An image came to Chelsea G. Summers’ mind: a friend being accidentally hit by a car on purpose, doing some quick work with a corkscrew and having his liver served on Tuscan-style toast.
This figment of her twisted imagination is what prompted Ms. Summers to write her novel, A Certain Hunger, about a restaurant critic with a taste for (male) human flesh.
It turns out cannibalism has a time and a place. From the pages of some stomach-churning recent books, and from television and movie screens, Ms. Summers and others are suggesting that that time is now.
There’s Yellowjackets, a Showtime series about a high school women’s soccer team that’s been stranded in the woods a few months too many and premiered in November. The film “Fresh,” which released on Hulu in March, is about an underground trade in human flesh for the rich.
Lapvona, Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel published in June, portrays cannibalism in a medieval village devastated by plague and drought. Agustina Bazterrica’s book, Tender Is the Flesh, published in English in 2020 and in Spanish in 2017, envisions a future society that breeds humans like cattle. Also released in 2017 was Raw, a film from director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau that tells the story of a vegetarian veterinary student whose taste for meat escalates after eating raw offal.
Upcoming is Bones and All,” with Timothee Chalamet. The film, about a young love that turns into a lust for human consumption, is slated for release later this year or early next. Its director Luca Guadagnino has described the story as “extremely romantic”.
can you take it
A fascination with cannibalism can, perhaps unsurprisingly, walk a fine line, as Ms. Summers learned while writing A Certain Hunger.
When fact-checkers called about the frenzied scenes in which the book’s anti-heroine prepares her murdered lovers with grotesque, Epicurean flourishes, her questions about the intricacies of human slaughter so troubled Ms. Summers that she went “completely raw vegan for two weeks.” . The creator was horrified by her own monster.
Maybe publishers were too. When Ms. Summers, who uses a pseudonym, browsed the book in 2018, it was turned down more than 20 times before Audible and the unnamed press made an offer.
If she were to sell A Certain Hunger today, Ms. Summers, who is 59 and lives in New York and Stockholm, believes it would be easier. “God bless ‘Yellowjackets,'” she said in a Zoom interview, which was later interrupted by her dog Bob vomiting in the background.
Her book, which was released in December 2020, experienced a boom in social media popularity – actress Anya Taylor-Joy posted about it on Instagram, and it received a lot of praise in the corner of TikTok known as BookTok – about one Year later, the time “Yellowjackets” debuted on Showtime.
The pilot episode of “Yellowjackets” features a young girl who is captured, bleeds to death like a deer and served on a platter in a horrifying ritual. Bloodthirsty fans continue to dissect the scene on Reddit, where a subreddit messageboard dedicated to the series has more than 51,000 members.
The excitement of the show lies in knowing you know cannibalism is coming, but when? And why?
Yellowjackets creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, who live in Los Angeles, said they wanted the plot to suggest that human consumption isn’t just for the survival of the characters. This not only adds chills to the already dark tale of the soccer team stranded in the wilderness, but separates it from the real-life story of a Uruguayan rugby team trapped in the Andes in 1972, whose members resorted to cannibalism to survive. (This event was later dramatized in a 1993 film, Alive,” with Ethan Hawke.)
“I think we’re often drawn to the things that repel us the most,” said Ms. Lyle, 42. Mr. Nickerson, 43, chimed in, “But I keep coming back to this idea, which part of ours.” Aversion to these things is fear of ecstasy from them?”
Ms. Moshfegh’s “Lapvona” isn’t overtly cannibalistic either; Unlike “A Certain Hunger”, the bouquet garni does not involve stewing. But a scene with a toenail is harrowing.
Known for her disturbing stories that delve into darkness, including “Eileen” and “My Year of Peace and Relaxation.” Ms. Moshfegh, 41, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote “Lapvona” in spring 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. “I wrote it in such complete isolation that I felt this incredible freedom to go where I was led,” she said.
The character eating another human, the biggest sin in his religiously vegetarian village, does so in an act of “depraved desperation,” said Ms Moshfegh, herself a vegetarian.
Stories as old as time
Bill Schutt, author of “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” says that fictional acts about eating human flesh are as old as literature itself.
“When you take something so horrible and put it through that lens of fictionalization,” he said, “we get charged about it, but we know we’re safe.” At least most of the time: Dr. Schutt only made it halfway through Hulu’s Fresh before having to stop the film. “It was almost too well done,” he said.
But as his book documents, cannibalism has occurred throughout history around the world, giving these fictional stories a queasy touch of “What happened if?”
Historical examples in the book include “mumia,” a practice of using crushed mummified bones to alleviate various ailments common in 17th-century Western Europe by the notorious Donner Party pioneers, who invaded the Sierra Nevada in 1846 fall into a trap ritual cannibalism, which took place in Papua New Guinea until the 1950s; and starvation-induced cannibalism in China in the 1960s.
dr Schutt’s book also tells the story of the so-called cannibal cop, a former New York City Police Department officer who was arrested in 2013 for participating in fetish forums where he fantasized about cannibalizing women and was later acquitted. The New York Post has published more than 30 articles about the case, including one suggesting the Halloween costume of a police officer’s uniform with a severed hand on a plate.
Clues to this saga can be found in the more recent sexual and physical abuse allegations against actor Armie Hammer, which include allegedly sending cannibalistic messages to a romantic partner. Mr Hammer has denied the allegations and, through his lawyer, has declined to comment on the article.
After the allegations became public, he was dropped from his agency, checked into rehab, and is now selling part-time stocks in the Cayman Islands, Variety reports. Coincidentally, Mr. Hammer worked with Mr. Chalamet and Mr. Guadagnino on Call Me By Your Name.
As for fueling today’s desire for cannibalism stories, Ms. Lyle, the co-creator of Yellowjackets, said, “I think we’re obviously in a very strange moment.” She cited the pandemic, climate change, school shootings as possible factors and years of political cacophony.
“I feel like the unthinkable has become the thinkable,” Ms. Lyle said, “and cannibalism clearly falls into that category of the unthinkable.”
According to Ms. Summers, cannibalism is always symbolic. For the protagonist of her novel, eating human flesh can be seen as a way of holding onto a broken relationship. For Ms. Summers herself, the plot of A Certain Hunger cannot be divorced “from my own personal experience of disorderly eating, suppression of women’s appetites, the way the media chews and spits writers, bougie-taking… and bougie lady use,” she said.
More generally, Ms. Summers thinks the recent spate of cannibalistic conspiracies could also be comments on capitalism. “Cannibalism is about consumption and burning from the inside out to exist,” she said. “Burnout is essentially an overexploitation of yourself, your own energy, your own will to survive, your sleep schedule, your eating schedule, your body.”
Ms Moshfegh said her theory was “that it could be an antidote to the actual horror of what is happening to the planet”. Like Ms. Summers, Ms. Moshfegh couldn’t stand her own work at times, and described the process of writing about cannibalism in Lapvona as “a bit disturbing.”
“I had to think about what body part would be an interesting place to start,” she said, “and how it would feel to hold someone’s severed hand in yours.”
The Yellowjackets prop team had a similarly nerve-wracking task in determining what to use as artificial human flesh in the show’s pilot.
Should it be the lab-grown stem cell human steak that sparked outrage in a London museum? The animal-based substitutes for chicken, beef, salmon, and dairy that some companies make with similar technologies?
Ultimately, the prop team settled on venison.
But they have to find an alternative for future episodes, Ms. Lyle and Mr. Nickerson said, because many of the cast are vegan.