Designing from Bones ~ Real Fictional Cannibals

Welcome to Designing from Bones where we use the realities of the past to unearth the fiction of tomorrow.

Last week we took a look at the history and cultural practice of cannibalism. The roots of this practice predate written history and examples of it can be found in every culture from the primordial mists right up to the modern day. For the weak of stomach or those disposed to a gentler view, I’ll do my best to keep the discussion – tasteful, by approaching cannibalism from three writerly angles – as an aspect of culture, as an aspect of character and thematically. Today, we look at the individual practitioners and the mindset that compels them to seek manflesh.

By Compulsion

First, the warped minds with a compulsion for human flesh. Most have heard of Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer, cannibal experimenter. He was fairly mild compared to one of his earliest modern predecessors.

Yes, he actually said that.

A few may be familiar with Albert Fish, who over the course of 20 years (1924 onward) killed and ate children (the exact number was never clear). When Fish was questioned about his practices he described sumptuous meals of flesh strips with vegetables and spices, much like a delicious recipe for beef or pork. Yet, Fish refused to be labeled as insane, stating that he was simply “queer”, meaning of an unusual disposition, but a sane one. I doubt anyone then, or now, would agree with him.

However, cannibalism is not necessarily an officially recognized mental disorder and works detailing the psychology of a compulsive cannibal are scarce. Let’s look a few things that many of those like Dahmer and Fish have in common, in order to determine the character traits of this type.

  • Publicly gregarious / Privately malevolent: In public these individuals tend to behave themselves in gentlemanly manner. I guess one could call it table manners. However, in private they are dangerous creatures known to practice uninhibited deviance in a schizophrenic way – a light switch flip – from good to bad. This tells me that they are aware of the dangers of their behavior even if only on the subconscious level.
  • Behaviors almost always include one or more types of sexual deviance. Fish’s psychologist stated that there existed no records of any individual practicing as many forms of sexual deviance, that he was a “psychiatric phenomenon”.
  • They tend to use cannibalism as an outlet for a deeper need. Fish believed that by sacrificing a boy he would absolve himself of his sins, stating that “god” would stop him were the act wrong. Many gained sexual satisfaction from the act of eating the object of their desire. For some it is a way to strike back against a dictatorial upbringing or an outlet for repressed feelings of victimization during youth.
  • Almost none of them took the action solely for food and when they did it was for vengeance or spite over a perceived harm. One group in South Korea (Chijon Family/Gang, 1993-1994) targeted the rich or at least those that shopped rich – to feel powerful by hunting those perceived as powerful. Gives new meaning to the Aerosmith song, Eat the Rich, which one gang member did to bolster his courage.

As a fictional character – this type of cannibal would most likely live alone. Be sexually confused or deviant. Smile to your face, be easy to trust at first, and use techniques to lower your guard. They will take measures to mask their oddities. Remember, as hunters use camouflage to hide their skin so this form of cannibal uses it to hide their intentions.

This can make for a frightening and visceral villain as attested to by Hannibal Lector and others. If – you have the stomach to write it.

Sorry, couldn’t resist *grins*

For Power

While the compelled cannibal seeks a form of power over their prey, we will now take a look at those seeking to gain power from human flesh.

The knowledge is passed on through a literal transfer of brains. But not this guy, he’s an Amazonian shaman – love the headdress.

One of the less discussed practices throughout history was the eating of a part of a deceased leader in order to transfer their presumed powers to their successor. The heart of a king. The brain of a shaman. The hands of a master artisan.

From a character viewpoint, they may consider this as a necessary, beneficiary, and even sacred act. The main point on using cannibalism in fiction is that it must be both primal and fully justified on the page. Leaving readers constantly disgusted will not turn pages (and if a reader does turn them, consider what that readers mental state is). However, fascination turns pages.

What if our eyes remembered everything they saw so that others could watch our visual memories like a film?

This is where “what if” becomes a powerful tool. What if a person actually gained magical powers from eating the brain of a dead shaman? What if eating a skilled artists hands allowed one to create works of art in the same manner as say DaVinci? What if eating the eyes of a murdered soul allowed the consumer to see the face of the person that killed the victim? See the point.

Using this form of cannibalism in fiction is about exploration and fascination, not shock value. By putting aside personal revulsion and carefully considering this option, a single skin-crawling scene can set the path for a powerful story that is not about cannibalism but born of it – as the fire of the Phoenix consumes it’s own flesh so to is it reborn from its own ashes.

For Survival

This, I believe, is the one socially acceptable reason for cannibalism. Most of us are familiar with the story presented in the movie Alive about the crash of Uruguayan Flight 571. Stranded in the mountains during winter with few provisions and the chances of rescue before starvation slim, the survivors of the crash resorted to eating parts of the fallen.

Photo of the actual Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crash site.

Human survival instinct is a powerful, primal force that allows us to overcome a host of mental obstacles in order to stay alive and can suspend taboo’s in the name of continuation.

I recently re-watched Alive and I think the movie does a nice job of showcasing this point. Most of the survivors struggle with eating their teammates, friends and family. Some simply cannot partake even to survive. Others suspend their disgust and do what they must. And in those two statements lies the truth for fiction writers that approach this subject.

The story itself is about what people will do to survive. The power of the story is in the myriad of choices made and reasons used by the players. The story is not about cannibalism, which becomes a mere prop to the greater tale.

Rinse your plates, we’re done for today. Next week we will look at using cannibalism as a theme – it’s roots lie sprawled throughout the myths and legends of the past and provide palatable reasons for its use as a metaphorical tool in all forms of fiction.

This one is for all the parents that are enjoying summer vacation with their kids home. A good lesson in clear concise writing and something to look forward to. *smile*

And now, for those of you that made it this far, I’d like to know what YOU are interested in. People, places, subjects, concepts, hoaxes, mysteries, potential truths, you name it – if you think it is worthy of a future DfB post or series drop the idea in the comments and I’ll put it on the list for consideration. Heard about a race of flying cat people that ruled an obscure island featured on a Blackbeard treasure map – let me know about it. If I use the idea for a post I’ll credit it back to whomever brought it to me first.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Peaceful Journeys.

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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13 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ Real Fictional Cannibals

  1. Jane Sadek says:

    Interesting, but I just couldn’t hit that like button. 🙂

  2. Wow, Gene, you’ve really sunk your teeth into this subject…. sorry…so sorry, oh god, hangs head…

  3. K.B. Owen says:

    Eww, eww, eww! One of many reasons I write cozies. *shudder*

  4. Lynn Kelley says:

    Gene, you did an excellent job on this post, even if it did make me nauseous! Fish was a rotten stinking Fish. You can’t imagine the swear words I’m tempted to type here. He was sick, sick, sick. I hadn’t heard of him. I could really go on a rant, but I won’t!

    I got a kick out of “Rinse your plates, we’re done for today” and the Back to School Special sign!

  5. I hit the ‘like’ button because, as last week, you’ve handled an ‘eww – ew – ewwwww’ subject with fantastic objectivity! And we have to accept that the human condition, alas, includes aspects of ‘ewww’. But I have to say I never could bring myself to read any of the Hannibal Lecter books OR watch any of the movies, despite the fact that Hopkins is a fantastic actor. It was just – well, too ewwww!

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    Creepy…but in a good way. These posts always make me think. 🙂

  7. Julie Glover says:

    Loved it, Gene! Fascinating stuff. I love your take on how these various approaches can be used in fiction. I also remember the ALIVE movie and found it interesting. Afterward, a group of us asked each other the question, “Would you eat a dead human in order to survive?” I’m wondering what your answer would be. Mine was–sorry, people–yes. I would never kill and eat! But I would eat.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Prudence: LOL! Thanks 🙂

      Kathy: Stick with the cozies they sound more fun 🙂

      Lynn: Hmmm, yes, I know this isn’t the tastiest subject but the lessons are good I hope.

      Matthew: Thanks and actually I haven’t read any of those either, although I have seen the Hannibal movies.

      Jenny: Thanks 🙂

      Julie: Glad you liked it. I remember being asked that question the first time I saw ALIVE and (being that we were all teens at the time) people were freaked out by the fact that I said yes. Like you, only to survive and only if the person is already dead. And really, only if I absolutely cannot find anything else – which was the situation in ALIVE. Great comment, thanks 🙂

  8. Pingback: Mind Sieve 7/2/12 « Gloria Oliver

  9. Yum!

    Great post again Gene. Your “what ifs” really got my brain humming. These cannibal posts are really going to help me with my MG. Thank you!

  10. Pingback: Designing from Bones ~ Eaten By Theme | Gene Lempp ~ Writer

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