Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cannibal Celebrity: Issei Sagawa

What Makes Them Do It?

The fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter, featured in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, has a gruesome appetite for human flesh. He delights in his human liver with fava beans and finds the horrified reactions of others amusing. People are nothing to him but objects to be used to satisfy himself. He's the "new" cannibal, the one who brings his disgusting appetites into public view and revels in them — just as Sagawa has done.

Fred Katz, sociologist and author of Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil, examines how we can start out innocently and by gradual increments get into position to enact real evil. This generally involves viewing what we're doing through a framework that differs from that of society at large, and we may develop one out of rebellion, curiosity, exposure to new ideas, or perverse influences on the formation of our private fantasies.

Cannibalism, or the consumption of human flesh by another human, has been practiced in many cultures, generally as a ritual. The Aztecs in Mexico sacrificed and then ate thousands of people every year to please the gods, and other cultures such as the Aborigines used the practice to "incorporate" the power of their enemies. Natives of the Fiji Islands simply like the taste, and people such as the Donner-led settlers in 1846 dined off others to survive in the rugged conditions of the Sierra Nevadas.

There are different forms of cannibalism, or anthropophagy, and they're practiced for different reasons. Omophagia is a symbolic ritual meant to preserve the life force of the deceased by transforming the physical substance of the body into something spiritual. It may be done as part of deity worship or as a way to honor dead relatives. It may also be done to stave off widespread starvation, such as the widespread consumption of human flesh that occurred in the early part of the century in both China and Russia (mentioned by Chikatilo as influential on his own hunger).

Some killers have adopted a form of omophagia, which is called zoophagia, as a means of possessing their victims. Zoophagia is the consumption of life forms, as seen in the character of Renfield in Dracula, who progresses from spiders to flies to birds to cats. The idea is to ingest increasingly sophisticated life forms as a way to improve one's own.


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