Man-Eating Monsters
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Man-Eating Monsters

Anthropocentrism and Popular Culture

Dina Khapaeva, Dina Khapaeva

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Man-Eating Monsters

Anthropocentrism and Popular Culture

Dina Khapaeva, Dina Khapaeva

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About This Book

What role do man-eating monsters - vampires, zombies, werewolves and cannibals - play in contemporary culture? This book explores the question of whether recent representations of humans as food in popular culture characterizes a unique moment in Western cultural history and suggests a new set of attitudes toward people, monsters, animals, and death.
This volume analyzes how previous epochs represented man-eating monsters and cannibalism. Cultural taboos across the world are explored and brought into perspective whilst we contemplate how the representations of humans as commodities can create a global atmosphere that creeps towards cannibalism as a norm.
This book also explores the links between the role played by the animal rights movement in problematizing the difference between humans and nonhuman animals. Instead of looking at the relations between food, body, and culture, or the ways in which media images of food reach out to various constituencies and audiences, as some existing studies do, this collection is focused on the crucial question, of how and why popular culture representations diffuse the borders between monsters, people, and animals, and how this affects our ideas about what may and may not be eaten.

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Chapter 1

Eaten in Jurassic World: Antihumanism and Popular Culture

Dina Khapaeva
“This is a collection of handmade, hand painted, Belgian chocolate all with a common theme. All skulls are life size, 100% chocolate and 100% edible,” reads the advertisement of an English “edible art” chocolatier who sells chocolate representing, with utmost realism and in minute anatomical detail, a dissected female cadaver. It is part of her “Anatomical Cakes” collection. The “Chocolate Curios” collection features dead “Baby Heads,” body organs, and coffin decorations.1 As the website proudly indicates, the company’s press coverage includes The Guardian, Metro, Daily Mail, TaxiMag, and Time Out. This type of food art has followers outside the Western world as well. An “Unofficial Justice” Facebook blog displays a video that shows Russian secondary school children eating a special cake: a full-sized mummy of Vladimir Lenin, an exact copy of the one on display in Red Square’s Mausoleum in Moscow.2 Internationally, recipes for festive Halloween food feature cookies and puddings that imitate severed body parts or full-sized cadavers. A Facebook meme declaring “‘No Thanks, I’m a Vegetarian!’ Is a Fun Thing to Say When Someone Hands You a Baby” has garnered many shares, likes, and laughing emojis at the time of writing.3 Countless examples of such allusions to death, the dead4 and cannibalism are so mainstream in contemporary culture that they pass unnoticed, whereas they should make us realize the significant changes in the attitude to death,5 food, and most importantly, to humanity.
Cultural historians, anthropologists, and literary critics alike try to normalize the treatment of death and the dead in popular culture by saying that, since the beginning of time, humans have always been fascinated by death and have depicted it in an endless variety of ways. A comparison is often made with the medieval obsession with death manifested in representations of the dance macabre, the memento mori, and ossuaries, or with the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century vanitas, or even with Victorian ways of memorializing their dead. Yet, how similar are the contemporary tableaux vivants featured in popular fashion magazines and advertisements that stage supermodels as dead bodies ostensibly in the aftermath of an agonizing, violent death to the Victorians’ art of death photography? And how comparable are the Victorians’ sentimental memento mori jewelry that was meant to encourage virtuous living and making the most of one’s passing life, and a “fully edible” chocolate creation in shape of a dead infant or a dissected body? If the first was a desperate – even if somewhat peculiar – attempt to preserve the memory of a deceased relative, the second is a diversion and a commodity employing cannibalistic theme.
I believe that contemporary representations of people as food are part of a revolution in the ways of engaging with death, which has haunted Western society since the 1990s. I argue that this revolution is responsible for popular culture’s fascination with horrifying agonies of violent death and images of human characters devoured by monsters. In this chapter, I will consider the cultural and intellectual context – especially, French Theory and animal rights movement – that has made representations of people as food for monsters so widespread. I will demonstrate that the current virtual questioning of our basic food taboo in popular culture (which I have also discussed in the Introduction to this volume) is ultimately linked to the commodification of antihumanism – namely, the invention of antihumanism as a popular commodity of the entertainment industry. Using the evolution of human–monsters’ relations in Jurassic franchise, beginning with Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park (1990) and including the most recent movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J. A. Bayona, 2018), I will consider whether the denial of the human being’s place on top of the food chain and fictional violence against human protagonists in popular culture are interconnected cultural phenomena?
Although an impressive body of research has addressed many aspects of the fixation on death, violence, and the undead in popular culture, as well as on recent changes in death-related rituals and practices, we do not have an integral explanation for the mounting demand for images of violent death and the dramatic changes in death-related rituals and practices. The approach that I have proposed in my book The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture consists in analyzing death-obsessed popular culture genres and “the death turn” in social and cultural practices as aspects of a single cultural movement (Khapaeva, 2017), which I call thanatopathia (from θάνατος – death and πάθος – craving). In that book, I offer a conceptual framework for understanding the origins and implications of the cult of death and examine the specific cultural and historical conditions of the 1990s and 2000s that triggered the acceptance of the “death turn” in popular culture, rituals, and rites.
The analysis of popular culture products offers important insights into the meaning of the cultural and social transformations that may otherwise remain obscure (even though these transformations do not necessarily imply positive or liberating social change). Gothic, horror, and other death-centered genres can help explain death-related rituals and shed light on their implications for the value system. Focusing on the attitudes to people as expressed in both popular culture and social rituals allows me to reveal their complementarity as parts of a single system of meaning. When I analyze popular culture genres, I consider them through the lenses of the evolution of anthropocentrism, focusing on the attitudes to human characters. I argue that thanatopathia reinvents death as entertainment and challenges our understanding of humanity’s role and its place in our system of values. My emphasis on the consumption of fictional death rather than on death as a real-life event, distinguishes my approach from current trends in anthropology, cultural studies, and death studies. Thanatopathia is a synthetic concept that connects my observations of the simulated world of fiction and movies to that of social and cultural practices.
Building on an array of theoretical perspectives in cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, history, studies of media violence, violence in Young Adult Literature, and death studies, I seek to go beyond the existing interpretations of the current fascination with death, which are concerned primarily with political, social, psychological, economic, or religious factors. In particular, my approach stands apart from the studies of Young Adult Literature and media violence, which emphasizes the psychological mechanisms that “make us watch” (or read) materials related to simulated violence. By contrast, I examine how the rejection of anthropocentrism affects the way humans are represented in novels, movies, or computer games that focus on violent death and to what extent commodified antihumanism prompts the questioning of our basic food taboo.
The concept of Gothic Aesthetics, which I put forward in my previous works, is vital for my approach and for my analysis of popular culture. The influence of Gothic Aesthetics, a powerful esthetic trend, is apparent in a body of texts, both cinematographic and fictional, which share two distinctive features. First, in works belonging to this aesthetic trend, murderous monsters typically take the role of first-person narrators, occupying the place previously reserved for humans. Second, the plot and the setting of those works revolve around the representation of a nightmare. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the idealization of nonhuman monsters merged with a mounting public demand to experience a nightmare while reading a novel or watching a movie. Gothic Aesthetic, which created a rich soil for thanatopathia in the last decade of the twentieth century, is deeply rooted in the Western culture of the past two centuries (Khapaeva, 2013, p. 209–232) Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors experimented with literary nightmares and developed new literary devices that helped them induce a nightmare trance in their readers by distorting their normal perception of reality. These literary devices included mind games, diverse handlings of lightening, literary hypnosis, and narrative strategies that disrupted the reader’s sense of direction, space, and time. Sudden breaks in logic and chronology, doppelgangers acting as protagonists, repetitions of words and events, instances of déjà-vu, descriptions of flight, chase, and falling, which distract the readers’ attention and diminish their critical ability, were employed to dislocate the readers’ sense of identity. The techniques of these classical writers have been adopted and enhanced by contemporary writers and film directors – the true nightmare dealers.6 It should be stressed, however, that classical writers – Charles Robert Maturin, Nicolay Gogol, Feodor Dostoevsky, and Thomas Mann, – were indirect founders of the Gothic Aesthetic. Most of them dared not to break away from the anthropocentric ideals of the Enlightenment. Even the Gothic revival in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not produce monsters of the kind we routinely encounter today.7 At that time, the protagonists who captured the writer’s full attention and with whom the readers were supposed to identify – as in Bram Stoker’s paradigmatic Dracula8 – were still humans, not monsters; human protagonists, not Dracula and the like, were the first-person narrators through whose eyes we witness the story.
Gothic Aesthetic was an important aesthetic factor in the formation of thanatopathia. Monsters “feeding” on humans epitomized a fascination with violent fictional death and man-eating monsters as an expression of the ultimate contempt for humans and humanity. The audience’s willingness to identify with monsters was facilitated by the new technologies that helped immerse the viewers in a trance-like, nightmare state and to generate for the audience an illusion of feeling endowed with nonhuman powers.
Two waves in the development of thanatopathia provide the cultural context that is important for the understanding of the transformations in the representations of human characters. The first wave of thanatopathia, which took place roughly between the mid-1980s and the end of the 1990s, was marked by a fascination with serial killers and cannibals, along with the rapidly growing popularity of vampire sagas and zombie apocalypses. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, images of vampires, serial killers, and cannibals fused into an iconic image of the man-eater. During this period, new technologies provided unique opportunities for the representation of monsters, and the culture of nightmare consumption spread. By the early 1990s, Gothic Aesthetic had taken over fiction and movies, which regularly featured the murderous monsters and the undead in man-made nightmares. The idea that the difference between humans and monsters is ambiguous and that the murderous monster is actually the Other and thus deserves our sympathy has become an important message of the popular culture products.9 This period was marked by an increasing number of computer games, animated pictures, and movies depicting violent death and attacks on humans, and the incidence of violence in prime-time television programs outnumbered those occurring in real life.10 The idealization of monsters in fiction and movies corresponded to the changes in social and cultural practices that were taking place during this period. A celebrity culture centered on serial killers that emerged approximately at the same time is one example of this interdependence. Simultaneously, the vampire subculture began to compete in popularity with the Goth and Emo subcultures. Also in the 1980s and 1990s, rituals traditionally related to death, such as funerals and mourning, have experienced rapid and drastic changes, which are comparable in scope with those that archeologists observe when a new archeological culture is coming to replace an old one. New practices such as green funerals and cryonization appeared in the United States and Europe. The spread of urban legends about the apple blade, poisoned sweets, and ritual killings occurring during Halloween, which caused a nationwide panic in the 1980s in the United States, served to attract enormous public attention to this holiday. Those hoaxes conditioned the rapid growth of Halloween’s popularity, not the least because this holiday offered antihumanism as a new compelling commodity. Halloween’s focus shifting from children to adults and the centrality of death-related symbolism is an important reason for its international success. Finally, in the 1990s, death studies and thanatology studies developed into academic fields in their own right, moving death to the center of the academic research agenda in the social sciences and humanities.11
The second wave of thanatopathia dates back to the early 2000s, when violent entertainment broke new grounds. The secular apocalypse, which proclaimed and even celebrated the end of human civilization, became a prominent genre. Horror merged with the Gothic, BDSM, “slashers,” and torture porn. Popular culture indulged in the fascination with cannibalism, which acquired a new status as a fashionable diversion. Descriptions of serial killers “hunting humans,...

Table of contents