Crazy people, the Zeitgeist, and cannibalism

Crazy people have always reflected their own society’s pathologies.  In a pre-modern era, crazy people thought they were the Devil or, perhaps, the Hammer of God.  In the atomic/space exploration age, insanity tended to involve aliens.  People thought they were abducted, thought aliens were among us, or thought that they were themselves aliens.

What are we to make of modern crazy people, though?  They’ve taken all of the old pathologies — Devil worship, hammer of God, aliens — and added a new twist:  cannibalism.  Just in the past few days, we’ve had one guy eat off another’s face, although he didn’t live to tell the tale; a Maryland man dine upon his roommate; and a Devil-worshipping gay porn star film himself murdering his lover, whose flesh he later ate.  A few years ago, a Canadian man killed and ate a fellow traveler on a bus, claiming his victim was an alien.  Richard Fernandez has collected other recent cannibal stories that are impossible to ignore.

What the heck zeitgeist is this that sees so many insanities end with cannibalism?

Cannibalism is nothing new.  Starving people have routinely resorted to cannibalism.  In the Soviet Ukraine, when Stalin implemented policies that deliberately starved the peasants off their land, “an orphan was a child whose parents hadn’t eaten him.”  The Donner party survivors reputedly ate those who died.  When a plane crashed in the Andes, the survivors also turned to cannibalism.

Cannibalism also has a long medicinal history.  Stealing gold wasn’t the only reason grave robbers pillaged Egyptian mummies.  Powdered mummy was an important part of many pre-modern medicine chests.  Blood from a hanged criminal was also believed to be good for people.

Many religions have also promoted cannibalism.  The Aztecs were notorious for their human sacrifices, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands for important religious festivals.  This not only kept enemies in line, but it also ensured that a society that had systematically stripped the surrounding landscape of animals, was still able to get the iron and protein necessary for survival.  Pagan tribes throughout Europe (and the Americas) also engaged in cannibalism, believing that they strengthened themselves by eating their enemies’ flesh and blood.

The first religion to take a stand against cannibalism was Judaism.  The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac — which, of course, ends without any sacrifice at all — saw the Jewish people put to rest any notions of satisfying God with human flesh.  Jews took that idea and made it concrete when they institutionalized rules that barred body mutilation (no tattoos or piercings for religious Jews) and required that bodies get buried within 24 hours of death, thereby depriving surrounding pagan tribes of the opportunity to mutilate and eat Jewish bodies.

The genius of Christianity (and I have no idea whether this was accidental or on purpose) is that Christians understood, and were able to convince others, that Jesus Christ was the last and best blood sacrifice.  By drinking the wine and eating the wafer at the sacrament, the potency of actual cannibalism was transmuted into the even more potent effect of symbolic cannibalism.  And that was the end of ritual cannibalism in the Judeo-Christian culture.

Proscribed by Jewish law, and elevated to the ultimate non-corporeal mingling with God under Christian doctrine, Westerners not only did not want human flesh, they disdained it.  They’d eat it medicinally or under starvation conditions, but theirs would not be the hands that struck the death-blow.  Instead, the more superstitious or desperate among them might take advantage of an already dead body, be it a hanged criminal, a thousand-year old mummy, or a dead comrade in the Ukraine, the Sierras, or the Andes.  Killing for blood . . . a big Western cultural no-no.  (The recent market in dead babies in Asia shows that this cultural no-no is certainly not universal, but it has taken hold in most parts of the First World, and the pseudo First World.)

So, where are we?  Judeo-Christian culture proscribes cannibalism.  We no longer believe in the medicinal use of already dead bodies.  And none of the killers mentioned at the beginning of this article were starving.  Instead, they were crazy.  So why is cannibalism resurgent?

And while I’m asking that, what’s with the Zombie craze?  This is not an irrelevant question.  Not only are zombies the un-dead, they also dine on human brains.  They’re somehow part of this zeitgeist that has Western culture seeing itself as cannibalizing itself.  But while normal people joke about it, and watch scary movies, the crazy people are on the move, looking for their next meal.

I don’t have answers.  I just have questions.  Do you have answers?

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  • Charles Martel

    Aside from the Freudian implications of a rotting culture cannibalizing itself to stay alive just a bit longer, I think the preoccupation with eating brains is a sign of the Occupy movement’s desperation. These stinky children know they got bamboozled by the education industry, and are now in their 20s with no skills and lots of debt.
    For supposedly very smart people, they sure act like they have no brains. No brains = the need to acquire some. The 1% has a lot of brains—you gotta be real smart to steal so much for so long from the college-grad Brights among the 99%.

  • Mike Devx

    I have always loved a good zombie movie, don’t know why for sure.  Vampire, werewolf, monster movies, not so much.

    As far as I can tell, zombie movies are probably about the fear of the mindless horde, in the personal nightmare sense where they are COMING AFTER YOU.  (There’s a dreadful fascination when they’re going after someone else, but the stuff of nightmares is when they see and are targeting you.)  I think the eating you alive part is a stand-in for the idea that they seek your complete and total destruction.  Being eaten alive makes it, um, very personal.

    Some post-modernists have gone so far as to say zombie movies are a popular capitalist reaction against the socialist horde, but I’ve always thought that that was stretching it more than a little too far.  That may sort of work, in an intellectual sense, but it’s not PRIMAL enough to explain the fear that zombies in movies seem to evoke among so many people (including me).

    I’ve heard it said that the demonic Linda Blair in the 1973 Exorcist movie was a cultural stand-in for the violent, alienated 60s generation and the public’s fear of them.  Again, there may be a little something to it, but its too intellectual again, not primal enough, to explain the popularity of the film.  I think what shocked people back then was the horrifying despoiling of youth and innocence.

    Vampires are loners who stalk and are intelligent, unlike zombies.  They were monstrous until Bram Stoker introduced sexual themes into the equation.  Zombies don’t CHOOSE you – they just see you and think, mmm, food.  Vampires see you and make a conscious choice to target, stalk, and destroy you.  Even with Stoker’s sex, the result was always destruction of the target.  As everyone knows, these days the undead vampire is sexy, and I don’t know why.  I’ve never understood that and it doesn’t work for me.

  • MacG

    “The genius of Christianity (and I have no idea whether this was accidental or on purpose) is that Christians understood, and were able to convince others, that Jesus Christ was the last and best blood sacrifice.”
    I would say it was by design but not of the Christians…
    When I look at Genesis 3:15 just after the finger pointing and blame shifting G-d makes this judgment against the Serpent:
    And I will put enmity
        between you and the woman,
        and between your offspring and hers;
    he will crush your head,
        and you will strike his heel.
    This is considered the first prophecy regarding the penultimate sacrifice to come.  Some may remember that Garden of Gethsemane scene in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”.  At first I thought what’s the snake doing in this Garden?  Oh.  It’s the same one from the Garden of Eden tempting til the very end.

    Isaiah tells us:
    “Behold, My servant will prosper,
    He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted.
    14 Just as many were astonished at you, My people,
    So His appearance was marred more than any man
    And His form more than the sons of men.
    15 Thus He will sprinkle many nations,
    Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him;
    For what had not been told them they will see,
    And what they had not heard they will understand.
    Who has believed our message?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
    2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
    And like a root out of parched ground;
    He has no stately form or majesty
    That we should look upon Him,
    Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
    3 He was despised and forsaken of men,
    A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief
    And like one from whom men hide their face
    He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

    4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
    And our sorrows He carried;
    Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
    Smitten of God, and afflicted5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
    He was crushed for our iniquities;
    The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
    And by His scourging we are healed.
    6 All of us like sheep have gone astray,
    Each of us has turned to his own way;
    But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
    To fall on Him.

    7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
    Yet He did not open His mouth;
    Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
    And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
    So He did not open His mouth.
    8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
    And as for His generation, who considered
    That He was cut off out of the land of the living
    For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
    9 His grave was assigned with wicked men,
    Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
    Because He had done no violence,
    Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

    10 But the Lord was pleased
    To crush Him,  putting Him to grief;
    If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
    He will see His offspring,
    He will prolong His days,
    And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
    11 As a result of the anguish of His soul,
    He will see it and be satisfied;
    By His knowledge the Righteous One,
    My Servant, will justify the many,
    As He will bear their iniquities.
    12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
    And He will divide the booty with the strong;
    Because He poured out  Himself to death,
    And was numbered with the transgressors;
    Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
    And interceded for the transgressors.”

    We understand Abraham’s test as a picture of the future where as Abraham declared when Isaac asked “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  “G-d Himself will supply the sacrifice.” 
    So when we read these passages in Philippians 2 penned by a former Pharisee we understand how God Himself will provide the Lamb:
    “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

    6 Who, being in very nature God,
        did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
    7 rather, he made himself nothing
        by taking the very nature of a servant,
        being made in human likeness.
    8 And being found in appearance as a man,
        he humbled himself
        by becoming obedient to death —
            even death on a cross”

    A person with the nature and equality with G-d?  Blasphemy to some I am sure it surely was to some back then.  But a person with such stature that chose to set all that aside and to be poured into human flesh would be truly unique as we are told by another writer:
    1″In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
    6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
    9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
    14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”.

    Later in that same chapter John the baptizer says as Jesus approaches:
    “29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
    Peter later writes:
    “If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth;knowing that you were not  redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers,but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of youwho through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”
    That in a nut shell (relatively speaking) is how I see it was planned but as I said not by us.

  • Wolf Howling

    I am surprised you didn’t give Hannibal a shout out.  

    Two minor points to add to the above.  In ancient Rome, early Christians were viewed with deep suspicion – when not being fed to the lions – precisely because Roman authorities suspected them of cannibalism.  

    Two, cannibalism, and particularly the eating of brains, can be very bad for one’s health.  Kuru is a form of mad cow disease that was seen in cannibal cultures and that came from eating human brains.  As to what this may mean for Zombies and whether it will stop a zombie apocalypse, I don’t know.  I suspect only George Romero may have that answer.

    Lastly, I doubt if cannibalism is “resurgent.”  I suspect it is with us today as it has always been, but what is new is the internet and the 24 hour news cycle.  Cannibalism will never make the ABC evening news, but it will make Drudge.   


  • MacG

    You are correct but more over they would not worship Caesar either which did not make for friendly relations with the ‘king’.  Witness the ‘trial’ with the keepers of the Law:
    “As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, “ If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”
    13 Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the  sixth hour. And he *said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” 15 So they cried out, “ Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate *said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

    Please note that the context links “the Jews” with the Chief Priests not all Jews for the vast majority that followed Jesus were in fact Jews.
    Now where the cannibalism stories comes from is what I believe is a misconstruing of the language of the ‘Last Supper’ and the detractors make the same mistake that today’s detractors make they interpreted this in a literal fashion for cannibalism is forbidden in the Law and the blemish free Lamb would in no way instruct his followers to break such law (with apologies to my Catholic friends).
    “7  Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?” 18 And He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “ My time is near; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.”’” 19 The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover.
    The Last Passover
    20  Now when evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the twelve disciples. 21 As they were eating, He said, “ Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me.” 22 Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23 And He answered, “ He who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl is the one who will betray Me. 24 The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” 25 And Judas, who was betraying Him, said, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Jesus *said to him, “ You have said it yourself.”
    The Lord’s Supper Instituted
    26  While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
    30  After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
    Elsewhere they are instructed that when they gather in the future to “do this in remembrance of me”.  This command as it were has the connotation of calling forth versus remembering the dusty, distant past.  But still cannot see where these verses are hinting at a literal body and blood.  The sacrifice was as Jesus said “It is finished!” on the cross.  Forty three days later after death and the grave lost their sting and victory, the followers of the Christ started to change the world.

    All block quotes are from the New American Standard unless otherwise noted and clipped from

  • Bookworm

    I have almost ridiculously well-lettered blog friends.  Your knowledge, individual and collective, always amazes me.

  • Danny Lemieux

    “I’ve heard it said that the demonic Linda Blair in the 1973 Exorcist movie was a cultural stand-in for the violent, alienated 60s generation and the public’s fear of them.”

    Then again, she could have been a cultural stand-in for a guy’s typical ’60s-style first date with a NOW-empowered Lefty.

  • Mike Devx

    That’s too good, Danny!

    Guy (we’ll call him “Guy”) brings his NOW-Leftie-Linda-Blair-date (demonic) to the restaurant and the maitre-d escorts them toward a seat.

    Along the way, the date lunges at a table and grabs a seated patron between the legs and squeezes viciously, just like in the movie.  Howling, he collapses to the floor and she’s on him, snarling, grabbing.

    Guy pulls her off him, releasing her talons.  “Sorry about that, sorry,” he murmurs as they continue toward the seat. “Date, listen… you really have to stop doing that, ok?  It’s not very polite.”

    She looks at him demonically and in THAT voice, says, “He was one of the 1%.”

    As they are seated, she starts snarl-muttering.  “Global warming.  Global warming.”

    He sighs, but decides to smile.  “Well, ok then.”  Picks up a menu.  “Global warming, ok.  Maybe they have a nice plate of arugula?”

    She lowers her head and peers at him from under her eyebrows.  “Do you have any crystals?”

    “What? Why – do you need to meditate, achieve a state of calmness?” he wonders.

    “Ha! Calmness!” she snarls.  “I haven’t been calm in 423,000 years, I’ll have you know.”  This being California, the patrons at a nearby table have a small pile of crystals next to the water pitcher.  She lunges to the table and grabs the crystals over their protestations and returns to her seat.  She consumes them with a glass of water; the crunching is very loud.

    “Wow,” Guy says.  “You must really be very hungry.”

    Growl.  “Your mother darns socks in hell!”  She finishes off the crystals with another gulp of water.  “She’s in here with us, Guy.  Do you want to talk to her?”

    “At this point, I’m not very sure I even want to talk to YOU.”


  • MacG

    One last thing that slipped this teflon coated brain regarding the Christians and cannibalism.  Jesus did say unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in yourselves (Paraphrased).
    ” Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven.” 42 They were saying, “ Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, ‘ I have come down out of heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered and said to them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘ And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. 46  Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. 48  I am the bread of life. 49  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51  I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
    52  Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For My flesh is  true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.””
    See in John Chapter 6 Jesus had just fed 5.000 with a lot of bread (and fish). They followed him because he filled their physical bellies.  If you read the chapter you will see that many left him at this time and more than likely the source for the ‘rumors’ of cannibalism for their lack of understanding the metaphor.  Literalists don’t get genre.

    Rabbit trail:

    As an aside I’d like to point out to those who wonder about the ‘Lost years’ of Jesus note in the above passage they ask amongst themselves “ Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, ‘ I have come down out of heaven’?”  Thirteen year old boys that runaway from home to a polytheistic foreign country and learn magic Hindi healing arts for 17 years and come back to uphold the Schema and be readily recognized at age 30?   Surely his Hebrew would be rusty and they would have given him a shibboleth or two and you can bet that the hostile witnesses would have made hay of that little tidbit.  Just look at the hard time we give Obama and yet none of the hostile witnesses accuse Jesus of being from another land.  Even among His own upon learning that He came form Nazareth one of his soon to be disciples asked “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Surely he would have been viewed as having a strong association with India but the record states on both sides of the fence he was Hebrew through and through by birth, and by region, he was a good Hebrew boy that honored his father and mother and went to Temple to worship as a human and quiz the Rabbi’s eventually growing to teach in the Temple.  Would G-d fearing first century priests let a foreigner having embraced the Vedas, teach in the synagogue?

  • Bob Agard

    I like your blog a lot. I have linked to this post here:

  • Ymarsakar

    Post Apocalyptic themes are on the rise, not just zombies themes. That includes humanity gets killed by natural disasters. Or wars. Or resource depletion. Or plagues, or whatever. The point is that Western civilization knows that it is on its deathbed, so often times people fantasize about the 2nd coming or Armageddon. Half the population does so to relieve stress over the real problems of this world. The other half do so to prepare for what they see as the ultimate eventuality, since it’s a lot more productive than sitting around eating cheetos and watching Oprah.


  • Simplemind

    Yep its not a good sign if it is a sign of the times.

    If it isn’t a sign of the times, or rather it is something that has never gone away, well sheesh that’s not good either.

    Either way, simple truth is that Civilization is a thin veneer.

    As the saying goes The Truth Shall Set You Free. (May cause you a fair amount of anxiety while doing so.)