Welcome to Anxious Carnivores, a mini-series about the changing culture around meat consumption. Despite growing pressures to quit meat, many Americans can’t quite do so—but they’re getting weirder and weirder about how they eat it.
In the second-to-last episode of The Last of Us, protagonist Ellie finds herself at the mercy of the leader of a religious community on the brink of starving to death. As the leader’s monstrosity reveals itself, we learn that the meat they’re all (barely) surviving on isn’t venison, but the flesh of their dead. And season two of Yellowjackets has confirmed season one’s promise—that cannibalism is the way the titular girls’ soccer team endure the brutal conditions of the Canadian winter wilderness. In Bones and All (2022), two teenage cannibals fall in love. Fresh (2022), Dahmer (2022), and, going back a few years, Raw (2016), The Neon Demon (2016), and, of course, Hannibal (2013-2015)—Hollywood can’t get enough of this gruesome horror trope.
We have always been fascinated by cannibalism—its long and lurid history predates modern humans—but what does it say about this specific moment in time that cannibalism is (forgive me) back on the cultural menu? Cannibalism is, ultimately, a type of story, one of our oldest. And right now it seems to be told in two urgent ways, at least on the (big and small) screen.
The first: hunger for human flesh as a metaphor for moneyed excess. Think of Fresh, in which the cannibalistic villain kidnaps and butchers young women for wealthy buyers. What do you get for the man who has everything? A beautiful woman’s buttocks, apparently. In these decadent narratives, lush and stylish visuals don’t feel out of line. In one Fresh scene, a slice of (human) breast is plated like a dish at a fine-dining spot, glazed with a silky nut-brown sauce and garnished with microgreens. And people couldn’t get enough of Hannibal’s food stylist Janice Poon and her macabre is-it-or-isn’t-it dishes—such as human tongues, presented to Dr. Hannibal’s dinner guests as lamb tongues and nestled artfully inside an origami lotus. They were arranged in elaborate tablescapes straight out of Dutch still lifes. (“Hannibal is a real GQ man, except for the cannibalism,” she also told, uh, GQ.)
These narratives question the ethics of consumption. Meat becomes a literal metaphor: who’s at the top of the food chain and who’s at the bottom; who gets to eat whom. It’s played across gender, class, and appetites of all kinds—men eating women, the rich eating the poor. (Let’s not forget the phrase, “Eat the rich,” either.) For some, consuming others has become a part of their identities—like Hannibal’s eponymous gentleman sadist, who takes great pride in the beauty of his murderous accomplishments. For others, the practice can be horrifying—particularly for, somewhat obviously, the victims.
Cannibalism stories ask us to wrestle with thorny questions about what it means to eat the things we eat, or what it means to unmake something just like us in service of ourselves. It is a subject impossible to untangle from our human desire to consume, or the vulnerabilities that make us easy to be consumed. In her essay on cannibalism as metaphor for capitalism and feminism, Chelsea G. Summers—author of her own brilliant cannibal novel, A Certain Hunger—writes on the way the idea has infected our very language: “We don’t just win; we devour. We don’t just vanquish; we roast our rivals, and we eat them for breakfast. We go to bars described as meat markets in search of a piece of ass, and if we find a lover, we nibble, we ravish, we swallow them whole.” Cannibalism is a way of framing the capitalistic impulse to conquer; how the upper hand, so to speak, always goes straight to the mouth.
In this mode, fictional cannibalism can be campy, even comical, as it demonstrates how we are daily humiliated by the ridiculous rituals and demands of modern life. In Santa Clarita Diet, a suburban wife, mother, and real estate agent becomes a zombie who craves her neighbors’ flesh, and her family just has to matter-of-factly deal with the accompanying drama. Reader, the way I laughed during every gruesome episode! And Fresh starts out as a romance, with a meet-cute between the victim and her kidnapper in a grocery produce aisle; ultimately a satire of the nightmare of dating.
But I am especially unsettled by the second kind of narrative, appearing in shows like The Last of Us and Yellowjackets: stories of desperation and survival, the breaching of an unthinkable taboo in the face of certain death. This reflects the most real-world examples of cannibalism, the ones closest to home. Think of the Uruguayan rugby team who survived in the Andes for two months in 1972 by eating their dead and comparing it to holy communion. Or the Donner Party. There are some subtleties here, in fiction and nonfiction alike—is it equally bad to kill a person to eat them as to eat someone who has already died of other causes?—but sometimes the distinction is irrelevant. Those who eat their kind become necessarily inhuman. Consider the fact that The Last of Us’ villainous cannibal preacher is also a pedophile. Or the Wendigo, a monster from real-life Indigenous tradition that—in some of those traditions—is created when a human being consumes human flesh.
Here, the genre is often stripped of its camp. Viewers find themselves wandering down a different avenue of horror—one that may feel particularly recognizable at the wake of a pandemic and the brink of a recession, amid today’s social, political, and environmental anxieties and inequities, when life already feels unbearably precarious for so many of us. It’s horror that demands answers about what we are, at the edge of things. Horror that asks a question that might be haunting you, in this current apocalyptic moment: What—or who—are you willing to consume in order to survive?