01 June 2012

Cannibal horror

"Man killed while eating another man's face". There's a reason why we love to read horror stories like this one, says Susan Erasmus.


"Man killed while eating another man's face". There's a reason why we love to read horror stories like this one, says Susan Erasmus.

This story is every tabloid's wet dream: the men were both naked, they were in a very public place, there must have been drugs involved, there was violence and a killing, and cannibalism is always a crowd-puller. Hell, the movie industry has made millions sometimes covering just one of these topics.

No story of this kind will ever win a Pulitzer Prize. It's opportunistic journalism rather than the investigative variety, and there's enough in this grim tale from Miami to make the most hardened news junkie squirm. And yet, people were fascinated.

Bad taste has never stopped anyone: for almost two days this story was the most-read on News24, long after it disappeared from any of the top slots on the main page. The indistinct footage from CCTV cameras was downloaded and watched again and again.

Are we just ghoulish and desensitised? That may be, but as a race we do seem to have an appetite for the gruesome. Think of some of the fairytales we grew up with. Many of them are cautionary tales, but they do seem to linger with a certain relish on the punishments meted out to the incalcitrants.

But I do think there's something else involved too. In our competitive and individualistic society, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. And often, we don't win. But in a case like this, in which someone fatally disgraces himself, and goes against every single behavioural norm we like to subscribe to, it allows the rest of us to emerge looking fabulous. (Well, except Hannibal Lecter. Maybe even Hannibal Lecter. He still had his clothes on, and he didn't eat people on the street, as far as we know.)

And these behavioural norms are fairly basic:

  • Keep your clothes in
  • Try to behave in public places
  • Don't do drugs
  • Don't attack other people
  • Don't eat human flesh
  • Pay attention when warning shots are fired

Most of us can get through a week or two without breaking these rules. Thank goodness.

Suddenly, all our faults and transgressions look so minor in comparison to what this highway cannibal/ drug-crazed exhibitionist did. We've overspent on the credit card, started smoking again, were offhand with our partners, forgot to pay the electricity bill, talked on our cellphones while driving. So what? In comparison to the guy who went ape and bit someone's face off, these all look fairly harmless and rather charming.

Except we're measuring ourselves against particularly low standards. Especially in this case. But sometimes low standards are what it's all about.

I find watching real-life crime stories on TV a huge pick-me-up. It made me doubt my mental health for a few months after I got DStv, until I realised the same principle was at work.

In comparison to someone who is a serial killer, or is facing the death penalty, or has been murdered, or caught in massive tax evasion scams, things in my life look positively rosy. I have a job, no criminal record, a roof over my head, and friends and family.

We all have our obstacles, but what the hell, that's life.

And it's these buttons that get pushed by stories such as that of the highway cannibal. Massive disasters minimise our own personal concerns. Horror serves a purpose. Crappy days don't just happen to us – clearly even cannibals can have them too. But they don't get away with it. 

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, May 2012) 


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