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The flesh is sinful. It is dirty. It needs to be sanitised of germs and disease. It needs to be purified of improper urges. It is a meat prison for our immortal souls that we must deny in order to attain greater enlightenment. And, for those bombarded by the Western media, it by damn better be skinny. Blondes preferred.

History likes to skip over any western use of cannibalism in our medicinal history. In fact, Richard Sugg came up with a perfect article title to describe the hypocrisy: “Good Physics but Bad Food.”

In this article he describes – with a quip about any racist tendency to believe the scene happened in the ‘uncivilised’ New World or Africa – how “an execution has just occurred. As the still trembling body lets out its blood, crowds gathered beneath are waiting to catch the precious liquid, and to absorb its full potency by drinking it fresh and warm” (Sugg, 2006). You could argue that our entire understanding and protocols within Western medicine are underpinned by these cannibalistic practices. I won’t. But you could.

While cannibalism and horror skip hand in hand like a genre and sub-genre parent/child duo down the high street, often cannibalism is confined within urban prejudices. Outliers of civilisation have evolved from colonial attitudes, to ones of rural habitation and economic rank. Cannibals are hill billies and poor criminals essentially. Or, they’re portrayed as such in mainstream horror media.

Baztericca denies this trend. An Argentine novelist (important due to Argentina’s importance in the cattle trade) of growing repute, Bazterrica understood the assignment when it came to re-evaluating cannibalism in horror. And so Tender is the Flesh was born…

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Synopsis for Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh

Set in an unnamed Spanish speaking country, Marcos Tejos is the right-hand man of a slaughter house owner. His father, now mentally decaying in a nursing home, was a specialist butcher and taught him the ways of the meat trade before the “Transition.” His wife has left him after the death of their son, Leo, and he’s not eaten “special meat” since. He is portrayed as the protagonist of Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh.

His world is one in which a virus from China has completely changed the way the world works. GGP is a virus that is claimed to make animals dangerous to humans. Consuming their flesh has become poisonous. Pets, zoo animals, as many wild animals as they could find have all been destroyed. For a while, the world was vegetarian. That did not last long. The world cried out for meat and the state funded scientists provided them with an excuse: “We can’t get enough protein from plants and vegetables.” As such, a law has been passed that legitimises the consumption of farm raised “heads” – humans that are now called “products” and the meat they leave behind is called “special meat.”

— FOUNDATIONS OF HORROR —

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Why this is particular intriguing is that, in order to satiate the public’s need for meat, yet revulsion at “savagery of cannibalism,” (I use this word explicitly as Marcos (the alleged protagonist) visits his sister and her children and the children play a game of WHAT WOULD YOU TASTE LIKE with their uncle, to which their mother reacts violently, stabbing a table and proclaiming “We are not savages!”) the media is employed to create narratives that quell in displeasure at the thought of eating human flesh.

One stand out line is, “in the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it came from.” As such it is illegal to eat a person with a “first or last name” (although this is a delicacy) and only those reared to be consumed are propagated as the solution to GGP.

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Cannibalism and the Covid-19 Pandemic

The idea that our government could decide to radically alter our lives, in the name of a world-wide catastrophe, and most of society would accept it readily (as long as it benefitted them) has never been terrifying as it is now.

It’s just happened.

Our revulsion at the idea of cannibalism such as in Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh is not as strong as our intent desire to retain our lives the way they are now. Although Bazterrica wrote the novel in 2017, it was translated in 2020 by Sarah Moses, at the height of the pandemic. We are bombarded by disaster movies that make out that humans are slow to adapt to new realities, we are living proof that we are not. The world is full of more dangers than Covid. Financial collapse, climate change and ecological horror, competition for resources and overpopulation. What if there was an easy solution to all of that? What if it wasn’t called cannibalism?

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Ask Yourself…

While you may snicker at this comparison, I want you to imagine yourself out for dinner for your birthday. Your family is around you… beers, wine, a wee gin and tonic for Granny Agnes, and the waiter puts down your menu.

“In the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it came from.”

On the menu is aubergine parmesan, meatless-Spaghetti meatballs, avocado on toast for all my millennial brethren, and a butternut squash roast. I can feel your outrage as I type this. You work hard all week and all you want is a goddamn steak! In fact, since the transition, your wages are up, there’s less of a population to compete; the cities are cleaner, less people to make a mess; all those beggars in the street? Gone. Immigration. Gone. Your life is pretty sweet – except, of course, for that steak you’ve been dying for.

The waiter sees your irritation, sees your family half-heartedly pick the best of a bad bunch. He comes over and whispers in your ear, “Sir, we are a ‘special meat’ stocked restaurant, would you like to see those menus instead?”

Look yourself in the eye and ask, could I eat human meat?

Would I?

Last Updated on August 30, 2021.

Conner McAleese
Conner McAleese is a current PhD student at the University of Dundee studying 'spaces' in contemporary horror. His debut novel, The Goose Mistress, was published in 2018 by Dark Ink Press and details Eva Braun's experience of World War Two. McAleese now considers himself a horror writer and has had his short stories published in Blood Rites Magazine and Haunting Voices among others. He looks to the 'disturbing' for inspiration, hoping to academically push back the last taboos in literature to analyse what they represent for today's cultural fears and anxieties. However, he hopes to balance this with a satisfying and long career in horror writing. He currently lives in Dundee and is working on his first horror novel.

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