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.

Image via:

Image via:

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
Image Source:

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.



Invasion: Ironic Colonial Fear

    As you can see in the first article that I have done as a contributor to the platform NativesInAmerica, I’ve always been so drawn to hip hop. Though, I don’t think people quite understood how non mutually-exclusive that passion was with my longstanding affinity to horror. Scrolling back through the memories of my early-adolescence, I recall one of the first professionally released independent and Indigenous-created albums I had ever come across and owned - Maniac: The Siouxpernatural’s “Nightmerika” released in 2005 under Night Shield Entertainment.

maniac sioux.jpg

    I was so drawn to Maniac and this album because it truly sounded like what I was familiar with growing up on the specific rez of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. To me, that mix of horror elements here and there sprinkled in with the nostalgic hip-hop/boom-bap soundstyle was what fit in my life and experience living around Eagle Butte, South Dakota. The style of it screamed “DarkSide” to me, a small neighborhood that I walked through often, hoping to not get chased by unchained dogs in darkened streets below lights that usually never worked. The most influential track from that already influential album in my life was the very first song called, “The Invasion”.

Provided to YouTube by CDBaby The Invasion · Maniac the Siouxpernatural Nightmerika ℗ 2005 Gabriel Night Shield Released on: 2005-03-15 Auto-generated by YouTube.

    The track itself has so much of everything that I like in that style of hip hop. A creepy beat that builds in momentum and anticipation. Lyrics that talk about nearly every ideology behind “invasion” in its many forms. And the film quotes inserted at the beginning and end are what caught me the most. Overall, it’s such a good track, and probably one of my favorite intro’s to an album ever.

“Our official opinions are this IS genuine. What you’re about to see, may disturb you.”

    As I think back to that song, probably one of the most ear-catching soundbyte samples comes from the film “Signs”. There was something about that idea of invasion being broadcasted that really encapsulated the whole theme for me. The ideas of mass hysteria, panic, or even how one would react in a rural area to events that affect the entire world. But as I got to appreciating this song more and more, another interesting topic came to mind.

    The most frequent question that comes to horror-fans is one that requests reasons “Why?”. Why horror? Why scare yourself? Why do these specific things frighten us? Why do we then watch those specific things? After admiring this track by Maniac, I found myself asking, “Why Alien Invasion?” Within the subgenre of aliens in film, there are different categories to which I believe either make up an entire film or combine in a film: sighting, contact, abduction, and invasion (there are others, but I mostly recall seeing these four in particular the most in film). So, then, with all of these categories, why is invasion the most prevalent?

    Personally, I really like movies of invasion in particular, just like the rest of the country when you look at the amount of films with this theme. It was the only kind of horror that got me to walk out of a theatre (as I candidly discussed in this episode of #NeverDeadRadio). To me, that anticipation of an invasion was so anxiety-provoking and… fun! The news broadcasts preparing the masses for the unknown in the film “Signs”. The sudden shock of seeing an invasion begin live on television like in the film “Mars Attacks!”. A Silent Hill siren-esque sound-off that the tripods from “War of the Worlds” let out as silence and awe-struck crowds would soon be running for their lives. The same anticipation that late-comedian Patrice O’Neal talked of being the better part of the film “Independence Day” on the classic Opie and Anthony program. I remember specifically LOVING just the film trailer to “Skyline” - as it showed people from afar simply being sucked up into spacecrafts (no plot device, just straight up terror). I could go on and on, but still, something recently was getting to me concerning this aspect of the sub-genre, and I had to just hash it out a little.

    Ultimately, what essentially felt odd about Americans and the concept of “invasion” was just the irony. Of course, various Indigenous artists throughout media have taken this stance in their independent art, video games, etc. and in re-listening to Maniac’s “Nightmerika” release, I couldn’t help but go through the motions, so to speak.

    Firstly, there’s a real trend of narcissism in American-film’s portrayal of “invasion”. The aliens are always intelligent beyond comprehension, as if that is the only way in which humans/America can truly be taken over. Not by outnumbered resources or overpowered soldiers, but the idea that the minds of the extra-terrestrial are so far beyond us, and THAT is why they would be able to invade and succeed. When thinking about the Great American Invasion that began in 1492, wasn’t it moreso cutthroat trickery, injustice, lies, and deception that led to a near successful genocide? Who’s to say the aliens won't come in claiming to be peaceful only to backstab us while we teach them agriculture? “Can you teach us to plant digital corn?” Perhaps that’s not as exciting, or that that does not give sufficient explanation as to how aliens would reach us in the first place, but it just seems like an odd occurrence that this often is the case.

    Secondly, could this be a subconscious fear of the collective colonial mind? I’d like to think so. Imagine the original “War of the Worlds” for example. The invasion occurs, and suddenly humans’ worlds are “turned upside down” as they become slaves, must adapt to a new way of living, and have to abide by laws foreign to their natural way of life that they once knew. Really uncomfortable to have to assimilate and compromise huh? Life’s hard, bro.

    Thirdly, now that I think about it, is this catharsis for a colonized America? Could an oppressive majority (that indeed still oppresses) feel the need to feel oppressed, and thus the conception of aliens invading Earth is simply a way to “be oppressed” when that’s clearly not the open case for most people? I make the case of catharsis, because it is one that is made in the “Masters of Horror” documentary, in which some directors talk about how death (be it human, animal, etc.) is not one that people in modernized society see so much of anymore. In this theory, it is pointed out that certain duties of surviving that used to be the norm (i.e. butchering one’s own food, if you’re a meat-eater) is now replaced with supermarkets and distanced delicatessens that don’t show you exactly what happens to your food before it reaches your cooking pan or mouth. Could the oppressor have been in illusionary power for so long that there is a need for feeling “oppressed” or “threatened”? Does it kind of sound like I’m just talking about scare tactics that the news and media uses now to act aggressively towards other possible “invaders”? I honestly don’t know anymore.

    My last thought on this whole matter overall is, with all of this irony, is there a way to construct a horror-film that takes the story of American Genocide of Indigenous peoples and form it into a way similar to alien invasion films? “They Came From Europe” or “War of the ‘Discovered’ Worlds”. Something that basically states, “Hey, you know that thing you’re afraid of? It’s happening to us.” Think of it this way: due to genocide my blood and affiliation is questionably documented in tribal ID form. The identity I hold, according to the U.S. government, is dependent on my enrollment, blood quantum, and overall documentation - all factors that have always only been geared towards extermination (a fraction can only go down). On top of that, when I go to create a bank account, fly a plane, cash a check, etc. that same forced documentation is then denied by banks, TSA agents, and postal offices who are inconsiderately ignorant to tribal sovereignty. So, technically many Indigenous peoples are documented while simultaneously that documentation is deemed insufficient by the oppressor in order to function in their controlled world and economy. That’s the real horror. That’s the real invasion. And maybe, that’s why I’ve always liked those kinds of films. One of my favorite films of all time speaks to this idea closest, in my eyes, in terms of consumption and control: They Live. Hopefully the trailer below says enough to make my point:

Original theatrical trailer for the 1988 film "John Carpenter's They Live." Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Raymond St. Jacques, Peter Jason, Sy Richardson, George "Buck" Flower. Written & directed by John Carpenter.

    Overall, there are so many other questions and ideas I have concerning this topic, and so much more hashing out that I need to do with this idea, and thus I invite you all to comment your thoughts/opinions/differences/similar views! Or even submit a piece to our graveyard section! What other ways do you see the subgenre of aliens or abduction specifically as speaking to larger/deeper aspects of society and its history? What are some other films that come to mind?


The Indian Burial Ground Trope

Excavating Projections of Colonialism
in the Horror and Paranormal Realm 

Being a Native viewer of horror films, often means making a choice to acknowledge or dismiss our role of self-awareness and ultimately being cognizant of our place within the realm of horror.  This introspection is not only limited to realizing the barriers of exclusion we face, but also the the constant normalization of dominant paradigms that are so prevalent and typically molded to fit a broader audience. Those paradigms reveal themselves through the frequent use of tropes and symbols that have become so repetitive it becomes near impossible to ignore; And it brings about the question, are these tropes utilized as filler for a plot device? Or do they act as a blanket projection of collective fears from a societal culture that has been built upon, and sustained by settler colonialism?

One of the tropes most blatantly representative of settler colonialism is the “Indian Burial ground” trope. This trope had reached its peak within popular culture in the 1980s where it was most associated (but not limited to) horror classics such as Pet Cemetery,  Amityville horror and The Shining.  While it could be argued to be a product of its time, that doesn’t explain the ongoing usage of Indian burial grounds and “Indian curses” that persist even today.

Paranormal shows such as Ghost Adventures, Ghost hunters, Paranormal Witness, Paranormal State, Dead Files, have all included Indian Burial Grounds or Indian curses as an explanation of paranormal phenomena at some point. That is not to relegate the fact that it could be a possibility of spiritual unrest in the afterlife, (for those who believe in the paranormal) but it is also possible that too often this explanation is an easy answer for every paranormal experience. Upon realizing that this trope is so pervasive, it then becomes evident that there is some sort of collective infatuation in these mythologies, and when being mindful of the various levels of genocide (past and ongoing) this trope represents many meanings and unconscious associations that extend beyond the horror genre. This trope is not a product of horror, but simply a westernized paradigm that has been normalized within horror, the paranormal, and accepted as a nostalgic device, so much to the point it has also become a punchline for satire within popular culture.

The idea of building on top of Native remains is polarizing, because of the nature of injustice fuels settler guilt while also establishing Indigenous peoples as “the other”. Horror as a genre works to play on the primal fears of their audience, and those who enjoy the paranormal, tend to be attracted to it because so much of it represents what it unknown and cannot be explained. The Indian Burial Ground trope is successful because of its ability to stir up supernatural trepidation while also appealing to collective societal fears that have been ingrained into public consciousness for centuries.

On that note, there are further presuppositions to the ways the Indian Burial ground trope is inherently anti Native and reflective of settler colonial attitudes. One reason is the fact it furthers the vanishing Native trope; One that originated out of the era of Federal Indian policy that had the assumption that Indians would eventually vanish.  While this trope is not so explicitly stated, its often vocalized and upheld through the misinformed perspective of many Americans who assert that Natives are extinct. It is alluded to in the constant imagery of dead Natives such as through the ever popular skull in headdress image. The idea of the vanishing Native has acted as a justification of colonization, where Native dispossession, displacement, and acts of post mortem violence such as building on Native burial grounds or stealing Native remains, goes unquestioned when the popular assumption is “they’re all dead anyway”.

Most disturbing is the parallels that can be drawn to desecration of remains and sacred grounds in real life (such as what is occurring right now with Dakota Access Pipeline) which I classify as an act of Post Mortem Violence.  Natives have been resisting against the desecration of Burial grounds as well as the unjust theft or remains for centuries. Another negative aspect of the Indian Burial ground trope is that  it paints Settler Colonialism in the light that corruption that has already been committed, and that genocide is a process of the past. It ignores that settler colonialism is ongoing, upon Indigenous peoples who have a thriving presence and ongoing existence.  Pipelines are still being forced onto sacred grounds and corporations are still building upon burial grounds. Tribes are still fighting to have their relative’s remains returned home, even the remains of famed Native Olympian, Jim Thorpe.  In God Is Red, Vine Deloria Jr describes the many instances of grave looting and unearthing of grave sites in the name of archaeology and other state institutions. These acts of injustice are not simply residual haunting of American guilt, but an active presence in the treatment of modern Indigenous peoples.

One of the most prevalent criticisms about the Indian Burial ground trope is the fact that it is representative of settler guilt. Like the crying Indian commercial, it has come to represent the fact that settlers may be pondering the tragedy of genocide and projecting as a way of grappling with that guilt. But one of the ways that can also be interpreted, is not so much that it’s about the process of unpacking that guilt, but to dissociate from it. The primary red flag in identifying that dynamic is by acknowledging the stigmatization that occurs in tandem with the burial ground trope.

Every time there is a demonic entity, whether it be through the resurrection of evil pets in Pet cemetery, or through a malevolent entity haunting American families, it can easily be explained as a vengeful spirit because burial grounds were tampered with. But if that fear were so real would Hollywood still be profiting off this trope while continuing to commit the same transgressions? Why do films like “The Darkness” exist where the focus is on demonizing Native cultures to the point where tampering with sacred ground is no longer an allegory but an excuse to act upon dehumanization, Anti Native sentiments and more erasure.  Overall if we were to go with this logic, it could be said that all of America is one mass burial ground, as so many have pointed out at this point that it has lost its severity as a political rhetoric point to becoming a comedy punchline.   

These reactionary plots are the same typical response colonizers have fostered since the beginning of their invasion, to deem Indigenous peoples as angry, hostile, savages, and it seems they are still projecting that idea upon the spirits of the undead. Colonizers thrived on religious violence as an impetus of conquest and the noble thought that they were saving souls. Years later during the civil rights era and even up until modern times, there have even been segregated cemeteries; Therefore, the assertion that settler colonial projections have been extended upon the dead, aren’t that far off.

That Idea of anti-Native tropes existing as a matter of projection, can be furthered when discussing the history of Native spirituality being historically stigmatized and even made illegal, in attempt to be wiped out by the US government, through the process of assimilation. Currently that is what tropes like Indian burial ground further represent, when Indigenous spirituality is otherized with negative connotations of mysticism; Whether through projections of the noble savage or the idea that Native culture exist as a symbol of the past, as an imaginary ghost. Culture is further co-opted and mystified with the constant appropriation of Indigenous cultural customs to eradicate violent spirits. (Such as through the burning of sage, in the context of Native cultural traditions is referred to as smudging). That in itself is paradoxical where Native culture and spirituality is stigmatized yet consumed and appropriated in the same breath. While some may argue those appropriating are validating those practices, what is actually occurring when demonization and mysticism is present, is the dispossession of those practices from their actual cultures of origin.

In conclusion, if the point of these tropes is to enact guilt from historical injustice but is carried out through stigmatization, then that guilt boils down to another level of the white savior complex. The white savior complex can be defined as one’s belief in the divine right to “save” indigenous peoples. But in matter of doing so, that also takes place through the veil of paternalism that says that Indigenous peoples are primitive and need to be saved. Alluding to an Indian burial ground isn’t a direct illusion to this, however it beckons the guilt of saviors that says it’s their jobs to draw light to injustice regardless of the matter in which they are doing so, it is dehumanizing and consumptive. Many times this trope is merely used as a story plot but the director or author doesn’t even care to acknowledge the issues of Injustice happening with Indigenous communities in real life. Ultimately the savior complex acts out of opportunistic motives, and in the context of the horror genre, acts simply as a filler; Regardless of whether there is a genuine attribution of “Indian Burial grounds” to other acts of post mortem violence, sacred desecration. When there is a completely disregard in dynamics for respecting the cultures from which those supposed associations originate, it comes off as a replication of the same violence its purportedly meant to condemn.

In conclusion, it can be said that its time for creators to move beyond these tropes, not only for the sake of respecting Native horror fans, but also to renew dusty plotlines and unveil new possibilities for horror. Questioning these tropes is not just a matter of race baiting or stirring up guilt, but can be seen as a genuine opportunity to revamp and enrich Indigenous involvement in horror. Rather than repeating age old cycles we can all move beyond that and lay the burial ground trope to rest.