The cannibal, Yegor Komarov, had been the subject of an earlier blog in December 2021. He had been arrested for murder in the town of Sortavala (near the Finnish border) after a headless body fell from his car. Komarov admitted to being a cannibal and confessed to stabbing and killing another man in a St Petersburg park the previous year for the sole purpose of tasting human flesh, adding that he had sliced off the victim’s tongue and fried it in butter.
The recruiters of this motley army of murderers, rapists (and at least one cannibal), all of who are promised freedom if they survive six months of war, is a mercenary force called The Wagner Group. It had first been deployed to the Ukraine back in 2014 to help pro-Russian separatists battle Ukrainian forces.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” because he rose from being a restaurateur and caterer for the Kremlin, is the leader of the Wagner Group. Many of Mr Prigozhin’s companies are currently under US sanctions for what it calls his “malign political and economic influence around the globe”.
Prigozhin originally denied any connection with the Wagner Group, but now a new video has surfaced (at the top of this page) where he shows how his mercenaries are trained before being sent in as the shock troops of the Russian war to occupy Ukraine.
In the video, Prigozhin speaks about so-called “elite” fighters from a special training base in the village of Molkino in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia:
This is a supplementary training base for our fighters…. Here experienced fighters are given additional training in their specialties. So they raise young eagles there, and here they make real cannibals.
These prisoners from the worst Russian prisons are considered disposable, sent into the front lines in Ukraine as cannon fodder. According to the Ukrainian President, after the fighting around the Soledar salt mines in January 2023,
“Thousands of their people were lost: the whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes. This is what madness looks like.”
Commanders of the brutal mercenary group are reportedly castrating their own soldiers who try to surrender or retreat. In an intercepted call in December 2022, US intelligence said that they learned a member of the Wagner Group was castrated for either trying to retreat or surrender. The intercepted call heard a Russian soldier say, “The Wagnerians caught him and cut his fucking balls off” but the video tape was not released.
We have no reports yet about the fate of the recruited cannibal, Yegor Komarov, nor do we know if he is finding ‘gainful’ employment teaching other recruits how to be “real cannibals”.
We do know that cannibalism is a recurring event in Russian and Ukrainian history, particularly in the last hundred years. Russia’s worst serial killer was a cannibal named Andrei Chikatilo, who was convicted of killing fifty-two women and children between 1978 and 1990, although he had confessed to many more. Chikatilo blamed his cannibalism fetish on the story his mother had told him about his brother being taken and eaten by the neighbours in the 1930s, during the Holodomor.
The “Holodomor” (literally “murder by starvation”) was an event that took place in the Ukraine in 1932-3, during which the population was deliberately decimated by Stalin’s collectivisation of the farms and seizure of food stores. As starvation set in, corpses began to disappear, and the government response was simply to put up signs saying, “Eating dead children is barbarism”.
Not so in war, apparently. What exactly Yevgeny Prigozhin meant by turning his soldiers into “real cannibals” is not clear. But in view of his total disregard for their welfare, we have to wonder how well Prigozhin feeds his soldiers. Or, as Putin’s chef, does he simply give them a recipe book?
Chance Seneca, 21, of Lafayette, Louisiana, was sentenced on January 25th to 45 years in federal prison for kidnapping and attempted murder, as part of his elaborate scheme to kidnap, murder and cannibalise gay men.
The court based its sentence on several factors, including its determination that the defendant intentionally targeted the victim and other gay men because of their gender and sexual orientation. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said:
“The facts of this case are truly shocking, and the defendant’s decision to specifically target gay men is a disturbing reminder of the unique prejudices and dangers facing the LGBTQ+ community today. The internet should be accessible and safe for all Americans, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. We will continue to identify and intercept the predators who weaponize online platforms to target LGBTQ+ victims and carry out acts of violence and hate.”
Evidence was presented that Seneca, in June 2020, had used Grindr, a dating application for gay and bisexual men, to kidnap and attempt to murder a gay man identified in court only as “H.W.” A day earlier, he used the app to set up a meeting with another gay man, but decided not to kill him.
Seneca proposed a meeting with H.W. with the intent of murdering and dismembering him, and he met H.W. and drove him to his father’s home in a 2006 Toyota Corolla. On arrival, he took out a handgun, instructed H.W. to put on handcuffs, and then used several methods (details in the link if you want to know) to attempt to murder him, including strangulation, a hammer, an ice-pick and a knife. Believing that H.W. was dead, Seneca then attempted to dismember him. After his arrest, Seneca admitted that he had planned to continue murdering gay men until he was caught or killed.
Seneca acknowledged that he had kidnapped and attempted to murder H.W. in order to satisfy a compulsive murder-fantasy. Seneca had become fixated with the idea of killing gay men, and this fascination led him to spend months designing a murder-kidnapping scheme that mirrored the murders of gay men committed by the cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Seneca specifically targeted gay men, as Dahmer had done. He also intended to eat and preserve the bodies of his victims, as Dahmer had done.
The FBI and the Lafayette Police Department conducted the investigation. Lafayette police had responded to a call from Seneca in June 2020 and found a man, Holden White, 18, in a bathtub with severe injuries, including strangulation marks on his neck and “wrists slit to the bone,” according to an unsealed affidavit.
The affidavit was filed by an FBI agent based on information from Lafayette police and a conversation the agent had with Seneca. It said Seneca told police he had called 911 after the attack “in a self-described effort to be put into a mental institution.” Seneca had kidnapped two other men on June 19, the indictment said.
H.W, the Louisiana man stabbed by Seneca, identified himself as Holden White (pictured above). In an interview, he gave details of the night that he thought would be his last. He said he wants people to have hope for survival, even in their darkest moments.
“Part (of what) I remember is that I reached over to grab something out of my bag. That’s when I felt a cord wrap around my throat and he started pulling me backwards. He strangled me for, I can’t tell you how long, but it felt like a very long time. And he did it to the point as to where every single blood vessel in my face ruptured.”
White woke up in a bathtub sometime later, with his attacker standing over him.
“There was just blood all over my chest and stuff. He was just kind of sitting there watching me, and I was like, ‘Okay this is it.’ My final words to myself was, ‘Just stay calm.’ In my mind I kept repeating to myself, ‘Just stay calm, stay calm.’ Slowly, I passed out.”
Seneca apparently couldn’t go through with the murder, and contacted law enforcement instead. White woke up in a hospital bed.
“I’ve been told that Chance called the police and he said, ‘Hey, I just tried to murder somebody, send an ambulance,’ and when they found me I was still naked in the bathtub.”
White has spoken out to make sure the world understands that the attack was a hate crime – something local police had hesitated to declare. “This is a hate crime due to a fact that he made it a point to choose a gay man on a gay app,” he explained. “He made sure I was a gay man and then in the same breath, he also idolized Jeffrey Dahmer.
As his scars healed, White decided to mark the event with some body modification of his own: a new tattoo of a semicolon.
“Basically, what a semicolon does is it puts a pause on a sentence,” White explains. “Chance tried to stop my life, so instead of a period I made it a semicolon. I’m staying strong. “I’m not going to let this incident get to me.”
Chance Seneca remains in holding at Lafayette Parish Correctional Center awaiting trial.
White said the attack has coloured the way people view him and treat him and has at times been used in verbal or online attacks during arguments or disagreements.
“People tell me he should have killed me that night. He should have finished the job. They should bond him out so he can kill me.”
The case inevitably reminds us of the murders committed by the so-called Milwaukee Cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer between 1978 and 1991 in which he drugged young men and boys, attempted to turn them into sex slaves by injecting acid into their brains, and then (when that failed) killed and dismembered them and ate parts of their bodies. Chance Seneca wanted to emulate Dahmer, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.
More recently, Mark David Latunski, the “Michigan Cannibal”, met a young man on Grindr, slit his throat and fried and ate his testicles, and perhaps other parts of his body. This happened on Christmas Eve 2019, but did not go to trial until October 2022.
Gay men have been subject to abuse and violence for a long time; it is only recently that laws against gay sex were repealed, and even more recently that same-sex marriage was permitted. Although there has been some progress in those areas, change always comes with resistance, and the social media responses to the plight of Holden White reflects the victim-blaming that comes from a rejection of his humanity and his right to seek consensual pleasure as he chooses.
Chance Seneca wanted to be a cannibal serial killer like Dahmer and Latunski, but something stopped him half-way through the process, perhaps a recognition of White’s humanity. To kill and eat any animal requires a deanimalisation – turning them from living, sentient beings into meat. To kill and eat a human is one further step – the victim must be animalised (denied humanity) before being deanimalised and slaughtered. Apparently Seneca could not carry through, but plenty of others, including his idol Jeffrey Dahmer, could.
Another Seneca, the Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, who lived some 2,000 years ago, wrote about another “Chance”. Don’t you love coincidences like this?
Peter Kürten was a German serial killer, often called “The Vampire of Düsseldorf” and the “Düsseldorf Monster”. Described as “the king of sexual perverts”, Kürten was beheaded in July 1931 at the age of 48.
He perpetrated at least nine murders and a number of sexual assaults between February and November 1929 in the city of Düsseldorf. Previous to this, Kürten had accrued a long criminal record for offences including arson and attempted murder. He also confessed to the 1913 murder of a ten-year-old girl in Mülheim am Rhein and the attempted murder of a 17-year-old girl in Düsseldorf.
Kürten was called the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” because he occasionally drank the blood of his victims. He was also known for decapitating swans in the Düsseldorf Hofgarten to drink their blood.
This week’s movie, The Vampire of Düsseldorf or, in French, Le Vampire de Düsseldorf, was a joint production between Spain, France and Italy, filmed in 1964. Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M – Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörderwas loosely based on Kürten (who had been beheaded the year the film was made), but also on the other German serial killers of the time: Haarmann, Großmann, and Denke. Fritz Haarmann had killed at least 24 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924, often by biting their throats, and then allegedly eating or selling the meat from their corpses as pork or horse-meat. Carl Großmann was arrested in 1921, suspected of up to 100 murders of women and girls, whose flesh he was supposedly selling on the black market and from a hot-dog stand in Berlin during the Great War. Karl Denke killed and sold the flesh of dozens of homeless vagrants and travellers from 1903-1924. So Peter Kürten was far from unique in famine-stricken Germany between the wars.
The Director of this film, Robert Hossein, cast himself in the title role of this and several of his films, which is not that unusual among auteur filmmakers. He didn’t look much like Peter Kürten, who was a remarkably nondescript individual (as are so many modern, domestic cannibals), but that’s not the problem. The film twists the story but ends up turning it into a fairly pedestrian slasher rather than the psychological profile of a cannibal serial killer, which it could have been. It also sanitises the story, ignoring the many murdered children and in fact the whole aspect of cannibalism by clinical vampirism(his consumption of blood).
Kürten started his killing well before anyone had heard of Hitler, and even before the First World War, which led to the economic crises that presaged fascism. But by 1929, when most of Kürten’s murders took place, the darkened streets of German cities were full of violence: fascists battling communists, unemployed workers demanding bread and work, and killers like Kürten taking advantage of the chaos.
It is not therefore totally unfair for the film to present Kürten as the embodiment of the sickness that led to the growth of totalitarianism. We see several faces of Europe between the wars – Kürten helping an old neighbour with her groceries, the crowded music halls so popular in Weimar Germany, and the killer, still dressed as respectable citizen, stalking the streets. Kürten, had he survived a bit longer, might have made a very powerful Nazi, with his penchants for smart clothes and extreme violence.
The plot is much simplified. Kürten kills young women and writes letters to the police boasting of his exploits (much as Jack the Ripper did around forty years before him).
He falls in love with a nightclub singer, Anna, who mocks him, sparking his misogynistic rage. He meets two young girls from the countryside who should know better than to open their doors to strangers.
Anna eventually becomes his lover, but then she finds the latest letter he is writing to the police.
Anna must die, much to Kürten’s regret, and his rage is expressed in arson attacks on the nightclub.
The real Kürten was of course a serial killer whose toll was far higher, and whose preferred victims were often very young girls. He was also an arsonist, and he achieved orgasm both through the act of killing and the burning of the body or buildings. Murderpedia has a full account of his acts if you want to read further. It’s pretty gruesome.
Little attempt is made in the film to portray the real Kürten, and even less to explain why he was the way he was. But the film was made in 1965 when sensitivities were somewhat more pronounced than now, particularly in Germany which had only shed the Nazis twenty years earlier. But it’s a masterfully made film, and the music by Hossein’s father, André, is particularly affecting. Worth seeing, if you can lay your hands on it.
As he was led to the guillotine, Kürten asked the prison psychiatrist,
“Tell me, after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck? …That would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”
After he was beheaded, Kürten’s head was preserved and his brain removed for examination, to see if there were any anatomical anomalies (there weren’t). The mummified and bisected head can still be viewed, if you feel so inclined, in the “Odditorium” of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! At 115 Broadway, Wisconsin Dells.
This is a fascinating documentary by the highly respected director Erin Lee Carr who also made such acclaimed narratives as Britney vs Spears.
The 81 minute documentary features Gilberto Valle, a New York City Police Department officer who haunted online fetish chatrooms in 2012. There he had detailed very graphically his fantasies of kidnapping, torturing, raping, killing, and cannibalising various women he knew, including his wife and some of her friends.
The case became a media circus, due to the fact that he was a cop, and the discovery that he had used, without authorisation, a police database to find the addresses of some of the purported victims.
After his arrest, the media dubbed him the “Cannibal Cop“. The arrest was the result of his wife’s suspicions about his late nights, leading to her installing logging software onto their computer, which recorded all his keystrokes and took screen images every five minutes.
“She will be trussed up like a turkey and slid into the oven while she is still alive. Once she dies I will pull her out and then properly butcher her and cook her meat.”
Valle was convicted by a jury of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and, for the use of the police database, violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). He faced a possible sentence of life in prison. His divorced parents both stood by him, particularly his mother.
The presiding judge, however, disregarded the jury’s verdict and acquitted Valle on the conspiracy charges, ruling that the prosecution had not proven that Valle’s online communications went beyond “fantasy role-play”. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the judge’s judgment of acquittal and further ruled that Valle’s misuse of the police database did not constitute a violation of the CFAA. The documentary details Valle’s months in jail before the trial, mostly in solitary due to being a cop, and then a longer period in home detention at his mother’s house.
The case drew widespread attention, not least for the ethical question it posed about when the exploration of dark fetishes becomes a criminal conspiracy. The defence team argued that this was a “thought police” case, a reference to Orwell’s novel 1984, and that “we don’t prosecute people for their thoughts”.
But the jury were convinced by his position of power (particularly the use of the police database to find addresses and other information on his supposed victims) and the fact that, of the 24 chats shown, three had not clearly stated that they were fantasies. Most of the chats involving detailed planning, and were followed by some very imprudent searching on Google. The other 21 had all contained disclaimers, although sometimes these were wistfully followed up with thoughts about being willing if he thought he would get away with it.
Famous defence attorney Alan Dershowitz explains that conspiracy is not just talking about a crime and agreeing to do it, there must also be an “overt act”.
Valle had travelled to Maryland with his wife and family, and visited an old college friend there, a young woman who was on his ‘list’. This, and his various Google searches, were presented in court as overt acts. The problem for the prosecution was that none of these searches had resulted in any actions against anyone, or even the purchase of the chloroform, ropes, gaffer tapes and so on that they had discussed on line. Some of the debate was absurd – Valle’s basement where women were supposedly going to be tied, raped and murdered was actually a shared laundry room in his apartment block.
Professor Maria Tatar from Harvard is interviewed about the human fascination for violence.
“Our stories move us immediately into a safe space where we can imagine the worst things possible, our darkest side… The Cannibal Cop case worries me because we’re entering a new era, and it’s almost uncharted territory. It’s always been fairly easy for us to draw a line between fantasy and reality. I mean, there are the stories and images, and then there’s what happens in real life. Well, we’re in the postmodern era, where these boundaries are becoming more and more difficult to draw.”
There is also the question of anthropocentrism – one interesting panel on one of the many websites mentioned (some of which are still very much on-line) is a cartoon of a some chickens sitting around watching a “chicken horror movie” – but it’s not on TV, it’s an oven with a rotisserie, on which turns one of their kin. Cannibalism, after all, is only horrifying to humans, because it’s humans being eaten. No other species gives a hoot.
Laurie Penny of The Guardian sums up the difficulty of this case well:
“Anybody should be allowed to write a dirty story on the Internet. Or have a dirty fantasy. Even if it’s gruesome and tasteless, and not something you would necessarily want to talk to your Mum about over dinner. It stops being fine when other real people are involved.”
Can a person be two people – a fantasy projection on the web, and a ‘normal’ homebody the rest of the time? This was Valle on Darkfetish:
And in the documentary:
But at the same time Valle was protesting his innocence in New York City, another cop named Detlev Günzel, a forensic specialist in Saxony, Germany, was being tried for killing a willing victim he met on a website for cannibalism fetishists, and chopping him up in an S&M chamber. No evidence of cannibalism was presented in that case, but the victim’s penis and one testicle were not found with the rest of the body parts. And the website on which they met billed itself as the “#1 site for exotic meat”.
Forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner is interviewed about Valle’s claims that the fantasy was totally disengaged from his family life (even though he uploaded a picture of his wife as a possible victim):
“Perhaps the most significant aspect of this story is that Valle’s sexuality was hidden. If one has to wall off an entire aspect of what turns them on, then one has a fundamentally dishonest relationship with their partner. And when you have a dishonest relationship with your partner, you may be able to maintain appearances, but the story is never going to end well.”
That seems rather idealistic. Who does not have dark secret thoughts that are dangerous or frightening to share? As Bob Dylan wrote almost sixty years ago:
Laurie Penny again:
“What makes somebody an ethical human being isn’t what they think, but what they choose to do with those thoughts. Somebody can be having the most dark, depraved thoughts, but if they don’t do anything about them, or find an outlet that is entirely harmless, then that doesn’t stop them from being a decent human being. And in the gap between thought and action, that’s where people actually discover what kind of human being they are. And I think people have to be allowed to make that discovery and then live with the consequences.”
Valle is now a free man. The conspiracy charges were dismissed on appeal, and the misdemeanour use of the police computer system saw his sentenced to time already served. But he lost his job, his wife and his child. The documentary offers him every opportunity to appear sympathetic – a genuine, kind young man who just made a bad mistake. But as Law Professor James Cohen asks: “How are you going to feel if you let him off and he goes out and eats somebody?”
He wants to date again, but wonders at what point of the date he would bring up the – you know. His dating profile on match.com was discovered by the media and immediately taken down.
Whatever he does, to the world Gil Valle will always be “The Cannibal Cop.” He has written a book (which he called an “untold story”) about the case, called Raw Deal.
Since then, he has tried to find a way to make a living (he’s not going to be getting back his police job) by becoming an author. His first novel, A Gathering of Evil, came out in 2018, and is described as “an “extremely violent” horror novel about a planned kidnapping and murder.
This was followed in 2019 by The Lake Tahoe Ten Killings about a dying serial killer mentoring a younger one, and The Social Catalogue of #Prey,a story that warns about the dangers of posting too many personal details on social media, as these are very useful for kidnappers, human traffickers, and cannibals.
The modern cannibal is usually hard to identify. Jeffrey Dahmer was the all-American boy next door. Armin Meiwes used to mow his neighbours’ lawns to be helpful. Issei Sagawa was so small and helpless that he seemed vulnerable rather than threatening. Albert Fish was a sweet old man, so charming that the Budd’s let him take their little girl to a party.
They were normal, everyday people, a bit weird, but not monsters.
At least, not in appearance. This is a recent phenomenon – the original cannibals were called anthropophagi (Greek for man-eaters) and were humanoid in shape, but were usually some sort of hybrid – a mix of humans and gods or other animals – strong, ferocious, and clearly not quite human. From the 15th century, the alleged cannibals found by Columbus and other explorers were different in culture and skin colouring, so were easily distinguished, defamed and exterminated. It is only recently, since Jack the Ripper in 1888, that the cannibal walked among us, undetected until the victims were found (or what was left of them).
Bones and All presents as a coming of age cannibal romance, taking a sharp turn back into cannibal history for its themes. Maren (Taylor Russell from Lost in Space) is finishing high school, a spectacular end of term in which she is invited to her friend’s sleepover and bites a girl’s finger off, instead of, you know, just admiring the nail polish, as she had been invited to do.
She then goes on the run with her father, who has been keeping her ahead of the law as she grew up (her first human meat was her babysitter when she was three) but now ditches her, with a few hundred dollars and a birth certificate.
It then becomes a road movie, as she travels through the American Mid-West trying to find her mother, attracting suspicion not because of her eating habits but just because she looks too young to be on the road. She comes across another cannibal (they are called “eaters”) in the shape of a weird old man named Sully (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies) before meeting up with Lee, played by the love interest of seemingly everyone nowadays, Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet appeared in the third instalment of Guadagnino’s “Desire Trilogy”, Call Me by Your Name), in which he was the love interest of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, who has recently been generating his own cannibalism headlines.
As a road movie it’s Thelma and Louise mixed with Romeo and Juliet, if they had been cannibals. In other words outsiders, star-crossed lovers, and lots of flesh being torn off dead (and sometimes living) bodies. Road movies rely on meeting new and weird people, and learning about the protagonists (and ourselves) from their stories.
Sully is a lonely old man who teaches Maren about being an eater, and how an eater has a super-power – like a vampire, they have a nose that can smell other eaters at great distances, and can also smell dying people, which allows him to feast on them fairly inculpably, although Maren rather wonders if they should be calling 911 rather than letting them gasp their last breaths. So they are anthropophagi, they smell different, have a strong sense of smell, and so are not quite human. We subsequently discover that the cannibal gene is passed on – Lee’s dad and Maren’s mother were also eaters. They are a breed apart, hybrid humans, who can mate with non-eaters.
They are also presented as ‘savages’ – related to the colonised peoples who were declared cannibal by the imperial powers. Maren is biracial, and Sully (although played by a classical British Shakespearean actor) seems to be presented as a Native American, with a long ponytail and a feather in his hat. The marginalised and disenfranchised are regularly presented as dangerous, thieves, murders, cannibals, regardless of any evidence.
An interesting character from colonial times is the wendigo, a figure from Algonquin mythology who eats his fellow humans and draws on their strength to grow huge and powerful, which only makes him hungrier and deadlier. Sully tells Maren that her fate is to need more and more flesh as she gets older.
Just like the wendigo, who is an indigenous version of the anthropophagus, and one that was used by the victims to characterise the European invaders and their voracious appetite for land and gold. The phrase “bones and all” reminds us of the colonial greed that denied the humanity of those invaded and insisted on taking everything, leaving nothing and nowhere to go but a few reservations or missions in remote, unprofitable areas. Eating bones and all is also a perfect way of getting rid of the evidence.
The title Bones and All is taken from the book of the same name by Camille DeAngelis, but the phrase was not used in the book – it just meant that Maren and the other eaters would automatically eat the whole person, bones and all. Except for her first, the babysitter, because she was too small to swallow bones – she left a pile of them, a pool of blood, and the hammer from an eardrum. In a movie, though, it can be harder for the viewer to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief, so eating the victim bones and all becomes a rite of passage – the next level of being an eater. Maren and Lee don’t know how to eat a person bones and all, so they are not yet postgrad eaters. Maren puts it succinctly – “that’s impossible.” But what about eating the flesh? Armin Meiwes took ten months to eat 20 kilograms (44 lb) of Brandes, but we are asked to accept that Maren and Lee can eat a whole body in a night.
But then, everything is ambiguous in this story, which has been widely described as a metaphor for otherness and queerness. The story is set in 1981, as Ronald Reagan is entering the White House. Being different, queer, compassionate, seeking social justice were all considered laughable or dangerous. Greed was good, and so eating a victim bones and all might have seemed laudable. Drug addiction was escalating, and some have seen the cannibalism in this film as a metaphor for this as well – Maren and Lee can’t go too long without their feed, and will do whatever they need to in order to get it.
Some of the ambiguities are more subtle: Maren looks young, which bothers various people she deals with, although she is 18 and technically an adult in most places. Lee falls in love with her, but is also capable of appearing to be cruising for gay sex.
He chooses a carnival worker who has been mean to a child, leads him into the bushes and masturbates him, slitting the man’s throat as he orgasms. It was not until twenty years later that gay sex was legalised in the US, and this man’s secret desire for same sex petite mort becomes his real mort. They then discover that the man had a wife and family, and are stricken with guilt, because apparently eating some people is OK, but not family people.
Then we have the eaters – Maren is naïve and caring, horrified by her need to feed. Lee is a puny dude who kills seemingly effortlessly, but like Hannibal Lecter, Lee prefers to eat rude people – when we first meet him, he challenges a rude person in a supermarket and leads him to a deserted shed where he kills and eats him. Sully is an senior eater, so has to eat regularly, but says he tries not to kill people – sniffs out those who are dying, but later he gets violent when Maren rejects his advances.
Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an eater who has graduated to eating bones and all, but he is accompanied by a friend named Brad (David Gordon Green), a cop (!), who is not a natural eater, but just likes doing it. Maren accepts that she and Lee have to eat people, but is revolted by Jake’s wish to do the same. We’re back to the old debate of nature versus nurture. Are people born queer? Or with addictive personalities? Or psychopathic? Or cannibalistic?
The Director, Luca Guadagnino, has made a number of changes from the book, which are examined elsewhere. The most obvious one, though, is that Maren is brought up and then eventually abandoned by her mother in the book, but her father in the film. This changes the dynamic considerably, because we now have two eaters in the family, both female. The eater parent in both versions is locked up in an asylum, having eaten their own hands, but in the movie it’s her mother, (a short but superb appearance by Chloë Sevigny). We arrive at last at the modern horror archetype, the “monstrous-feminine”, the figure that confronts the male viewer with his fears of being castrated (Freud’s favourite explanation), as well as “the monstrous womb” – a terrifying image of a “black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, p. 27). The female cannibal is quintessentially monstrous-feminine, terrifying men with the antithesis of popular female stereotypes of giving life and nurturing. In the book, Maren only eats boys or men (after the initial babysitter) – she is drawn to eat those who seek to be close to her. In both versions of the story, the ambiguity is clear to us and the female cannibals – they have a compulsion to eat, but don’t want to hurt others.
Maren’s solution is to try to act normal, fall in love, get a job, get “clean” of the eating. Her mother’s was to lock herself away, and even then she chewed off her own hands.
To me, the most fascinating ambiguity in this film and in our societies generally is the question “who can you eat?” Eating some animals is considered just “normal” – Lee is chewing on bacon (pig flesh) served to him in a very respectable café, and has been working in an abattoir. When they need money, he and Maren rob the abattoir at night, later sitting on the overhead walkway watching the cows who are to be killed for legal, non-controversial eating, when Maren observes
“every one of them has a mom and a dad, sisters, brothers, cousins, kids. Friends even.”
The real question, Derrida says, is not what to eat but how to eat well. Perhaps, as Chalamet has said, it is impossible to live ethically – every act of consumption or energy usage wrecks the environment a little bit more. For some carnivores, this is seen as a ‘bones and all’ issue, they call it “nose to tail” – killing is OK, but wasting any part of the animal is the real crime. But as Maren says, cows also feel terror, pain, bereavement when their babies are taken from them. The author of the book, Camille DeAngelis, went vegan before writing it, indicating that the problem of who to eat, the rude or dying, the human or the cow, weighed on her, and the scene filmed in the slaughterhouse indicates that Guadagnino may have felt the same. Cat Woods’ review in Salon reminds us that Brad, the off duty policeman, chooses to be a cannibal:
“Why would he hunt, slaughter, and feast upon human flesh if he doesn’t need to? And, if we the audience can be repulsed by that – and his evident choice to slaughter and eat flesh when there is abundant satiety that doesn’t cause violence, pain and loss – then perhaps we need to venture a little deeper into our own psyches and ask: Why would we feast upon flesh if we don’t need to?”
This is a seriously good film, with a great cast and, in the midst of all this carnage, we are treated to magnificent scenery beautifully captured by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan. I have not revealed the ending, and hope I have not revealed too many other plot points. I recommend you go see it.
What a year! These are some of the cannibalism stories, films and songs that arrived in 2022, with links back to the original reports, so that you can look up the ones that catch your interest, and so that this blog does not take all of 2023 to read.
A German man dubbed by the press the ‘cannibal teacher’ was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Stefan R., a 41-year-old maths and chemistry teacher, had apparently searched on the dark web for terms such as “long pig” and “fatten and slaughter people”. The man claimed his victim died of natural causes after a (presumably vigorous) sexual tryst, and he had removed the man’s penis “since my DNA could still have possibly been present due to the oral sex I performed”. In other words, he didn’t mind a bit of mutilation and perhaps cannibalism, but was concerned not to be “outed” as gay.
Djalma Campos Figueiredo, 46, was arrested in Brazil. He had been sentenced by the Court of Justice of Rondonia in the city of Porto Velho to 42 years in prison for several counts of aggravated murder but had escaped custody. The Civil Police alleged he would eat his victims’ eyes and ears and drink their blood.
Meanwhile, the Zamfara (NW Nigeria) State Police Command arrested a 57-year-old man, Aminu Baba, for allegedly eating and selling human body parts. Baba and three others were arrested after the murder of a nine-year-old boy. The Police Commissioner reported that Baba had “confessed that he usually ate the body parts and identified the throat as the most delicious part. He also sold some of the human parts to his customers.”
In Afghanistan, we discovered that the Taliban were rounding up drug addicts and putting them in rehabilitation centres to detox, which is a nice thought, except that they gave them little or no food (“cold turkey” does not count), so they apparently resorted to cannibalism.
In the Indian state of Assam, a man who had had perhaps more than a few drinks smelt cooking meat in a crematorium in a Hindu cremation ground. He helped himself to a few portions of the body, but was caught by villagers and handed over to police; but not before he had eaten about half of his purloined flesh.
A man calling himself The Chinese Zodiac Killer was arrested by the FBI in Jefferson County, New York for sending letters to media outlets, government offices including the White House, and other organisations, claiming he killed people and ate their flesh, and that he plans to kill more. He seems to have based his story on the Zodiac killer who terrorised California in the late 1960s. The original Zodiac Killer (who was not accused of cannibalism) was never caught, but this one was easily found, posting his threatening letters (what century is this again?) at the same letterbox he had previously used.
The case against James David Russell (see above in April) went to preliminary trial. Sadly, the judge threw out the charge of cannibalism, saying there was insufficient evidence to pursue it, and went with the rather more mundane offence of first-degree murder. Since this has a life sentence attached, the practical effect of dropping the cannibalism charge is negligible, but as the first cannibalism case in the USA, it would have been fascinating.
A rumour swept the Internet that the actress Anne Hathaway was a cannibal, based on a cryptic Tweet saying “police didn’t find human remains and evidence of cannibalism in her LA home that she sold in 2013.” We were all later astonished to discover the whole thing was a hoax.
The effects of the war in The Ukraine were starting to be felt in Europe and the UK (whose people often do not think it’s part of Europe). The Russians fell gladly on a statement from one Jeremy Clarkson (a car enthusiast) that “Hunger makes people eat their neighbours” to predict that the British will soon be a nation of cavemen feeding off each other. Of course, if you’ve ever been to a soccer match…
industrial/electronic music duo SKYND released their tenth song, called ARMIN MEIWES, about the German man who killed and ate a willing volunteer.
The New York Times raised the temperature of the culture wars with its review of several books, movies and TV shows about cannibalism, culminating in the (somewhat tongue in cheek) statement that “Cannibalism has a time and place… that time is now.” The right-wing press predictably jumped on the story accusing the NYT of everything from irresponsibility to Satanism.
Also in New York, Steven Spielberg whipped out his cell phone to record Marcus Mumford singing his new work, a haunting song called “CANNIBAL“. The song might be about love and lockdown, or it could involve child abuse.
DISCOVERY+ launched a three-part series called HOUSE OF HAMMER. The series explored allegations from various girlfriends of the actor Armie Hammer that he was a cannibal, or had at least threatened them with cannibalism. It also examined his relatives, many of whom seemed to be presented as even worse specimens than Armie.
Russia discovered the war was not going well in Ukraine, and started recruiting murderers and rapists to be sent to the front as reinforcements. Also – one cannibal, Yegor Komarov, whose man-eating exploits we learned about in December 2021.
In the Indian state of Kerala, there were allegations that a couple who ran a massage centre were bringing women home not so much for massages, but for human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism.
In the US state of Michigan, Mark David Latunski, who had been arrested in 2019 for killing and eating his Grindr date, finally came to trial and entered a plea of guilty.
Issei Sagawa, the “Kobe Cannibal”, died of pneumonia at the age of 73. Sagawa had killed and eaten a young Dutch fellow-student in Paris in 1981. He was found insane and sent back to Japan, where he was released and lived free ever since, making movies, writing books, and even becoming a restaurant reviewer.
Back in Brazil again! A patient in the Municipal Hospital of Nuovo Hamburgo in the state of Rio Grande do Sul attacked other patients, screamed and spat at people, and eventually chewed off his own fingers and toes. A witness said “while he was chewing his own meat, you could hear the crackling of bones in his mouth”.
Mark Latunski, 52, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on December 15 for the murder of his Grindr date three years previously. Kevin Bacon, 25, had been killed and mutilated by Latunski on December 24, 2019 at Latunski’s Bennington home. Latunski pleaded guilty in September to killing Bacon and eating one of his testicles, after stabbing him in the back and slitting his throat. In a victims’ impact statement, the victim’s father said “Evil does exist, and it touched us.”
On the screen
The big news on streaming television this year was Jeffrey Dahmer, the “Milwaukee Cannibal”, who took Netflix by storm with not one but two titles, despite having been killed by a fellow prisoner in 1994.
Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s docudrama called “MONSTER: THE JEFFREY DAHMER STORY“, which logged nearly two hundred million hours of watching in its first week of release
Joe Berlinger’s third series of CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER, featuring previously unheard defence attorney tapes of interviews with Dahmer.
Lots of new cannibalism feature films in 2022, some of which I will catch up with next year:
Luca Guadagnino’s BONES AND ALL, featuring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell as teenage cannibals in a tender and gory road movie, has been getting heaps of publicity.
Mimi Cave’s FRESH is a charming romcom, until the knives come out. A fascinating insight into ultimate consumerism.
Leatherface came back (again!), this time older but no wiser. This is the ninth (!) instalment of the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE franchise, and went straight to Netflix.
John Ainslie’s DO NOT DISTURB depicts a couple renewing their romance by taking peyote, but finding that this particular variant of the drug awakens a taste for human flesh.
Leatherface came out to play again, this time as a fan-film prequel called THE SAWYER MASSACRE. Made on a shoestring but arguably superior to the other sequels and prequels.
Liam Regan’s EATING MISS CAMPBELL, in which a vegan, goth student falls in love with her new English teacher and develops a taste for human flesh.
Sean Patrick Flanery’s enjoyable road movieFRANK AND PENELOPE, in which a couple take on a cannibal cult in the wilds of Texas.
Timo Vuorensola’s JEEPERS CREEPERS REBORN, the umpteenth take on a supernatural tale of the demon who eats people and incorporates their bodies, but only every 23 years.
Fred Olen Ray’s PIRANHA WOMEN offers a totally believable story of women who turn into man-eaters because of an anti-cancer treatment.
THE MENU has Ralph Fiennes as a demented chef and Anya Taylor-Joy as the fly, as it were, in his menu plan. There is no obvious cannibalism involved in the movie, but there is some speculation on-line about the final cheeseburger.
‘Ted Lasso goes cannibal’ in Adam Leader & Richard Oakes’ FEED ME, a jolly rant in which a grieving man wants to die, and a nearby cannibal wants to help him, but by instalment.
And now for something completely different
From out of the future, we have some new AI software of which Shital Shah, a senior research engineer at Microsoft, said:
ChatGPT is “a large language model that has been trained to generate human-like responses to text input.” In other words, you can ask it questions and receive (often) intelligent answers, rather than a series of links, like Google. You can try it for free (at the moment) here.
Naturally, I asked it questions such as “is meat murder” and it replied:
“Ultimately, whether or not eating meat is considered murder is a matter of personal belief and moral judgement.”
So, I barked back, like a prosector out for a conviction, “Where does that leave the cannibal?”
“Whether or not eating other humans is considered murder would also be a matter of personal belief and moral judgement. Most people would consider cannibalism to be morally reprehensible, as it involves the killing and consuming of another human being. However, there may be some individuals who do not see it that way, and their personal beliefs and moral judgement would dictate their view on the matter.”
Black Christmas is the middle film in what is sometimes called the “Black Christmas series” – three films that actually have very little to do with each other, except that they bear the same title, one made in 1974, one in 2006, and one in 2019. The original was made in 1974 and widely panned, but has since been revived as the proverbial “cult classic” and hailed as one of the earliest slasher movies – it was released on the same day as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and is considered an influence on the making of the Halloween series (crazy killer, young women, buckets of gore). The remake in 2019 presented a completely different story and character list.
I am reviewing the middle, 2006 movie not because it’s the best of them, but it is the only one featuring CANNIBALISM, which is what this blog is all about. Also because I needed something uplifting to review on Christmas Day, 2022.
The films all involve a group of co-eds (young female college students for those of you who don’t speak American) being slaughtered by a serial killer. The 1974 film was about to be released for television in 1978 but was withdrawn because serial killer Ted Bundy had just murdered two young co-eds sleeping in their sorority house on the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee. Bundy had started his killing spree in 1974 before being captured in 1975, incarcerated and then escaping, and there is some speculation that the film was based around his brutal murders, and that he in turn, might have been motivated to escape and return to his pathological ways by the imminent TV release of the film. The film may also be partly based on the exploits of Ed Kemper, who killed his family and then a number of co-eds in 1972-73, although his M.O. was to offer them lifts as they hitchhiked which, as we all know (I hope), is a very bad choice of transportation.
But Bundy was not a cannibal to the best of our knowledge, and nor was cannibalism mentioned in the 1974 film. Ed Kemper did admit under truth serum to slicing flesh from the legs of his victims and eating it in a casserole, although he later changed his mind and denied it. So Kemper, who is still locked up the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, may well have been an inspiration for this 2006 version. It is a very loose reimagining of the 1974 film, with the added frisson of child abuse and a bit of paedophilia, as well as incest and cannibalism – the taboos that Freud described as “the two original prohibitions of mankind”. Director Glen Morgan, who wrote several episodes of X-Files and The Twilight Zone reboot, is not skimping on any taboos in this one.
It starts off with a murder of course, then moves swiftly to an asylum for the criminally insane (a nice nod to Hannibal’s residence through all of Red Dragon and most of Silence of the Lambs, and quite a bit of the third season of Hannibal too). Here we come across Santa Claus, as you’d expect in a movie called Black Christmas, and we get the back story on the dude who killed his family many years ago, and is, we expect, going to kill lots more people before this movie drags itself to a gruesome end.
The asylum caterer, a very careless man who lets the high security door get jammed open with a carton of milk, says they are giving him a special Christmas dinner.
“It tastes like chicken, because it’s chicken. It’s the closest we could get to how Mom used to taste.”
Billy Lenz is clinically insane, so that may explain why he thinks his Mom tasted like chicken (humans are red meat, and most cannibals claim the taste is like pork or veal). Anyway, he scoffs his chicken/Mom substitute through the feed-hole on his door, pockets the candy cane as a handy weapon, and we are told that he tries to escape each year; he wants to go home for Christmas. And the Delta Alpha Kappa co-eds, whose sorority house at Clement University in New Hampshire is Billy’s old house, are not going to enjoy his visit.
Well, we don’t have to sit through all the jump scares, because they are just slasher gore with no one getting eaten (as far as we can see). There are some amusing rants against Christmas though. The girls know the history of the house, and their “Secret Santa” ritual includes someone having to buy a present for Billy each year. It’s a pagan sacrifice to ward off evil spirits on Christmas.
“What Christmas shit in this room resembles anything Christian, huh? It’s all neo-pagan magic. Christmas tree – a magical rite ensuring the return of the crops. The mistletoe is nothing but a conception charm. Fifth century Christians jacked a Roman winter festival – twelve days in December where the nights were long – and the Earth was roamed by the demons of chaos. And fucking Santa Claus? This fat voyeur that watches you all year long to make sure you live up to his standards of decency, before breaking into your house? And that is different from what Billy did – how?”
So what, we wonder, did Billy do?
“Billy Edward Lenz was born with a rare liver disease that gave him yellow skin. His parents hated each other. The mother hated Billy. He was not the child she always wanted.”
When Billy is five, on Christmas Eve, his mother tells him the Russians shot down Santa.
He then witnesses his mother’s new boyfriend kill Billy’s father, who is the only one who ever loved him. Realising he saw it all, they lock Billy in the basement (did they see Tommy?), where he spends his time rocking (as in, in a rocking chair, not engaging in popular music).
When he is twelve, his mother, frustrated by her new husband who falls asleep mid-coitus, climbs up into the basement, drops her gown and reinstates the original meaning of “rock and roll”, adding incest to insult and injury. Not to mention paedophilia. This show has it all!
So Billy has a sister and a daughter and Mom has a granddaughter and a daughter, and step-dad is still snoring through copulation, so everyone lives happily ever after.
Just kidding – nine years later, Billy has been driven insane by isolation, while his sister/daughter is doted on by his mother, who constantly tells her “you’re my family now”:
Billy escapes from the attic and disfigures his eight-year-old sister by gouging her eye out, and then eating it.
Much of the terminology of love and sex derives from cannibalism. When we tell a child “I could eat you up” or (at a different time and place presumably) perform oral sex on a lover, we use the metaphors of cannibalism.
Billy murders his mother and her sleepy lover, and the cops find him eating cookies made out of his mother’s flesh. There’s a cookie-cutter involved, and a hot oven. Not sure where he got the recipe.
The rest is pretty standard slasher stuff, with some inventive deaths, but at least Billy has qualified as a cannibal, and it’s about time, because we’re 36 minutes into the film by now. If you can’t be bothered watching the whole thing, there is a trailer at the top of this blog that covers a lot of the good bits, plus a whole lot of other stuff that never made it into the movie, apparently filmed at the insistence of the distributor, Dimension Films, run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who have, between them, much expertise on matters of horror, family discord, and the abuse of young women.
Look, if you want an entertaining slasher with lots of gore, you might like this. From the point of view of Cannibal Studies, the film is interesting mainly as an example of revenge cannibalism – eating the rude and abusive, like Son or Titus or even Sweeney Todd. Also, horror movies timed to coincide with Christmas are very often based on some aspect of revenge, such as The Twelve Deaths of Christmas, also featuring a cookie-cutter used to make people-bread men. It’s a fascinating genre, in which the audience is offered the opportunity to sympathise with, or at least understand, the act of cannibalism as homicide and anthropophagy justified by grievance.
Not so much with Billy. The sorority sisters are treated the way humans treat animals contingently labelled as “vermin” – they are swarming around his house, and he exterminates them but, significantly, he doesn’t eat them. His Mom and his sister/daughter, though, they’re family, and the only way to keep them with him, restrained, constrained and compliant, is to eat them. It’s Billy’s version of love.
Merry Christmas and Gory in Excelsis to all my readers!
The full movie is available (at the time of writing) on YouTube:
Oxygen True Crime is a program brand within the NBCUniversal stable, and is rather oddly described as:
“a multi-platform high quality crime destination brand for women”
I guess because most of the murderers reported by the show are men?
Anyway, the show we are reviewing here is part of the 2022 second season of an Oxygen series called Living with a Serial Killer, the first season of which aired in 2021. The program has covered a number of British and North American killers, including Steve Wright (the Suffolk Strangler), Peter Tobin, Timothy Boczkowski and a couple of women: Elizabeth Wettlaufer, a Canadian nurse who murdered several of her patients and Joanne Dennehy, who stabbed three men to death in 2013.
Living with a Serial Killer concentrates not so much on the killer, as do most true crime shows, but on the partners or friends or even children who lived with them, the people who thought they knew them, and it tells how they lived either in fear or else were oblivious to the exploits of the murderers. Most, but not all, of these unwilling companions were women.
Most of the killers were not cannibals, disappointingly for this blog, but one was, or says he was, despite there not being enough left of his victims to confirm or deny his claim. This was Stephen Griffiths, who stood up in court for his arraignment for murder and, when asked his name, identified himself as THE CROSSBOW CANNIBAL.
Griffiths killed three women in the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, England in 2009 and 2010; 43-year-old Susan Rushworth disappeared on 22 June 2009, followed by 31-year-old Shelley Armitage on 26 April 2010 and 36-year-old Suzanne Blamires on 21 May that year.
The women were all Bradford sex workers. Parts of Blamires’s body, including her severed head still containing a crossbow bolt, were found in the River Aire in Shipley, near Bradford, on 25 May. Other human tissue found in the same river was later established to belong to Armitage. No remains of Rushworth were ever found. Griffiths was arrested after CCTV security footage caught him in the act of killing Suzanne Blamires. He not only committed the execution on camera but, after dragging her body inside his apartment, returned carrying his crossbow and gave a middle finger to the camera, knowing he had been seen.
Griffiths was a postgraduate research student studying criminology and specialising in British murderers, so he knew a great deal about killing and disposing of bodies. He also knew what sort of activities led to sensationalist press coverage, and he seems to have been determined to become more famous than one of his pin-ups, the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe had murdered thirteen women in the same area between 1975 and 1980, and was at the time rotting in prison with several life sentences to serve, and judicial instructions that he was never to be released. Sutcliffe died in November 2020 after refusing treatment for COVID-19.
After his arrest, which happened a few days later when the caretaker checked the CCTV tapes, Griffiths readily admitted the murders to the police, telling them he had eaten some of his victims’ flesh, and adding, “That’s part of the magic.”
The program focuses on Kathy Hancock, who lived with Griffiths for a considerable time. A tough woman, a prison officer when they met, she was physically abused by him, poisoned, and perhaps worst of all psychologically tortured (particularly when he stole her dogs) to the extent that she was unable to escape his influence. She did not know that he was a serial killer, but was not very surprised when she found out. Despite the occasional escape, she was with him or under his influence for much of the decade from 2001 until his arrest in 2010.
When interviewed by West Yorkshire Police (extract at the top of this blog), Griffiths was asked why he killed the three sex-workers. His reply:
“I don’t know. Well, I’m misanthropic. I don’t have much time for the human race.”
Police divers found 159 pieces of human tissue when they searched the River Aire; almost all were from the final victim, Suzanne Blamires. There were only two parts of Shelley Armitage found – a part of her spine and a section of flesh revealing knife marks. Susan Rushworth’s family had no definite confirmation of her death or disposal, and no remains over which to mourn. He told the police:
“… it was just meat in the bath that was chopped up and churned, some of it eaten raw and I don’t know after that. I don’t know where she is.”
Griffiths claimed to be possessed by an alter ego named Ven Pariah who took over his social media accounts and boasted of his exploits. Psychiatrists found him fit to be tried, but it is still possible that his psychotic episodes (he was diagnosed as a sadistic schizoid psychopath) accompanied the murders and he really does not know what happened subsequently. It does sound a bit convenient though, like Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER, who claimed he could not remember murdering and consuming his child victims, particularly as Griffiths seems to have clear recall of the actual murders and dismemberments.
Or he could be making it all up, since we know that Griffiths was desperate to be (in)famous and, as a student of criminology, would have been aware that cannibalism would make far bigger headlines than murder.
But here’s another explanation. Griffiths told police that he did not particularly despise sex workers, but that they were easy targets – they worked on dark, run-down streets and, due to their propensity for addiction, the police were unlikely to worry too much if they disappeared – there were plenty of other possible explanations besides murder. This is reminiscent of Albert Fish, who killed and ate African-American and Latino children, not because he was a racist, but because he knew the police would not look too hard for them.
Griffiths’ hatred was not aimed at sex workers but at women in general. He was insecure, vain, and had a desperate need to dominate. This is indicated in his relationship with Kathy Hancock, whom he abused and tormented despite the fact that she was voluntarily cohabiting with him. When she finally left he stalked and threatened her, to the extent that she finally moved overseas to get as far away from him as possible.
The ultimate form of control is to kill and consume the ‘other’. Humans do it all the time to other animals to establish an ideological superiority and supremacy – we eat meat (some of us) not because it is necessary for our health but because sacrificing the animal demonstrates human exceptionalism. It elevates the human, or those privileged to be considered human, to a higher plane than other animals and ‘lesser’ or sub-humans (untermenschen), whom we feel free to exploit in a wide variety of ways such as slavery, sweatshops and, in the extreme, cannibal feasting. Griffiths’ profound misogyny could find its deepest expression not in paying for the use of their bodies, or even ‘just’ killing them, but in utterly destroying them, and at the same time absorbing them into his own body, thereby destroying their independent subjectivity and making them exist only as part of him. Cannibalism offers ultimate power and control over the victims.
David Wilson, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Birmingham City University, said that
“We want to see serial killers as real aberrations, as different from dominant beings in our culture, but often they are just extreme versions of other beings of their time.”
Was Stephen Griffiths a cannibal or a braggart? We’ll never know for certain. Claims of cannibalism are hard to confirm, as the perpetrator is often undiscovered, unreliable, or dead. Except for cases where cannibals recorded their acts on video tape (such as Armin Meiwes), we only have the verification of missing flesh or slashed bones, evidence over which everyone from archaeologists to forensic scientists can argue forever, or the confessions of the cannibal, which can be easily retracted before trial or may prove to be just boasting and narcissistic grandstanding. Griffiths told the police:
“It was just a slaughterhouse in the bath tub.”
The cannibal, whether literal or metaphorical, is essentially enacting an extreme form of carnivorous virility, and thereby questioning the conventional view of humans as above nature, as not animals, not meat. The cannibal makes us look at ourselves as edible, and thereby question our place in, and exploitation of, the natural world. The bath tub, our symbol of cleanliness and separation from the dirt and smell of nature, becomes a slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse, normally hidden in remote towns behind high walls, comes home.
I must admit a bit of a soft spot for road movies, although they have been a little overdone in the cannibalism genre (how many Wrong Turn, Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chain Saw, etc sequels and prequels have there been so far?) But this one seems fresh, mostly due to undeniable talent of the two stars. Caylee Cowan is Penelope, a “doe-eyed femme fatale” who effortlessly channels Marilyn Monroe with a blend of innocence and raw sensuality, and chisel-jawed Billy Budinich, perhaps himself channelling James Dean, is Frank, a man who has lived his life by logic and rules and suddenly breaks out of his self-limitations to live life for himself, but only because he falls for Penelope.
Frank’s world of law and rationality is shattered when he sees his wife having sex with her cross-training instructor, and heads out; he’s not sure where, just heading west. He stops at a strip club where he is taken in by Penelope – pole dancing to Marc Bolan’s song Cosmic Dancer hauntingly performed by Valerie June:
Is it wrong to understand The fear that dwells inside a man? What’s it like to be a loon? I liken it to a balloon
Penelope gets her hands on Frank’s credit card on the pretence that she is willing to abscond with him, but then she has a row with the club owner, played by Sean Patrick Flanery, who also directed and wrote the screenplay (he’s a man of many talents!) When Frank intervenes in Penelope’s fight with the boss, she goes on the run with him, and their fate is sealed. When Frank asks Penelope if she has ever seen the classic 1991 road movie Thelma and Louise, we know this is most likely not going to end well.
There are plots and sub-plots and even a quite unnecessary Greek Chorus in the shape of a nurse (Sonya Eddy from General Hospital) reading Frank’s diary over a brain-dead body, but let’s just get to the cannibalism, because that’s what keeps this blog rolling along each week.
It’s a road movie, so there are lots of cars on roads, and cars stopped on roads, with weirdo’s peering in at the drivers.
The first face is Cleve (Brian Maillard, who’s also done a fair bit of acting, directing and writing) – Cleve is a devout follower of a cannibal cult which collects travellers off the road or in their motel. He appears at first as a whack job, but turns out to have a conscience, of sorts.
The second face at a window is the local Sheriff (Kevin Dillon from Platoon and Entourage) who tries to warn Frank and Penelope against stopping on that track of road. This warning, before the blood starts flowing, is a regular trope for cannibal films, although it’s usually a gas station dude who is dismissed as plumb crazy – e.g. the Wes Craven classic The Hills Have Eyes. In that film, the cannibals were mutants who had been too close to a nuclear bomb-testing site, in Texas Chain Saw Massacre they were unemployed slaughterhouse workers. In The Farm, they are animal liberation activists revenging the depredations humans commit on farmed animals. Every cannibal has a motive. In this film, the Sheriff tells them that:
“You’re about to hit a stretch of about thirty miles with no cell phone towers, and no gas for about forty miles after that. You may want to keep a close eye on that gauge. I mean, you can get gas in Quicksilver, about twelve miles in, but get in and get out of there. Mercury got in the water from that mine, and left them Appalachian transplants bat shit crazy.”
So what do our romantic couple do? Why, head straight for the bat shit crazy Appalachian transplants in Quicksilver, looking for a motel room in which they can practice all the sexual positions Frank has promised to perform. Of course, they could just pay attention to the Sheriff who gave them good advice (while drooling over Penelope), but then it would be a very short movie.
On the way, they run across Chisos (Johnathon Schaech, another writer and actor, you may have seen him in How to Make an American Quilt). He puts his face into the car, pretending he needs a lift, but Penelope turns him down. She can see he is up to no good, even with a name that everyone else pronounces with reverence (as in Jesus) but which she persists in saying as “Cheese Sauce”! This is actually quite a funny film, and Caylee Cowan is a comedy genius.
Chisos is the leader of the cannibal cult, and when they meet up at the motel, explains it all to them, in the standard (I’ll tell you everything Mr Bond/Batman/Spiderman since you won’t be alive to tell anyone else) method of horror movie explication. He explains that his grandfather owned the biggest mercury mine in the world, in which he was leading a prison work-release program for a whole bunch of felons – “murderers, rapists, all kinds of filth”. His grandfather survived a cave-in by “eating those sinners, organs and all.” He and his clan are now “Appalachian sin eaters at our core!”
Travellers are tested for their virtue, and eaten for their sins. He shows them his leg, which has a crucifix shaped scar. Yep, he’s been snacking on his own sins. What sin has a man like Cheese Sauce committed? Well, he’s been at it with Cleve’s wife, plus he really wants kids.
And he has decided he really wants those kids with Penelope, so he tosses Frank into a pit with unclimbable sides. There are corpses in there, people who have died in it previously, and there is plenty of water, so Frank won’t die of thirst; but he has to make a choice: he can starve or “take a bite and become one of us.”
The rest of the movie is a suspense story – will Frank die or become a cannibal? Will Penelope agree to become “a vessel” for Chisos’ progeny? What’s the story with her old boss from the strip club, who is still plenty sore at them?
The answers to all these questions you won’t hear from me, because that would be spoiler territory, and you really should see this movie. Admittedly, the critics who have reviewed it so far gave it a cumulative “rotten” score of 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the audience rating was a “fresh” 83%. So you’ll have to judge for yourselves. I thought the plot was good, the actors were great, the cars scintillating (if you’re interested in that sort of thing) and the soundtrack outstanding. The cannibalism is not gore based (well, just a bit) but more along the lines of abjection, watching the cult members tucking in to their sacred meal – the flesh of a woman who had admitted to abandoning her children years before.
The Eucharist, as I understand it, is the eating of the blood and body of Jesus to cleanse the sinner of their sin. Chisos has turned this on its head – cut out the middle man and just eat the sinner. Makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re a cult with a lot of mercury in your water supply.
Issei Sagawa, a Japanese murderer known as the “Kobe Cannibal”, died of pneumonia on November 24 2022 at the age of 73. His funeral was attended only by relatives, with no public ceremony planned, according to a statement from his younger brother and the publisher of the brother’s 2019 memoir.
In 1981, 32 year old Sagawa, then a Japanese exchange student, murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then raped, mutilated, and cannibalised her corpse over two days.
After that, he cut up her remains and packed them into two large suitcases, called a taxi and tried to drop the cases off in a park in the middle of Paris. He fell asleep in the park (eating too much meat can have that affect) and someone opened one of the cases. Sagawa walked calmly away, but within four days, the police tracked Sagawa through the taxi driver, and he confessed immediately. In his refrigerator and on his dining table, they found a large quantity of human flesh.
Sagawa was declared insane, but his father employed an influential French lawyer to argue, successfully, that it was unfair for the French taxpayer to pay for indefinite confinement in a mental hospital, and that he should be sent back to Japan to be cured. Accordingly, less than three years after his confession, Sagawa was put on a plane and sent back to Japan, the only condition being that he could never come back to France. He could not be prosecuted in Japan because the French had sealed the case files after the murder charge had been dropped. He spent 18 months in a Japanese mental hospital but then checked himself out, and has been free ever since.
There is a comprehensive study of the case in the documentary THE CANNIBAL WHO WALKED FREE, which I reviewed in this blog in February – you can read it here. It contains a link to the documentary on YouTube.
Another fascinating documentary which looks more closely into the psyche of both Sagawa and his brother through interviews (sometimes disturbingly close-up ones) is CANIBA, made by two artists/anthropologists in 2017. I reviewed that in May, and you can read it here. It has a link to the production site where you can buy the DVD should you be so inclined.
The French philosopher Georges Batailleis widely quoted on the Internet as saying
“A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism.”
I hate to be a party pooper, but there is no evidence of Bataille ever saying this. Nonetheless, the concept makes sense. Sex is a very oral experience – from passionate kissing to cunnilingus and fellatio, much of foreplay consists of licking, tasting and biting. Even non-sexual love often involves phrases such as “I could just eat you up.” Cannibals like Armin Meiwes and Jeffrey Dahmer ate their victims to keep them close. Sagawa did the same, claiming he loved Renée.
Sagawa, with a massive inferiority complex based around his conviction that he was small and ugly, saw a bullet in the neck as his only way he would ever have sexual experiences with a live partner, particularly a beautiful young woman who seemed totally out of his league. Murder in such a belief system must have seemed like a form of courtship, and cannibalism a way to keep her with him forever. For forty years, he has done just that, living off his notoriety, making films, appearing in torture porn, writing books and comics (from which the drawings in this blog are taken), and even reviewing restaurants for foodie magazines.
Sagawa appears in the documentaries mentioned above (and several others I have not yet reviewed) as a repulsive, sick individual, but never as repulsive and sick as he firmly believed himself to be.