An image came to Chelsea G. Summers: a friend, accidentally hit by a car, some quick work with a corkscrew, and his liver served Tuscan-style, on toast.
This figment of her twisted imagination is what prompted Ms. Summers to write her novel, “A Certain Hunger,” about a restaurant critic with a taste for (male) human flesh.
It turns out that cannibalism has a time and a place. In the pages of some recent stomach-churning books and on television and movie screens, Ms. Summers and others suggest that time is now.
There’s “Yellowjackets,” a Showtime series about a girls’ high school soccer team stranded in the woods for months, which premiered in November. The movie “Fresh,” released on Hulu in March, features an underground trade in human flesh for the wealthy.
“Lapvona,” Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel published in June, depicts cannibalism in a medieval village overrun by plague and drought. Agustina Bazterrica’s book Tender Is the Flesh, published in English in 2020 and in Spanish in 2017, imagines a future society that raises humans like cattle. Also out in 2017, “Raw,” a film from director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau, tells the story of a vegetarian vet student whose taste for meat escalates after eating raw offal.
Still to come is ‘Bones and All,“ starring Timothée Chalamet. The film, about a young love that turns into a lust for human consumption, is expected to be released later this year or early next. Its director, Luca Guadagnino, called the story “extremely romantic”.
Can you stomach it?
A fascination with cannibalism, perhaps unsurprisingly, can tread a fine line, as Ms. Summers learned writing “A Certain Hunger.”
When auditors called in about the frantic scenes in which the book’s anti-heroine prepares her murdered lovers with grotesque, epicurean flourish, their questions about the intricacies of human slaughter left Mrs. Summers so disturbed that she went “full raw vegan for two weeks ». The creator was terrified by her own monster.
It might have been the publishers too. When Ms. Summers, who uses a pseudonym, shopped the book in 2018, it was rejected more than 20 times before Audible and Unnamed Press made an offer.
If she were selling “A Certain Hunger” today, Ms. Summers, who is 59 and lives in New York and Stockholm, thinks it would be easier. “God bless the ‘yellow jackets,'” she said in a Zoom interview that was later interrupted by her dog, Bob, throwing up in the background.
Released in December 2020, her book began to experience an explosion of popularity on social media – actress Anya Taylor-Joy posted about it on Instagram and received a lot of praise in the corner of TikTok, known as BookTok – about a year later, about around the time the “Yellowjackets” debuted on Showtime.
The pilot episode of “Yellowjackets” shows a teenage girl being trapped, bleeding like a deer and served on a platter in a terrifying ritual. Bloodthirsty fans continue to dissect the scene on Reddit, where a subreddit message board dedicated to the series has more than 51,000 members.
The tension of the show is that you know the cannibalism is coming, but when? And why?
“Yellowjackets” creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, who live in Los Angeles, say they wanted the plot to imply that human consumption wasn’t just for the characters’ survival. This not only adds a chilling creepiness to the already dark story about the soccer team stranded in the desert, but also separates it from the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team trapped in the Andes in 1972, whose members resorted to cannibalism. to survive. (This event was later dramatized in a 1993 film, “Alive,“ starring Ethan Hawke.)
“I think we’re often attracted to the things that repel us the most,” Ms Lyle, 42, said. Mr Nickerson, 43, said: “But I keep coming back to this idea, what part of our aversion to these things is the fear of their ecstasy?”
Ms. Moshfegh’s “Lapvona” is also not overtly cannibalistic. Unlike “A Certain Hunger,” there is no braising with bouquet garni. But a scene involving a toenail is painful.
Known for her disturbing stories that delve into darkness, such as “Eileen” and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” Ms. Moshfegh, 41, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote “Lapvona” in the spring of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. “I wrote it in such complete isolation that I felt this incredible freedom to go wherever I was led,” he said.
The character who eats another human, the greatest sin in his religiously vegetarian village, does so in an act of “impoverished desperation,” said Ms. Mosfegh, herself a vegetarian.
Stories as old as time
Bill Schutt, the author of “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” says fictional plots about eating human flesh are as old as literature itself.
“When you take something that’s so horrific and put it through this lens of fantasy,” he said, “we get charged for it, but we know we’re safe.” At least most of the time: Dr. Schutt only made it halfway through Hulu’s “Fresh” before he had to stop filming. “It went almost too well,” he said.
But as his book documents, cannibalism has appeared all over the world throughout history, giving these fictional stories an unpleasant odor.”and if?“
Historical examples in the book include “mummy,” a practice of using mummified bones to soothe various ailments that was popular in 17th-century Western Europe. the infamous Donner Party pioneers trapped in the Sierra Nevada in 1846. ritual cannibalism that took place in Papua New Guinea until the 1950s. and famine-induced cannibalism in China in the 1960s.
The book of Dr. Schutt also includes the story of the so-called Cannibal Cop, a former New York City police officer who was arrested in 2013 for participating in a fetish forum that fantasized about cannibalizing women and was later acquitted. The New York Post has published more than 30 articles on the case, including one suggesting a police officer’s Halloween costume with a severed hand on a plate.
Flavors of this saga can be found in the latest sexual and physical abuse allegations against actor Armie Hammer, which include allegedly sending cannibalistic messages to a romantic partner. Mr Hammer has denied the allegations and, through his lawyer, declined to comment for this article.
After the allegations went public, he was fired from his agency, entered rehab and is now, Variety reports, selling timeshares in the Cayman Islands. Coincidentally, Mr. Hammer worked with Mr. Chalamet and Mr. Guadagnino on “Call Me by Your Name.”
As for what might be fueling the desire for cannibalism stories today, Ms. Lyle, the “Yellowjackets” co-creator, said: “I think we’re obviously in a very strange time.” He cited the pandemic, climate change, school shootings and years of political cacophony as possible factors.
“I feel like the unthinkable has become the thinkable,” Ms. Lyle said, “and cannibalism is very squarely in that category of the unthinkable.”
According to Ms. Summers, cannibalism is always symbolic. For the protagonist of her novel, eating human flesh can be seen as a way to hold on to a relationship that has ended. For Ms. Summers herself, the plot of “A Certain Hunger” cannot be dissociated “from my own personal experiences with eating disorder, with the decline of women’s appetites, the way the media chews up and spits out writers , drinking boogie — and drinking Mrs. boogie,” he said.
More generally, Ms. Summers believes that the recent spate of cannibalistic potions could also be comments on capitalism. “Cannibalism is about eating and it’s about burning from the inside to exist,” he said. “Burnout is essentially overusing yourself, your own energy, your will to survive, your sleep schedule, your eating schedule, your body.”
Ms Moshfegh said her theory was “that it might be an antidote to the real horror of what’s happening on the planet”. Like Ms. Summers, Ms. Mosfegh was at times unable to enjoy her work, describing the process of writing about cannibalism in “Lapvona” as “a little unsettling.”
“I had to think about what part of the body would be an interesting place to start,” he said, “and what it would be like to hold someone’s severed hand in yours.”
The “Yellowjackets” supporting cast had a similarly daunting task of determining what to use as fake human flesh in the show’s pilot episode.
Should it be the human steak grown in the lab from stem cells that caused outrage at a London museum? The animal-free chicken, beef, salmon and dairy substitutes that some companies create using similar technology?
Ultimately, the support team went with a deer.
But they’ll have to find an alternative for future episodes, Ms. Lyle and Mr. Nickerson said, because many in its cast are vegan.