The History of Cannibalism in the Horror Genre

Written by Katherine Page

Graphics by Ariadne Danae Chavez Salinas

Cannibalism is one of the most notorious subgenres in the horror film scene. It is considered to be the embodiment of what is thematically desired in horror films. Not only does it have the physical aspect that is demanded – it is gory, repulsive, gruesome, and usually involves murder – but it also carries a psychological aspect to it. The act of eating human flesh has something intrinsically horrific about it that goes beyond just physicality. It is this more intimate grotesqueness that has kept it as such a prolific and popular genre of horror films. 

Because of this, cannibalism in media has been firmly rooted as a longstanding horror genre. And just recently, we have begun to see a rise in films that involve anthropophagy. Just this year, we see releases like Bones and All and Fresh. Last year we saw Antlers. In 2016 we saw films like Raw and The Bad Batch. Even the notorious pop culture icon Hannibal Lecter recently got a reboot starring Mads Mikkelsen as the world’s most favorite cannibal. Clearly, this genre plays an important role in horror media, but what is the importance of it? How has the genre changed, and how does it aim to affect its viewers?

The genre first became popular underneath specific motifs, and this is what caused the emergence of cannibalism as a sub-genre. One of the first cannibal films to make it big was released in 1965. The Naked Prey by Cornel Wilde was about a white man who was chased by an African cannibalistic tribe; a premise that later served as blueprint for cannibalistic thrillers. In the following years, several similar movies came out: Slave of the Cannibal God (1972), Jungle Holocaust (1977), Cannibal Ferox (1981), Amazonia (1985), Green Inferno (1988), and the most popular of all, Cannibal Holocaust (1980). All of these films have pretty much the same premise: white adventurers travel into a jungle (usually the Amazon), find a native tribe who turn out to be cannibals and then have to escape the jungle without being captured and eaten by the natives. This genre of cannibal films was most popular during the late 70s and early 80s and was known as the “Cannibal Boom,” and they were considered to be part of the Mondo genre of film. 

“Mondo films are a subgenre of exploitation films and documentary films. Many mondo films are made in a way to resemble a pseudo-documentary and usually depict sensational topics, scenes, or situations. Common traits of mondo films include portrayals of foreign cultures, an emphasis on taboo subjects such as death and sex, and staged sequences presented as genuine documentary footage.”

This era of cannibal horror is often considered problematic as it pushed ethnocentrism and racist stereotypes. The fear that Western audiences had regarding foreign peoples and places, as well as the taboo of “primitivism,” was exploited in this genre mostly for shock value. The Cannibal Boom was appealing mainly because of the director’s ability to depict gore, but this was at the expense of inculcating to audiences racist and harmful stereotypes. Fortunately, though, the shock value from the gore quickly became undesirable the more desensitized people became towards it, and the Cannibal Boom declined in popularity after the 1980s. 

  Today, cannibal horror has taken a new face. The genre is no longer defined by the physical gore that it had in the 1970s and 80s. Firstly, in today’s portrayals of cannibalism, a lot of it takes place in modern times by seemingly “normal” people. It is no longer just “primitive” people doing the eating. We also see a mixing of genres. Movies like Raw (2016), Bones and All (2022), and We Are What We Are (2013) all run like stereotypical coming-of-age films. Just with cannibalism added in. Comedy has also been incorporated into the subgenre with movies like Spider Baby (1962), Eating Raoul (1982), and just recently, Fresh (2022). It has also started to appear in more and more psychological horror movies. Most famously, Mother! (2017) was badly received by audiences simply because of the “perverted motifs” within the film. There is also a rise in real-life cannibalism, with dozens of documentaries about real-life cannibals (like Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert Fish) being made. 

  Nowadays, the subgenre of cannibalism is not really a subgenre. It is more of a motif that we see within other films. More and more people are willing to explore it as a thematic device, and the gore is no longer the focus of it but rather something that simply comes along with this motif. It is now defined by the psychological implications of the actions. What does it say about the characters? About us as viewers? It aims to make us question its place within our lives and within history. It aims to make us question our own humanity. As the horror genre grows, so does the cannibalism motif. And, as an avid enjoyer of psychological horror, I am excited to see where it will go.

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