The Psychology Behind Cannibalism

The Psychology Behind Cannibalism

By Guest Blogger Allison Gamble




You are what you eat

You are what you eat



Cannibal. The word alone evokes images of victims being roasted on a spit or boiled in a giant cauldron. The thought of humans consuming the flesh of other humans strike us on a visceral level, inducing disgust, revulsion, and horror. Yet underneath these primal and negative emotional responses there exists an underlying fascination that can’t be denied. Indeed, forensic psychology  is often brought to bear to explain how something deep within the mind is fascinated by the notion of consuming human flesh. The idea turns our stomachs, yet like gawkers passing an auto accident on the highway we peek through our fingers at the carnage, our eyes and attention drawn to the dark allure of the scene of horror.

“Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the criminal mind “

Cannibalism Throughout History

The word “cannibal” is derived from the Spanish canibales, itself is a corruption of the name for the Carib Indians encountered by early Spanish expeditions to the West Indies. The first known historical account of cannibalism in the modern age came from Columbus’ expeditions in the late 15th century, and tells of the Carib Indians consuming the flesh of their enemies in a ritualistic and gruesome manner.

This historical account of the Caribs has become the nexus of a long-running debate concerning the role allegations of cannibalism may have had in European colonialism. From the ideological perspective of some scholars whose imperative is always to find ways to criticize and denigrate western civilization, the European powers used these stories of cannibalism to justify enslaving and exploiting hapless indigenes. Some even go so far as to deny cannibalism ever existed as a culturally-accepted practice, and claim stories of cannibalism by native peoples were mythologized by Europeans as a means of justifying oppression.

However, historical evidence is clear that cannibalism has indeed been practiced since Paleolithic times. Archeologists have uncovered numerous human remains that show clear evidence of having been butchered and eaten, and the mythology, folklore, and early historical records of virtually all cultures are rife with allusions to humans eating the flesh of other humans. From the Greek myths to the Bible to the Vedas, it seems humans have always harbored this fascination with eating human meat.

The Darkest Taboo

The very idea of cannibalism in modern society remains shrouded in fear and sinister symbolism. Throughout history and across almost all cultures, eating human flesh has always been one of the ultimate unspeakable taboos. There is some deep psychological hook of mingled horror and fascination about cannibalism that seems innate, pre-cultural, and almost instinctual.

Hannibal the Cannibal

Cannibalism is associated in the popular view not only with primitive and savage cultures, but also with unspeakable and heinous crimes committed by the most depraved criminals imaginable. People like Jeffrey Dahmer of America, Armin Meiwes of Germany, Andrei Chiktilo of Ukraine, and the Mauerovas of the Czech Republic are more than just deranged criminals: their infamy has been magnified infinitely into an immortal cultural status because they all ate the flesh of their murdered victims.

Distinctions of Cannibalism

Anthropologists make several distinctions to describe different categories of cannibalism:

Spiritual and ritualistic cannibalism describes the ritualized consumption of human flesh in the context of cultural expression, and is further sub-categorized as exocannibalism (eating people from other groups) and endocannibalism (eating members of one’s own group). The classic conception of primitive tribes engaging in head-hunting expeditions falls into the exocannibalism category, wherein one group consumes members of an outside group as a show of power and aggression.

Most often, endocannibalism manifests as a form of mortuary cannibalism, where people consume small portions of the corpse of a loved one in the belief that the spirit of the departed can then be absorbed. The idea that the powers and spirits of the dead are imparted through eating their flesh appears to be the universal psychological basis for manifestations of spiritual and ritualistic cannibalism.

Criminal and sexual cannibalism covers the gamut of instances of criminal anthropophagy perpetrated usually as a form of sexual sadism, and is considered by clinical psychiatry to be a behavioral symptom of psycho-sexual disorder. There have been many high profile criminal cases involving cannibalism, several of which have already been mentioned.

Others include the case of Albert Fish, who, in the 1920s, kidnapped, raped, murdered, and consumed the bodies of an unknown number of children, and Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who is believed to have killed at least 3 people and inspired the character in the movie Silence of the Lambs who flayed his victims and made a suit from their skins. Criminal cannibals often claim to feel a rush of power when consuming the flesh of their victims, and express the belief in a kind of metaphysical fortification, not unlike the beliefs of primitive ritualistic cannibals. The psychological underpinning of the belief that consuming human flesh imparts metaphysical benefits is identical.

Survival cannibalism is the only form of anthropophagy ever considered justifiable. In these cases, people find themselves in extremely desperate and adverse situations where resorting to cannibalism is their only means of survival. The most famous case of survival cannibalism occurred in the 1840s, when heavy snows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains stranded a group of settlers known as the Donner Party. Some members of the group survived the cruel winter by consuming the bodies of those who perished from starvation and exposure. Similarly, in 1972, a plane crashed high in the Andes Mountains of South America and 16 people survived for seventy days only by feeding on the corpses of those killed in the crash.

That so many distinctions exist to categorize cannibalism makes it clear some deep connection in the human psyche drives our desire to learn about it, and some to actually try it. The psychological basis of this fascination is so complex; it’s unlikely that any consensus will ever be achieved concerning the underlying motivations and causes of cannibalistic behavior. Nevertheless, somewhere in the convoluted swirls of human thought there is a distinct connection between the motivations of a tribesman in New Guinea, who consumes the flesh of a departed loved one with solemnity and deep respect, and those of a deranged criminal who seeks some bizarre rush through the unspeakable crime of murdering and cannibalizing an innocent person.

Thanks to Allison Gamble for contacting Crime Case Files and writing this article, I also have a great fascination about the psychology  behind Cannibalism,  so I was interested to see another point of view.we now have a few articles with-in this blog related to Cannibalism.


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