Essay: An unnatural hunger
From Bones and All to American Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, a look at cannibalism in popular culture
The title of Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 novel Bones and All is as literal as they come. In its eat-or-be-eaten world, even the cannibals have a strict “clean your plate” rule. The idea is if you’re going to be digging into a fellow human being, at least have the table manners to devour him whole: muscles, organs, bones and all.
Digesting bones, however, is not a metabolic ability natural to humans. The cannibals, or “eaters” as DeAngelis calls them, are implied to be supernatural beings. This is where Luca Guadagnino’s 2022 film adaptation deviates from the source material, reimagining the eaters as humans with an unnatural hunger. So, to eat bones and all turns into an issue of feasibility. Nonetheless, it is elevated to an aspirational ideal, a transcendental act, a baptism of sorts for the eaters. The title thus holds symbolic as well as literal significance in the film where two eaters (Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet) condemned to live on the margins are consumed by their love for one another. Their meaty love story, rather fittingly, ends with one volunteering their body to be eaten by the other — a consensual sacrifice to ensure the lovers become a part of each other and thereby become one.
The autumn of adequacy has made way for the winter of weariness. Food has run out. The captain Jackie (Ella Purnell) is dead. Concerned about her best friend Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) spending way too much time with a corpse, the girls build a pyre for cremation. Overnight, a gust of wind or maybe the Wilderness itself knocks a pile of snow off a tree onto Jackie’s burning body, barbecuing it at a low simmer and beckoning the starving girls with its flavourful aroma. “She wants us to,” Shauna encourages the girls in a half-whisper, rubbing her pregnant belly eager to feed. Hunger forces them into a primal trance.
As everyone digs into the charred corpse, the scene cuts back and forth to a collective fantasy of the girls, decked out in tunics, stolas and tiaras, dining on roasted meats, berries and wine, as if the Wilderness has thrown them a Greco-Roman feast. What it ensures is even in death, Jackie will forever be a part of the Yellowjackets. The show borrows the figurative semantics of grief and literalises them, as Bones and All do. Cannibalism in both cases is as much an expression of love and loss as of hunger or violence.
To be consumed is to be loved, to be known, to be remembered. Unholy though the idea may seem, it is very Christian. Consume the body and blood of Christ to know Him, says the Bible. Where stories about people-eating-people traditionally play on our fear of loss of self, the alternately brutal and lyrical visions of Bones and All and Yellowjackets employ it as a symbol for intimacy that is so all-consuming there is no difference between the self and the other. Robert Heinlein even made up a Martian word — to grok — in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) to describe the same.
The last cannibal boom ended in the early 1990s, capped by the release of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho and films like The Silence of the Lambs, Delicatessen and The People Under the Stairs. The boom before it came in the 1970s, which saw Italian horror films, in particular, both romanticise and satirise colonial-era attitudes towards so-called Third World nations. Between the two periods, plenty of the rich and the rude got eaten. Nothing better describes the ravenous nature of capitalist societies and the unhealthy appetite for consumption they breed than the language of body horror. Where the only law of the market is eat or be eaten; where the media wishes for feeding frenzies and nothing less; where the ruling class maximise their profits and power by making the labouring class work their fingers to the bone.
As Marx wrote, “The means of production are at once changed into means for the absorption of the labour of others. It is now no longer the labourer that employs the means of production, but the means of production that employ the labourer. Instead of being consumed by him as material elements of his productive activity, they consume him as the ferment necessary to their own life process, and the life process of capital consists only in its movement as value constantly expanding, constantly multiplying itself.”
The horror of eating our own kind, when tempered with hyperbole, turns into a broad but pointed weapon in the hands of a satirist. In the face of starvation, over-population and dwindling resources in 18th century Ireland, Jonathan Swift made A Modest Proposal to sell children to the rich as food. Humans are processed and rationed as wafers in the hungry dystopia of the 1973 film Soylent Green. Five years later, George A Romero put consumerist America on the chopping block in Dawn of the Dead, rendering monstrous its mindless consumption as zombies flocked to the mall.
Less than a decade earlier, Margaret Atwood earned great satirical mileage by taking the opposite route of self-starvation in her debut novel, The Edible Woman. Market researcher Marian MacAlpin cannot bring herself to eat. While her mind is swayed by the powers of consumerism, the body rebels against the prospect of having her individuality cannibalised by society and the men that run it. Indeed, it is only after an act of figurative cannibalism (the baking and eating of a woman-shaped cake) that Marion regains her appetite and reclaims her agency.
It’s not important that it’s real. It’s only important that it’s tasty,” writes the incarcerated memoirist Dorothy Daniels, a 50-something food writer whose carnal urges became conflated with something more carnivorous ie feasting on men. The satire aimed at foodie culture bristles with a peppery wit that makes the grisly sections all the more palatable as Summers takes us through how Dorothy fed her insatiable appetite for sex, murder and food. Mimi Cave takes a sharp scalpel to the meat market of online dating in her debut feature Fresh (2022), where there is an entire underground network of rich clientele ready to pay a Patrick Bateman-type middleman to source and harvest the flesh of young women.
Female sexuality and violence have always had a fraught relationship in horror stories. Being attacked at the most naked and vulnerable moment no doubt compounds the tension tenfold. Julia Ducournau turns this relationship on its head in Raw where a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality coincides with her cannibalistic compulsions. The girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), is a lifelong vegetarian who develops an appetite for human flesh after being forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney in a college hazing ritual.
Not unlike Raw, Bones and All also surveys the coming-of-age trials of a young woman trying to fit in and navigate new relationships in a world by herself. Maren, the teen protagonist, goes searching for her long-lost parent, believing it will answer every question she has about her urges and her very existence. But, in the film more so than the book, it is on meeting fellow eater Lee and setting out on a cross-country trip together that allows both to understand where they belong. In a world that confines them to outsider status, their love offers sanctuary to explore their needs and desires, turns their vulnerabilities from weakness to strength, and even allows them to discover their humanity. For once you peel away the skin, Bones and All is really about the human desire for connection. Cannibalism is merely the consummation of a love so intense each is willing to devour and be devoured by the other.
Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.