Monstrous Femme

Eat the Summer Cannibals

Eat the Summer Cannibals

“because I’m hungry and hollow and just want something to call my own. I’ll be your slaughterhouse, your killing floor, your morgue and final resting”
– Richard Siken, “Wishbone”

If there is nothing more romantic that being inside of your lover, if there is nothing more overwhelmingly beautiful than being as close to another person as is physically possible, then cannibalism could be considered the highest form of human connection. And when it comes to cannibalism in the horror genre, queers do it like no one else.

Reaching back, we can curl our fingers around the first notable instances of cannibal horror in film as far back as the 1910s: The Enchanted Kiss (1917), followed by Sweeney Todd (1926) and its subsequent adaptations in 1928 and 1936, and finally Doctor X (1932). It wasn’t until the so-called “Cannibal Boom” in the 1970s and 80s, however, that cannibalism in horror exploded in popularity.

The Cannibal Boom was led by Italian filmmakers like Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato, who latched onto the terror that came with having one’s flesh ripped away and consumed by others. However, the Cannibal Boom was also highly representative of many issues in the horror genre that existed during the 1970s and ‘80s: it was racist, classist, and misogynistic, using cannibalism as a mode to display the horrors that good, upstanding White folk could fall victim to at the hands of “primitive” (read: non-Western) people.

When famous cannibal films like Man from Deep River (1972) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) were released, they were gory, bloody, and incredibly racist – no more, no less. There was nothing even remotely romantic about the notion of cannibalization, because to the Cannibal Boom, it was just a new way to horrify audiences with blood, guts, and imagined notions of “savages” in distant jungles.

And then, there came the vampires.

Like cannibalism, for much of horror history, vampirism was spooky, not sexy. From Nosferatu (1922) to ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), vampires were undead monsters who drained blood away from their victims in the dark of the night, as terrifying as any other creature feature. The ‘70s saw the introduction of more sexualized vampires (see 1971’s Vampyros Lesbos or Daughters of Darkness), but more as makeshift horror pornography rather than anything substantial.

And then, in 1976, Anne Rice’s seminal novel Interview with the Vampire changed the tone of vampirism in horror forever. Horror novelist Grady Hendrix writes at length about Rice’s contributions to the horror industry in his non-fiction book Paperbacks from Hell (2017), where he attributes the shift from deadly vampires to dapper ones to Interview with the Vampire.

Gone were the days of ugly, corpse-like creatures looming over the beds of unsuspecting, scantily-clad women; here were handsome, charming, well-dressed men, luring in other handsome, charming, well-dressed men. Unlike the erotic vampire exploitation films that were prevalent around this time, the sexuality in Rice’s vampire novels were more passionate, more romantic, and more homoerotic.

Suddenly, consuming the blood of a lover wasn’t a sick act performed on a poor victim, but its own form of intimate, devotional, obsessive worship.

What is perhaps the most famous cannibal film to date, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, introduced cannibalism’s Lestat de Lioncourt: Hannibal Lecter. Intelligent, composed, and deeply creepy, Hannibal Lecter was the very antithesis of the tribes of cannibalistic “savages” that the 1970s were so fond of, and marked a change in the way that cannibalism was used as a horror tool: no longer reserved for far off-tribes in far-off jungles, cannibals could not only be living right next door to you, but they could be charming as hell.

Like Interview with the Vampire before it, 2013’s television adaptation of Lecter’s story, Hannibal, changed the way cannibalism was perceived. While novels like Twilight (2005) had already romanticized the vampire to the point of no return, the same couldn’t be said for cannibals: people weren’t dying for Hannibal Lecter to take a bite out of them the way they were eager to be under Edward’s fangs.

What Hannibal introduced was, indeed, the romanticization of cannibalism, while avoiding the problem of reducing its monstrosity, as had happened with vampires. Following FBI profiler Will Graham as he hunts down a prolific serial killer, the series watches as Will’s life becomes increasingly entangled with that of his psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Spoiler: Hannibal Lecter is also secretly the cannibalistic serial killer Will has been searching for.

Throughout the series, as Will and Hannibal’s lives become more entwined, Hannibal sets out to try and make Will into a killer like him. Perhaps it’s a perverted experiment for Hannibal, to simply see if he can do it; or, perhaps it’s a desperation to not be so alone in the world. And yet, at the start of the series, Hannibal has no interest in Will Graham beyond the professional – it’s when they gradually become more and more closer that the desire strikes.

In Hannibal, the act of cannibalism becomes an intimate one, particularly when Will comes to the realization of who Hannibal Lecter truly is, and remains fixated on him none the less. In a distorted, ruinous way, it’s the equivalent of loving someone regardless of their flaws and bad habits – and Hannibal’s bad habits just so happen to include murder.

‘Repressed urges’ is the name of the game when it comes to Will Graham, who after three seasons of warring with his own mind, finally kills alongside Hannibal in the series finale. Hannibal holds will close, too closely to be construed as anything other than deep, intense desire, and the two share a moment of connection and understanding.

With Hannibal, cannibalism is a representation of unyielding, queer love in the face of adversity, and harsh reality that queers know all too well: it is better to kill than to be killed, and better to consume than be consumed.

Though Hannibal met an untimely cancelation in 2015, all hope was not lost for queer cannibals: enter Yellowjackets in 2021.

A television series following a high school girls’ soccer team who survive a plane crash in the desolate wilderness of Ontario, Canada, Yellowjackets is openly queer, openly vicious, and filled with bloodstained teeth.

For the girls of Yellowjackets, cannibalism isn’t a form of high art or culinary delight as it is in Hannibal. For them, it’s a means of survival, and from start to finish, a dark secret. It’s a shared promise among them, something that will only stay between the survivors, something that no one wishes to acknowledge ever happened.

When team captain Jackie freezes and dies, it’s her best friend Shauna who first suggests that they consume her. Shauna, who throughout Yellowjackets has hated Jackie, adored her, wished she was dead, and wanted to never be apart from her. Shauna, who accidentally breaks off Jackie’s frozen ear and keeps it with her like a talisman, until the urge to eat it whole becomes too strong. It’s a classic Jennifer’s Body conundrum: do I hate my best friend, or do I love her? Do I want to be her, or be with her? Do I want to be in her, or have her in me?

What Yellowjackets offers that Hannibal does not, however, is actual, outright queer content. I’ll save the discussion of queerbaiting and homoeroticism in place of actual representation for another time, but where Hannibal can arguably (and, indeed, it has been viciously argued) be viewed as straight, Yellowjackets is actually canonically queer – and more excitingly, in a show with more than its fair share of death and cannibalism, the ‘kill your gays’ trope is nowhere to be found. Yellowjackets is one of the rare mainstream instances of the intersection between queerness and cannibalism: one of the first, but I sincerely doubt one of the last.

True enough, there is plenty of romanticized cannibalism to be found in straight, heterosexual contexts. But what separates our Bones and All from our Yellowjackets is a simple truth: straight relationships will never know the rage, the fear, and the intimacy of queer ones. Queerness, for all its beauty and freedom, is rooted in horror too: in the horror of what is done to us simply for being who we are. In kissing lovers by moonlight so that we will never be caught by those who wish we never existed. In eating a lover alive to hide the evidence.

For as far as some places in the world have come when it comes to queer rights, homophobia, transphobia, and violence against queer people has never stopped. To be openly queer in many places is a death sentence, and it’s a violence that seeps deep into the body. Is it any wonder, then, that when the world loves us with bone-deep violence, we love others in the same way?

The world can try to eat us alive all it likes. What it doesn’t know is that we’ll eat each other alive first, and we’ll savor every bite.