Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cannibalism: The Ancient Taboo in Modern Times

Psychological Perspectives

Within the field of psychology there is a debate on what factors lead a person to practice criminal cannibalism. There are a many theories which have been presented, ranging from the over nurturing of a child during the first few months of their life to sudden stress. However, there is little evidence to support most of these theories. Nevertheless, the theories put forth present a framework in which one is able to gain a better understanding of the possible psychological factors behind cannibalism.

In an article by Sally Talwani titled Experts Debate What Forces Create A Cannibal, Dr. Clancy McKenzie, a psychology professor at Capital University in Washington, D.C. believes that cannibalism is a result of trauma, especially that experienced in childhood. He states that a child, following weaning from the breast, experiences separation anxiety and fantasizes about devouring the mother. A person who has experienced this may regress back to this stage in adulthood due to stress or trauma and lead the individual to seek out the fulfillment he has been denied by resorting to cannibalism.

This theory is further supported by a study on cross-cultural cannibalism conducted by Eli Sagan. According to Sandays book Divine Hunger, Sagan argues that cannibalism is a psychological response to anger and frustration expressed through oral aggression and an urge to literally absorb a person through consumption. Sagan states that this urge can be directed at an enemy who may threaten the strength of the individual. 

Sagan believes that children who are excessively dependent on their mothers, due to maternal over nurturing, are more likely to experience oral aggression and frustration due to separation. Moreover, he contends that the adult who subconsciously carries this oral aggression is likely to express it in an overtly dominant fashion against women by turning to cannibalism.

Evidence taken during psychological interviews with cannibals supports to a degree the contention that aggression towards the mother may be one possible factor in a persons cannibalism, such as with the case of Ed Kemper. However, it is unclear whether that aggression directly leads to cannibalism. Furthermore, there is little evidence available which can confirm this theory in its entirety and such evidence, if it existed, would be difficult to obtain. Even if there is some merit to this theory, it is unlikely that all cannibals, especially criminal cannibals fit into this context.

Conversely, in Talwanis article Dr. Park Dietz, a criminal expert and key testifier in the Dahmer trial, stated that it is imperative that psychologist not delve too deep into the cannibals childhood experiences to explain their practices. Dietz believes that a person can resort to cannibalism when faced with sudden traumatic stress, such as in the case of Dahmer who murdered his first victim following a break up of the family. Indeed, stress may be an important factor, which may propel one to indulge his appetite for his own species. However, it is not the only explanation.

This theory may be correct to an extent, yet it only gives a partial explanation into the motivation behind cannibalism and it may not be applicable to all cannibals. Moreover, it does not fully explain why, in the case of Dahmer, he entertained cannibalistic fantasies in his youth. Essentially, it is important to look at the entire psychoanalytical framework surrounding the behavior, instead of only a small portion. Therefore, it may be necessary to look into ones childhood or youth, as well as their adulthood for answers to the question of why people eat other people.

There are other theories, as yet unsubstantiated, that suggest cannibalism to be a sexual disorder and even an eating disorder. What seems to be a common characteristic among many cannibals is that many of them have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or some other form of personality disorder.

This theory suggests that there may be an underlying a neurochemical component related to cannibalistic behavior. Many cannibals, such as Andrei Chikatilo, Albert Fish, Edward Gein, and Issei Sagawa, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is defined in Rebers Dictionary of Psychology as a general label for a number of psychotic disorders with various cognitive, emotional and behavioral manifestationsreflecting a cleavage or dissociation between functions of feeling and emotion as well as a dissociation between thinking and cognition

Reber points at several common characteristic of schizophrenia, including thought disturbance, delusions, hallucinations and a loss of reality. This diagnosis might help explain the experiences many cannibals claim to feel prior to, during and after their cannibalistic activities, including black-outs, heightened sense of self and of the experience, hallucinations and other forms of disorganized thoughts or behavior. 

Moreover, schizophrenia may also be a significant component in historical accounts of tribal cannibalism. The psychotic features related to schizophrenia have been found to have a significant genetic component, thus it can be passed from generation to generation. Therefore, it is not unlikely that schizophrenia may take root in some small indigenous tribes, which pull from a small gene pool. However, this theory is speculative and has not fully been explored.   

It is obvious that there is a dearth of research in the particular area of modern criminal cannibalism. Although there are many theories, few are able to fully explain why some people resort to eating human flesh. Therefore, more research is crucial in understanding the factors that lead to criminal cannibalism.

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