There are names that are so infamous that their mere mention strikes anxiety and dread into hearts: “Dahmer” is among them. It does not need a first name attached to it; in fact, the isolated nature of the sir name is more than appropriate. “Dahmer” remains symbolic for the detachment with which serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer lived his own life. It is symbolic for the alienated persona that got sexual gratification from committing acts of necrophilia, cannibalism, torture, and mass murder that defined him. In a century replete with cannibal killers and serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer’s acts and obsessions stand king.
What is more peculiar is that, by all accounts, during childhood development, Jeffrey Dahmer did not exhibit many illuminating warning signs for what was to come in adulthood. Psychologists generally return to childhood for indications of future personality disorders – zoosadism, antisocial behavior, or violent outbursts, for example. Jeffrey Dahmer displayed tendencies of dissecting dead animal carcasses, but he was well into his teens. Unlike other serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer was not abused or deprived as a youth.
His parents were encouraging of his public endeavors. Though he fell into alcoholism in his late teens, as unfortunate as it is, it certainly is erroneous to suggest a direct correlation between teenage alcoholics and the monster that Dahmer became. Much like other cannibal killers and serial killers, the source of their behavior is not malice, but their own sexual gratification.
Steven Hick -Dahmer victim
Conflicted about his homosexuality, Dahmer’s first killing is reported to coincide with his first homosexual encounter with a hitchhiker, 19-year old Steven Hicks. He offered him a glass of beer at a bar on their way. Then he would drive Steven Hicks to his girlfriend’s place. Following the murder, he simply disposed of the body. The remains of Steven Hicks could never be found. But, Jeffrey Dahmer had evidently developed a taste that was, to him, a process that was irreversible. Only in 1987, nine years following his first slaying, saw his next victim- another lover named Steven Tuomi. This time, he dismembered the body and engaged in necrophilia with it.
During this period, he rented an apartment located on North 24th St. in Milwaukee that would become infamous as Apartment 213. This was the setting where he would lure his partners to from gay bars or favorable meeting places. Apartment 213 became band names and song names as Jeffrey Dahmer became known as a famous serial killer. Then, he would brutally torture and kill them. It was in their death that his fetishes and perversions came to life, as he would later confess: masturbation, necrophilia, dismemberment, and refrigerating organs that would be eaten later. To indulge this sickness required new bodies and new methods to achieve arousal.
A most famous story involved the near escape of a 14-year old Laotian, Konerak Sinthasomphone. Sinthasomphone was running down a nearby street in the nude; bleeding from the anus, disheveled, and incoherent. Two women noticed him and reported the scene to the police. When Jeffrey Dahmer arrived shortly thereafter and claimed Konerak Sinthasomphone to be his 19-year old lover, police handed the boy back to Dahmer, much to the dismay of the two women. The boy was later dismembered and his skull kept as an ornament, as Dahmer routinely did.
[ad#downcont]Dahmer, the cannibal killer, murdered 17 men. When the crime scene was discovered after a would-be victim, Tracy Edwards, escaped, the details were grotesque. Isolated genitalia, ornament skulls, refrigerated organs, and tools of torture were discovered. Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced to 957 years in prison following his trial. He only served three before suffering an ironic twist of fate by being murdered by another inmate, Christopher Scarver. Ironically, Dahmer’s attempts to convert to Christianity and his apologies about his crimes offered a hollow and more disheartening end to his horrific life. Had he been unapologetic, at the least, it may have provided the image of a man in control of his monster. But, he attempted to show a conscience – whether it was genuine or not remains debatable. What this reflects is that some men cannot control their menace. That reveals why the capacity for evil exists in humanity’s genes.
“This must sound rich coming from me,” explains the Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa to Vice Magazine in 2009, “but the moment the girl became a corpse, I realized that I had lost an important friend and even regretted killing her… my ultimate intention was to eat her, not necessarily to kill her.” The man widely known as “the Godfather of Cannibalism” is a man that is noticeable for many things: he is well-articulate, unapologetic, a free man, a cultural icon, and, of course, a cannibal. Without reducing a civilization and its culture to crude generalizations, elements of Japanese culture appears restraint to outsiders on the exterior; a culture based on a tradition of hierarchy and respect. The use of the word “appearance” is misleading; that suggests that these characteristics are a mere façade. That it is not accurate. However, lapses in this repressed system do show in unique and unabashed forms – Japanese society’s absurd fascination with school girl panties, sadistic game shows, or even the elevation of an unapologetic cannibal into a popular iconography.
In 1981, Issei Sagawa launched into popular imagination for being responsible for what the Japanese know as Pari jinniku jiken – the Paris Human Flesh Incident. As an exchange student in France, he wished to make his life-long dream come true of eating human flesh. In his words: “It was in the first grade of elementary school when I saw the quivering meat on a male classmate’s thighs and I suddenly thought, “Mmm, that looks delicious.” As is typical of cannibal killers, he described himself as socially awkward and viewing himself to be physically inadequate. Unlike other cannibal killers, his tone when he speaks of his crime is not rooted in anger or anxieties – it is calm, reassured, and unapologetic. What occurred in Paris began with an obsession with a Dutch classmate, Renée Hartevelt. During a poetry reading session with her at his residence, Issei Sagawa shot Renée Hartevelt and spent the next two days dissecting and eating her parts. Ultimately, as he went to dispose of the body, he was caught and taken into custody. Viewed to be mentally unfit to stand trial, he was deported back to Japan to the Matsuzawa mental hospital in Tokyo. Less than 15 months later, thanks to his influential father, this Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa was a free man without facing any prosecution.
In the years following his release, Sagawa took pride in his taste for the human flesh. He wrote best-selling books, such as his first text named “In the Fog” which describes his murder in horrifying details the step-by-step process of how he devoured Renée Hartevelt, as well as his recommendation for how to eat human flesh (he went for the buttocks first). He became a painter, with his favorite subject being, unsurprisingly, the buttocks of females. Issei Sagawa became the source of inspiration for songs and films. With disappointingly little scrutiny, he had become a figure viewed to be more comical, rather than disturbed. Indeed, he was also hired to write restaurant reviews for a Japanese magazine.
Apologists of Issei Sagawa argue that, although a cannibal killer, he is only a one-timer; a man who was driven not by malice or personal insecurities, but by overwhelming curiosity.
The cannibal stories told popularly use Issei to demonstrate its lighter side, as he himself as starred in soft-core pornographic films which mirror cannibalistic themes. The absurdity of the situation is only matched by its creepiness. Though secondary to the theme of human cannibalism, the reality is that Issei Sagawa got away with murder.
In the real world, cannibal stories never fail to horrify the public. Cannibal killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Armin Meiwes captured the imagination of a global audience because they engaged in the horrific act. Considering that cannibalism remains among society’s deepest taboos, it was inevitable and natural that film makers sought to exploit the theme as a means to push the boundaries of cinemas. And exploit it they did. Cannibalism serves many thematic functions in film: it can serve as a means to heighten suspense for psychological reasons in horror films. It can function to lampoon other genre of cinema. It can behave as a commentary on how firm morality and etiquette may be shaken in the face of death. The role of cannibalism in cinema remains versatile, and enjoys a history that has conquered every aspect of cinema spectrum of popularity and failure.
Most popularly, however, cannibal movies have been approached from a more comical angle – a representation of the degeneracy of the characters in the film, as well as the art form of cinema itself. Cannibal movies boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s coincided with the popularity of Grindhouse theaters. These Grindhouse theaters spawned genres and movie themes that were rejected by the pedestrian mainstream Hollywood fare. Grindhouse theaters reveled in its own sleaziness, in its own exploitation, in its risqué nature – that is why people attended these shows. It was a degeneracy of the art, but that was its intent. From this respect, cannibalism fit grindhouse like a custom-made glove. Cannibal movies became a sub-genre of the exploitation movies, and it peaked with the popularity of grindhouse theaters.
In particular, Italian filmmakers led the charge in promoting and producing cannibal films. The popular theme in these films focused on the interaction between the “civilized” worlds and the exotic cultures with particular tastes – namely, for human flesh. Among the more famous directors and films during this boom included Italian, Ruggero Deodato. His “epic” film, Cannibal Holocaust was so controversial that following its premier, Ruggero Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges, and the Cannibal Holocaust was banned in Italy and other countries because of its gore, real animal cruelty, and perverse nature. Although the main actors in the Cannibal Holocaust had contractually agreed to sell their deaths in the movie as legitimate by staying out of the press for a year, when rumors of their deaths were pressed against the director, they all came out for support. The Cannibal Holocaust seems to be one of the most terrifying, extreme horror films of all times.
But, cannibal movies have enjoyed their success in mainstream Hollywood too. In 1991, The Silence of The Lambs won five Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins’ chilling portrayal as a cunning and vicious cannibal serial killer, Hannibal Lecter. For this purpose, cannibalism was treated as a means to heighten suspense and enhance the antagonist of the film. The popularity of the film The Silence of The Lambs was a proof of people’s deep interest in cannibal killers in the world. Though the cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of The Lambs is a fictional character, the world has witnessed many real cannibal killers such as the Russian Hannibal Lecter, Andrei Chikatilo. The Silence of The Lambs, being inspired by the real cannibal stories for sure increases the thrill.
Another popular cannibal film in the early 90s was Alive which told the true story of a Uruguayan Rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes and whose survival depends on eating the deceased. Cannibalism, in this context, was to pose as moral questions to viewing audiences: How far would you go in order to survive?
[ad#downcont]Cannibal movies have enjoyed every success and failure on the cinema spectrum: Some cannibal movies bombed, some developed underground followings, some boomed a new genre, and some cannibal movies even made their way to the Oscars. The function cannibalism served varied by film – sometimes it horrified, sometimes it was to reflect, sometimes to laugh, or sometimes for the sake of difference. However, what rings true is that cannibalism, given its taboo nature, remains a potent theme in insuring that the audiences are left with images to remember.
Cannibalism has a social stigma attached to it – it is considered a perversion reserved for the psychologically disturbed. The story of Armin Meiwes, the German 41-year old who had his ad answered by Bernd Brandes in 2001 allowing him to eat him, shocked and horrified Germans and captured the attention of the world. Other cannibal killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmers or Issei Sagawa, are cited as further evidence that cannibalism is a behavior shared in the social deviant and the monstrous. An appetite for the human flesh is a symptom of deep-rooted evil. Elements of this interpretation are true in the context of today’s system of morality. But, this view was not always this way, nor was it universal. Whereas war, rape, and other forms of violence have always had similar meanings attached to them throughout history, cannibalism has not. Human cannibalism and how it is viewed has been dependent on period and civilization. Looking at those components certainly explains why it is viewed as being repugnant today.
Cannibal Hannibal Lecter
The reasons for why cannibalism has existed in human civilizations vary, but there are two main causes: First, cultural or religion sacrifices adopted it. The Inca civilization saw human sacrifices as offering to the Gods. Not wanting to have their human sacrifices go to waste, cannibalistic feasts were reported by Spanish conquerors in Inca communities following sacrifices. A second cause for cannibalism is explained by the ancestors of those on Easter Island that is referred as Cannibal Island. While they too offered human sacrifices to gods, the main reason for their cannibalistic society was because its pastures and land offered little else in the way of fresh mammal meat. Cannibalism was a sanctioned cultural norm because it was enjoyed too and necessary for survival. However, even then, it had its limitations. Anthropologists have long documented tales of revenge by family members whose relatives were sacrificed and eaten, mainly children and women. Even in communities of cannibals, cannibalistic social behavior was twofold: First, endocannibalism in where cannibals eat human flesh from the same community. Second, exocannibalism in where they ate human flesh from other communities. In cannibalistic societies, the consequences of each were very different.
The pattern of cannibalistic societies can be reduced to primarily isolated civilizations. In regions with little separation, such as Europe, increasing number of communities came together because of increased population, creation of political statehood, and increased access to other meats due to the domestication of crops and animals. On a spiritual level too, newer societies in Europe and the Middle East created moral systems that forbid this appetite for the human flesh. Indeed, the end of cannibalism in the history of Cannibal Island communities coincided with the arrival of Christianity – imposed by the conquerors, but in turn creating a shift in behavior in the indigenous populations. The isolated nature theory linked to cannibalism also explains why islands, such as Fiji that earned the nickname Cannibal Island, and isolated tribal communities earned the reputation of nurturing cannibal habits. As the globe became increasingly closer together via colonialism, technology, and economics, cannibalism faded to the point of extinction. Today, cannibalism legally violates human rights and has become so uncommon and reviled that mainstream thought characterizes it as antithetical to human nature.
[ad#downcont]Cannibalism existed because of reasons of religious, cultural, or survival. Today, the sexual perversions that are linked to the cannibal killers reflect that cannibalism is monopolized by the ostracized. It is an expression of power and hedonism. Equating cannibalism to sexual gratification offers a new meaning that was not common in cannibalistic societies. That is why cannibalism needs to be understood as evolving. After the Armin Meiwes case, German police stated that there must be around 8000- 10000 people only in Germany who desire eating human flesh. This shows how terrifying the number of potential cannibals is in the world. And that is why it cannot be treated as something that will ever fade away.