“…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.

What’s your favourite cannibal movie?

Of all the (sometimes) wonderful cannibal movies and shows I have reviewed in this blog, my personal favourite is still The Silence of the Lambs with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the Cannibal. It was the first film I reviewed on this blog (does that mean I liked the others less each time? Not at all), and interestingly, it does not actually feature any cannibalism, although we hear a lot about it.

Fun fact!

So I was pretty chuffed to find that The Silence of the Lambs is the favourite horror movie of the State of Utah, according to the Horrornews.net website. They used information from Rotten Tomatoes and Google Trends, and partnered with Mindnet Analytics, to analyse how interest in horror movies varied in each US state and the District of Columbia (DC). The results are presented on their website:

Best Horror Movies: Which Does Each US State Love Most?

This survey covers all horror, whereas in this blog we concentrate on the cannibal, so please let us know your favourite cannibal film (or TV show, but if it’s a series, your favourite episode) either in the comments at the bottom of the page (after a few suggestions) or at cannibalstudies@gmail.com. I’ll let you know the results.

Family feeding frenzy: FRIGHTMARE (Pete Walker, 1974)

The British Daily Telegraph called this movie a “moral obscenity”, or perhaps that was their mission statement. The trailer (above) is a hoot, offering the warning

Of course, these ‘small segments’ which are the only ones they dare show are the most gruesome parts of the movie. If you’re coming for the gore, just watch the trailer. But Frightmare has a lot more to offer than just slasher-fare. It is a British film, which is pretty refreshing in itself, as the British tend not to make a lot of cannibal films, sadly. Among the best are Revenge of Frankenstein, and Death Line. The Brits like to analyse their cannibals, find behaviourist explanations of their eating preferences. This film is in that tradition, but with some nice variations.

The film was variously titled Frightmare, Cover Up and Once Upon a Frightmare. Released in 1974, it was directed by Pete Walker, who spent the 1970s battling the censors with a string of gory movies, which didn’t set the box offices alight, but eventually became cult classics, particularly this little cannibal thriller.

 The story starts with a shy young man (Andrew Sachs, best known as Manuel from Fawlty Towers!) asking to be allowed into a trailer-home, from whence we know he will not be departing.

He’s not from Barcelona…

Then we see a very cranky judge sentencing Edmund and Dorothy Yates to a mental institution; he had hoped to send them to the gallows, but unfortunately there was this medical report…

Seventeen years later, Dorothy (Sheila Keith from Ballet Shoes) and Edmund (Rupert Davies from The Spy Who Came in from The Cold) have been deemed officially cured, and live in an isolated farmhouse. Dorothy ate at least six people in 1957, while her husband was convicted as well, having faked insanity in order to remain with his wife, although in reality he had not been involved in her murders. But that’s all in the past, says Dorothy, who now is just a harmless old pensioner. Dorothy has taken up hobbies, including needlepoint, and the use of power tools.

In the current day (well, 1974) Dorothy is back to her old tricks. She lures lonely and friendless young people to her home, promising tea and tarot card reading, at which she is deadly accurate, as the session always finishes with the same tarot card.

Then there’s the kids – Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage, who seems relatively normal, and Debbie (Kim Butcher), Dorothy’s actual daughter, conceived shortly before Dorothy was committed to the asylum; Debbie has never met her parents. Debbie is only fifteen but rides with a violent bikie gang and has apparently inherited her mother’s appetite for human flesh. She initiates a fight in which her boyfriend and his gang beat to death a barman, who had refused to serve her because she was under-age. The bikie gang flees when witnesses arrive, but Debbie stays, and carries off the body. Jackie meanwhile is delivering packages every week to her step-mother. They bleed, and they turn out to be the brains of some unfortunate sentient animal. She buys them at the butcher (oh the horror!), pretending she has been hunting humans, as a good step-daughter would, but Mum is not fooled – she wants human brains. Probably likes the way they come pre-scrambled.

Edmund tells his daughter that Dorothy has started up her old gustatory habits, and shows her a corpse in the back of his boss’ Rolls Royce to prove the point. If you have a chauffeur, you might want to dash outside now and check the boot (trunk) of your Roller. We’ll wait for you.

Jackie’s boyfriend is, conveniently, a psychiatrist, who searches out Dorothy’s case history. As a girl, the chief boffin says, she had a pet rabbit who, during the Great Depression, her family decided to kill for food. Traumatised by the consumption of her beloved family member (of the furry variety) she “twisted the horror of the situation into something pleasurable.” She started catching small animals and eating their brains, then started on larger ones, of the sapiens variety.

“It was the only case of cannibanthropy on record in this country. Pathological cannibalism. There were a couple of cases in the United States, almost unheard of anywhere else.”

Now we’re just getting silly, in a way that would embarrass Manuel and Basil. For a start, there is no such word, and if there were, it would just mean someone who cannibalises humans, which is somewhat redundant. Pathological cannibalism didn’t exist in 1974? In the country that birthed Jack the Ripper less than one hundred years earlier? Only fifteen years earlier, Tom Burns had killed, molested and eaten (more or less in that order) two little girls in the town of Barrow in Lancashire. But it’s an interesting observation that in less than fifty years ‘pathological cannibalism’ has gone from almost unknown to a regular headline for the yellow press.

Jackie confronts Debbie about her wild, wild ways, then tells the cops where to find the (partially chewed) body of the barman. Debbie and her boyfriend head to the country home to, you know, meet mum and dad. Find out a bit about the old folks.

It’s a touching reconciliation of mum and daughter, even when mum takes a pitchfork to the boyfriend.

Look, it might have been horrifying and gruesome in 1974, but maybe we’ve all become hardened by watching cannibal movies or the TV evening news. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a measly 55% but, to be fair, it is highly watchable and, being a British production, the character actors are superb, particularly Rupert Davies and Sheila Keith.

The daughters are also more than just the gorgeous young teens that seem to swarm in slasher films. There is conflict between the older Jackie who feels responsible for everyone, and the younger Debbie, who lives for kicks (and a bit of flesh). Jackie represents the delusional nature of modern social customs, which see humans as defined by being other-than-animal, and so she is happy to buy the brains of cows or sheep (socially acceptable) in order to fool her step-mother (socially awkward), but horrified to find the older woman preferring the real thing (socially unacceptable). I’m sure most cannibals (and zombies) would think she is delusional: a brain is a brain.

The fascinating part of the movie for me is the main antagonist, Dorothy, the (unfortunately rare) female cannibal. Cannibalism remains an extreme form of carnivorous virility, and women have not yet won equality in number of perps or number of victims, and they probably even earn less flesh than men. I liked that Debbie, who had never met her cannibalistic mother, was already eating bartenders, disproving the expert psychiatrists who had blundered in releasing Dorothy, and before that misinterpreted her cannibalism as an unfortunate response to the eating of her pet rabbit. Debbie adds nature into the mix, offering support for a kind of genetic cannibalism, almost a wendigo syndrome, something that runs in families, like the Finnish family in Bloody Hell, or the Parker family in the Catskills. Frightmare was released a year before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which of course became the quintessential family-cannibal movie.

Anyway, Dorothy is a superb villain, a mixture of Arsenic and Old Lace and Leonarda Cianciulli, who murdered three women to make soap and teacakes in wartime Italy. Sheila Keith portrays at one moment a frail old woman, broken by years in an asylum, and the next a cackling serial killer with an electric drill and a flaming poker, both of which she plunges into various victims. Her husband has the role of the weak, supportive spouse, he is Mrs Lovett to Dorothy’s Sweeney Todd. Simon Flynn on the Peter Cushing tribute website called her “the most memorable woman the horror genre has ever seen.” Amen to that.

You can get the movie at Amazon or you might find it on Youtube – currently the full movie is showing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJj_ir8vi2I