The rise of cannibalism culture

Chloe Hansen, Opinion Columnist

“Whenever feasible,” says Hannibal Lecter, “one should always try to eat the rude.” He is sitting in an expensively decorated office, cross-legged in a three piece suit. This is the depiction of one of pop culture’s most beloved cannibals portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen in NBC’s 2013 series “Hannibal,” a functional and undeniably stylish prequel to 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” For much of history, the narrative surrounding portrayals of cannibals in art has been one of fear and the grotesque; the cannibal is a monster, something primal, inhuman. The cannibal is a creature that ought to evoke disgust and horror (see 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust,” which is both gratuitously gory and also reinforces wildly racist stereotypes, or 2008’s “Destined to be Ingested,” which is about as finely crafted as its title).

However, time has swiftly moved consumers of this type of media largely past this narrative. In the last ten years, there’s been a sympathetic, even romantic shift in the emotional reaction cannibal art seeks to elicit culturally. If not the first of this trend, then the first notable example, was certainly the aforementioned NBC network “Hannibal,” romanticized initially on 2010s Tumblr in the same breath as series like “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock.” The murderous, cannibalistic actions of Dr. Lecter himself were not ignored but actually interpreted as compelling attributes of his overall charm; they were traits that enticed viewers in their overt normalization of taboo.

The unavoidable, thoroughly unproductive and unintelligible debates about rights and wrongs that fill every corner of our social media exposure on a daily basis (think of the mental fatigue one develops from witnessing debates between “liberals” and “conservatives” in TikTok comment sections and the like) are overwhelming us; these debates are prompting us to search for an escape from moralizing noise.

This phenomenon only grew until the peculiar case of 2022 when an explosion of romantic-cannibal media swept through cinemas and headphones. This created, on a scale that surpassed the previously cult-fan exclusive narrative, a discussion of cannibalism as romance. Ethel Cain’s studio album “Preacher’s Daughter,” and the films “Bones and All,” and “Fresh” attacked sentiments of disgust that lingered in cannibal media’s past and began, en-masse, to rewrite the narrative in audiences’ minds.

Why is it working? Why, when listeners hear Ethel Cain dub herself her cannibalistic lover’s “freezer bride,” in the concluding track “Strangers” do we feel we are witnessing such a touching display of romance and commitment (to non-normativism)? Why are audiences willing to loosen their grasps on long-held taboo ideologies when a love story (like “Bones and All,” for instance) centers around a pair of cannibals, whether their urges are irrepressible or not?

The explanation lies partly in the understanding of cannibalism as an artistic motif, when it was underground and hinged around desire and sexuality (and perhaps still does now, but in a more watered-down and socially acceptable way). This was typically the sexuality of women who, like Ethel Cain, enjoyed a certain degree of liberation in entertaining the notion of a romance that was so far outside the bounds of socialized normalcy. The “wrongness” of desiring a cannibal is not a well-trodden moral discussion. It therefore provides, when engaged with aloud as a hypothetical, a silencing; it provides a solitude that is a welcome freedom both to the moral escapist and to the desirous woman.

This element of chosen solitude and moral isolation is equally as important to understanding this movement as desire is. There is a hiding – a sentiment that the two of you understand the ethos of a lifestyle that no one else can – that the opinion and discourse of the world around you is irrelevant, and thus it fades to silence. In this modern era, which is allowing the increase in discourse about cannibalism in the first place, is also the very stressor provoking its radical normalization in media. Who better to give this respite than someone we’ve been socialized to view as a monster? Someone whose allure is illogical and immoral, but undeniable and inescapable. What began as brutal horror films and their subtly more sympathetic remakes has ended with a strange new archetype for romance far afield of tradition.

This trend will only grow. Cannibalism is an emotionally rife artistic motif when handled with the attentiveness and nuance that it deserves. Whether one perceives it as dangerous for the minds of media consumers or merely artistically compelling, it is a thematic element that is in direct alignment with the feelings of the masses on a general level at this moment in time. It is also aligned with the internal needs of women in an inherently oppressive world. Cannibal art, specifically of the romantic sort, is the latest (though still niche) expression of our current need for silence, passion and liberation.