Thought Crimes: The Case of the CANNIBAL COP (Erin Lee Carter, 2015)

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.

Gary Allen, author of How to Serve Man: On Cannibalism, Sex, Sacrifice, & the Nature of Eating, suggests in another interview that violent stories remind us of primal feelings, our propensity for violence.

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.

Gilberto Valle seems to have found his niche.

THE CROSSBOW CANNIBAL (Living with a Serial Killer, Season 2 Episode 2)

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.

Conversations with a Killer: THE JEFFREY DAHMER TAPES (Netflix 2022)

It’s definitely Dahmer month, with Netflix releasing this second blockbuster series on October 7, less than three weeks after Ryan Murphy’s ten-part series “Monster”.

The massive interest in Jeffrey Dahmer has been simmering since he was arrested in 1991, but it burst into a conflagration on September 21 2022 with the release of Ryan Murphy’s new documentary MONSTER – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. This re-enactment, with Evan Peters playing Dahmer, became number one on the Netflix hit parade immediately. According to The New Yorker, as soon as it was released on September 21st, “Dahmer” became far and away the streaming service’s most-watched title of the week and its biggest-ever series début, despite receiving little advance marketing. Subscribers logged nearly two hundred million hours watching the program in its first week of release—more than three times as many hours as Netflix’s next most popular series. There’s even a walking tour in Milwaukee in the footsteps of Jeffrey Dahmer.

My earlier blogs on the Dahmer movie with Jeremy Renner as the killer, and the documentaries showing the real Jeffrey Dahmer being interviewed for news shows, are getting hundreds of hits each week (thank you!), in this new era of Dahmer-mania.  Family members of Dahmer’s victims are speaking out against the “Monster” series, saying it forces them to relive the traumatic events and personalises Dahmer, and even complaining about a Kesha song from 2010 which mentioned Dahmer. Nevertheless, Netflix has now released (October 7) a new series of Conversations with a Killer, this time using some previously unreleased tape-recorded interviews of Dahmer himself and his defence team, including his lawyer Wendy Patrickus, during his high-profile case. It was her first case, and she said, “I felt like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.” She spent months talking to Dahmer about each victim, preparing a defence which could only be based on an insanity plea, since there was a mountain of evidence against him, and he had already confessed everything to the police. Wendy’s DAHMER TAPES cover 32 hours of conversations held from July to October 1991. These tapes were never previously released – and are the basis of this three-part series.

This three-part true crime documentary is the third in a series from Academy Award nominee Producer/Director Joe Berlinger, whose earlier “Conversations with…” covered The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019) and The John Wayne Gacy Tapes (2022). Bundy and Gacy were prolific serial killers but, as far as we know, were not cannibals (although an English tabloid suggested Bundy might have had a few mouthfuls).

This is the Netflix summary of the Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes series:

When Milwaukee police entered the apartment of 31-year-old Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991, they weren’t prepared for what they’d find. From a freezer full of human heads to decomposing body parts, the discovery amounted to the grisly personal museum of a sadistic killer. Dahmer quickly confessed to sixteen murders in Wisconsin over the span of four years, plus another murder in Ohio — but the most shocking revelation involved acts of necrophilia and cannibalism…. Why was Dahmer, who had been convicted of sexual assault of a minor in 1988, able to avoid suspicion and detection from police as he stalked Milwaukee’s gay scene for victims, many of whom were people of color?

Like the previous movies and documentaries and even the interviews with Dahmer himself and his family, the question that keeps being raised is why he did these things? Earlier texts concentrate on the psychopathy of the man himself, skirting the politics, while Murphy’s series, and this new documentary, spend more time on the ineptitude and racist privilege that seemingly kept delivering him get-out-of-jail-free cards.

“It [cannibalism] made me feel like they were a permanent part of me.”

This new release sheds much heat but very little new light onto that question. Dahmer has already told interviewers that he just wanted to possess the young men and boys who came to his home under the pretence of taking photos for money, keep them with him, without the complications of building actual reciprocal relationships. He lured them to his apartment, drugged them and then killed them or drilled holes into their skulls and injected muriatic (hydrochloric) acid. He wanted to turn them into zombies, with no will of their own, who would stay with him and be available for sex whenever he wanted. He tells his lawyers all this on the scratchy recordings that assail our ears here. The interviews are accompanied by blurry re-enactments of the prison interviews by actors dressed as Jeff and Wendy, and interspersed with contemporary interviews of the actual journalists, police, lawyers, psychiatrists, friends of the killer and the victims, all noticeably older and still in many cases clearly distressed by their involvement in the case. There are images of his victims, of the saws and drills he used, home movies of him as a (pretty happy and normal) child, as a teen, as a prisoner. There is news footage, from outside the building, of stunned crowds and news reporters doing what they do – repeating the few snippets of information they have, over and over.

But there seems to be a lot more that is alluded to but not fully analysed in both of these new Netflix releases. In flashbacks in the Monster series, and in the “conversations”, we see things like Jeff impaling worms on his hooks with his Dad, saying “ouch!” as they pretend to empathise with the animals’ suffering. We see him as a little boy examining a dead marsupial that, his Dad says, must have crept under the house to escape a predator, despite already having its skull crushed, indicating that brainless (zombie) life is feasible; Dad takes him on road trips to find and then dissect road kill. He tells a wide-eyed Jeff of the biology experiments (Dad was a chemist) in which frogs with most of their brain destroyed will still react to pain stimuli. We see him mock a vegetarian girl in biology class who doesn’t want to dissect a piglet, and later find him torturing small animals including neighbourhood dogs and cats, actions which are strikingly common in the personal histories of serial killers. Dahmer tells the lawyer:

“I didn’t seem to have the normal feelings of empathy.”

Insensitivity to animals (human or otherwise) can snowball. Killing and eating the other has always been the ultimate symbol of domination. Humans have probably done it to enemies for millennia, and psychologists tell us that industrial society since the late nineteenth century has undermined the formation of stable identities through technology-based isolation, mass mediated representations of cultural interactions, the conversion of all human relationships into fiscal transactions and the disintegration of communities. Mass-murderers and particularly cannibals like Dahmer, Fish, Meiwes or Sagawa could not have operated so freely in communities where people more intimately knew their fellow citizens’ daily movements and actions.

But such social and cultural changes affect us all, and we are not all cannibals (at least, not at this historical moment). There is more to it; the borderline pathology formed by modern life has to be ignited into violent action by an often (seemingly minor) inciting incident – Meiwes watched pigs being butchered, Sagawa recalled his uncle, who regularly played cannibalism games. Many cannibals, like many murderers, start their abuse with the objectification of other animals, as did Dahmer. Vincenzo Verzeni, who was arrested in 1871 on suspicion of killing up to twenty women, put his sexual obsession with killing and drinking blood down to the pleasure he had experienced wringing the necks of chickens when he was twelve years old. Jeffrey Dahmer had hidden his sexuality from his disapproving family for so long that he no longer wanted the gay sex that was becoming available in the 1980s – he wanted to sate his appetites without having to satisfy his partners. Sleeping pills, easily obtained due to his work as a night-shift operator at a chocolate factory, meant that he could put them to sleep and do whatever he felt like.

“I could just lay around with them, without feeling pressure to do anything they wanted to do. They wouldn’t make any demands on me. I could just enjoy them the way I wanted to.”

The men he chose were in many cases ready to have casual sex, but that was not enough. He wanted permanent relationships, but only he was to benefit. From drugs, he moved to experiments aimed at creating compliant, subservient zombies. Of course, this didn’t work, so he did the next best thing, killing them, keeping their body parts, eating their flesh so they would be a part of him.

Dahmer had learnt to ignore suffering in his fishing expeditions, at his father’s dissection table, and of course in the kitchen, where we all watch pieces of meat being prepared, our childish minds wrestling with the dawning knowledge that these were the same living, breathing, suffering animals we saw on farms, or whose representations we enjoyed in our toy-boxes or television shows.

One psychiatrist has opined that Dahmer struggled with both borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, and therefore suffered “great confusion about what’s real and what isn’t”. There is some evidence that Dahmer couldn’t live with what he’d done, or couldn’t live without doing it any more, offering to admit to a crime he didn’t commit (the murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh) if it would get him the electric chair in Florida.

The Dahmer legend continues to grow, despite it being over thirty years since his arrest. How unique is his story? The police investigators called for a manifest of missing persons, trying to establish the identities of the remains found in Dahmer’s apartment. In episode 2, the detective says they were getting 300 calls every day from people looking for their lost loved ones, and wondering if they had ended up in Dahmer’s abattoir. Where do all these missing people go? Is it possible that there are more successful cannibals out there, busily eating the evidence, not raising the suspicions of their neighbours, and not getting caught?

In a world where humans routinely and legally do to other sentient beings what Dahmer did to his victims, it may be that the cannibal is just less tolerant of ambiguity, and when taught that the ‘other’ can be casually and ruthlessly collected, kept captive, killed and eaten, he (or occasionally she) just takes that to its logical conclusion. Interestingly, PETA is already getting feedback about that.

This documentary does not offer any revelations to those of us who already know a lot (too much?) about this case. But it lays it all out in sequence, explained by those who were involved – the police, the journalists, the doctors, and most of all Dahmer himself on the tapes. His voice is that of a witness, trying to explain what he does not understand. He killed and ate people not because he was some uncanny monster, but for the same reason anyone eats anything: because he wanted to, and he could. The jury in his case were adamant that Dahmer was sane.

What does it mean, to say that a person is sane, and how is a jury of non-experts to decide that? In episode 2, the forensic psychiatrist for the Defence, Fred Berlin, says:

“If a man who is preoccupied with having sex with corpses, if a man who is drilling holes in the heads of human beings to try to keep them alive in a zombie-like state doesn’t have a psychiatric disorder, then I don’t know what we mean by psychiatric disease. How many people does someone have to eat in Milwaukee before they think you have a mental disease?

Dahmer comes across as the picture of the civilised male subject, fully initiated into the symbolic order. As the Milwaukee journalist who was first to report the case, Jeff Fleming, put it:

“The danger could be someone who looks just like your next door neighbour. He passed on the street as a very normal person. He didn’t look scary.”

Dahmer’s comment:

“My desires were bestial, obviously.”

Or were they just, as Nietzsche said, “Human, all too human”? In the book Enemies, a Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer says:

“…in their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.”

But what we see in factory farms is not the hatred and the wish to exterminate that motivated the Nazis. Animal agriculture corporations often tell us that they “love” their animals, just as Dahmer loved his men and boys, and wanted to enjoy them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in our behaviour to animals, all men are Dahmer.

“I’m just gonna make you my zombie”: DAHMER: MONSTER – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (Murphy and Brennan, Netflix, 2022)

This new docudrama (I can’t believe that’s a word) is quite a big deal in the highly respected academic discipline of Cannibal Studies. While many people think of Hannibal Lecter when the subject of cannibalism arises, in terms of contemporary culture (and therefore putting aside the Donner Party for now), Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the “Milwaukee Cannibal”, is a crucial figure, not least because he really existed, we know a lot about him, and we have a good understanding of what he did. Dahmer typifies the modern cannibal in that he seems so unremarkable; we have seen, and perhaps remarked at, his cool demeanour and the fact that he seemed like just an ordinary, everyday boy next door.

There have been a few Dahmer movies and documentaries, including some interesting interviews with the man himself, arranged in jail, before a fellow prisoner caved his head in with a metal bar. This new one has a pedigree though. First of all because it is presented by Ian Brennan (Glee, Scream Queens, The Politician) and  Ryan Murphy, who signed a $300 million deal with Netflix in 2018 and who brought us such enormous and terrifying hits as Glee, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and American Horror Stories.

Monster – the Jeffrey Dahmer Story runs over ten episodes, released concurrently on September 21, 2022. The length alone (almost nine hours) makes it more comprehensive and immersive than the other treatments. It is also different to most serial killer / cannibal documentaries and films in that it is presented not from Dahmer’s point of view, but from that of those around him – the victims, but also the family and the neighbours (who had to put up with the appalling stench of death that always emanated from his rooms or apartments).

“We had one rule going into this from Ryan, that it would never be told from Dahmer’s point of view.”

The first episode drops us into the main event – Dahmer in his Milwaukee apartment, trolling gay bars and offering young men and boys money to come home with him for a photo session, where he drugs them and attempts to turn them into love zombies by drilling holes in their skulls and pouring acid into their brains. When this doesn’t work, he has sex with their corpses, and harvests their meat.

One man escapes and flags down the police, who arrest Dahmer. The series then turns back to his childhood, his parents’ messy divorce, and the isolation which left him free to hatch his murderous plots. Later, we meet some of his victims, and his neighbour Glenda Cleveland who repeatedly tried to notify the police and FBI of what she heard, saw and smelled, but was comprehensively ignored and even threatened for her interventions.

“What do you do in there? The smell, power tools going all hours of the night, I hear screaming coming from your apartment.”

Dahmer, threatened with eviction due to her complaints, offers her a sandwich, saying “I used to be a butcher. I made that just for you.” Glenda refuses to eat it, and we know why – it looks like a chicken sandwich (and probably is).

But our willing suspension of disbelief declares it human meat, which is not kosher in any religious tradition. He tells Glenda to “eat it!”

Most of this documentary is very true to the facts as we know them, but in any re-enactment, there will be gaps to fill in or characters that need to be heard, without filling the cast list with an unmanageable number of people to remember. So the sandwich was apparently a fact, but was not given to Glenda but to another neighbour, Pamela Bass, who thought he was a generous if shy young man, and admitted that she ended up eating it.

Glenda, played superbly by Niecy Nash (from Scream Queens and Claws), is a strong woman caught in one of those nightmares where you know there is horror, but no one will believe you.

She demands to know what is in the sandwich.

“It’s just meat… It’s like a, uh, pulled pork.”

This is a regular theme of cannibal texts: they remind us that humans are animals, and our flesh and organs are made of meat. It’s a popular meme on animal rights social media sites. This one shows the real Dahmer, in case you’ve forgotten what he looked like.

Dahmer was looking for love, but he was not willing to risk losing it, so he tried to conscript his victims as undead zombies or as corpses, skeletons, or just happy meals. He showed affection – he is seen lying with his corpses, holding their hands, preserving their body parts. He loved them in much the same way that farmers often claim to love their cattle, sheep, pigs, etc, just before putting them on the abattoir trucks.

Dahmer is played brilliantly by Evan Peters (American Horror Story, X-Men, Mare of Easttown), who looks a lot like Dahmer, but with a touch of the young Malcolm McDowell – imagine Clockwork Orange but with cannibalism. If you want to know what Dahmer might have looked like forty years after his arrest, check out McDowell in Antiviral.

Jeffrey Dahmer murdered and dismembered seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991, thirteen years during which the police had no clue about his serial murder spree and, some might say, didn’t care much, since most of the victims were people of colour. And this is the heart of this rendition of Dahmer’s story – he was protected by the racism and incompetence of the American justice system. Here was a clean-cut white man, and people of colour disappear without trace all the time, apparently, so the police did not bother him, while the judges treated him as just a naughty boy.  Glenda’s frantic calls were met with apathy or rudeness.

He kept getting away with everything – one of the most extraordinary moments is shown in flashback in episode 2. On May 27, 1991, Glenda Cleveland called the police to Dahmer’s apartment after her daughter, Sandra Smith, and her niece, Nicole Childress, found a bleeding, naked and incoherent boy on the street who was running from Dahmer. Dahmer appeared, white and polite, and told the police that the boy was his 19 years old boyfriend.

He said the boy was drunk and they had been in an argument, and so the cops helped him take the boy back to his apartment, had a quick look around, made homophobic remarks about AIDS, and left the boy there.

The boy was bleeding from a hole drilled in his skull. After the police left, he was dead within the hour. It was later discovered that the boy was 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, Dahmer’s 13th victim. Incredibly, Dahmer was actually on parole for an earlier arrest for the molestation of another child, who was one of Konerak’s older brothers.

When Cleveland spotted Konerak’s photo in a missing person alert in the newspaper days later, she realised he was the young boy Dahmer had claimed was his boyfriend. She contacted the police and the FBI yet again, but they didn’t even return her call. Five of Dahmer’s seventeen murders, including that of Konerak, were carried out after Cleveland began contacting police. All but three of Dahmer’s victims were non-white.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a leader in the Civil Rights movement since the time of MLK, got involved in the case despite the urgings of some of his supporters, who didn’t think the movement should be linked to “a gay serial killer who eats people”. But as he says:

“I realised it was not just a gruesome horror show. It’s a metaphor for all the social ills that plague our nation. Bad policing, underserved communities, the low value we assign to our young Black and brown men, especially if they happen to be gay.”

The old profiling stereotypes no longer work, in fact never did. Dahmer was a serial killer who was ignored by the law for thirteen years, because he was white and male. In the Soviet Union at the same time, Andrei Chikatilo was killing and eating parts of over fifty women and children, ignored by the police force, because serial killing was considered impossible in the “workers’ paradise”. But those profiles still endure: a Black man on the street is instantly suspected of criminal intent, a white man, even Jeffrey Dahmer, is largely untouchable. In that sense, society dehumanises the poor, the coloured, the disabled, just as effectively as Dahmer did to his prey.

As the philosopher Michel Foucault observed, the world outside was a scary place filled with monsters up to the seventeeth century, and those monsters were thought to be probably criminals. But in modern times, the criminal is considered likely to be a monster. Ancient monsters were recognisable – usually grotesque and often hybrids of humans and other animals. But the contemporary monster looks, speaks and eats pretty much like the rest of us. Like Jeffrey Dahmer – the boy next door.

Is “true crime” really “true”? INDIAN PREDATOR: DIARY OF A SERIAL KILLER (Netflix, September 2022)

The world is so full of misinformation, disinformation and straight-out lies that it is not surprising that audiences crave some truth, and podcasts and documentaries investigating “true crimes” have become enormously popular.

The first series of Indian Predator, “The Butcher of Delhi” was screened earlier this year, and this new one, “Diary of a Serial Killer” involves a confessed cannibal, so of course The Cannibal Guy had to take a look. But did he kill all those people, and even if he did, did he also eat their brains? Truth is often the first victim of cannibalism.

Raja Kolander, real name Ram Niranjan, the husband of a local politician, was suspected of murdering a journalist in Allahabad in 2000. Dhirendra Singh was a reporter with a Hindi daily newspaper called Aaj, and his body was mutilated and discarded in a river and a jungle. His head and genitals had been removed.

Police tracked the journalist’s phone records and found a call to the suspect, Raja Kolander. Kolander and his brother-in-law were arrested, beaten up, and finally confessed to the murder of the journalist. The police claimed that the murder was to stop Singh reporting on their car-theft business. But during the subsequent investigation, officers found Kolander’s diary, which listed some fourteen victims in total, including that journalist.

Although he was arrested in 2001, Kolander was not charged with the murder for a decade. During his trial in 2012, the police testified that he had admitted to cannibalism, and to burying fourteen skulls in his home. Kolander, his brother-in-law and his wife were all given life sentences for three murders, although he has appealed those convictions. Claims of cannibalism were never proven, nor were the other eleven murders, and some of those interviewed say that a few of those so-called “victims” are still wandering around. There is also mention made that the “mining mafia” had it in for Dhirendra Singh for exposing some of their corrupt practices, but this is not really explored further in the documentary. We are told, however, that Uttar Pradesh is ranked top in number of murders in all of India.

The first episode interviews the police and family of the journalist, and presents fairly damning evidence of murder. But then, some of it is just silly, such as the chief investigator saying that criminals “stutter when faced with the police.”

The evidence against Kolander is presented as it was laid out by the police, and the events shown in the documentary are just recreations of the official version, with actors playing the main characters. How legit those are is a good question, as there are several mentions of duress during the police interrogation.

The police claim that Kolander was motivated by power, and sought to acquire it by cannibalism. One victim was from the Lala sub-caste. They are considered smart, even cunning, and often accused of taking advantage of the poor. The police claim that Kolander believed he could imbibe this cleverness through cannibalism, and so this victim was killed and Kolander then removed his brain:

Then drank it as a stew. Another victim claimed to be a hypnotist, and so his brain was consumed in the hope of gaining that skill. As the investigator asks

A question to which I, for one, urgently need an answer.

Kolander then allegedly cut open a Brahmin, a member of a caste known to eat well, to see if they have larger intestines than other people. He then had to cut open a lower caste person to compare. The results were apparently disappointing. We are all equal, at least in the width of our intestines.

The second and third episodes interview Kolander in jail, another decade after the trial. He maintains that he is innocent of the murders that took place some twenty years before. He insists that he is a victim of trial by media.

The question of why his supposed thirteen other crimes went without investigation until a respected journalist was killed sheds some interesting light on the social and caste divisions in Indian society. Like Albert Fish, who in 1920s New York preferred to kill and eat black children since he knew the police would not work too hard to look for them, the racist attitudes in India to other classes, religions, and communities seem to have resulted in not much work being done on finding the earlier victims.

But Kolander himself comes from a caste which is largely impoverished, and the times were ripe for revolt by the subaltern castes – there were dacoits (bandits) roaming the countryside, and lower castes were fighting to be represented in government of all levels. It is clear that Kolander’s caste, the Kol, were considered by the upper castes to be primitive savages, recently driven from the jungles by deforestation into the life of subsistence farming, but retaining their savage traditions. It was inconceivable to them that a person from this background could own two cars, as the police claimed.

Kolander insists that he is a highly spiritual Hindu, not concerned with worldly power, and even claims to be a vegetarian, which would make eating brains tricky, although others (including his daughter) cast doubt on that. But it is certainly true that the colonial story has embraced accusations of cannibalism since Columbus – those who are poor and deprived must be savages, eaters of human flesh. Nothing they do is therefore surprising, and anything they are accused of is probably true.

Is this “true crime” documentary true? It’s impossible to know. But there are lot of holes in the story, including the fact that police brutality seems to be a standard interrogation technique, the fact that it took a decade to bring him to trial and, after another decade, his conviction (for three murders, not fourteen) is still to be decided. Also, the charges of cannibalism, which kind of make this newsworthy, were never proven in a court of law. Kolander, with some justification, says that his case was tried not in court but in the media, which published pretty much any sensational story they could dream up.

Cannibalism is perhaps the perfect exemplar of the uncanny – Freud wrote that we are most disquieted by the familiar suddenly becoming strange (remember Jeffrey Dahmer’s step-mother Shari saying he was “a nice, kind boy”) and things that should be hidden instead being revealed (e.g. the Brahmin’s intestines). But the impossibility of determining the truth is in itself uncanny, even more disquieting because our certainties about truth and lies are torn apart. A few cannibals sit down and tell their stories (Dahmer did, and so did Meiwes and Sagawa), but often the cannibal either disappears into the night like Jack the Ripper or suicides like Chase or is executed like Chikatilo. Seeing the bodies, or what’s left of them, but never knowing what or who happened to them is uncanny, and even more so when, like Kolander, the apparent cannibal denies all culpability.

Hammers and cannibals: THE HOUSE OF HAMMER (Discovery+, 2022)

Is Armie Hammer (best known for The Social Network and Call Me by Your Name) a cannibal?

Hammer is a young American actor (in his thirties) who found fame with his 2008 portrayal of the evangelist Billy Graham in Billy, the Early Years for which he won a “Faith and Values Award” from Mediaguide, a Christian review organisation. Don’t you love irony?

Hammer went on to star in several movies (including some bombs like The Lone Ranger alongside Johnny Depp and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) but he is best known for playing Oliver in Call Me by Your Name in 2017. He was supposed to star in a sequel, based on the novel Find Me, when his world turned to shit. Because he was a cannibal. Or wasn’t.

Now, a new three-part documentary on Discovery+ has gone through the history of the Hammer family, and the way the Hammers seem to treat everyone as, well, nails. Narrated in part by Armie’s aunt, Casey Hammer, the documentary makes clear that the family tree is rotten with toxic masculinity, abuse and exploitation. If we were wondering how Armie got that way, this sheds plenty of light on the question.

Hammer’s family was, shall we say, a colourful one. His aunt Casey declared,

“I know my grandfather had a dark side, but I saw my father’s dark side first hand, and I’ve seen my brother’s dark side, and I’ve just heard about Armie’s dark side. But I believe it.”

The documentary goes through the dark deeds of these generations: the patriarch and oil tycoon Armand Hammer, his son Julian, his son (and Casey’s brother) Michael, and his son, Armie. Casey said of her brother Michael (Armie’s dad):

“That’s the sign of a true monster. You can look in the mirror and not see any fault or that you’re doing anything wrong. And that’s how deep it goes with my brother. And that’s why he’s so scary, because he has no conscience.”

The first episode is about Armie’s allegedly violent relationships with young women who were often so star-struck that they would often let him get away with tying them up and biting them, among other things. He made his appetite seem like love.

In early 2021, several of Armie’s girlfriends took to social media to describe Hammer as abusive, manipulative and violent. Screenshots of his text messages appeared to show him describing fantasies (or real events) of rape and cannibalism.

“I am 100% a cannibal…. Fuck. That’s scary to admit. I’ve never admitted that before. I’ve cut the heart out of a living animal before and eaten it while still warm. Totally raw. Still warm. ‘d eat your heart if i wasn’t stuck without you after.”

“I want to see your brain, your blood, your organs, every part of you. I would definitely bite it. 100%. Or try to fuck it. Not sure which. Probably both.”

“If I fucked you into a vegetative state id keep you, feed you, watch you, and keep fucking you…Till you are so sore and broken…. I can’t stop thinking of [fucking] your actual brain.”

“…cut a piece of your skin off and make you cook it for me…. Who’s slave/master relationship is the strongest? We’d win. When I tell you to slit your wrists and use the blood for anal.”

The documentary shows a clearly nervous Courtney Vucevovich describing Armie taking her to Sedona, tying her up, and doing whatever he wanted to her.

She shows texts on her phone, but also a note that he left at her home after he stalked her and found her address.

“Armie wanted total control of me, and absolute compliance, destroying any sense of bodily autonomy.”

Then he took her to meet his Mom! But, she said, “it was like a band-aid on a bullet wound.”

In early March, Armie’s ex-girlfriend Paige Lorenze, 24, said in an explosive interview with Vanity Fair that during their time together she felt “really unsafe and sick to her stomach.” The interview claimed that the celebrity’s ex-partners have “compared him to Ted Bundy” and said he was obsessed with shibari – a Japanese bondage art form where people are tied up in intricate patterns.

Lorenze was horrified to see the accusations of cannibalism,

“Because he would say things to me…weird stuff…like, ‘I want to eat your ribs’.”

She also claimed that Hammer had carved his initial into her pubic area and licked the wound, later bragging about it to friends, and that Hammer was fixated on biting her body, saying,

”If you did not tell me to stop I would eat a piece out of you.” And he was serious too. It was like he actually wanted to eat my flesh away.

The “A” that Armie allegedly carved into Paige

On their first night together, Lorenze said Hammer insisted: ‘You can either call me daddy or sir.’ She tells us in the documentary that

“He’s obsessed with meat. I brushed it off, but I do believe that he was serious.”

Another woman named Effie whom he dated for about five months in 2020 said that he had raped her for over four hours in Los Angeles. He told her he wanted to eat her flesh, and would suck or lick her wounds if she had “a little cut on my hand.”

Most of the documentary details allegations of non-consensual sex, AKA rape, for which Armie is being investigated by detectives from the Los Angeles sex crime division.

One such text read:

“I’m not going to lie… you cryin and crawling away while I stalked you down your halway was so exhilarating”

But on the subject of cannibalism (which is what this blog is about) let’s remember that Hammer has not been charged with acting on his cannibalistic fantasies — and in fact he has denied sending those texts. Courtney Vucevovich claims that her shoulder bears evidence of his cannibalistic ways, a wound that he suggested should be tattooed into her skin to make it permanent:

But texting and sex play, even bondage and sado-masochism (if consensual), are not illegal, and Hammer clearly enjoyed both.

But if he said these things and sent these texts, and if they were just fantasies, he picked the very worst time, the apex of the #MeToo movement, to send them. Hammer subsequently lost leading roles for which he had been preparing, including in the Jennifer Lopez film Shotgun Wedding, and his agency dropped him.

In March 2021, Effie, the woman who initially came forward with abuse allegations on Instagram, identified herself and accused Hammer of violently raping her in April 2017. The Los Angeles Police Department subsequently confirmed that he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation, which had been set in motion a month prior. Hammer has vehemently denied any wrongdoing via his lawyer, who stated that “all of his interactions with [Effie] – and every other sexual partner of his for that matter – have been completely consensual, discussed and agreed upon in advance, and mutually participatory.”

Hammer was unable to see his family during the pandemic lockdown, and his marriage fell apart. In June 2021, Hammer checked into a Florida treatment centre for drug, alcohol and sex issues.

Many, many people seem fascinated by cannibalism, and one artist is already turning Armie Hammer’s explicit DMs into NFT art (non-fungible tokens – it’s a long story).

The documentary outlines Armie’s fantasies and alleged assaults, and also goes into details of the corruption and violent activities of his forebears. So that raises the question, the one that Clarice asked Hannibal, “what happened to you?” Nothing happened, Hannibal answered. “I happenedLook at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”

WTF? Is there a curse of the Hammer family? An evil gene? An epigenetic generational trauma that makes each new generation a bit more abusive than the last? Of course, Hannibal has some philosophy about this as well:

when it comes to nature versus nurture I choose neither. We are built from a DNA blueprint and born into a world of scenario and circumstance we don’t control.

The Hammer family have for some generations been enormously wealthy, and with wealth comes privilege. That does not necessarily lead to cannibalism (although movies like The Cannibal Club suggest otherwise), and certainly poor people can also be cannibals, but it may make the wealthy feel insulated against consequences – that is one important theme of shows like Succession. Wealth, privilege and entitlement does lead to cannibalism (not clear whether real or imagined) in American Psycho, at least in the book, (the film lingered on the murders but wimped out a bit on the actual eating of body parts).

Cannibalism is an act of domination – there can be no greater conquest of another than converting them into a meal and eventually into excrement. Hammer revealed this need to dominate in wanting to be called ‘daddy or sir’. In wanting to tie these women up so they are helplessly compliant with his every desire. In the power of watching them cry and beg. In ownership of their bodies.

The massive wealth of the Hammers demonstrates Bataille’s concept of “the accursed share”. Excess energy – in this case, wealth from the exploitation of energy in the form of oil – is spent on luxury without any public benefit, in non-procreative sexuality, in pageants and grand buildings, or else in catastrophic ways like war or sacrifice. In other words, in social terms, it must be used, or wasted. Armie Hammer used his excess energy on finding ways to control women, ultimately tying them up for the purposes of eroticism. Whether this was consensual or forced, which is what most of the women allege, is up to the Los Angeles sex crime detectives to determine. But it seems clear that privilege, particularly multiplied over several generations,

“must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.”

Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share Vol 1, p.21.

Excess energy can be donated – billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have pledged to give away at least half of their wealth during their lifetimes or at their deaths. Or they can expend their excess energy (wealth) on fancy homes and cars and bending others to their will. Although they usually do this less publicly than Armie Hammer did, this is still metaphoric cannibalism.

Fun fact: Rotten Tomatoes critics gave the documentary a 67% “fresh” rating, but the “audience” rating is only 5%. Most reviews, and thousands of other social media posts, doubted the veracity of the women’s claims, saying that Hammer had suffered the loss of his career because he openly expressed his fantasies. Vucekovich, on the other hand, says that after the news came out about her relationship with Hammer, she received death threats and harassing messages from Armie’s “die-hard fans.” Out of fear, she relocated from an apartment to a house where she installed cameras. “The ‘Charmies’ made my life hell,” she says. At the same time, she fielded “thousands” of messages from women who had been through something similar.

Is Armie Hammer a cannibal? He is a rich and handsome movie star from a wealthy and privileged family, who built his career on playing men who can get away with anything. He is certainly a persuasive abuser of (often much) younger women, a form of exploitative consumption that is uncomfortably close to cannibalistic ingestion.

But is he a cannibal? Technically, almost certainly not. But in his mind, in the deep, dark fissures of his unconscious, he certainly is. According to Freud, we all are.

“You are what you eat” – EAT A SWEDE, 2021

The world’s most popular pastime is eating. Plants “eat” carbon dioxide and water and turn it into carbohydrates, which animals then eat. Some animals then eat those animals. The theologian William Ralph Inge described nature as “a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and the passive”. Everyone is eating most of the time. When appetite becomes too voracious, we end up eating each other, or being eaten.

The video starts with members of a focus group being told they were trying human flesh.

The video shows Erik Karlsson as an entrepreneur who is trying to persuade investors to back his project to grow human meat for sale in supermarkets, and especially meat that is grown from the cells of Sweden’s national treasure, the actor Alexander Skarsgård. He then tries to persuade Skarsgård to donate some cells, for which he offers a partnership in the company. No dice.

The trailer at the top of this blog links to a website which explains the theory behind the longer clip, which is also available on YouTube: Eat a Swede (which has subtitles) or at the Eat a Swede website. Karlsson tells us that

“In 2050, the global population will reach 10 BILLION. The demand for food is expected to increase by 98%.”

There is no doubt that current meat industries are environmentally unsustainable. Humans slaughter some seventy billion (70,000,000,000) land animals every year for food, and trillions of sea animals. Yet most of the world’s people eat far less meat than Americans or Australians, and biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that for the rest of the world to reach those levels of consumption would require four more planet Earths. Other options for replacing meat include fungus, insects, larvae, etc. But why would we eat maggots (or pigs) when we have flesh from clean-living, environmentally conscious Swedes?

So anyway, meticulous detective work (AKA a quick glance at the website) revealed that this is not in fact a real company, nor are they growing real human flesh in the lab. It’s what they describe as “edutainment” or “mockumentary”. The Swedish Food Federation – an industry organization with about 800 member companies from Arla and Absolut to Oatly and Orkla – wanted to share their knowledge about sustainable food production, and in the process increase the competitive edge for Swedish food. Release a website on sustainable agriculture and you may get a few dozen likes. Make a “mockumentary” on growing human meat and

The people in the focus were actually eating “Swedish tenderloin” cut from the loin of an animal who had no doubt suffered and died at a tender age (as the name seems to imply). Probably a cow, although there is also a cut known as tenderloin from chickens, but for this process, I would think they would choose a cow because, apparently, our flesh tastes like beef, according to some people who have tried it (others say pork from wild pigs).

But the technology is already here. It is possible to grow cells in the laboratory, taking cells from an animal (and let us not forget that we ARE animals) and culture them into, well, meat. Clean meat, often called in vitro or lab meat, is meat grown in sterile laboratory conditions from animal cells. It is not plant-based meat, as so many supermarkets now offer, but actual flesh, grown in a nutritional medium, instead of cut from the carcass of a slaughtered animal. The idea is the basis of Brandon Cronenberg’s film Antiviral. While this may be a potential threat to the meat industries if /when it becomes commercially viable, it presents an immediate challenge to our culture of carnivorous virility, the ideology that makes us feel superior to other animals, demi-gods, the sacrificial violence that maintains the abyss between humans and other animals while bolstering the image of masculinity in most cultures.

More relevant to this thesis is the fact that clean meat could be grown from any animal cell. Want to try whale meat? Like to see what dodos or dinosaurs tasted like? Find a readable chain of DNA and contract the lab. And of course, the easiest cells to source are human ones – we hand them over to pathologists and crime scene investigators all the time. If clean meat becomes a reality, there is no reason (other than administrative) to assume we could not grow human steaks, livers or sweetbreads.  And as Erik says:

“It’s the only product where we have consent that it’s fine to eat it. We have a donor – that person has said ‘you can take my cells, you can grow them, and it’s fine with me that you eat them.’”

The artist Diego Rivera claimed in his memoir that human flesh is the most “assimilable” of foods for humans. Most testimonies by actual cannibals attest that human meat is not unique, and tastes similar to veal or pork. Erik says, tongue presumably in cheek, that human meat tastes like crocodile. Which, he says, tastes like – chicken.

“Since they say you are what you eat, why not eat a Swede?”

It is fascinating that polite society finds perfectly acceptable the confinement and torment of billions of animals in wretched conditions until they are slaughtered, yet so many people are shocked and repulsed by the idea of meat from a different animal, Homo sapiens, grown in sterile conditions with no need for branding, castration, confinement, slaughter and disembowelment.

Issei Sagawa, in your face: CANIBA (2017)

In 1987, Japanese student Issei Sagawa murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then mutilated, cannibalised, and performed necrophilia on her corpse over a period of two days.

Sagawa was declared insane in France and returned to Japan, where he could not be tried for murder as no evidence had been sent by the French. A free man, he became something of a celebrity, making torture porn movies, selling paintings (many of them nudes), writing books and manga showing his crime, and even becoming a food critic. The fascination so many people feel with the life and crimes of Issei Sagawa is shown by the number of documentaries made about him:

  • Cannibal Superstar (Viasat Explore, Sweden, 1986, 47 minutes)
  • Excuse Me for Living (Channel 4, UK, 1993, 60 minutes)
  • The Cannibal That Walked Free (Channel 5, UK, 2007, 46 minutes)
  • Interview with a Cannibal (Vice, US, 2011, 34 minutes)

And, most recently, this one: Canniba, made by two artists/anthropologists, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Unlike the more standard documentaries which deal in psychoanalytic speculations and dramatic narration, this one is an extreme close-up of the cannibal himself, in his declining years. The only characters shown are Sagawa himself, his brother Jun and a young woman carer, who is inappropriately dressed in a maid’s uniform and happily tells him zombie stories as she prepares him for bed. Sagawa was hospitalized in 2013 from a cerebral infarction, which permanently damaged his nervous system, and due to this and severe diabetes is largely unresponsive through most of the filming, becoming animated only when discussing his murder of Renée. Jun sums his brother up:

“Cannibalism is really very much nourished by fetishistic desire. The desire to lick the lips of your lover, and things like that, are based on primal urges. Cannibalism is just an extension of that. Both extremes exist within him. Cannibalism is a totally different world for him.”

The film seems to ask us to consider our own fetishes (you don’t have any? That would make you unique) and asks whether we are repulsed by Sagawa’s acts, or by the abjection in ourselves which he forces us to confront.

The first thirty minutes are a gruelling close-up of the two men – Issei and Jun and their desultory interactions, with the camera so close you can see every pore, except when it (blessedly) goes out of focus. Issei is largely catatonic, staring sightlessly as we, in turn, stare in extreme close-up at his face, which looks almost like a death mask. The only signs of animation are when he is offered chocolate, of which he seems inordinately fond, perhaps as a substitute for the human flesh he so craved. Probably not great for his diabetes, but we’re not really hoping for a happy ending to this story.

Unable to see a future, Issei dwells on the past. He remembers his mother telling him in graphic detail about falling down some stairs in a department store and miscarrying.

From this glimpse of the behavioural background to his subsequent actions, we are suddenly catapulted to a clip of a much younger Issei in a porn film, biting a woman’s buttocks, as he did to the dead victim, then being urinated on and finally masturbated by her.

The horror of his ruined visage is contrasted to the prudish pixilation of the debauchery.

If we haven’t walked out by now, as many of the audience did at the early screenings in the Toronto and Venice film festivals, we are then treated to his commentary, now quite animated, on his manga – a comic-book format showing his murder, rape and cannibalisation of the young woman. His brother tut-tuts throughout, saying he doesn’t want to see such things, while Issei explains what he did, and what it meant to him.

“For a hideous person like me, she was out of reach.”

A bullet in the back of her neck was the only way he could think of to bring her into his reach.

“Finally the thing I was craving to eat was right in front of me! The stench doesn’t matter. I started with the richest part of her right buttock.”

The murder and cannibalism turned a shy, diminutive man-child into a fierce Samurai, in his own mind.

He describes the eating the flesh (the harvesting of which is shown in detail in the manga) as “an historical moment!” For that brief time, the woman was entirely his, and what Derrida called carnivorous virility gave him an absurd sense of masculine power as he “dominated” the woman’s corpse for his sexual and gastronomic pleasure.

There’s heaps more, but you’ll have to watch the film or get the manga – my blog has its limits.

The film then disconcertingly lurches into home movies of the two men when they were cute little boys.

We are not given a commentary, but we know from other accounts that their uncle would dress up as a cannibal and capture them for his cooking pot. The psychoanalysts would eat that up, but we should consider that many of us are chased by various demented relatives in our childhood games without going on to become monsters in their likeness.

Issei’s brother Jun, now his carer, appears as the sane one in the family, but we are quickly disabused of that as we see his own self-abuse – he likes to wrap his arms in barbed wire, and cut his arms with knives. Everyone needs a hobby I guess. Issei is not impressed – compared to shooting a woman from behind and then having sex with the body and eating parts of it, a bit of cutting would seem fairly tame to him.

Finally we meet the carer, a young, attractive women dressed as a maid. This is actually Satomi Yôko, an actress playing a maid playing a carer, a further jolt to our fragile sense of reality. She giggles over Issei, telling him, as he stares into her breasts (a particular fetish of his):

She asks him if he wants to cosplay a zombie, and tells him a convoluted story about a zombie woman who eats the old man who keeps her in chains, a reversal of his history, and another fetish of Issei’s, who early in the film says “I want to be eaten by Renée.” She tells him:

“For the zombie to survive, I have to keep eating live humans… I’m alive, but I can’t be with normal humans.”

It’s a perfect summation for the fate of Issei Sagawa.

The only soundtrack is at the very end, The Stranglers’ 1981 song “La Folie” (“madness”) which concerned Sagawa’s crime.

It’s in French, but the partial translation is:

He was once a student
Who strongly wanted, like in literature,
His girlfriend, she was so sweet
That he could almost eat her
Rejecting all vices
Warding off all evils
Destroying all beauty

The film managed 53% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, while the New York Times called the movie “an exercise in intellectualized scab-picking.” IndieWire summed up:

“Caniba” ranks among the most unpleasant movies ever made, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.

There is another review of an earlier Sagawa documentary, The Cannibal That Walked Free on my blog. The film Caniba is available, if you are so inclined, from https://grasshopperfilm.com/film/caniba/

Issei Sagawa: THE CANNIBAL THAT WALKED FREE (Toby Dye, 2007)

The Cannibal that Walked Free (AKA Cannibal Superstar) is a British documentary produced by Visual Voodoo for Channel Five which explores the case of Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. It uses dialogues with police and psychiatrists and, most intriguingly, extensive interviews with the cannibal himself.

Sagawa murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then mutilated, cannibalised, and performed necrophilia on her corpse over two days.

The mellow voice of the narrator, Struan Rodger (Chariots of Fire), announces:

“This man murdered and ate a woman in Paris… he has never stood trial. Today he walks the Tokyo streets a free man, a free man with an ongoing appetite for human flesh.”

Around midnight on June 13 1981, 32 year old the Japanese exchange student, Issei Sagawa, emerged from his apartment at 10 Rue Erlanger in the 16th arrondissement of Paris with two large suitcases, hailed a taxi and travelled the short distance to the Bois de Boulogne. His hopes that the park would be empty at night were in vain, and several witnesses saw this 4’9” (145cm) smartly dressed Asian man trying to drag two large suitcases to the lake. Worn out (and probably full of meat), Sagawa fell asleep on a bench and woke to find an old man opening one of the cases. When the old man began to scream, Sagawa walked calmly away.

The police found that someone had removed flesh from parts of the body. During the autopsy, they discovered there had been post mortem sexual intercourse – necrophilia.

Within four days, the police tracked Sagawa through the taxi driver, and he confessed immediately. In his refrigerator, they found a large quantity of human flesh.

On the table was a plate with pieces of cooked human flesh, condiments and mustard.

The case was reported globally with the press expressing horror and disbelief. Patrick Duval, Author Le Japonais Cannibal interviewed Sagawa for several hours.

Sagawa said that the feelings began when he was very young: “I was very weak, very ugly, like a small monkey.” He described as an important memory from his childhood a game in which his uncle would play a ravenous cannibal, out to gobble up Issei and his brother.

As he grew up, he felt unable to attract the kind of women that he desired:

“Object of my desire is definitely the white girl, beautiful blonde hair, blue eyes.”

Jean-Pierre Van Geirt – a journalist from Paris Match, said “Sagawa was deeply in love with Renée, and his love was so mad that he thought the most he could love her was to eat her.”

Sagawa had invited the young student to his apartment to discuss literature. He said he asked Renée to read a German language poem he had chosen, a poem about cannibalism, and that she was unaware that he was standing behind her, holding a rifle. He shot her in the back of the neck.

“I had decided before that the first bite would be the buttocks. I was able to cut through the skin, I’m a fool so I didn’t have a clue about human body structure. I thought that red flesh would appear straight away but it wasn’t like that, and this layer that was like sweet corn just carried on for ages, however deep I cut through. I couldn’t reach with my knife so I ripped out the flesh with my fingers and put it in my mouth. After I had sex with her, I tried to kiss her I said out loud I love you, in French. And I felt a huge shiver.

He had a tape recording of the murder and a camera with which had recorded the stages of what he did to Renée after her death; police found both in his apartment after his arrest. He had also saved a good deal of her flesh in his fridge, before packing up her remains in two suitcases.

Just 34 months after his confession, Sagawa would be a free man.  Found to be insane and unfit to stand trial in France, his father employed an influential French lawyer who argued 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 was that he could never come back to France. He spent 18 months in a Japanese mental hospital but then checked himself out, and has been free ever since.

The interviewers tracked down his psychiatric report: it said

“He was hung up by his height, not self-assured, over-sensitive and most of all emotionally cold and self-satisfied when he talked about the murder. Someone who is capable of feeling guilty wouldn’t commit such an act. You have to be completely devoid of some human emotions. Among which is the sharing of the universal taboo of cannibalism.”

The interviewer visited Sagawa’s Tokyo apartment where he lives under a false name and found him enjoying Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – the second movement, popularised in the film Clockwork Orange. He claims that he wept for the victim’s family and for his family, who were devastated – his father lost his high-powered job, his mother attempted suicide.

Despite his alleged distress, in the mid-1980s he wrote a book “In the Fog”, against the express wishes of both his and Renée’s family. It is the story of his crime, written from his perspective. It sold out. He wrote a further 19 books about his crime, became a columnist in magazines, joined a symposium at a Japanese university and appeared in two stage shows, finally appearing in torture porn, including recreations of his crime, using tall, Western actresses.

Under his false name, he told the interviewer, he meets up with Western sex workers.

“My final desire is just the same – when I see all the beautiful girls’ legs, I want to eat. So I’m not cured at all.
But now, I’m not interested in at all the white women. I hate them. I found that Japanese women are the most beautiful in the world.”

Sagawa now feels the urge to cannibalise young Japanese women.

At the programme’s request, Sagawa agreed to attend his first psychiatric assessment in over ten years. In the documentary, he tells the Criminal Psychiatrist, Dr Susumu Oda:

“My libido and appetite are connected. This is very important. For instance, you see the beautiful girls on the train in summer, and you see their legs, don’t you. I think they look delicious.”

He says that he masturbates to make his feelings disappear.

Oda reported:

“A child suckles on his mother’s breast. A child survives eating breasts. So it is not that strange that a child would want to eat something he loves.”

Sagawa was small, weak and spoiled, so he never learnt to suppress those desires.

“Deep down, he doesn’t regret what he has done. He has a tendency to slowly turn the other person into an object. I think this is very dangerous.”  

The doctor’s conclusion:

Freud maintained that there are two “pregenital” forms of sexual organisation in very young children not yet predominantly motivated by their genital zones. The first of these he called “oral-sadistic” or “cannibalistic”, in which sexual activity is not separated from ingestion (the second was “sadistic-anal”), and he suggested that these were “harking back to early animal forms of life”. In this “cannibalistic” stage, “the object that we long for and prize is assimilated by eating and is in that way annihilated as such.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Sagawa wanted to eat his ideal woman, and he made a particular point of eating her breasts.

“Too Much Blood”, a song on the Rolling Stones‘ 1983 album Undercover, is about Sagawa and violence in the media. His crime also inspired the Stranglers‘ 1981 song “La Folie”. The Noise Black Metal band Gnaw Their Tongues released an EP titled Issei Sagawa in 2006.

The documentary is available in full on Youtube at the time of writing. The link is at the top of this blog.

A more recent look at Sagawa is the 2017 documentary Caniba.

“…we are all potential cannibals”: SERIAL KILLERS: THE REAL LIFE HANNIBAL LECTERS (Sean Buckley, 2001)

This is an American documentary about serial killers, but specialising in those who ate parts of some of their victims. I guess that makes it inevitable that they will throw the name Hannibal Lecter in there, even though the similarities are not immediately apparent.

There are a lot of documentaries about cannibals, some mostly interested in sensationalism, and others seeking some sort of journalistic accuracy. This is one of the better ones, with a good selection of experts commenting on the various cases.

Cannibals, and particularly cannibal serial killers, are a real problem for the media. The difficulty comes from the scepticism that journalists need to cultivate in interpreting a world of stories that are stranger than fiction, or sometimes are fiction disguised as fact, or just fiction that people want to believe. Cannibal books and films fall into the horror genre and are usually lumped together with vampires, zombies, ghouls and other strange monsters out of their creators’ nightmares. So cannibals are a problem.

Cannibals are real. Many cannibals have had their activities thoroughly documented, some are even willing to be interviewed. Jeffrey Dahmer gave a range of interviews in which he spoke openly of the way he lured young men and boys to his apartment in Milwaukee and drugged them, then drilled holes into their heads and injected acid, hoping to create compliant zombie lovers, or else strangled and ate them. Dahmer was killed by a fellow prisoner after serving only a tiny fraction of his sentence of 937 years imprisonment.

But others are still alive – Armin Meiwes is in prison in Germany for eating a willing victim whom he met on the Internet and has willingly given interviews revealing his deepest passions, and he even gets out on day release from time to time. Another documentary reviewed on this site a couple of years ago compared him to, yep, Hannibal Lecter.

Issei Sagawa was arrested in Paris for killing a Sorbonne classmate whose body he lusted after and then eating parts of her, but was not sent to prison as he was declared insane. When the asylum sent him back to Japan, he was released (the French didn’t send any evidence with him), and lives in Tokyo where he has made porn movies, written for cooking magazines, and yes, done interviews for unnerved journalists. There are at least three documentaries on him, which we will get to – eventually.

Documentaries like this one love to compare real-life cannibals, or the much wider field of serial killers, with the fictional character, Hannibal Lecter, “Hannibal the Cannibal”. The problem here is that the serial killers in this doco (or any that weren’t) are not very much like Hannibal. Actual modern cannibals are usually categorised as banal, normal-looking folks who under the polite surface are depraved psychopaths, while Hannibal is civilised, educated, rational, brilliant and independently wealthy. He is a highly respected psychiatrist (until his arrest) and remains a likeable protagonist to many readers and viewers, despite his penchant for murder and guiltless consumption of human flesh. He even introduces his own ethical guidelines: he prefers to eat rude people: the “free range rude” to quote another Hannibal epigram.

Much of the commentary in this documentary is by Jack Levin, a Criminologist with a rather distracting moustache, or perhaps a pet mouse that lives on his upper lip. He sums up the modern cannibal serial killer:

 “Many Americans when they think of a serial killer will think of a glassy-eyed lunatic, a monster, someone who acts that way, someone who looks that way. And yet the typical serial killer is extraordinarily ordinary. He’s a white, middle-aged man who has an insatiable appetite for power, control and dominance.”

The standard serial killer appears very ordinary indeed. According to the doco, 90% of serial killers are white males. Many serial killers, we are told, experienced a difficult childhood, abused emotionally, physically or sexually. Hannibal of course saw his sister eaten, and probably innocently joined in the meal, so I guess you might call that a difficult childhood. But of course many people have difficult childhoods (less difficult than Hannibal’s, one hopes) without becoming cannibals or serial killers. Many of these so-called “real life Hannibal Lecters” featured in this program were not even cannibals, such as John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 young men and boys, but did not eat them, and was not even vaguely similar to Hannibal in appearance, MO, or dining habits. Same with Ted Bundy, who also gets a segment. These killers killed because they enjoyed it – as an act of dominance. Serial killers, Levin tells us, get “high” on sadism and torture. Hannibal, on the other hand, just killed his victims the way a farmer might choose a chicken for dinner – slaughter the tastiest, fattest one, or else the one who has been annoying him.

 “There is much discussion as to whether cannibalism is an inherent characteristic in all human beings, our animal impulses, or whether cannibalism stems only from the minds of mad beasts such as some of the most prolific serial killers.” Richard Morgan, narrator.

Eventually, we get to the cannibals. First up is Andrei Chikatilo, the Russian cannibal who sexually assaulted, murdered, and mutilated at least fifty-two women and children between 1978 and 1990. Chikatilo, we are told, liked to cook and eat the nipples and testicles of his victims, but would never admit to eating the uterus – far too abject for his psychosis. Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva would find that fascinating.

 We look in some detail at Albert Fish, the “Gray Man” who tortured and killed probably fifteen children around the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. He mostly specialised in the children of the poor and people of colour, but was eventually caught because he ate a little white girl, causing the police to take the cases seriously at last.

A large section of the documentary is dedicated to Jeffrey Dahmer, perhaps the most famous of the modern real-life cannibals. Dahmer was not a sadist, disliking violence and suffering, so he did not really fit the description used in the doco, and was certainly no Hannibal.

The other experts wax lyrical about cannibals, such as author and psychiatrist Harold Schechter, who speculates that

Anthropological evidence seems to suggest that cannibalism was a kind of activity that our pre-human ancestors indulged in with a certain regularity, so I think there is probably some sort of innate impulse towards that kind of activity… serial killers act out very archaic, primitive impulses that clearly still exist on some very very deep level.”

Well, that’s definitely not Hannibal, the Renaissance man, who carefully considers each action and dispassionately stays several steps ahead of his pursuers. Jack Levin again:

“Any serial killer who cannibalises victims has broken one of the most pervasive and profound taboos in all of society. Psychologically, this means the killer has achieved the opposite of what he had hoped… in terms of ego, in terms of self-image, he has got to feel worse about himself.”

That certainly is not Hannibal!

But there are some interesting observations in this documentary if we set aside the obvious problems with the comparisons with Hannibal. Zombie flesh-eaters were first popularised in Night of the Living Dead which came out in 1968, what the documentary calls “the most murderous decade” – the 1960s, followed a few years later by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. People flocked to the cinema to see people being eaten because two Kennedys and MLK were assassinated and the brutal, unending Vietnam war was filling the television screens? Maybe so.

Levin tells us

Most people don’t see the difference between Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer. To the average person, there is no difference between fact and fantasy.

 Col. Robert K. Ressler, who founded the FBI Behavioural Sciences Unit (which makes him a real life Jack Crawford) points out that there are no serial killer psychiatrists, nor do serial killers normally become well integrated into the upper levels of society like Hannibal. So he’s not helping the Hannibal comparison at all. Nor is Levin, who points out that Dahmer was remorseful at his trial, and went out of his way to avoid inflicting pain, unlike most serial killers to whom the killing is a “footnote” to the main text – the torture of the victim. So Dahmer does not fit into the model of serial killer presented here, and he has nothing in common with Hannibal Lecter.

But author Richard Lourie, who wrote a book about Chikatilo, points out that we, the audience, really want to see the serial killer as a Nietzschean Übermensch (superman) – a brilliant criminal genius. He also tells us that Hannibal seems asexual, above the primal drives that motivate people like Chikatilo and Dahmer. Not entirely true of course, if you have read the end of the book Hannibal or read any of the Fannibals’ fan fiction which speculates on some juicy homoerotic episodes between him and Will.

But there is a point to all these rather painfully stretched comparisons between real serial killers and the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, Leatherface, the Zombies, are all the inchoate faces of our nightmares, and horror stories are our way of understanding the terrors that fill the news sites. Hannibal is not typical of the real-life serial killer or cannibal, but remember that the apparently kindly old woman who wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel was hardly typical of the horrors of Europe at the time of famine and plague when the Grimms were writing their stories. Each is a facet of horror.

Schechter talks about the simplistic view that cannibalism is in itself “evil”. Which is actually worse, he asks, to torture and kill a person or to eat their flesh when they are dead, an act which can certainly do them no more harm? Indeed.

Levin sums up:

It could be argued that cannibalism as this ultimate form of aggression lurks within every one of us…. We have an aggressive part of ourselves, it’s part of basic human nature, and to that extent we are all potential cannibals.

A kind face, a deceptive smile, a gingerbread house or psychiatrist’s couch can sometimes be more terrifying than the sordid crime scenes left by Chikatilo, Dahmer and Fish. The seeming normality of Albert Fish, Andrei Chikatilo, Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter conceals something that we hide deep within our shadow selves.

The full documentary is available (at the time of writing) on YouTube.