Starving Season: Examining Westernized Depictions of Cannibalism in Horror


Now that we have survived the holiday season and have entered winter solstice, I figure what better time to talk about “Starving Time” and the darker underlying themes of the events in Jamestown?When hearing the word cannibalism, many tend to envision barbarians in an exotic land partaking in cannibalism as an act of warfare or a misunderstood way of religion. I would like to challenge people to take on a different perspective and rather than upholding anti Indigenous caricatures and stereotypes, to diversify their imagination and incorporate more accurate associations, such as what occurred in Jamestown, Virginia.

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Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley said the human remains date back to a deadly winter known as the “starving time” in Jamestown from 1609 to 1610. Hundreds died during the period. Scientists have said the settlers likely arrived during the worst drought in 800 years, bringing severe food shortages for the 6,000 people who lived at Jamestown between 1607 and 1625.”

Ozzy Osbourne, (The Prince of Darkness!) and his son Jack Osbourne visited this dark history on their television show, Ozzy and Jacks World Detour, where they visited colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown for one episode. I must admit, it was entertaining to see Ozzy get squeamish at the exhibit and I felt a sense of gratification that my understanding of that history, was reiterated.

Settlers turned to cannibalism, but it’s rarely ever talked about. Native Americans even helped settlers to keep them from starving, but often rather than addressed that truth, it is supplanted by colonial Thanksgiving mythologies depicting Indians and pilgrims holding hands and feasting. Too often historical accuracy is upheld as a crutch while colonial mythologies are ahistorical to begin with. While some may downplay that dynamic as implied, ahistorical notions of paternalism are prevalent, and function to uphold melting pot mythologies institutionalized by society as an absolute truth. The Wampanoag massacre that the original thanksgiving feast originated on, came out of bloodshed. Those mythologies are harmful because they gloss over the violence and tragedy of the ways settlers established “America”.  While this may bring fourth some guilt or unsettling feelings in the reader, it is necessary to at least acknowledge the dynamic involved before moving forward on the topic.

Cannibalism is taboo, it’s easy to understand why some may shudder at the shame of this history. So why is it that one would be quicker to associate it with Anti Indigenous stereotypes rather than with pilgrims and settlers? Whether the taboo manifest itself unintentionally or as a deliberate attempt to capitalize on shock value, the fascination around this taboo persist when modern day depictions like Green Inferno are still being made.

The hypocrisy around the Jamestown revisionism is an example of the ways that a collective societal fear is displaced into popular depictions (In this case, upon Indigenous peoples). I have often joked in response to the tropes, that a narrative should be created which draws light to that irony. To name a few examples: an allegorical lesson about the dangers of environmental violence due to colonialism, a story about a zombie outbreak in the Jamestown colony due to disease outbreak from lack of bathing or other causes associated with settling from across the ocean.

From the set of American Horror Story Roanoke
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When I had heard that the most recent season of American Horror story was set to take place in Roanoke, part of me had hoped that there would be a reference to the events that took place in Jamestown. While the season did feature one ode to cannibalism through torture scenes reminiscent to the feel of The Hills Have Eyes, the overall direction of the show went nowhere knew what I had imagined.

 Either way, anything would be better and more entertaining than the same recycled anti Indigenous tropes and mythologies that uphold xenophobic, purity binaries of the civilized tourist/settlers versus the exotic savages.

When thinking about the theme of cannibalism in the context of horror, it may help understanding the reasons these tropes persist if we unpack the theme of cannibalism in the horror canon. While the most obvious manifestation of this can be seen in zombie films, that depiction is a further evolved association that has become its own monster of a subgenre.

Films within other thriller subgenres like Alive, The Road, Wrong Turn, Silence of the Lambs, are all films that involve cannibalism in a more humanized light.
 The idea that cannibalism can be empathized with to a point, if it were a final resort for survival. In that case, one could describe these subsets as pandering to more personal psychological fears, than depictions out of shock value; Or gore for gores sake.

Alive specifically, can be paralleled with the event at Jamestown, as well as the scene from The Road. While The Road is within a post-apocalyptic context, Alive a biographical film based on a true story, set after a plane crash in the Andes. In a circumstance where people are stranded in the middle of nowhere, this story plays on isolation. When passengers are forced to feed on dead bodies, one could say that is where the construct of order and civilization becomes blurred.

Films like Wrong Turn and Silence of the Lambs play on the subconscious primal fears where associated with ‘the other”, the idea of a killer (whether noticeably violent or unsuspected) acts as a predator.  While one wouldn’t exactly describe a serial killer as a more humanized depiction, part of what makes those stories so terrifying is the fact that they appear to be normal people, but with a hidden animosity to prey and ultimately murder people in the most animalistic ways. Of course, that fear becomes more real when paralleling films and books about serial killers with cases in real life.

Cannibalism isn’t exactly just a concept limited to American narratives. Indigenous folklore includes the chilling story of the Wendigo, which often plays out more as an allegory rather than as a projection of xenophobia. Sweeney Todd while an American film, was a story that originated out of London, and is based on a long history of folklore and fascination with cannibalism dating back to the 1800s. Manga series like Uzamaki and Tokyo Ghoul incorporate cannibalism even though the contextual circumstances relate to the plots rather than being a primary fear device.

Overall, my interpretation of cannibalistic depictions in the horror canon, primarily boils down to a psychological taboo associated with ideas of civilization and primitivism. What tends to set American stories apart from other interpretations, is the tendency to align depictions with western paradigms. I personally am not much of a fan of gore for the sake of gore, so if there must be some disturbing element like cannibalism in whatever I’m consuming, I enjoy some type of plot backing its symbolic expression involved. But conclusively, I would like to see these narratives challenged to dissociate perceived fears from western dichotomies to challenge biases in a way that isn’t so blatantly biased and visceral. As I had mentioned previously in my article about the “Indian burial ground” trope, replicating old tropes could be holding back opportunities to create new stories. I see much potential to develop these taboo collective fears and illustrate them in more diverse and interesting ways, if we can move beyond overplayed western paradigms.