For some, it’s the ultimate taboo. It’s something not to be discussed, let alone spoken of by decent people in civilised society. It hasn’t always been like that though. At one point in human history – peaking in the 16th and early 17th centuries – certain methods of cannibalism were considered medicinal and even encouraged by experts as a standard cure for particular ailments. Epilepsy – the ‘falling sickness’ – was often treated by drinking hot blood. Skull was a supposed healer too, crushed into powder form and drunk, occasionally with chocolate, often with alcohol. Human fat – you get the idea.
Now we may groan from a twenty-first century perspective but cannibalism, as well as being considered a healer, has literally been a lifesaver too. Who can forget the thrilling and tragic story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes mountains in 1972, close to the border between Argentina and Chile? 45 people were on that plane when it went down and 27 survived the initial crash. 16 people survived the entire ordeal and they lived through those 72 days on the mountain because they made the decision to eat the flesh of their dead companions.
Cannibalism therefore, is a complicated subject. There’s a little more to it than what you might think. Having said that however, it’s still pretty gruesome especially when we encounter it in the news . So let’s forget the real life stories and instead, turn to fiction. Let’s look at a few characters who’ve dabbled in a bit of human flesh in their time. Fortunately all the people listed below are make-believe.
At least we think they are.
Sawney Bean appeared in Samuel Rutherford Crockett’s 1896 novel, The Grey Man. But that’s not his main claim to fame. Sawney Bean is much more than just a character out of a late 19th century novel. His story is well known in Scotland and dates back to long before The Grey Man was even published. Today, there are people who are still convinced that he was an authentic, historical figure who lived, breathed and ate people.
I was born and bred in Scotland, so this is the earliest cannibal legend I can personally recall hearing about. The story of Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean is a grisly one and although accounts of when he was supposed to have lived vary, his story is usually set around the turn of the 17th Century.
Sawney Bean was an outsider. He wasn’t interested in living like everyone else and at some point, he made the decision to withdraw from the rest of society. When he met a likeminded woman – Agnes Douglas (sometimes known as Black Agnes) – they got married and set up home in a sea cave, believed to be Bennane Cave, located on the Ayrshire Coast in between Girvan and Ballantrae.
(If you want a ten-minute tour of the cave from the safety of your living-room, click here.)
Not long afterwards, Sawney Bean was robbing travellers on the quiet roads that ran in between the local villages. He didn’t just rob them though, he murdered them because that way they couldn’t talk. And of course, he ate them too, guaranteeing that the bodies were never found by the authorities. This also allowed the Beans to stock up on provisions and eliminated the need for money or to travel into town for supplies.
The Bean family grew larger. Over the years, Sawney and Agnes had 8 sons, 6 daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters. Incest was involved much of the time, and all the little Bean children grew up to be every bit as cannibalistic as their parents.
With more mouths to feed, it was getting harder to bury (or swallow) all of the evidence. Human body parts began to wash up on nearby beaches. Some of the disappearances were noticed by the nearby villagers but due to their secret location, the Beans weren’t caught.
Still, they couldn’t evade justice forever. It all went wrong one night when the Beans attacked a couple who were returning from a nearby fair. The man they attacked turned out to be a highly skilled fighter and although his wife was killed by the cannibals, he managed to fight them off until a group of people returning from the fair forced the Beans to flee into the night.
Their existence was made known at last. A huge manhunt was launched, consisting of a party of over 400 men, supposedly led by either King James I or King James VI (depending on the date) with bloodhounds and volunteers from the local area. The Beans were caught and taken to the Old Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh. There was no trial – such a formality was considered unnecessary given the nature of their foul deeds. The Beans were executed and so gruesome were their deaths that you’d think it was George RR Martin who wrote them. The men had their hands, feet and genitals cut off and were left to bleed to death. The women and children? They were all burned at the stake.
There is little documented evidence on the trial or even the existence of Sawney Bean, which leaves most historians believing that it’s just a fictitious tale. Some people have even suggested that the story was written by the English (during the time of the Jacobite Rebellion) as a piece of ‘political propaganda’ designed to ‘demonstrate the savagery and uncivilised nature of the Scots in contrast to the superior qualities of the English nation’.
Those wee English rascals…
True of false, Sawney Bean and his murderous clan have made their mark. Wes Craven’s famous horror movie, The Hills Have Eyes, was inspired by the Sawney Bean story. The novel Off Season, by Jack Ketchum, was similarly inspired. There are others.
Some might say there’s a little nugget of truth in the story of Sweeney Todd. For most historians however, he’s entirely fictional. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street first appeared in a penny dreadful serial (cheap, sensationalist fiction) in 1846-47. The story was called The String of Pearls: A Romance and anyone familiar with the legend of Sweeney Todd will know that it’s all about a barber who murders his customers and with the aid of Mrs Lovett in the pie shop next door, then deposits the human flesh into pies and feeds them to unsuspecting customers.
Grisly, but it’s certainly possible the story was inspired by real events. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were often newspaper reports about body snatching, dodgy medical practices and cannibalism. Take a look at this excerpt from the Weekly Journal, or, British Gazetteer, dated Saturday 3rd May, 1718:
‘We have Intelligence from Lincoln, that a man being hanged there the last Assizes, within three days after his execution, a couple of apothecaries contracted with a butcher for a sum of money, to take the body out of the grave, and cut off all the flesh, fit for them to make a skeleton of; which flesh he sold for venison to an inn-keeper; who making it into a pasty, invited many of his neighbours to the eating of it; but sometime after the villainy being detected, the butcher and the two apothecaries were committed to Lincoln Goal [sic].’
The above report might be true. It might also be a load of rubbish designed to sell newspapers. But if such stories were going around it’s not hard to see why a Sweeney Todd-like tale would end up in the pages of a penny dreadful. Of course, no one could have foreseen how popular the character would become over the years. The 2007 film, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, is well-known but if you can find it, check out the 2006 TV adaptation starring Ray Winstone.
Hannibal Lecter is so charming he can talk you right onto his dinner plate. That’s how good he is. He’s the pop culture cannibal, your favourite Lithuanian-American psychiatrist with a penchant for fava beans and Italian wine. He’s super intelligent and as readers of the books and viewers of the movies and TV show will confirm, somehow we all fall under his spell a little bit – just enough to sort of like him despite the fact that well, he’s a cannibal.
Lecter was first introduced to the public in the 1981 novel, Red Dragon, written by Thomas Harris. Since then he’s featured in four novels, five films and a well received TV series. And as mentioned above, he’s ingrained in society as part of the pop culture fabric, which is kind of impressive for a cannibal when you think about it.
Maybe we like him because he’s the anti-cannibal in some ways. This is no brute or mindless savage. Lecter’s a bonafide bright spark – he’s smarter than the rest of us and being so smart of course, he knows it. You might have noticed if you’ve read the books or watched the films that he revels in getting the better of (and eating) authority figures, such as the poor census taker whose liver he so famously consumed with the fava beans and chianti. Also, who can forget that final scene at the end of The Silence of the Lambs where Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, is casually pursuing Dr. Frederick Chilton, the man who so gleefully oversaw his incarceration in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane?
Remember that? Of course you do.
‘I’m having an old friend for dinner.’
OTHER CANNIBALS IN LITERATURE
Cannibal horror in fiction is mostly seen as a bit of gruesome fun. It’s nothing more than a nightmarish fantasy far removed from the reality of our everyday lives. That’s what we like to tell ourselves anyway.
But what you might call ‘serious literature’ delves into the subject occasionally. The ‘heavy’ books, if you know what I mean. For example, there are cannibals in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. If you’ve read the book, you might recall that cannibals serve as part of Marlow’s crew during his voyage upriver to the Inner Station. There’s no blood and guts horror here, but the novel is instead full of complex ideas that ask interesting questions about civility and savagery. It’s an English Literature student’s wet dream. So many questions and interpretations await the reader. For example, while we might view the African savage as cannibalistic, what about the white European imperialist and his desire to consume? It’s an interesting book and one that makes you think.
There are also cannibals in Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Road. In this story, a father and his young son are travelling across post-apocalyptic America, trying to make their way towards the dream that is the ocean. During this journey, father and son are not only at risk of being captured by people who have resorted to cannibalism, but they’re also trying to resist succumbing to the urge themselves. The Road is a horror novel (and movie!), as well as being an excellent work of post-apocalyptic fiction. It also highlights one of the most fascinating things about post-apocalyptic fiction – what happens to otherwise decent human beings when there’s no longer any food on the supermarket shelves? When there’s no hope and civilisation is gone? What would you do if you and your loved ones were starving and you saw somebody else with a precious slice of bread? When you’re that hungry, what do you see when you look at a stranger? The answer is in The Road, and it’s not a pretty one.
A few other noteworthy examples of cannibals in literature:
Patrick Bateman (American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis)
Charles Burnside (Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub)
Kevin (Sin City by Frank Miller)
Dead River Clan (Off Season by Jack Ketchum)
And just to finish off, here are a few of the best (or most infamous) cannibal movies (for those of you who haven’t already seen them):
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – “I just can’t take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it.”
A classic, still disturbing in so many ways. And it has Leatherface in it. Enough said.
Ravenous (1999) – “He’s licking me!”
Ravenous features one of my favourite cannibals – Colonel Ives/F.W Colqhoun (played by the great Robert Carlyle). I love this dark and weird film. It’s a sort of horror and black comedy mix topped off by a great soundtrack by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman. It’s loosely based on the real-life Donner Party tragedy of 1846/1847 when a bunch of westbound emigrants on their way to California became trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains and were forced to consume the bodies of the dead for food. It’s a great movie – go find if you haven’t seen it.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – “I wonder who the real cannibals are.”
Insane, controversial movie. Not easy viewing.
Alive (1993) – “Are we supposed to fly that close to the mountains?”
This is the movie based on the real-life story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes. It’s a brilliant film and one of my earliest memories of a ‘what would you do?’ in this deep shit scenario. Plus it has John Malkovich sitting by a fire, talking more deep shit.
That’s just a few movies. There are lots, lots more cannibal flicks out there to get your teeth into.
GHOSTS OF LONDON
And finally, I was inspired to write this post by Ghosts of London. This is the third book in the Future of London series and yeah, there are a few cannibals running around in this one too. Check it out and don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two. It’s never been easier (and cheaper) to climb aboard the Future of London series. You can now get L-2011 (Book 1) for free here. And Mr Apocalypse (Book 2) is down to 0.99.
Thank you and enjoy.