Harvesting hitchhikers: UNDER THE SKIN (Book: Michel Faber, 2000) (Film: Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

“We’re all the same under the skin.”

The philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed that we are unable to understand the point of view of another being, giving as examples the difficulty imagining what it’s like for a human to imagine being a bat, or for a blind person to imagine being sighted. J.M. Coetzee in the guise of his character Elizabeth Costello thought differently – it’s about being, seeking, feeling, and of course eating. We all do those sort of things. We can sympathise, no matter how alien that other may be.

The movie and the book of Under the Skin feature a ‘real’ alien – a being from another planet, disguised as a human woman, here to harvest human flesh for food. They both ask – what’s it like to be an alien? In the book, the aliens are quadrupeds, looking something between a horse and a sheep apparently, except for the protagonist, Isserley, who has been surgically mutilated to make her look like a ‘human’ of earth. I say ‘human’ in inverted commas because her people, like many clans interviewed in the reports of anthropologists, believe that they are the humans, and so everyone else must be aliens or subhumans. To Isserley’s people, the denizens of Earth are “vodsels” (Dutch for “food” – the author Michel Faber is originally Dutch) – dumb animals that can be captured, castrated, fattened up and then slaughtered for meat, which is exported back to the home planet.

Isserley is a hunter. Her weapon in the book is a small car which has anaesthetic needles in the passenger seat. In the movie, it’s her appearance – she looks like (because she is played by) Scarlett Johansson (identified in the credits as “The Female”).

Men get in her car and eagerly accept the offer to come home with her, but at home, they disappear into a pool of black ectoplasm.

She stalks her prey, driving around the roads of Scotland and picking up hitchhikers, asking them questions to draw out whether they will be missed and, if they are loners, losers, tranquilising them with a drug called icpathua and taking them back to be processed. The film took an audacious decision to use real men, not actors (most of them), many of whom were offered a lift by Johansson, and recorded by secret cameras in her van. They don’t recognise Johansson as a movie star, just as their unwitting “characters” don’t recognise her as an alien hunter. In the book, Isserley is not portrayed as any kind of Scarlett Johansson, but does have huge breasts, the prototype for the surgery being based on some questionable magazines sent back to the home planet by the advance crew.

The story in both media is not just about being alien (which she is in several ways: as a woman, as an alien, and as a hunter) but about how difficult it can be to sympathise with the other, the stranger, the prey, and how dangerous it can be when one finally does so. In the book, Isserley is purely interested in whether they will be missed, and is unconcerned about what is done to them, which is described in graphic detail: they are shaved, castrated, tongues removed and fattened up. In the film, she will go to any lengths to capture her prey, at one point dragging away a man who had tried to save a drowning couple, leaving their baby crying on the beach.

But what happens when the hunter starts to identify or at least sympathise with the prey? Isserley is made to think through the implications when she needs to convince the aristocratic scion of the ruling family of her planet that the vodsels are just dumb animals, and their feeble attempts to beg for mercy by scratching in the sand of their cages are just gibberish (he is unaware they can speak, as their tongues have been cut out). He is a believer in animal rights, and frees some of the captives, whom Isserley then has to hunt once again, this time with a shotgun. Isserley never really challenges the morality of hunting, mutilating, fattening and slaughtering the stupid vodsels (us) although she is horrified at the suggestion of eating sheep, serene animals who look like the children of her species, unlike the “brutish cunning of the vodsels”. Her morality, like so much of ours, is based on similarity. Her challenge comes when she picks up a man who (we know, although she doesn’t) is a serial killer, sedates him, then realises she has left his dog to starve in his van. She heads back to where she picked him up, frees the dog, and decides to quit, try to make a life as an Earthling, even though she cannot even eat our food.

The Female of the film has a different challenge. She picks up a man with severe facial deformity, who admits that not only will no one miss him, but that there has never been anyone who might have.

She takes him back to the black pond, but rescues him at the last moment, and then flees. Then she ceases to be the hunter, and becomes the hunted. Both the film and the book have a vicious rape scene when the prey, the desperate from among men she collects, turn on her.

The story may be interpreted according to many discourses of our times. It can be interpreted as the struggle of immigrants against the racism and resentment of those whose territory they enter. It is more widely interpreted as a feminist narrative, in which the standard horror trope of the sexually active female being stalked by the monster is turned on its head – the males walking alone at night are the prey, the woman is the molester and murderer. It is also a comment on economic class distinctions: the men she picks up are the strays, the unemployed who are exiled, isolated and vulnerable. She is culling those whom society has expelled, like a lion preying on the old and weak of a herd of antelopes. They are the aliens from this planet. 

The book in particular is a metaphoric condemnation of modern factory farming. The vodsels (that’s you and I) are considered “vegetables on legs”.

“The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly.  There was always the tendency to anthropomorphise. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions. In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan.”

Aren’t these the same arguments thrown at vegans on social media every day? “Humans” are intellectually superior, and therefore the only ones worthy of moral consideration. And to these aliens, we are not the humans. Isserley and her crew are the embodiment of John Harris’ famous quote (usually misattributed to George Bernard Shaw):

Suppose that tomorrow a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth, beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals. Would they have the right to treat you as you treat the animals you breed, keep and kill for food?

The film is less distinct in its message. Glazer said in an interview that he wanted

“to make a film representing, as purely as possible, an alien view of our world.”

How do we step into another’s consciousness, be it a man or woman or bat, be it a predator or prey? How is it to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger in a strange land? It is difficult to comprehend, and yet sometimes it is easy, because we have all felt like aliens at one time or another. Think of your first day at a new school.

The brilliance of this story is that we see humanity (us, that is) through the eyes of an alien. In the book it’s Isserley’s thoughts and feelings about the vodsels, Earthlings, to whom she feels both contempt and grudging admiration. In the film, it’s images – the dark streets of Glasgow, the crowds jostling and threatening, the shopping mall that suddenly seems like an alien landscape.

In other words, we get to feel how it is to be an alien, proving the truth of Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello when she says: “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination”. But this insight is not accessed through rational contemplation, which tells us we can do whatever we want if we have the power and the will, but rather from the heart, “the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another.” We sympathise with this alien, as she begins to sympathise with us.

Matt Zoller Seitz, the critic from RogerEbert.com, interprets the story’s message as saying:

“Here is an experience that’s nothing like yours, and here are some images and sounds and situations that capture the essence of what the experience felt like; watch the movie for a couple of hours, and when it’s over, go home and think about what you saw and what it did to you.”

The film earned a very respectable 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Guardian called it a masterpiece, but it was a box office flop. Let’s hope it, and the book, continue to ascend into the realms of cult texts. They are both highly recommended for your consideration.

“All I want is to eat that arm and become like you”, DISTRICT 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

Back in 2009, fifteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa seemed to be the obvious place to make movies that offered clear metaphors about racism and xenophobia. Today, they’d probably be filmed in Minneapolis, but nonetheless, after more than ten years, this movie works just as well, perhaps even better in this time, when people have to fight for their lives against both racism and an invasive disease.

DISTRICT 9 is directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson), and set in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is presented as “found footage” – fictional news stories, CCTV and interviews. District 9 is an internment camp for aliens – not from across the border or across the ocean, but across the universe. A giant UFO hovers above the city showing no signs of life, and when the authorities cut their way inside they find it is full of diseased and starving aliens, who look, as Roger Ebert said, like two metre tall lobsters. They are brought to land and housed in a secure area – District 9 – where they recover, and cause havoc with their love of wrecking stuff and eating lots of cat food.

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Yes, it’s not without humour. There are “interviews” with people of different races, all saying that these aliens – now known universally as “prawns” – should be sent home or else taken out of the city, away from human contact. Resettlement camp, detention centre, ghetto – those who are different can be separated with just some pernicious circumlocution.

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The movie follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a naïve and nerdy mid-level executive in a huge multi-national corporation called MNU (it stands for Multi National United), which supplies mercenaries for just such situations.

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Wikus heads off with his army and a clipboard, believing that he is going to knock on doors and ask the “prawns” to agree to be moved to a new camp, whereas of course the whole process is aimed at intimidation and terrorising of the populace.

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Searching one building, he finds a tube of alien fuel, which they have been synthesising for twenty years, planning an escape. He opens it, and it sprays all over him.

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Soon, he starts metamorphosing into a “prawn” – his hand turns into an alien claw, and his teeth and nails start to fall out. This is obviously a big problem – actually two. First, his company, MNU, wants to cut him up and study his organs, desperate to learn how to transmute others, because the aliens have immensely powerful weapons that will only operate in the hands of someone with alien DNA. He escapes back to District 9, pursued by the sadistic head of the corporation’s private army, who personifies white supremacist violence.

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Back in District 9, Wikus is captured by a Nigerian criminal gang, who make their fortune from the aliens, selling them cat food, and offering interspecies prostitution (delicately presented). The Nigerians’ leader, whose name is taken from that of a former President of Nigeria, also wants to control those weapons, and believes eating Wikus’ arm will make him part alien as well. Why not just eat a prawn? Oh, they’ve tried that.

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The trope of cannibals taking on the strengths of those they eat has been around pretty much forever. It is used to explain both mortuary cannibalism, where the strength of the ancestors is passed to the descendants through their flesh, and also aggressive cannibalism where the legs of the fastest enemy, or the testicles – you get the idea. It revolves around the idea that “you are what you eat”, but if you believe that, well, what does that say about the trolls who love to write “But BACON!” on vegan social media sites?

The film was shot around Johannesburg, and the squalid hovels shown were in an area of Soweto that was being demolished and the people relocated. The story is based on the true case of District Six in Capetown, where 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime. But finding a parallel story of forced removals of oppressed populations would not be difficult in most of the world’s nations. A reviewer wrote in an article entitled “District 9 reveals human inhumanity”:

“Substitute “black,” “Asian,” “Mexican,” “illegal,” “Jew,” or any number of different labels for the word “prawn” in this film and you will hear the hidden truth behind the dialogue, echoing what we historically as a species are all too capable of doing.”

Several different facets of cannibalism are presented in District 9. The Nigerians eat “prawns” – is that cannibalism, or if not, what about their plan to eat Wikus as he transforms into a prawn? The big corporation is only interested in the billions of dollars that will come from working out how to operate the alien weapons, and are ready and willing to sacrifice Wikus and use his body parts in pursuit of this goal. The aliens are tall and powerful (pulling people limb from limb in a few scenes) and look a bit reminiscent of the creatures from the Alien movie franchise, even though they don’t eat each other or the humans; but  they are keen on meat from other species like pigs and goats and whoever ends up in the slurry called cat food.

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The formal definition of cannibalism tries to restrict the definition to humans eating humans, but it is always leaking out the sides. What we see in this film is the way that anyone can be abused, objectified and even eaten if they can be reclassified as inhuman or subhuman. Wikus starts the story happy to burn down shacks full of alien eggs, enjoying the sound of the eggs bursting, which sounds like popcorn. Captured by the corporation and made to operate alien weapons, he is happy to destroy pigs but begs not to be made to shoot the aliens. Later, turning into a “prawn”, he is more than happy to use the alien weapons to blow apart various soldiers of his former employer, to protect the prawns. The irony of this film is that Wikus, who is a fully carnophallogocentric human in the terms used by Derrida (“adult white male, European, carnivorous and capable of sacrifice”), only finds his humanity when he begins morphing into something else and becomes one of the outsiders he previously disdained.

It’s well worth seeing – if you don’t dig the message, then there’s plenty of action scenes, car chases and explosions. Some unintended explosions after the movie, too, when the Nigerian Information Minister asked cinemas to ban the film because it depicted Nigerians as criminals and cannibals. Not the first time white people have applied those epithets against Africans, and the film also scored a mention in Salon’s list of “white saviour” movies, since Wikus is white, and desperate to remain so. But the Malawian actor, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, who played the gang leader, said that the Nigerians in the cast weren’t bothered: “It’s a story, you know. It’s not like Nigerians do eat aliens. Aliens don’t even exist in the first place.” Sensible, but not a great look for a film that is slamming racist stereotypes through the metaphor of speciesism.

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The direction is adroit and the story buzzes along with never a dull moment. The acting is first rate, even the guys in the alien suits become sympathetic characters, and the special effects are first rate. The film has a 90% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s available on Netflix.

Cannibalism rocks! THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (Jim Sharman, 1975)

This movie was a cultural phenomenon. The critics hated it; the fans loved it. More and more viewers kept turning up to midnight showings, dressing the part, dancing the dances, singing the songs. It remains the longest running theatrical release in history, because somewhere a cinema will have it on, at midnight, tonight.

Shot in the style of Hammer Horror films, it is an affectionate satire on the science fiction and horror films that developed in the 1930s, and never went away. There are a mix of tropes, the main ones being the mad scientist (based on Frankenstein) creating life in his lab, and an innocent young couple knocking on the door of a spooky old house after their car breaks down. They are clean-cut Brad and Janet from middle-America town Denton (Barry Bostwick and the brilliant Susan Sarandon).

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They find themselves in the midst of Dionysian scenes of rock, dancing and sex, presided over by Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry, who later played Pennywise), a self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania”. How could this not be popular?

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So why is this movie on a cannibal blog? Oh right, EDDIE (Meat Loaf). Some saw Eddie as representing old-time Rock & Roll, being annihilated by Glam Rock, with its emphasis on costumes and makeup. I prefer to speculate that the movie glimpsed the future, say the end of the 2010s. If Frank is alternative, iconoclastic culture, Eddie is one of the basket of deplorables, crashing the party on a motorbike, leather clad and bleeding, part of his brain removed to make the new creature, and preaching the joys of cis-masculinist rock and roll. His knuckles are tattooed “love” and “hate”. We are told that all Eddie wanted

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Until Frank takes to him with a pickaxe.

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So, what happens to dead Eddie? Well, that’s how we ended up on the cannibal blog. The narrator (Charles Gray, a regular Bond villain) announces what could almost be the mission statement of cannibal studies

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Frank is carving a roast, with an electric knife (anyone remember them?). When the subject of Eddie comes up, he says

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Just in case there was any doubt, Frank pulls off the tablecloth, revealing the rest of Eddie, inlaid in the table

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The narrator sums up

“Just a few hours after announcing their engagement, Brad and Janet had both tasted forbidden fruit”

Taboos are the sweetest fruit. Brad and Janet have engaged in debauched sex and cannibalism – two areas where humans imagine themselves demarcated from other animals. In fact, the 2016 remake of this film by Fox found the cannibalism scene a bit rich for network television, and when the tablecloth is removed, Eddie is there, dead, but intact and fully dressed.

In our strange moral system, murder is fine, but cannibalism is still the final frontier. And it seems to be a universal moral imperative – Frank’s flunkies depose him and kill him because

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That’s what makes cannibal studies so fascinating.

Anyway, turns out that Frank and his staff are aliens from the planet of Transexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, and the castle is their spaceship. The humans are left crawling in the dust and smoke after the takeoff, and the narrator tells us

“And crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race.
Lost in time and lost in space. And meaning.”

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Next week: ‘HANNIBAL’ Season 3 Episode 4, ‘Aperitivo’.

 

So many snacks; so little time: “VENOM” (Fleischer, 2018)

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Venom is a character from the Marvel Universe, originally seen in Spider-man #252 (May 1984) as a living costume (honest!) then becoming a symbiote which took over Spidey (remember the black spider-man outfit?). So, if you’ll pardon the arachnid pun, this movie is a spin-off.

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The genius behind Marvel – Stan Lee – in the last cameo released before his death

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OK, so I’ll try to keep this short, because you’re reading this on the web (sorry, I just can’t help myself).

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There’s a billionaire (Riz Ahmed from Nightcrawler) who wants to send us into space (not naming names, but there are about three such billionaires in the news at the moment). He sees the future of the species as more important than the lives of the marginalised people on whom he tests his drugs, and whom he “merges” with his aliens.

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He has (had) a spaceship, which picked up some symbiotic forms from a meteor; one of those aliens caused the ship to crash on re-entry to earth.

We get the definite impression these things are not too human-friendly, as one of them kills the crew of an ambulance, in a scene that is highly reminiscent of Hannibal’s escape in Silence of the Lambs.

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That’s Hannibal Lecter of course, wearing an Officer Pembry mask

The main character is Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, an extremely versatile English actor who was playing a Russian in a recent movie review, and is here playing an American). Eddie is an investigative journalist, which apparently requires a lot of chutzpah and some very fast motorcycle stunts. His fiancée is a lawyer named Anne Weying (Michelle Williams from lots of great movies, including Brokeback Mountain). Anne is working for a law firm that is defending the billionaire, but Eddy knows the password on her computer and finds out stuff he isn’t supposed to know about wrongful deaths caused by the company (didn’t we see that plot point on Billions?)

Anyway, he asks the billionaire difficult questions and he and Anne both get fired, because he clearly got the scoop from her. She breaks off the engagement, Eddie ends up down and out, and helpless – he can’t even defend his local convenience store manager from a dude with a gun who comes in for “protection” money on a regular basis.

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But hey, there are symbiotes out there, looking for some human interaction, and they have teeth that would make the dental association wet themselves. The one that winds up inside Eddie is named Venom, one of the ones from the billionaire’s lab, and he has been through several hosts, most of which have died because they are not compatible. Then there’s the other one that killed the ambulance crew, and has since killed a lot more people, and he is mad, bad and dangerous to host.vlcsnap-00038.jpg

Eddie being a nice guy leads to Venom becoming nice (ish) too and agreeing to oppose the plot to bring the other symbiotes to earth, where they intend to feast on humans – they’ve figured out there are plenty of us to go around.

Venom takes over a cute doggie and then moves into Anne, who comes to save Eddie from the bad guys, leading to an awkward kiss between him and the symbiotic version of Anne, now in slinky black alien shape.

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Of course, to save Eddie, Anne has to take some fairly drastic action, in her Venom persona.

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There are some great action sequences involving bikes and drones and cars (leaping off the ground in standard San Fran car chase mode) and a pretty awesome battle between Venom and the nasty alien.

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Everyone thinks  the aliens have gone, but in fact Venom is still inside Eddie and they are now true sybiotes: two beings in one body. He can turn back into Venom when required, and Venom is almost always hungry, and he doesn’t like dead meat.

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So we come to the point of having this movie in a cannibalism blog. They come to an understanding: they won’t eat any nice humans, but very, very bad ones – that’s fine.

A succinct statement of the ethics of cannibalism. Hannibal would have amended it to “rude people”, but philosophers get to make their own ethical maxims. And so it is that he, or they, eat the rude, violent dude in the convenience store.

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Look, it’s not a great movie, and the critics were quite rude, with a pretty ordinary score of 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie-going public felt differently, and the box office so far is over $850 million, which is an almost mind-boggling figure, even for a movie in which the hero bites off people’s heads. I guess people love to see (other) humans being eaten. Is this a cannibal movie? Well, half the main character is human, so I guess it’s half a cannibal film.

So what’s next for a nice guy who occasionally becomes an alien cannibal and eats rude people? Hannibal would approve of Venom’s answer:

“The way I see it, we can do whatever we want”.

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Dust to dessert – “To Serve Man” (Bare, Twilight Zone, 1962)

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“To Serve Man” was episode 89 of the hugely popular television series Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959-64. This episode is written by Rod Serling who introduced each episode, and is based on a 1950 short story by a science-fiction master, Damon Knight. The television episode moves the action to its own time, where it introduces 1960s politics: the Berlin blockade and the wars in Algeria and Indo-China.

In contrast to all this conflict and confrontation comes a stunning discovery: alien spaceships are landing near cities all over the world. The Secretary-General of the UN, (played by Hardie Albright – fun fact: one of the voices of Bambi), announces that one of the spacecraft has landed near the UN building, and one of the aliens is on his way to the UN to address the people of Earth. The aliens are called Kanamits, and Serling tells us about them:

“Respectfully submitted for your perusal – a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighbourhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown. Motives? Therein hangs the tale, for in just a moment, we’re going to ask you to shake hands, figuratively, with a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time. This is the Twilight Zone.”

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Now, Columbus created much havoc in South America, where he coined the term “cannibal”, a mis-hearing of the name of the Carib tribe, and a misunderstanding of their eating habits. But this lot, the Kanamits, seem like good guys. The 3m dude says (without moving his lips – it’s all done by telepathy):

“Our intentions are honourable. We desire above all things to help the people of Earth.”

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The narration points out how unlikely this seemed: “as a race, we’re unaccustomed to charity. Brutality is a far more universal language to us.”

They offer things normally only seen in science fiction or election manifestos – a power source which can supply a whole country for the cost of a few dollars. A cheap nitrate, which can be added to the soil to end famine for good. An impenetrable force field, which nations can use as a defensive shield. “It was the age of Santa Claus”.

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Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner), a cryptography expert, is asked by the military to translate the book the Kanamits have left on the table of the UN (why would they do that?) Anyway, it’s a very different language from a different galaxy, so he and his team have no idea where to start. Also, he thinks that maybe the military are “looking a gift horse in the mouth”, worried that with the alien imposed peace and prosperity, the armed forces will be out of a job. Then his assistant, Patty (Susan Cummings), bursts in with the news that they have deciphered the title of the book. It is: “TO SERVE MAN”. Chambers calls this “a reasonably altruistic phrase”, although the others are more cautious. But the deserts bloom, armies are mothballed, and thousands of earthlings are invited to board the spaceships and visit the Kanamit home planet. As the guests embark, a smiling Kanamit weighs each person.

Patty is still working on the book, but explains that the capital letters on the title she translated are different to the lower case letters in the book. THIS is what’s holding them up? Anyway, as Chambers starts to board, Patty arrives, having broken the code. She shouts the famous line to him:

Its a cookbook
 

“To serve man: it’s a cookbook!”

 

She has proved that paraprosdokians somehow work fine in any language, even transgalactically.

Confined on board, Chambers turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, which was pretty revolutionary in those days. He asks us:

“How about you? You still on earth, or on the ship with me? It doesn’t make very much difference, because sooner or later we’ll all of us be on the menu. All of us.”

Rod Serling sums up in a more profound explication:

“Simply stated, the evolution of man. The cycle of going from dust to dessert. The metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet, to the ingredient in someone’s soup.”

There’s the rub. We love to think of ourselves as the “alpha predator” (except when we are surrounded by sharks or crocodiles). But what if we weren’t? What if someone else saw us the way we see animals like cows, pigs, sheep and chickens? Is the fear of cannibalism just the fear of being eaten by humans, or also the fear that civilised people (regardless of galaxy) can be just as fierce and brutal as nature, red in tooth and claw? Aliens eating us can be just as disturbing as cannibals, particularly when they look like us, such as in Under The Skin (Glazer, 2013).

When Hannibal Lecter decides some of us are rude and can only be improved by cooking, are his feelings of superiority different to the Kanamit? To eat a human or any other animal requires objectification: turning an individual into a commodity. We do it to our prey. The Kanamits do it to theirs. Are they wrong? Are we?

The full episode is on Youtube:

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