Ever since seeing the movie Alive, I’ve been curious about people’s reactions to and ideas about survival, particularly to a drive to survive that is so strong that one would eat the flesh of another human being in order to do so. Now long ago, I of course heard about the Donner party and their westward journey during the 1800’s and of their resorting to cannibalism after being caught in the Sierra Nevada during the winter. But this had the ring of urban legend to me at the time (though of course it’s a true story), and it just didn’t sink in somehow. But watching Alive, I really got a sense of the desperation and survival instinct and realized that in a similar situation, I almost certainly would cannibalize the already dead in order to survive. I should say sorry* here to anyone who is disillusioned or otherwise disgusted by my confession. How gross am I?
According to my informal “human flesh = nummy treat or gross taboo” poll, I’m pretty gross indeed. And worse than “gross” a big taboo breaker (and not in the Sade sense that includes wine, candles, and sensuous undulating). Okay, I get that.
Hannibal Lecter strikes fear in our hearts as few other film characters can (well, he was on the page of a Thomas Harris novel first and apparently even a real guy called Hamilton Albert Fish, but you know what I mean); there is just something shudder making about “having a friend for dinner.” When he chews the face off of someone, that’s just gross and terrifying, and even worse (to me) is eating the brain out of a living person’s skull as happens in Hannibal, which I read but did not see the film version of (ooh, need to add that to my Shelfari). And Jeffrey Dahmer, with his boiled boys’ heads and body parts, was a perverted monster that few (if any) of us could comprehend; how could someone rape, murder, chop up, boil and eat people? And all in a nice little neighborhood while looking like the all American guy next door? Talk about shudder making and mind boggling.
Chowing down on people for fun or sadistic pleasure is gruesome and frightening, I agree, but historically, most cannibalism has been done as a spiritual or ritualistic rite or as a matter of necessity (as with the Donner party). People have eaten people in order to gain their strength or wisdom (either symbolically or not, depending on culture and belief system); some cultures eat the brain, heart, or liver of the fallen enemy as a means of gaining their wisdom, courage, or strength or as a show of respect. People have eaten people in rituals of symbolic cannibalism, such as in the Catholic and Lutheran practice of communion in which the host is believed to be transubstantiated into the actual body of Christ. People have eaten people to gain sexual or psychological pleasure (or both). And people have eaten people in order to survive dire circumstances.
This latter case makes sense to me. Even though I do know that a human version of “mad cow” disease has been found in cannibalistic tribes around the world, that this madness associated with eating the flesh of one’s own species is possible, though rare, I would still (I believe) do it. I don’t believe that I would kill someone in order to eat their flesh in order to survive, and of course, such stories don’t really make it back, as the survivors aren’t quick to admit cannibalism, let alone murder, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that this happened in such conditions. But the will to live . . . how strong is it? Is it stronger than your socio-cultural moral system? Would you break a taboo in order to survive? Would you break more than one?
The picture is of Salvador Dali’s “Autumn Cannibalism” (or “Cannibalism in Autumn”)
* Special thanks to Sean for allowing me to use his vid 😀