Is cannibalism sexy? “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” (Lawton, 1989)

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is a 1989 film which was the directorial debut of J. F. Lawton, who also authored Pretty Woman and Under Siege. He released this one under a pseudonym, J. D. Athens, and at first glance you have to agree with his decision.

The film drips with a sometimes forced irony, inspiring one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes to call it “One of the best bad movies I’ve ever seen”. Here is some typical dialogue:

Margo Hunt: “They’re an ancient commune of feminists, so radical, so militant, so left of center they… they eat their men.”
Bunny: “Oh, that. Well, if I like a guy, I usually start at…”
Margo Hunt: “They don’t eat their men like that, Bunny.”

Or this one:

There aren’t any modern feminists who advocate cannibalism- at least not since the sixties.

The “jungle of death” is southern California, where a group of radical feminists have occupied the avocado plantations and kill and eat their men, as well as several companies of US troops who try to eliminate them. The film is rich in intertextual references: the protagonists enter the jungle in pursuit of Dr Kurtz, a professor of feminist studies who has become emperor of the cannibal women, a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (set in the Congo) and the movie version of it Apocalypse Now (set in Vietnam), in which Brando plays the deranged Colonel Kurtz, who famously dies with the words “the horror, the horror!” on his lips. The Dr Kurtz in this film similarly meets her end, but her “horror” refers to having had to defend feminism on the David Letterman Late Show.

Intertextual humour depends on the reader being familiar with the sometimes cryptic references. Apocalypse Now is pretty well known, but some of the other references are either too obvious to be funny or else too obscure to score a laugh. The film opens with the kind of “male gaze” scene expected in an exploitation pic: semi-naked warrior women bathing in a stream while a couple of randy male explorers look on, but the scene concludes with both the men tracked down and slaughtered for the cannibals’ next meal. The main character, Margo Hunt, is played by Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy model, who does not drop her clothes at any point; her ditzy assistant, who wants to change her major from Home Economics to Feminist Studies, is named “Bunny”, another reference to the Playboy world. The bumbling comic relief and token male chauvinist is played by Bill Maher of the television show Real Time, a show which goes out of its way to skewer such prehistoric thinking.  He dresses like Indiana Jones and even wields a bull whip, rather less expertly. Topics from Margaret Mead to Disneyland all get a brief reference, and there is little time to wonder what they are about before the next gag is upon us. Some of the references are double barrelled: when Bunny is told that the women eat their men, she asks “boiled or roasted”, a reference both to the many Home Economics jokes, but also to Levi-Strauss’s musings on the different ways cannibals would cook their relatives or their enemies.

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 Bill Maher as Jim. That isn’t a spa.

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is neither as stupid as it sounds or as funny as it intends. But it is diverting and it’s fun to tease out the cultural references, and the lead actors are really very good at delivering their sometimes painful lines. Its commentary on cannibalism is actually quite perceptive: the cannibal women are all gorgeous and young and scantily clad, presentations which are usually intended for the consumption of a male audience. This binary is reversed as they seize their knives and proceed to butcher and consume the male gazers (not on screen – the film is careful not to lose its PG13 rating, although it got an R18 in New Zealand). There is usually a male hero and a female in need of saving; in this, the roles are totally reversed. Cannibalism is not presented as evil or deranged by definition, but rather as another variety of power struggle. To quote Dr Kurtz:

This is a war between men and women. Anything short of cannibalism is
just beating around the bush.

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When your family are cannibals: “Parents” (Balaban, 1989)

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Parents is a real cannibal film. None of these feeble excuses about starvation or uncontrollably psychotic – here are people who enjoy eating tasty animals, and their chosen tasty animals are humans.

Parents is a Canadian/American production, the first feature film directed by Bob Balaban, who you will recognise from the Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show if you can be bothered to search for a picture of him. He’s a funny guy, and Randy Quaid leads a terrific cast, but the movie never quite got off the ground, scoring a measly 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Roger Ebert writing that the movie couldn’t really decide if it was satire, comedy, or horror.

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The satire is of the complacent fifties family, Mom at home, Dad at work, kid at school. The kid is Michael, played by a child actor who later made a fine career in Canada as an accountant, another commentary on the film, perhaps. He is traumatised by his family’s move to suburbia, by his increasingly gory dreams, and by seeing his parents having sex (he thinks they are biting each other – if only Freud had hung around long enough to make a cameo).

Michael’s Dad works at Toxico, a fine American corporation making toxic substances to defoliate jungles, and his particular job is working with human corpses, those who have donated their bodies for the good of science. Well, a man has to bring home the bacon, and Dad surely does, straight from the long pigs. Michael begins to suspect that their meals are what Nietzsche called Human, All Too Human after he sneaks into Toxico and sees Dad cutting up corpses. But he can’t get a straight answer out of his parents:

“What are we eating?”
“Leftovers.”
“Leftovers from what?”
“From the refrigerator.”

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So it’s comedy. But when Michael’s sceptical social worker takes him home and finds a body in the cellar, shit gets real. There is much death and bondage. Dad tells Michael he is an “outsider” like them, and that if he can get people to believe him, they will all burn. “Is that what you want?” He tells Michael “I’m sure you’ll acquire a taste for it. Your mother did.” She flashes a pretty fifties advertising smile: “I learnt to love it.”

Michael demurs and ends up bound up by his father like Isaac on the mountain with Abraham. Talk about sacrificial discourses! He manages to turn the tables, without the aid of angels and/or rams, and well, the fire happens.

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Michael ends up living with his (also archetypal fifties) grandparents who tuck him into bed and leave him a rather suspicious sandwich, in case he gets peckish during the night. Like all of us, he has moved on from his parents, but not from the patriarchal and carnist violence that helped to form him, us, and our polite, blood-soaked culture.

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Frank is in the sauce: “Fried Green Tomatoes” (Avnet, 1991)

Come on, this is a blog about cannibal films, innit? We’re talking comedy/weepy here, not Hannibal Lecter. The big issue is not cannibalism but, decades before the age of #metoo, domestic abuse. Jon Avnet’s directorial debut tells the story of Ruth and Idgie who form a special relationship (not as explicitly special as it was in the book on which it was based, but still special) when Ruth rescues Idgie from chronic depression after the death of her brother, while Idgie later rescues Ruth and her child from her abusive husband. They move to the town of Whistle Stop and start a café serving – yeah, you got it. Tomatoes. Green ones. And barbecued meat.

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When the abusive husband turns up, things get nasty, until he disappears, and then of course the cops turn up. But the abusive Frank has vanished, and it remains a mystery. The investigator is baffled, but he does enjoy the barbecue served at the Whistle Stop Café.

Investigator: “why this about the best barbecue I ever ate!”

Sipsey (the cook): “The secret’s in the sauce”.

Secret in the sauce

So it is. And so is Frank. Apologies if you were planning to watch this, but the statute of limitations on spoilers is only 25 years. Still a classic though, with one of the best casts you could hope for. And – it is definitely a cannibal movie.

The first cannibal film? “Doctor X” (Curtiz, 1932)

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The Dr X of the title is Doctor Xavier, a name used by Marvel some thirty years later for the leader of the mutants known as the X-Men. This Dr Xavier leads a different bunch of outcasts – unhinged scientists, one of whom, the police are pretty sure, is a serial killer and cannibal. There is much use of early psychoanalytical tropes including Xavier’s theory that “strong mental repressions phobias, hidden in the darkest corners of the subconscious mind can be brought to the surface and made to register through certain reactions of the heart.” This idea, which was to become the polygraph or “lie detector” machine, was popularised later in the decade by William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, who published a book called The lie detector test in 1938. Maybe it was just the zeitgeist.

Anyway, the film is populated by kooky scientists, as well as Doctor X’s daughter, played by Faye Wray the year before she rose to great heights in King Kong, and a lovably slapstick journalist, Lee Taylor, who is working on the story of the serial murderer known as the “Moon Killer”, so called because the murders always happen on the full moon, a device widely used in fiction (and fact) as there is a widespread belief that the full moon causes people to become “lunatics” – a theory employed to the full in this story. Taylor sneaks into the morgue disguised as a corpse (there is a lot of dark humour in the film, with Taylor conversing with various dead bodies and even skeletons). He hears Xavier telling the police that the latest victim’s deltoid muscle is missing: the police observe that it was torn out. Dr X corrects them: “Gentlemen, it wasn’t torn. This is cannibalism!” The police are then permitted to tour the research centre in which the dedicated crazies in their various labs offer crazy anecdotes: one gratuitously has a heart in a jar, which has been kept alive for three years by electrolysis, and another has spent years in Africa researching cannibalism. In each lab, the police are convinced they have found the killer, but the stories get worse – two of the scientists were shipwrecked off Tahiti in a boat with another man, and, although they claimed he had died and they had thrown him overboard, it was suspected that they had, in fact, eaten him.

Dr X believes that one of his scientists was, in the past driven by “dire necessity” into cannibalism. “The memory of that act was hammered like a nail into the mind of that man”. Although he could conceal his madness from others, perhaps even from himself, Dr X can use his radio sensitivity machine to reveal the truth. The police allow Dr X to run his own tests with his prototype lie detector, but of course nothing goes smoothly, and the apparent perp (according to the machine) turns up dead. Later, when they look closer at the body, they find that it has been… Well, they don’t want to put it into words, and certainly not while Faye Wray is around. The real killer is busy making synthetic flesh, but not to eat (he is apparently into natural, whole foods). He needs flesh from humans, originally supplied by willing savages, for his experiments in creating faux flesh. “What difference did it make if a few people had to die?” he asks – a question oft repeated by the patients who are being mentored by Dr Hannibal Lecter in the TV series Hannibal. Now he’ll be able to “make a crippled world whole again”, a novel take on eugenics – build new people instead of breeding them.

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Does that even count as cannibalism? Well, he is using human flesh, much as the medical cannibals of early modern Europe loved to do. He has learned his trade from cannibals, who, even in 1932, were assumed to make up the entire population of Africa. He has imported savagery from the Dark Continent to our peaceful, law-abiding shores, and isn’t that what we fear most?

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Homer Simpson: the (self) cannibal: “Treehouse of Horror XXVIII” (2017)

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The Simpsons is still one of the smartest and funniest shows on TV, even though it’s now in its 29th season (really!). Every year since 1990 they have brought out the Treehouse of Horror for Halloween, and every year they have tried to exceed the horror, abjection and disgust of all the previous years.

This last one, XXVIII, was regarded by many fans as the ultimate. In a nutshell (it’s awful hard to avoid food puns in a cannibal blog), Homer accidentally slices off his fingers, they fall onto the barbecue, and he finds the taste irresistible. As the family is away, the situation (as always with Homer) escalates. Flanders invites him over for a meal, but he refuses to eat Flanders’ meat, preferring his own:

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One of the truly great Simpson puns.

It’s not the first time The Simpsons has approached the subject: in Treehouse of Horrors V,  misbehaving students at Springfield Elementary were ground up into meat and served as lunch. But this is fascinating as it is both scrupulously not gory (the slicing is always devoid of any blood or even pain) and yet conceptually manages to deliver the shock value that the producers sought.

As one fan tweeted:

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Having an old friend for dinner: “The silence of the lambs” (Demme, 1991)

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The silence of the lambs is, almost without exception, the film that people first mention when I talk to them about cannibalism. This is a little surprising as, although the male lead, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), is a cannibal, for most of the film he is incarcerated, and even on the loose he is not seen actually eating anyone (although he certainly discusses the idea with some gusto). In the sequel, Hannibal (Scott 2001), he is indeed shown serving human flesh – the brain of Clarice’s nemesis – to its owner. In a later prequel, Hannibal rising (Webber 2008), an attempt is made to trace Lecter’s psychopathy to childhood trauma: the cannibalism of his sister during the war, much to the displeasure of many of his fans, who complained of the loss of the nuance and the mystery.

The silence of the lambs has become something of a cinematic classic, while the sequels and prequels have largely faded from memory. Robert Butler in the Chicago Tribune credited the film with legitimising cannibalism in the movies, with its star cast and haul of all five major Academy Awards – best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay. Before this, Butler claimed, cannibalism was limited to exploitation films. No doubt directors from Luis Buñuel to Peter Greenaway might demur.

Silence of the lambs trailer

The film is a psychological thriller with Hannibal Lecter, an evil genius, trading insights into the most private neuroses of trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in exchange for his profiling of the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whose very name seems to animalise him. Bill is killing and skinning women to make a woman suit. He is pure monster, closer to the gender-challenged Leatherface of Texas chain saw massacre than the urbane, sophisticated, civilised psychiatrist Lecter, who remains a mystery. Bill and Leatherface are in fact both based on the real-life murderer and grave robber Ed Gein (as was Norman Bates from Psycho), who was very keen on making things out of human bodies, although whether he was a cannibal is still uncertain (and he’s not telling).

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Lecter’s jailer, Dr Chilton, comes closest to attempting a diagnosis, saying “Oh, he’s a monster. A pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive”. Starling, asked by a young policeman if Lecter is a vampire, simply replies “they don’t have a name for what he is”. Maggie Kilgour, who wrote an excellent book on cannibalism as a “metaphor of incorporation”, wrote that Hannibal is defined by “rhyming logic” – anyone named “Hannibal” must end up a “cannibal”. That is good enough for the viewers – the man is considered pure evil, but deliciously, he is not a monster in the sense of Leatherface or even Sweeney Todd: we appreciate his style and wit, we even like him in contrast to the other psychopaths we meet in the film: Buffalo Bill, and Multiple Miggs, who ejaculates on Starling on her way out of the asylum, a dastardly act that the chivalrous Lecter abhors, and because of which he chooses to assist her. The psychological or legal weaponry of modern society is useless against his brilliance and primitive, raw power; Staring is sent to interview him like the lamb of the title being led to slaughter. Buffalo Bill has captured his latest victim, Catherine Martin, daughter of a powerful US Senator, and there are only days or hours before he kills and skins her to make his “woman suit”.

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The opening of the film finds Starling running in the woods, small and alone like Red Riding Hood, yet we soon find that she is on an FBI obstacle course in Quantico, running past the motto “hurt, agony, pain – love it”. Starling is not one of the screaming victims that we find in Texas chain saw massacre: Starling is still a victim, though, of patriarchy from her colleagues, mental probing from Lecter and stalking in the dark by Bill, but she is smart, well trained, strong and sassy, standing up to her boss when he uses the chauvinist card: she is the perfect example of the prey woman becoming the avenging hero.

‘Slasher’ films like Texas chain saw massacre routinely pit the redneck monster against the civilised hero. The silence of the lambs turns the ‘slasher’ order on its head: Lecter is the city sophisticate, Starling the West Virginia redneck – he skewers her with the observation “you’re not more than one generation from poor, white trash, are you Agent Starling?” Yet when she is splashed with his neighbour’s semen he tells her that “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me”. Lecter is a pastiche of classical monsters: Dracula’s hunger for blood (and exaggerated courtesy), Dr Frankenstein’s scientific insight, Dr Jekyll’s secret identity; his power to terrify is precisely his amiable, civilised charm: we would rather be scared of cannibals who wear leather masks and grunt than those who eat us with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Clarice Starling has to overcome not just the mind games of Lecter the monster, but also the political ineptitude of the men around her in order to blow away the psycho-sexual killer Buffalo Bill, who is not a cannibal, at least not in gustatory terms. Bill is a depraved cannibal in the sense that he incorporates human skin into his persona, but it is Lecter, the deprived cannibal in the asylum, who is the protagonist.

The silence of the lambs trades in close-ups: Starling usually pensive, Bill leering and imagining a valid sexuality, Lecter directly threatening, staring, unblinking, in extreme close up, straight into the audience’s eyes. It is us that he is addressing, analysing, threatening. Under the menace is a keen humour, often rare in the genre. Besides Lecter’s pun about “having an old friend for dinner”, he also reflects on Starling’s offer that, in return for helping catch Bill, he will be allowed to use a beach (under SWAT surveillance of course) where there are terns. Terns – the word suggests to him that he and Starling should have “turns” at sharing information. Starling’s turn will not relate to the case, but to her life, her childhood traumas. Despite her boss’ instruction to tell him nothing personal – “you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head” – she describes her worst memory: the death of her father, a town marshal gunned down while on duty, and her subsequent life on an relative’s ranch, where she found the truth of animal agriculture, being awoken one night by the screaming of the spring lambs as they were slaughtered. She tried to free the lambs, took one and ran, but was caught and sent to an orphanage. Since then, Starling has been struggling with the contradictory messages given to children that harming animals is wrong, but eating them is fine. Lecter’s speculative diagnosis is that she believes that if she saves Catherine, the lambs will stop screaming in her dreams. She has made the lambs subjects, while Bill makes his victims objects. As Starling tears up under the intense and massively magnified gaze of Hannibal Lecter, she gives a glimpse into the abyss of what Carol Adams calls the “absent referent”, the process that objectifies animals (and women) who are the victims of violence.

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Starling’s lambs are not the only part of modern civilisation scrutinised and turned inside out by The silence of the lambs. The social order is very commonly defined in film by showing not examples of it but characters or events that transgress it. The strength of Lecter’s character is his ability not just to offend the social order but to be an extreme example of it: like modern America, he is educated, rational, even enlightened, yet, like modern society, there is an undercurrent of voracious appetite and extreme violence. Similarly, Starling transgresses social boundaries with her challenge to masculine power structures and her role as the rescuing hero rather than the hero-victim. Cary Wolfe believes that the most important discourse in this film is that of species. While cross-gender conflicts are examined through the minor character of Bill and to some extent Starling, and class issues in the clash of the civilised Lecter with the often inept and backward authority figures, at the heart of the film (reflected in its title) is the struggle of Starling to come to terms with the objectification of the innocents – the lambs of her childhood or the women Bill is skinning. Objectification is seen throughout: Bill speaks to Catherine in the third person: “it rubs the lotion on its skin; it does this whenever it’s told”; Lecter speaks of his victims by function: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”.

One critic went so far as to say that Hopkin’s brilliance in the role makes Lecter “the cannibal we all want to be”. Lecter does not resist humanist symbology, he takes it to its logical extreme: he orders rare lamb chops, (a reference to Starling’s trauma), in his cell before he slaughters his jailers and escapes, as if to say that he does not eat animals instead of humans: he eats animals, so why not eat humans? He represents consumerism taken to its logical conclusion. As Maggie Kilgour summarised, the film demonstrates the continuing power of primal appetites: “man-eating is a reality – it is civilisation that is the myth”.

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Who is the “cannibal guy”?

Des is a doctoral candidate working on a thesis at the University of Melbourne on cannibalism, and how its cultural manifestations (i.e. books, films, news reports, etc) challenge the assumed superiority of humans over other animals.

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What, or whom, would you be willing to eat, if you were starving?

We face daily a marketing chorus telling us to consume ever more voraciously, while at the same time being warned that resources are being depleted, temperatures are rising and limits to growth are being reached. People hunger for the abundance they see paraded around them and are enraged as their own life gets more difficult.

Those we are willing to eat must first be objectified, turned into impersonal “things”, divorced from the cute animal who was slaughtered at our behest. But aren’t humans supposed to be different? This blog will look at the ways humans are similarly objectified by cannibals (real and fictional).

The growing public fascination with cannibalism reminds us that we, too, can be prey and then meat, and offers a stark choice: are we also more than “just” meat? Or will we let that anger, that frustrated entitlement, and that knowledge of our indisputable fleshiness, bring us ever closer to crossing that thin red line between carnivore and cannibal?

This blog started, as texts about food should do, at a dinner table. A friend of mine was a commercial sales rep for a big technology company and had to fly around all parts of Asia, and was required to socialise and dine with prospective clients. Cultural variations in cuisines had made his eating habits extremely eclectic, and he boasted that night, to a table including a number of vegans, that there was no kind of animal he had not eaten, or would not eat. I pondered this: in our restricted circles, horse meat, kangaroos and even rabbits would be looked on askance; monkeys, snakes, dogs and cats would be right out. Yet there was one animal that, it turned out, he had not eaten, despite his bravado, a species of hominid (great ape) named Homo sapiens.

The subject of food choices is endlessly intriguing: people who will run screaming when faced with a cockroach will happily tuck into a plate of prawns, which are the underwater versions of the same type of animal. Pescatarians, those who eat no meat but happily eat fish, will often refuse to touch shark flesh. In our own class, Mammalia, we will chow down on a seemingly random selection of species: we eat cows but not horses, sheep but not cats, pigs but not dogs. Yet in cultures all over the world, we will find seemingly arbitrary exceptions: in the Middle East pigs are out, cows are sacred in most of India, and horses are a delicacy in some countries and a scandal when found in pies in others. I have another friend who will happily eat most kinds of mammals but will not go near rabbit flesh.

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When asked about how these choices are made, the common response is a shrug of the shoulders and a reference to what we were taught to eat as children. But of course nothing is ever that simple: many children love non-human animals and are shocked when they discover the connection with the contents of their dinner plates. A period of socialisation, of seeing some animals as loveable and others as food, is necessary before they can again face the family over a Sunday roast. Much later we discover, or are brutally informed, of the horrors of industrial agriculture: the confinement, torment and industrial slaughter of billions of gentle domesticated animals each year for food, for profit. We then have a new learning phase of dissociation: putting on the blinkers, erasing the sounds and sights of the slaughterhouses. Erasing what we know, just as we do when the ads come on for starving children or refugees.

“Others” – be they non-human animals, refugees or terrorists, have to be objectified, a process which is a necessary prerequisite for any form of abuse. A prerequisite of objectification, in turn, is supremacism, the view that a certain group are superior to others and should therefore be entitled to dominate, exploit and sometimes even eat those others. As humans, we believe we are superior to other animals, (or just “animals” as we call them), pretending that we are not in fact animals ourselves. Within our species, we find all sorts of ways to objectify other human groups such as racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.

This blog will look at ways the animal known as “human”, one that is usually not considered prey, is dissociated, objectified, turned into meat, both in fiction and in fact. Some writers have tried to place the act of cannibalism into a historical footnote, but, as I will cover in future blogs, it still happens, and happens often. If society deteriorates, be it through political division, climate change, natural disasters, war or a perfect storm of outside events, could we revert to the cannibalism of which we so readily accuse our forebears? Will our voracious appetite for meat (we kill some 70 billion land animals annually for food) make it that much easier to harvest the flesh of our fellow humans?

The Cannibalguy blog will be updated weekly and will concentrate on reviewing movies and books and television shows that involve cannibalism. Some weeks, I will concentrate instead, or as well, on news items regarding actual or at least alleged acts of cannibalism reported in the press.

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The name of the blog, “The Cannibal guy”, is used ironically – I am not advocating cannibalism! Please don’t tell the magistrate that it was my idea – I am appalled at the way we callously kill chickens and lambs and pigs and cows, so certainly don’t want to add another victim species to the list. But what we do to other animals – be it eating them, wearing them, experimenting on them, or making them perform for our amusement – requires us to see ourselves as different, higher, closer to angels than to our fellow denizens of earth. I hope that a glimpse into the world of those who see us as “just meat” might in some way alter those perceptions, and help us toward a kinder, more considerate world for humans and other animals.

You can contact me on cannibalstudies@gmail.com or below.

Can human subjectivity survive the experience of humans as “just meat”?