were very different.
Blackmore replied, “To gleefully turn to cannibalism? Realistically, no, I don’t think such a scenario would happen. It’s a work of fiction, meant only to entertain, if not frighten (just a little). Real cases of gleeful cannibals freak me out like old Cronenberg movies.”
Mullin, on the other hand, had a less optimistic view. “People (a tiny minority) gleefully turn to cannibalism even now, despite our cultural taboos and laws. If you have a particularly strong stomach, check out this link or this one. The flensers in Ashen Winter are a minority-but a particularly vicious and (temporarily) successful minority.’
Not having a strong stomach, I will have to trust him on that one.
I was trying to decide if cannibals in fiction are an up-and-coming trend, like vampires and zombies in fiction, or if it is just a brief, temporary interest. Then, I found this story on CNN that tells of a police officer accused in a plot to abduct and cook women. I think I may need to think about this a little more seriously…. How about you?
Many thanks to Keith C. Blackmore and Mike Mullin for stopping by and chatting with me!
Keith C. Blackmore writes heroic fantasy and horror and is currently teasing his fans with the possibility of a Mountain Man 4. You can find out more about him at his website, KeithCBlackmore.com, and follow him on Twitter at @KeithCB1 and on GoodReads.
Mike Mullin is busy working on the third book in the Ashfall series, Sunrise. You can connect with him on the web at mikemullinauthor.com, on Twitter at @Mike_Mullin, and on Google+, FaceBook and GoodReads.