Hi there, everyone. Blogslave Keith Hock here with a SPOOK-tacular October blog post! I’m sorry I couldn’t give you anything creepy or scarifiying last week, focused as I was on historiography, so this week I tried to make the blog extra terrifying to make up for it. Last time I talked to you about vampires I told you about one of their most important and recognizable trait (their sexiness) and the way that that separated them from the other monsters. Today I want to talk to you about something they share with other monsters, and their OTHER most recognizable trait: the blood drinking. Or, to broaden the synecdoche a little bit, people-eating. Anthropophagy. And, most importantly, cannibalism, because Dracula and his coterie at one point WERE human, even if they are no longer. That ‘if’ is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.
Eating people is shorthand for monstrous. Always has been. It is a simple shorthand: to give a good indication of how awful a creature is, have them not merely kill people but to devour them as well. It makes audience understand exactly how dangerous the creature is, and how little regard it has of the rules of society. The first thing that Grendel does when he assaults Heorot is snatch up a warrior to eat. Ancient Greece abounded with these monsters. Seemingly half of Hercules’ quests revolved around him dealing with some sort of man-eating animals, be they horse or bird or lion, and between Scylla snatching sailors out of his ship, the Laestrygonians spear-fishing his crew, Polyphemus gobbling up his men in the cave, and Circe’s abortive barbecue, it seems likely that Odysseus had more men eaten by monsters than killed in battle during the Trojan War. Fairy tale giants and witches from Jack’s Beanstalk to the Baba Yaga would literally announce their intentions to cook and eat their victims. It is hard to think of a monster that DOESN’T eat people.
But what happens when the the man-eater is human? There is precious little stopping one sufficiently motivated person from eating another, after all. We are little more than skin suits holding together a heap of muscles and fat cunningly wrapped around a skeleton in such a way that it becomes ambulatory. It’s not like human bodies are poisonous (unless you eat too many brains) or made of wood or iron or something indigestible. From a purely practical perspective there is no reason for humans to NOT eat other humans. And yet, with a few isolated cultural exceptions such as [allegedly] the Caribe and New Guinean mountain tribes, cannibalism is regarded as an ultimate taboo. Eating manflesh serves as an indicator of abandoning your own humanity. To treat your fellow man not as a fellow traveller but as a source of food suggests that you have surrendered your commonality with him.
Allow me to present some examples, starting where else but Ancient Greece and my second-favorite cursed bloodline, the Atreides. This familial curse began with Tantalus, who killed and cooked his son Pelops into a dish as a sacrifice to the gods. Why exactly he thought the gods would like this the stories do not make clear. The gods, being gods, immediately knew what he had done and were horrorstruck by it. Again, being gods, they resurrected Pelops, and then laid a familial curse on the bloodline and sentenced Tantalus to eternal torment submerged up to his head in water he could not drink and surrounded by grapes he could not eat. But wait! Having somehow not learned the lesson from his Grandpa, family namer Atreus took revenge on his brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and crown by killing Thyestes’ sons (Pleisthenes and another Tantalus), cooking them into a pie, and feeding them to him. You may recognize this plot point from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where it serves a similar purpose: to explore the hideous depths of depravity, the risks to one’s own soul, that will be explored in the search for revenge. Atreus, like Titus, took care to ensure that Thyestes actually ate before the secret was revealed, and Thyestes was rewarded for his accidental cannibalism with exile and a doubling-down of the familial curse. Atreus would go on to be killed by Thyestes’ other son Aegisthus, who would be killed in HIS turn by Atreus’ grandson Orestes. I find it particularly striking that even the Greek gods, perhaps the most deviant pantheon I can think of, drew the line at cannibalism, and even the accidental consumption of human flesh called for expiation.
Lest you believe that the only thing I know anything about is the Greeks and Shakespeare, let me share a non-European example as well. The Wendigo is a Native American legend from the Great Lakes region, occupying the nebulous territory between a monster and a curse. A Wendigo encountered in the wild, as it were, was ash-grey and rail-thin; think a skeleton that has been wrapped in skin and then vacuum-sealed. They were voracious man-eaters who thrived on winter, cold, isolation, hunger, and darkness. But the more interesting element of the Wendigo, especially for my purposes, is not this “monster-of-the-week” aspect, but their cultural cachet. There was a pervasive idea in the Algonquian tribes that a human could become a Wendigo if they were overcome by greed, or ate human flesh. The need to consume would trigger a transformation within them, and their humanity would be surrendered in exchange for an unending hunger, an insatiable need to have more, and more, and more. The Wendigo legend is not dissimilar from the European werewolf, as it depicts a human literally abandoning their humanity in the service of their dark appetites.
Cannibalism appears in modern culture, too, except that instead of legends and fairy tales we have movies and tv shows and books. Cannibalism is used as shorthand for an abandonment of civilization, the rejection of and contempt for rules, norms, and mores. Often in post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Neil Marshall’s Doomsday or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is an acknowledgement that society has abandoned them, and so they are right to return the favor. In science fiction scenarios, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or (with a somewhat different intention) Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, it carries the idea that the cannibals think they have more important issues to think about than their humanity. In suspense and crime thrillers, like the various iterations of the Hannibal Lecter character and the tv show Bones, it signifies a character believing himself to above the rules, too smart to be tied down by the laws of society that keep the ‘normals’ in check. In each of these settings the cannibalistic characters believe that they have something to gain by losing their humanity. It is a clear trade that is being defined in each of these situations, and it is a trade that they are all glad to make because they place no value on their conscience.
Dracula and his vampiric children fit very neatly into this trade-off. Dracula consciously and positively identifies himself with predators, particularly the wolf. In his mind the human world is little more than a herd of sheep or cattle for him to toy with and prey upon at his leisure. He willingly accepts the gifts of the monster, the strength and cunning and charisma and ruthlessness, and regards the faith and compassion which he has lost as liabilities. Because he has willingly surrendered these human traits he holds them in faint regard. But his scorn for humanity, especially human companionship and loyalty, ends up being his downfall.
If you want to SEE this downfall, you’ve still got a couple more chances this month! Dracula will be returning to Spectre Arts down in Raleigh this weekend if you feel like taking a road trip down to beautiful North Carolina. If travelling to the Tar Heel State is not in the cards for you, fear not! We have a few additional performances here in the Nation’s Capital as well, including one at the Southeast Public Library on the 26th and another at CHAW on the 30th. I hope to see you there!