Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cannibalism in fiction

I am sitting here watching one of my all time favourite movies, Delicatessen, and had the odd realisation that the role of cannibalism in fiction has developed rather greatly over time, in some cases defining a genre entirely.

Cannibalism to us is simply the act of humans eating human flesh. Same goes for any other species eating its own. In terms of fiction though, there are varieties of cannibalism that don't immediately seem apparent through disassociation and then there are varieties that almost define cannibalism in reverse and are the first thing you'd think of.

The reasons for cannibalism in human history vary greatly. Sometimes it is as trophies or battle, sometimes for assuming the spirit, sometimes as a burial/death ritual, sometimes as the practice of a serial murderer and sometimes by accident if part of a person goes through a machine used in the processing of food.

Mostly cannibalism causes us horror unless it is part of our culture. Because of this cannibalism has been maintained in our history as a god resource for horror writing and has fuelled horror writing in a rather spectacular way. It also went a long way to helping produce the sub genre of body horror.

Zombies are reverse cannibals. Usually it is the living eating the dead in practice (I won't say everyday but in all cultures that have throughout human history it has been of the dead).

Vampires drink our blood but in some incarnations they also need a little flesh as well. Either way, blood is of the body so vampires are cannibals. They are, essentially, only humans given immortality and greater strength through the drinking of blood.

Werewolves are more divided from humanity than humans, being half human more than anything else. The urge to devour human flesh comes from their wolf side and not their human side but there is still enough horror in cannibalism to be found in the unaware werewolf changing back only to find their stomach full of human. Some of the greatest werewolf fiction focuses less on the functional or romantic side and more on the dysfunctional and horrific. Werewolf lore actually focused on the killing of children by them, much as wolves would pick of the young and weak in a herd of sheep.

Demons of various types are often portrayed eating the flesh of humans. Now you might think demons aren't human so this isn't cannibalism but in many religions and belief systems the demon is in fact a human twisted spirit. Through this, and the fact that demons are often portrayed like humans in appearance, they can be seen as cannibals.

Gods are also known to eat humans and or their own kind. And considering the gods are also often portrayed as mostly human in appearance there isn't much distinction from cannibalism here either. Having a god eat a human is not only horrific for the body horror but also for the act of one supposed to be benevolent in our hopes turning out to be rather malevolent. Oh, in case you were wondering, that's Cronus and the eating part can be taken literally or metaphorically, as in aging. Either way, he literally ate his sons in the mythology.

Merpeople also tend to drag people to the bottom and who knows what's really done down there in the deep. Suffice it to say that merpeople aren't often portrayed as nice or peaceful creatures. They are in fact rather like people but mostly a reflection of our worst sides, particularly the violent behaviour. If you are wondering if I refer to mermaids, then no. They are often confused due to the similar names but I don't mean the Disney mermaid or even the gentle siren. Merpeople are closer to what weresharks or werepiranas would be: half human and half viscous, sharp toothed killer. Modern mermaids come from the nicest part of sirens while merpeople are closer to the nastiest part of sirens. Merpeople are not as popular in modern fiction as I'd like but when I do run across them they always provide a decent shock to the system as the wide open seas suddenly become claustrophobic graves.

Wendigos can be either of their own species or humans who transform into them after eating people. Cannibalism runs rife through wendigo lore and they generally retain many of their human features, such as walking on two legs, limb ratio, head ratio, rid cage structure etc. Sometimes the leg joints are that of a goat though and there are claws on the ends of the fingers. Only the surface appearance changes greatly. In this way, like the others, wendigos eating people is very much like people eating people.

Witches, in particular black witches of the most evil kind, are not above eating a little baby. It is common enough that black witches have such things as baby knuckles in their possession but the worst of the worst don't just kill them, they eat them. Older children too. Just think Hansel And Gretel for an early invocation.

Then there are the desperate, starving and poor who turn to cannibalism to survive. This can be used as part of a literary work rather than a horror piece but horror will prevail as the greatest response to such a theme. The characters could be shipwrecked sailors or isolated prisoners, stranded soldiers through to a starving populous. There just has to be a reason why a normal food source isn't available. If there isn't a reason and food is otherwise readily available then greed, evil hearts and the ease of gaining human meat could be used as the reason why a person turns to cannibalism.

And I haven't even touched on ritualistic murderers or serial murderers. For which, I'll leave to your imaginations as these stories are not far enough removed from reality for me to call them fiction.

So when writing a horror story there are many ways to explore body horror that include cannibalism. Your story could be general fiction or horror, fantasy or science fiction but cannibalism does offer great opportunities to provoke and shock a reader.

No comments:

Post a Comment