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My fiction ‘addiction’: The psychology of Hannibal Lecter

If I ever went on the BBC television show Mastermind, one of my potential specialist subjects would be the fictional serial killing psychiatrist Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (in print and on screen). I have devoured all four of Thomas Harris’ original books and all the DVDs (all five films and the TV series). In short, I am an obsessive Lecterite. While I was at university in the 1980s doing my undergraduate psychology degree, I was also the Entertainment Editor of the University of Bradford’s newspaper (Fleece). One of the perks of my part-time (unpaid) job was that I got to watch all the latest cinema releases for free and review them for Fleece. In 1986, one of the films that I watched (and loved) was Manhunter directed by Michael Mann. At the time, I didn’t realize that the film was based on Thomas Harris’ second book Red Dragon (first published in 1981 following his 1975 non-Lecter novel Black Sunday). However, I do remember the great (and understated) performance by Scottish actor Brian Cox playing the serial killing psychiatrist (spelled ‘Lecktor’ rather than Lecter in that particular film).

It was in 1991 that my real fascination with Lecter began after seeing The Silence of the Lambs directed by Jonathan Demme (and starring Anthony Hopkins as Lecter). I went to see it in the first week it was out as I was a big fan of Demme’s work particularly his musical documentary of Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense (1984), and films such as Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1984), and Something Wild (1986). I came out of the cinema and within the space of a few weeks I had seen the film three times (and I was delighted when the film won all five of the main Oscar categories in 1992 – only the third film ever to have done so). At the time, I was a psychology lecturer at the University of Plymouth, and was teaching a weekly criminal psychology module to police inspectors on the university’s BA in Social and Organizational Studies. I was enthralled by the film’s use of behavioural profiling of criminals and the fact that the star of the film was a strange and bizarre paradox – a highly intelligent and highly cultured psychiatrist that also happened to be a serial killing cannibal.

It was at this point that I bought the two Thomas Harris novels that featured Lecter (i.e., Red Dragon and the 1988 sequel The Silence of the Lambs). I was gripped. Harris had clearly done his psychological and criminological research well (and I found the two books even better than the films). From then on I sought out anything Lecter-related and bought Harris’ further sequel (Hannibal, 1999) and prequel (Hannibal Rising, 2006), and watched and bought the big-budget Hollywood films Hannibal (2001, directed by Ridley Scott), Red Dragon (2002, directed by Brett Ratner) and Hannibal Rising (2007, directed by Peter Webber and starring Gaspard Ulliel as the young Hannibal), and most recently the US television series Hannibal (2013, starring Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter). My good friends also started buying me Lecter-related gifts (such as Daniel O’Brien’s excellent 2001 book The Hannibal Files).

So why am I – and millions of others worldwide – so fascinated, and – for want of a better word – ‘hooked’ on Hannibal the Cannibal’s fictional exploits? In 2005, the American Film Institute voted Hannibal Lecter the No.1 villain of all time (and who would argue against?). I suppose one of the scariest things about Lecter is that he’s the composite of real serial killers. People like Lecter actually exist and Harris clearly did his homework in writing his novels. In July 2013, Harris gave a rare interview and claimed that his inspiration for Lecter was a real-life Mexican murdering doctor (that he gave a pseudonym ‘Dr. Salazar’) and that he met in the 1960s while he was a newspaper crime reporter. Harris claimed that ‘Salazar’ had a “certain elegance”. It has also been noted that Harris attended the trial of Pietro Pacciani, a suspected serial killer nicknamed the ‘Monster of Florence’. The Wikipedia entry on Lecter claims that Pacciani’s serial killing modus operandi was used in his Hannibal novel. The Wikipedia entry also went on to say:

“According to David Sexton, author of The Strange World of Thomas Harris: Inside the Mind of the Creator of Hannibal Lecter, Harris once told a librarian in Cleveland, Mississippi, that Lecter was inspired by William Coyne, a local murderer who had escaped from prison in 1934 and gone on a rampage that included acts of murder and cannibalism. In her book Evil Serial Killers, Charlotte Greig asserts that the serial killer Albert Fish was the inspiration, at least in part, for Lecter. Greig also states that to explain Lecter’s pathology, Harris borrowed the story of serial killer and cannibal Andrei Chikatilo’s brother Stepan being kidnapped and eaten by starving neighbours (though she states that it is unclear whether the story was true or whether Stepan Chikatilo even existed)”.

I was surprised to find that there are dozens of academic papers written from many perspectives including psychology, psychiatry, criminology, media/film studies, and literary criticism (and I may well come back and write further blogs on Lecter using some of these). However, the rest of today’s blog concentrates on a really interesting trilogy of papers about Lecter written by Professor James Oleson in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture (during 2005-2006). Oleson did a thorough review of various academic literatures and noted (in his 2005 paper) the following in relation to (i) the appeal of serial killers, and (ii) the appeal of Lecter more specifically:

“Apter (1992) suggests that serial killers transfix people because dangerous things – like serial killers – tend to create a state of invigorating psychological arousal. To neutralize the feelings of anxiety that accompany dangerous threats – like serial killers – we use protective frames such as narrative explanations or criminological theories. In explaining the serial killer’s behavior, we allow ourselves to succumb to the exciting magnetism of evil (Kloer, 2002) and can thereby ‘experience the excitement of arousal without being overwhelmed by anxiety’ (Ramsland, 2005)…Why do we love Lecter? Perhaps because he is the ‘perfect gothic hero’ (Dunant, 1999) or because he is the perfect gothic antihero (Dery, 1999). Perhaps it is because the heroic and the villainous co-exist within him. Because he is Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader rolled into one (Hawker, 2001), because he is Darth Vader and Superman rolled into one (Cagle, 2002), or because he is Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty rolled into one (Sexton, 2001)”.

Professor Oleson spends a lot of the first paper examining whether Lecter fits any of the serial killer typologies that various criminologists have formulated over the last three or four decades. According to Oleson, various researchers have identified two key precursors that have a high association with serial homicide – a pathological fantasy life and childhood trauma. Oleson argues that Lecter fits “this basic etiological model” because “he enjoys a rich and detailed fantasy life” and “he suffered serious childhood trauma”. Oleson also recounted the FBI’s research into ‘organized’ and ‘disorganized’ serial killers, and argued that there was evidence across all Harris’ books that Lecter displayed all 14 profile characteristics of an organized serial killer: (i) average to above-average intelligence, (ii) socially competent, (iii) skilled work preferred, (iv) sexually competent, (v) high birth order status, (vi) father’s work stable, (vii) inconsistent childhood discipline, (viii) controlled mood during crime, (ix) use of alcohol with crime, (x) precipitating situational stress, (xi) living with partner, (xii) mobility with car in good condition, (xiii) follows crime in news media, and (xiv) may change jobs or leave town.

Oleson also notes there are some models of serial killing that Lecter does not fit at all. For instance, the ‘addiction model’ of killing argues that some serial killers have a compulsion to kill and that they become addicted to killing (as put forward in the 1988 book Serial Killers by Dr. Joel Norris, and the 1996 book The Psychopathology of Serial Murder by Dr. Stephen Giannangelo). Another psychological model associated with serial killers is the concept of ‘sociopathy’ and ‘psychopathy’ (now termed ‘antisocial personality disorder’). Throughout Harris’ novels there are various references to Lecter being a sociopath and in the films he is described as being a psychopath (most notably by the psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton, Director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Lecter was sent after being caught by his former profiling partner at the FBI (Will Graham). Oleson uses Dr. Robert Hare’s commonly used Psychopathy Checklist (first published in a 1980 issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences) and convincingly shows that there is little evidence that Lecter is a psychopath.

Another model that Lecter does not fit is the “homicidal triad” of warning-sign behaviours (i.e., bed-wetting, animal cruelty, and fire starting) outlined in the many books of the FBI’s Dr. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. This FBI research asserts that these three warning behaviours (particularly when they co-occur in adolescence) signal an elevated risk of subsequent serial homicide. However, Oleson shows that Lecter does not fit this profile at all. In his second (2006) paper, Oleson also assesses to what extent Lecter is insane. According to the M’Naughten test for insanity:

“It must be clearly proved that, at the time of committing the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or that [if] he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong (Finkel, 1988)”.

Oleson argues that Lecter “flunks the M’Naughten test on all counts”. In fact he goes on to say that:

“[Lecter] does not suffer from a defect of reason – if anything, as a genius with an infinitely rare IQ score, he may suffer from a superhuman perfection of the reason… Similarly, Lecter knows perfectly well the nature and quality of the crimes he commits, and he knows that they are denounced as wrong by society…The character of Hannibal Lecter would be deemed sane under more recently developed tests for insanity, as well. Lecter, in perfect command of his will, does not commit his crimes because he is compelled. Accordingly, he would not be insane under any formulation of the irresistible impulse test (Finkel, 1988). Nor would he be found insane under the American Law Institute test. ‘A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law’ (Finkel, 1988). Lecter possesses both near-infallible cognitive ability and an iron will. He in no way fits the categories of insanity articulated under prevailing rules”.

Oleson’s papers also examine the idea that Lecter may be a non-human monster, a vampire, a superhuman, and/or the Devil. He also speculates that his crimes may be the product of his superhuman intellect (as Lecter’s IQ is so high that it cannot be assessed by any instruments that are currently used). As Oleson concludes in the second of his three papers:

“It has been suggested that the character of Hannibal Lecter is so memorable because he emerges from paradox…It could simply be the case, however, that Lecter is such a successful villain because we love monster stories…because we need monsters…and because the Lecter novels skillfully combine the police procedural with particularly resonant elements of the supernatural horror story”.

I (for one) love the paradox of Lecter’s personality and character. Both (super)man and monster. I admire some of his character traits but (of course) despise others. He is a highly flawed criminal genius and polymath. A serial killer and a cannibal. Victim and villain. In his third paper on Lecter, Oleson asserts something that I agree (and will leave you) with:

“By asking why Hannibal Lecter commits his crimes, criminologists may be able to use the Lecter novels and movies as a catalyst for the study of the etiology of serial homicide. The character of Hannibal Lecter is, after all, based on real life serial killers, and provides readers and viewers with an intimate (if hyperbolic) case study of an organized serial killer. Characters drawn from novels can serve as valuable heuristic devices…teaching us a great deal about the nature of crime and evil”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

American Film Institute. (2005). Heroes and villains. Located at: http://www.afi.com/tvevents/100years/handv.aspx

Finkel, N. J. (1988). Insanity on Trial. New York: Plenum Press.

Hare, R.D. (1980). A research scale for the assessment of psychopathy in criminal populations. Personality and Individual Differences, 1, 111-119.

Hare, R.D. (1996). Psychopathy: A clinical construct whose time has come. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 23, 25-54.

Hare, R. D. (2003). Manual for the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Hickey, E. W. (1991). Serial Murderers and Their Victims. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Oleson, J. C. (2003). The celebrity of infamy: A review essay of five autobiographies by three criminal geniuses. Crime, Law, and Social Change, 40, 409-16.

Oleson, J. C. (2005). King of killers: The criminological theories of Hannibal Lecter, part one. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 12, 186-210.

Oleson, J. C. (2006). Contemporary demonology: The criminological theories of Hannibal Lecter, part two. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 13, 29-49.

Oleson, J. C. (2006). The devil made me do it: the criminological theories of Hannibal Lecter, part three. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 13, 117-133.

Raine, A. (1993). The Psychopathology of Crime. New York: Academic Press.

Sexton, D. (2001). The Strange Mind of Thomas Harris. London: Faber and Faber.

Wikipedia (2013). Hannibal Lecter. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannibal_Lecter

Flesh start: A beginner’s guide to Windigo Psychosis

In previous blogs I have examined various culture bound syndromes (i.e., a combination of psychiatric and/or somatic symptoms viewed as a recognizable disease within specific cultures or societies). Arguably, one of the most interesting culture bound syndromes is (the much disputed) ‘Windigo psychosis’ that was said to have been reported among Algonquian native tribes (which are among the biggest and most widespread of North American natives and who lived around the Great Lakes of Canada and America). The disorder allegedly comprised individuals who intensely craved human flesh and who believed they would turn into cannibals.

The windigo was a cannibalistic spirit forest creature that appeared in Algonquian legends, and was known by lots of other names and variants (including – among 37 others identified by John Columbo in his 1982 book Windigo – wendigo, weendigo, windiga, waindigo, windago, wihtikow, and witiko). For instance, the Ojibwa tribe (a Native American people originally located north of Lake Huron before moving westward in the 17th and 18th centuries into Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, western Ontario, and Manitoba) believed the windigo was a ferocious ogre that took children away if they did not behave themselves.  More generally, it was believed that the windigo could possess and infect human beings and transform them into cannibalistic creatures. Such cannibalistic practices were said to have begun in times of extreme winter famine when families were isolated and confined to their cabins because of heavy snowfall. Legend also has it that the infected sufferer would have their heart turned to ice.

However, windigo is a disorder that has been continually challenged across many decades as a myth (for instance, Dr. R.H. Prince in a 1992 issue of Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review; Dr. R.C. Simons and Dr. C. Hughes in a 1993 book chapter on culture bound syndrome; Dr. P.M. Yap in a 1967 issue of the Australia New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry). Whether the condition genuinely existed or not, no-one disputes that the number of cases reported over the last hundred years are minimal.

According to John Columbo, the first derivation of the word ‘windigo’ (i.e., the word ‘onaouientagos’ meaning both ‘cannibal’ and ‘evil spirit’) first appeared in print as long ago as 1722 in an account by Bacqueville de la Potherie, a French traveler. Windigo psychosis was said to occur when an individual became highly anxious that they were transforming into a windigo and believed that other humans that they lived among them were edible. Symptoms of the psychosis were said to include nausea, vomiting, poor appetite and anti-social behaviour. In extreme cases, the psychosis was said to produce suicidal tendencies (as a way of preventing possession by the windigo) and/or homicidal tendencies (to eat the human flesh of others). A book (The Lost Valley and Other Stories) written by Algernon Blackwood in 1910 featured a horror story (called ‘The Wendigo’), and was widely believed to be based on the Algonquian windigo legends.

In the 1982 book Windigo: An Anthology of Facts and Fantastic Fiction edited by John Columbo, he noted that:

“Windigo has been described as the phantom of hunger which stalks the forests of the north in search of lone Indians, halfbreeds, or white men to consume. It may take the form of a cannibalistic Indian who breathes flames. Or it may assume the guise of a supernatural spirit with a heart of ice that flies through the night skies in search of a victim to satisfy its craving for human flesh. Like the vampire, it feasts on flesh and blood. Like the werewolf, it shape-changes at will”.

In an online article about ‘culture specific diseases’, Denis O’Neil claims that modern medical diagnoses might label windigo as a form of paranoia because “of the irrational perceptions of being persecuted”. Here, O’Neil argues that it is the windigo monsters who are the persecutors (i.e., the windigo monsters are trying to turn people into monsters like themselves).  O’Neil also argues that in contemporary North American culture “the perceived persecutors of paranoids are more likely to be other people or, perhaps, extra terrestrial visitors”. 

Writing in a 2006 issue of the journal Transcultural Psychiatry, Dr. Wen-Shing Tseng said that it’s important to re-examine the sources of knowledge for each culture-related specific syndrome (including windigo which she also examined). She acknowledged that literature relating to windigo dated back to the 17th century, she made a lot of reference to the work of J.E. Saindon and the Reverend J.M. Cooper who both worked among an Algonquian community in the 1930s. She argued that the reports of both Saindon and Cooper “were based on second-hand information provided by non-clinical observers”. She then noted that the pioneering cultural psychiatrists of the 1950s and 1960s dealt with these early accounts “as though they were well-defined clinical entities with the diagnostic term witiko psychosis”.

In a paper by Dr. Lou Marano in a 1982 issue of Current Anthropology, it was noted that aspects of the Windigo belief complex may have had components in some individual’s psychological dysfunction. However, he concluded that after (i) five years’ field experience among Northern Algonquians, (ii) extensive archival research, and (iii) a critical examination of the literature:

“There probably never were any windigo psychotics in an etic/behavioral sense. When the windigo phenomenon is considered from the point of view of group sociodynamics rather than from that of individual psychodynamics, the crucial question is not what causes a person to become a cannibalistic maniac, but under what circumstances a Northern Algonquian is likely to be accused of having become a cannibalistic maniac and thus run the risk of being executed as such”.

In essence, Marano’s conclusion was that windigo psychosis was simply an artifact of research that was conducted without sufficient knowledge of the indigenous experience.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Colombo, J.R. (1982). Windigo: An Anthology of Facts and Fantastic Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Marano, Lou (1982). Windigo psychosis: The anatomy of an emic-etic Confusion. Current Anthropology, 23, 385-412.

O’Neil, D. (2010). Culture specific diseases. October 7. Located at: http://anthro.palomar.edu/medical/med_4.htm

Prince, R. H. (1992). Koro and the Fox Spirit on Hainan Island (China). Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review, 29(2), 119-132.

Simons, R. C., & Hughes, C. (1993). The culture bound syndrome. In A. Gaw (Ed.). Culture, Ethnicity and Mental Illness (pp. 75–99). Washington, DC: APA.

Tseng, W-S. (2006). From peculiar psychiatric disorders through culture-bound syndromes to culture-related specific syndromes. Transcultural Psychiatry, 43; 554-576.

Wikipedia (2012). Wendigo. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendigo

Yap P. M. (1967). Classification of the culture-bound reactive syndromes. Australia New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 1, 172-179.

Yap, P. M. (1969). The culture bound syndromes. In W. Cahil., & T. Y. Lin. (Eds.). Mental Health Research in Asia and the Pacific (pp. 33-53). Honolulu: East West Centre Press.

Turn on the eating: A beginner’s guide to sexual cannibalism

“People who have consumed human blood and flesh reportedly claim to experience an intoxicating euphoric effect. This reaction is similar to that experienced by anyone who satisfies a strong sexual craving that is not considered normal (exhibitionism, necrophilia, rape, etc.). However, in this case, it must have reinforced the beliefs of worshippers that indeed their god was present in the victim” (Dr. Brenda Love, Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices).

Today’s blog takes a brief look at sexual cannibalism in humans. I added “in humans” at the end of the sentence because sexual cannibalism is quite common in some animal species. As Dr. Brenda Love notes in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices, sexual cannibalism is known to occur in some types of spider, praying mantis, scorpion, cricket, grasshopper, and fly. The Wikipedia entry also notes that sexual cannibalism has been observed in various types of crustacean (e.g., amphipods, copepods), slugs and snails (i.e., gastropods), and squids and octopuses (i.e., cephalopods). In the non-human species, it is typically the female that kills and eats the male before, during or after sexual union has taken place. Amongst humans, sexual cannibalism is extremely rare, and most humans who engage in cannibalistic acts for sexual purposes are generally considered sociopaths.

Of course, cannibalism for non-sexual purposes – known I more scientific circles as anthropophagy – has long been known among certain tribes and cultures. Throughout history, cannibalism has been practiced in many forms across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. Though rare today, it is believed to be still practiced in a few remote parts of Asia.  Cannibalism can be classed as either endocannibalism (i.e., consumption of another human being from within the same group or community) or exocannibalism (i.e., consumption of another human being from outside the group or community). Some acts of endocannibalism are actually acts of necro-cannibalism (i.e., the eating of flesh from dead humans also known as necrophagy) where dead people’s body parts are eaten as either part of the grieving process, as a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of the living, and/or as a way of imbibing the dead person’s ‘life force’ or more specific individual characteristics. Such endocannibalistic practices were common among certain tribes in New Guinea (which led to the prion disease kuru that I examined in a previous blog). However, it is known that many males among various tribes would not consume females for fear of emasculation. Exocannibalistic acts were most often carried out as part of a celebration victory after battles with rival tribes. There are various theories from many perspectives on why cannibalism may occur. These have included:

  • Religious theories (e.g., religious beliefs involving the need to eat human flesh as a way of sustaining the universe or as part of magical and ritualistic ceremonies).
  • Political theories (e.g., eating human flesh as a political tool to intimidate and control potential hostiles or subordinates).
  • Socio-psychological theories (e.g., eating human flesh due to unconscious factors such as a response to trauma).
  • Ecological theories (e.g., eating human flesh as a way of controlling the size of the population. The Aztecs were said to have eaten no less than 15,000 victims a year as – some have argued – a form of population control).
  • Dietary theories (e.g., eating human flesh as a source of protein).

There are of course other reasons (including sexual ones) that may be the root of someone’s cannibalistic desire to eat human flesh. One reason could be out of necessity. For instance, in 1972, a rugby team from Uruguay was in a plane crash in the Andes. Fifteen people died and the only way they prevented themselves starving to death was to eat the flesh of the deceased (which given the fact it took 72 days for them to be rescued, was one of the few viable options to prevent starvation). At its simplest level, human sexual cannibalism is usually considered a psychosexual disorder and involves individuals’ sexualizing (in some way) the consumption of another human being’s flesh. One online article claims that:

“This does not necessarily suggest that the cannibal achieves sexual gratification only in the act of consuming human flesh, but also may release sexual frustration or pent up anger. Sexual cannibalism is considered to be a form of sexual sadism and is often associated with the act of necrophilia (sex with corpses)”.

When it comes to sexual cannibalism in humans, there are arguably different subtypes (although this is based on my own personal opinion and not on something I’ve read in a book or research paper). Most of these behaviours I have examined in previous blogs (so click on the links if you want to know more:

  • Vorarephilia is a sexual paraphilia in which individuals are sexually aroused by (i) the idea of being eaten, (ii) eating another person, and/or (iii) observing this process for sexual gratification. However, most vorarephiles’ behaviour is fantasy-based, although there have been real cases such as Armin Meiwes, the so-called ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’.
  • Erotophonophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which individuals have extreme violent fantasies and typically kill their victims during sex and/or mutilate their victims’ sexual organs (the latter of which is usually post-mortem). In some cases, the erotophonophiles will eat some of their victim’s body parts (usually post-mortem). Many lust murderers – including Jack the Ripper – are suspected of engaging in cannibalistic and/or gynophagic acts, taking away part of the female to eat later. Other examples of murderers who have eaten their victims (or parts of them) for sexual pleasure include Albert Fish, Issei Sagawa, Andrei Chikatilo, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer.
  • Sexual necrophagy refers to the cannibalizing of a corpse for sexual pleasure. This may be associated with lust murder but Brenda Love in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices says that such cases usually involve “one whose death the molester did not cause. Many cases of reported necrophilia include cannibalism or other forms of sadism and it is believed that many others fantasize about doing it”.
  • Vampirism as a sexual paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual arousal from the ingestion of blood from a living person
  • Menophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which an individual (almost always male) derives sexual arousal from drinking the blood of menstruating females.
  • Gynophagia is (according to Dr. Anil Aggrawal’s 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices) a sexual fetish that involves fantasies of cooking and consumption of human females (gynophagia literally means “woman eating”). There is also a sub-type of gynophagia called pathenophagia. This (according to Dr. Brenda Love) is the practice of eating young girls or virgins. Several lust murderers were known to consume the flesh of young virgins, most notably Albert Fish). 

Added to this list, is something I would call ‘sexual autophagy’ which refers to the eating of one’s own flesh for sexual pleasure (and would be a sub-type of autosarcophagy discussed in a previous blog). I am basing this sub-type on an entry I came across in Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices and relating to a case study reported by Krafft-Ebing:

“Krafft-Ebing recorded the case of a man who at 13 [years of age] became infatuated with a young white-skinned girl. However, instead of desiring intercourse, he was overwhelmed by the urge to bite off a piece of her flesh and eat it. He began stalking women, and for years he carried a pair of scissors with him. He was never successful in accosting a woman, but when he came close he would cut off and eat a piece of his own skin instead. This act produced an immediate orgasm for him”.

This account seems to be confirmed by some online articles on sexual cannibalism claiming that cannibals feel a sense of euphoria and/or intense sexual stimulation when consuming human flesh. All of these online accounts cite the same article by Clara Bruce (‘Chew On This: You’re What’s for Dinner’) that I have been unable to track down (so I can’t vouch for the veracity of the claims made). Bruce’s article claimed that cannibals had compared eating human flesh with having an orgasm, and that flesh eating caused an out-of-body-experience experience with effects comparable to taking the drug mescaline. In another publication that I’ve failed to track down, the following snippet appears on at least 20 websites with articles on sexual cannibalism:

“Lesley Hensel, author of ‘Cannibalism as a Sexual Disorder’ [says] eating human flesh can cause an increase in levels of vitamin A and amino acids, which can cause a chemical effect on the blood and in the brain. This chemical reaction could possibly lead to the altered states that some cannibals have claimed to have experienced. However, this theory has not been substantiated by scientific evidence”.

As I’ve covered many of the cannibalistic sub-types in previous blogs, I tried to do some further research on gynophagia. There is almost nothing written from an academic or clinical perspective about gynophagia (in fact when I typed in ‘gynophagia’ only one reference turned up – a paper on ‘the psychophysical basis of feelings’ published by Dr. C.L. Herrick in an 1892 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology that only mentioned gynophagia in passing). However, there are quite a few dedicated gynophagia websites out there including dedicated pages on the Deviant Art website and an interesting set of cannibalistic links (that you can check out for yourself on the Indie Film website. There is also a reasonably lengthy article in the Urban Dictionary but it features little of any substance. The person writing the article makes the following observations:

“Gynophagia is the fetish of a person becoming food for someone else as a fantasy. As a fantasy it’s just as taboo as BDSM or other kinks…Gynophagia can really be a more gentle fetish than BDSM because torture is almost never applied. Honestly, when you boil it down to its essentials (no pun intended), gynophagia is an extension of the ‘Damsel in Distress’ scenario…Gynophagia is present in a lot of the older media we have, the most widely recognized being a helpless woman being boiled alive by a native tribe when the hero rescues her. Another example would be in Little Red Riding Hood where the wolf devours Red Riding Hood, but this could also be classified as a separate but similar fetish called Vorarephillia. One of the more widely known scenarios of gynophagia is known as the Dolcett method which usually centers around the main female character of a Dolcett comic being spit roasted alive and enjoying every moment of it. But again I must stress that gynophagia is one of those few fetishes that can only be a fantasy and should not be practiced in real life”.

If you really want to find out what gynophagia disciples are into, I suggest you check out the Carnal Consummations fetish website (but you’ve been warned!).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Arens, William (1979). The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beier, K. (2008). Comment on Pfafflin’s (2008) “Good enough to eat”. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 164-165.

Benezech, M., Bourgeois, M., Boukhabza, D. & Yesavage, J. (1981). Cannibalism and vampirism in paranoid schizophrenia. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 42(7), 290.

Cannon, J. (2002). Fascination with cannibalism has sexual roots. Indiana Statesman, November 22. Located at: http://www.indianastatesman.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2002/11/22/3dde3b6201bc1

Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1886). Psychopathia sexualis (C.G. Chaddock, Trans.). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Pfafflin, F. (2008). Good enough to eat. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 286-293.

Pfafflin, F. (2009). Reply to Beier (2009). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 166-167.

Prins, H. (1985). Vampirism: A clinical condition. British Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 666-668.

Unlimited Blog (2007). Sexual cannibalism and Nithari murders. November. Located at: http://sms-unlimited.blogspot.co.uk/2007/11/sexual-cannibalism-and-nithari-murders.html

Wikipdia (2012). Cannibalism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannibalism

Wikipedia (2012). Human sacrifice in Aztec culture. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sacrifice_in_Aztec_culture

Wikipedia (2012). Sexual cannibalism. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_cannibalism

Brain food: A beginner’s guide to kuru

In a previous blog, I examined the scientific literature on fatal familial insomnia (FFI), an incredibly rare genetic sleep disorder cause caused by a genetic mutation that leads to prion disease. Today’s blog takes a brief look at another prion disease – ‘kuru’. Like FFI, kuru is also an incurable and degenerative neurological disorder (i.e., a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy) although the only people known to have experienced it are a few cannibalistic tribes in the Eastern Highlands Province of New Guinea (most notably the Fore tribe) where it is known as the ‘laughing sickness’ or the ‘laughing disease’ (that refer to one of the disease’s most noticeable symptoms – the hysterical and pathological outbursts of laughter that suffering individuals produce in the latter stages of the disease).

The disease has a relatively long incubation period (5 to 20 years, with an average of 10 to 13 years according to a study led by Dr. Jerome Huillard d’Aignaux in a 2002 issue of the journal Epidemiology. However, a study published by Dr. R.L. Klitzman and colleagues in an earlier issue of Neuroepidemiology reported that:

“Epidemiological data were collected on…65 kuru patients who died or were diagnosed between 1977 and 1981. From these…2 or more participants were exposed to the infectious agent for the first time and died within weeks or months of each other 25–30 years later. Thus, it is shown that the natural incubation period of kuru could be as long as 25–30 years”

A more recent paper by Dr. John Collinge and colleagues in The Lancet identified 11 kuru sufferers from July 1996 to June 2004 all living in the South Fore. They reported that the minimum estimated incubation periods ranged from 34 to 41 years. However, they also noted that the likely incubation periods in men ranged from 39 to 56 years and could have been up to 7 years longer. Therefore, incubation periods could be very long.

According to Dr. Robert Will (in a 2003 issue of the British Medical Bulletin), over 2700 cases of kuru have been recorded since 1957 (in a total population within the kuru region of 36,000 people). Those infected with kuru typically die between 3 and 24 months following the first symptoms. Because of the long incubation period, it is thought that the last person to die of kuru in New Guinea was only seven years ago (i.e., 2005).

The word ‘kuru’ (not to be confused with ‘koro’, the culture bound genital retraction syndrome typically found in south-east Asia) is derived from the Fore tribe’s word ‘to shake’ (‘kuria’). Research carried out in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated beyond doubt that kuru was transmitted from one individual to another via the cannibalistic practices of the Fore tribe (particularly the South Fore of the Okapa Subdistrict that showed the most large and notable kuru infection rates). The first recorded cases of kuru were made by a number of Australians back in the early 1950s. W.T. Brown reported that

“The first sign of impending death is a general debility which is followed by general weakness and inability to stand. The victim retires to her house. She is able to take a little nourishment but suffers from violent shivering. The next stage is that the victim lies down in the house and cannot take nourishment and death eventually ensues”.

It was in the early 1960s at the Eastern Highlands Awande Hospital that kuru sufferers underwent medical research in an effort to locate the cause of the disease. It was the pioneering work Daniel Gajdusek and Michael Alpers that led to the discovery of the causative agent of kuru. Brain tissue samples were taken from an 11-year old girl who had died of kuru and subsequently injected into a couple of chimpanzees. One of the chimps developed kuru within 24 months, and the research showed unequivocally that kuru was capable of infection cross-species. According to Dr. Robert Will, “this seminal discovery led to the successful laboratory transmission of [Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease] and initiated research into the epidemiology and pathogenesis of human prion disease”

It is now generally believed that the kuru outbreak began following the consumption of an infected human brain with sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) by people in the Fore tribe in around 1900. Kuru then spread to other nearby tribes following inter-tribe marrying (gradually spreading to the 169 villages and hamlets according to a 2010 paper by Dr. Nils Pedersen and Dr. Else Smith in a 2010 issue of Acta Pathologica Micobiologica Et Immunologica Scandinavica). Once infected with kuru, the disease has three distinct phases (ambulant, sedentary, and terminal):

  • Ambulant phase: Symptoms typically include decreased muscle and motor control leading to an unsteady gait and stance, tremors, and deterioration and slurring of speech (dysarthria).
  • Sedentary phase: Symptoms typically include deterioration of muscle coordination (ataxia) and severe tremors. Sufferers are unable to walk unaided and they suffer bouts of hysterical and uncontrolled laughter.
  • Terminal phase: Symptoms typically include complete loss of muscle co-ordination, incontinence, being unable to talk or sit unaided, great difficulty in swallowing food (dysphagia) (difficulty swallowing), and the outbreak of necrotic ulcerations (sores with pus).

The early research by Michael Alpers and colleagues showed that kuru spread very rapidly as a result of the Fore tribe’s endocannibalistic practice (i.e., of eating the flesh of human beings from within the same community after the person had died and taking on that individual’s ‘life force’). Interestingly, Alper’s research also showed that kuru infection was far more prevalent in women and children (in fact, up to 9 times more prevalent). Dr. Pedersen and Dr. Smith noted that the youngest ever kuru sufferer was five years old, and that 67% of those with kuru were adult women, 23% were children and adolescents, and only 10% were adult men.

There are two reasons why kuru might be more prevalent among women and children compared to men. Firstly, men in the tribe had first choice of which parts of the infected dead tribe member to eat. Once the men had eaten the ‘choice cuts’, women and children could only eat what was left and this included the dead person’s brain (where the infected prion particles were at their most concentrated). Secondly, women and children were far more likely than men to clean the bodies of the infected dead people. If those cleaning the body had open cuts or sores on their hands, the infection may have spread through the bloodstream. The 2002 research led by Dr. Jerome Huillard d’Aignaux and colleagues also demonstrated that the incubation period in females was shorter than that in males because adult women may have been exposed to the largest doses of infectious material. However, Dr. Robert Will has noted that as time has passed, the incidence of kuru has declined and the proportion of affected adult males and females has become more similar. Research (for example by Dr. Simon Mead) has also indicated that some members of the Fore tribe were immune from catching kuru as they carried a prion-resistant factor. Dr. Will also reported that:

“No children born after 1959 have been affected and there is no evidence of vertical transmission of infectivity in kuru, despite the breast-feeding of infants by many hundreds of clinically affected mothers”.

Most recent papers on kuru (such as one by Dr. Laura Manuelidis and colleagues in a 2009 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) have noted that the disease has now died out due to the cessation of the endocannibalistic rituals and therefore is not created spontaneously by the human host.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Collinge, J., Whitfield, J.W., McKintosh, E., Beck, J., Mead, S., Thomas, D.J., & Alpers, M.P. (2006). Kuru in the 21st century—an acquired human prion disease with very long incubation periods. The Lancet, 367, 2068-2074.

Gajdusek, D.C., Gibbs, C.J. & Alpers, M. (1966). Experimental transmission of a Kuru-like syndrome to chimpanzees. Nature, 209, 794-796.

Gajdusek, D.C & Zigas, V. (1957). Degenerative disease of the central nervous system in New Guinea. The epidemic occurrence of ‘‘Kuru’’ in the native population. New England Journal of Medicine, 257, 974-978.

Huillard d’Aignaux, J.N., Cousens, S.N., Maccario, J., Costagliola, D., Alpers, M.P., Smith, P.G., Alpérovitch, A. (2002). The incubation period of kuru. Epidemiology, 13, 402-408.

Klitzman, R.L., Alpers, M.P. & Gajdusek, D.C. (1984). The natural incubation period of kuru and the episodes of transmission in three clusters of patients. Neuroepidemiology, 3, 3-20.

Lindenbaum, S. (1979). Kuru sorcery: Disease and danger in the New Guinea highlands. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.

Manuelidis, L., Chakrabarty, T., Miyazawa, K., Nduom, N. & Emmerling, K. (2009). The kuru infectious agent is a unique geographic isolate distinct from Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and scrapie agents Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 13529-13534.

Pedersen, N.S. & Smith, E. (2010). Prion diseases: Epidemiology in man. Acta Pathologica Micobiologica Et Immunologica Scandinavica, 110, 14-22.

Will, R.G. (2003). Acquired prion disease: iatrogenic CJD, variant CJD, kuru. British Medical Bulletin, 66, 255-265.

You’re killing me: A brief psychological and ethical consideration of autassassinophilia

Autassassinophilia is a paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual pleasure and arousal by the thought and/or risk of being killed. The paraphilia may on occasion overlap with other paraphilias such as autoerotic asphyxiation (i.e., sexual suffocation) where there is a risk to their life. In some instances, the autassassinophile may also derive sexual pleasure and arousal from planning their own death. Given these facts, it is clear that autassassinophilia is exceedingly rare and very dangerous. The condition was first written about in a clinical (and academic) context by Professor John Money in his 1986 book Lovemaps. He wrote that:

“Autassassinophilia [is] a paraphilia of the sacrificial/exploratory type in which sexuerotic arousal and facilitation or attainment of orgasm are responsive to, and dependent upon stage-managing the possibility if one’s own masochistic death by murder. The reciprocal paraphilic condition is lust murder or erotophonophilia…Erotophonophilia [is] a paraphilia of the sacrificial/exploratory type in which sexuerotic arousal and facilitation or attainment of orgasm are responsive to, and dependent upon stage-managing and carrying out the murder of an unsuspecting sexual partner. The erotophonophiliac’s orgasm coincides with the expiration of the partner. The reciprocal paraphilic condition is autassassinophilia”

Brenda Love cites one of Money’s own cases in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices:

“The masochistic drama of erotic death and atonement may be enacted not as an autoerotic monologue, but as a dialogue with a co-opted partner in collusion. The partner is not necessarily a paraphilic sadist, but rather a daredevil hustler or mercenary given to trying almost anything for kicks, or for profit. This was not the type of hustler whom a young man with a paraphilia of homosexual masochism would pick up, one or more at a time, on the waterfront. With his beguiling brand of macho, he would cue the hustlers into their roles in his masochistic drama. First he would supply them with squeeze bottles of mustard or ketchup and a spray can of shaving cream to squirt on him as he lay naked, masturbating. Then he would direct them to bind him up with rope, urinate on him, degrade and abuse him verbally, hit hum, and kick him harder with heavy boots, harder and harder, until he would ejaculate, not knowing whether a blow on the head would wound him or kill him”.

A paper on the phenomenology of autassassinophilia by Dr. Lisa Downing in a 2004 issue of Sexuality and Culture questioned the definitions provided by Money and argued that the reciprocal conditions outlined by Money were fundamentally flawed. Downing made the interesting observation that:

“The autassassinophiliac, for Money, is more interested in his orgasm than in his death, resulting in a compulsion to ‘stage manage the possibility’ rather than the actuality of his end at the hands of another person. The erotophonophiliac, on the other hand, is driven by the actualization of the other’s death and – crucially – this other must be unaware of the killer’s intentions. These difinitions, then, effectively preclude reciprocity”.

Some of you reading this might think that autoassassinophile is more of a theoretical (rather than an actual) paraphilia, but there are a number of documented cases of two lovers in a consensual ‘murder pact’. The most high profile heterosexual case is that of Sharon Lopatka and Robert Glass. Lopatka (from Maryland, US) was strangled and killed consensually by Glass who she met online at an “extreme fantasy” website. Over a number of months in 1996, they exchanged 1000s of emails (found by the police after she was found dead) fantasizing about – and planning – her own murder. Glass eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter claiming he had never actually intended to kill her.

The most high profile homosexual case was that of the German men Armin Meiwes and Jürgen Brandes – a case that I examined in relation to a previous blogs on vorarephilia (i.e., a sexual paraphilia in which people are sexually aroused by the idea of being eaten, eating another person, or observing this process for sexual gratification) and autosarcophagy (i.e., self-cannibalism). Meiwes, a computer technician, gained worldwide media attention as the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ for killing and eating a fellow German male victim (also a computer technician). The one aspect that shocked most people was not the fact that Meiwes ate a lot of Brande’s body but that Brande appeared to consent to being eaten. Email exchanges between Meiwes and Brandes were later shared in the court case:

Brandes: “Thanks for your mail. You really turn me on…Winter with the temperature at around 5 to 15 degrees below freezing is good weather for slaughter. Great to be naked and tied in weather like that and to be driven to the slaughter. Where you then stun me and I collapse. You then hang me up, jerking, and cut my carotid artery. Warm blood flows. Everything goes routinely. I don’t have any chance to escape my slaughter at the last moment. It’s a real turn-on, the feeling of being at your mercy being in your possession. Having to give up my flesh”

Meiwes: “It’ll be awesome, anyway. Your tasty body on show like that. Spicing it…Tying you up will be no problem, I’ve got rope and some cuffs for your hands and feet. I’ll really enjoy the bit with the needles. I’ll see if I can get hold of some really long ones. I can’t wait for you to be here”

In court, Brande’s consent to being killed was accepted by the jury and Meiwes was given an eight and a half year prison sentence for manslaughter. These (and other) cases raise some interesting and controversial ethical questions. These were discussed at length in Dr. Downing’s excellent and thought provoking phenomenological paper on autassassinophilia. She clearly makes the point that being killed for sexual pleasure “problematizes commonplace assumptions about the legitimacy to consent”. When it comes to sexual behaviour, I would describe my views as liberal and are in line with the liberal sex tenets outlined by Robert Solomon that (i) the essential aim of sex is enjoyment, (ii) sex is an essentially private activity, and (ii) any sexual activity is as valid as any other. However, like Downing, I think the idea of consensual lust murder appears to exceed “acceptable” limits of sexual behaviour. However, that doesn’t mean I believe totally in the commandment “thou shalt not kill”. I am pro-euthanasia and have much sympathy with those who have carried out so-called ‘mercy killings’ when a person is in intolerable pain and is unable to end their own life (and a loved one is asked by the suffering person to kill them as humanely as possible).

Downing makes reference to the work of Alan Soble who has written widely of the philosophy of sex. Soble’s 1996 book Sexual Investigations makes the following observation:

“If persons of sound mind and adequate foreknowledge consent to engage in sex together, and do only the acts that both agree to, and do not wrongfully affect third parties, how could their acts be morally wrong? [However], one person’s harming another – and perhaps a person’s allowing himself to be harmed – is wrong even when both parties enter into the act voluntarily”.

Downing considers the last sentence here as “moral absolutism” overriding the liberal standpoint. In fact she says that: “this interventionist and infantilizing approach assumes a class of person (professionals, and theorists) who just know better than the people who consent to certain types of activity”. Given that some sections (like myself) are socially tolerant of euthanasia, it’s more a case of having “a problem with the idea of validating the right to consent to a sexually pleasurable death. I have to be honest and say that although I am a sexual liberal, I find it hard to accept consensual sex killing and think it is morally wrong.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Beier, K. (2008). Comment on Pfafflin’s (2008) “Good enough to eat”. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 164-165

Downing, L. (2004). On the limits of sexual ethics: The phenomenology of autassassinophilia. Sexuality and Culture, 8, 3–17.

Love, B. (1992). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books

Money, J. (1986). Lovemaps: Clinical concepts of sexual/erotic health and pathology, paraphilia, and gender transposition in childhood, adolescence, and maturity. New York: Irvington.

Pfafflin, F. (2008). Good enough to eat. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 286-293.

Pfafflin, F. (2009). Reply to Beier (2009). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 166-167.

Soble, A. (1996). Sexual Investigations. New York: New York University Press.

Solomon, R. (1997). Sexual paradigms. In A. Soble (Ed.), The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings (Third Edition, pp.21-29). Oxford: Rowman and Little.

Dinner for one! A beginner’s guide to autosarcophagy

Autosarcophagy is the practice of eating parts oneself and is also known as ‘self-cannibalism’ and ‘auto-cannibalism’. The practice is very rare and has only been documented a number of times in the psychological and psychiatric literature (and all are individual case studies). It has sometimes been labeled as a type of pica (on the basis that the person is eating something non-nutritive) although personally I think this is misguided as it could be argued that human flesh may be nutritious (even if most people find the whole concept morally repugnant).

It’s evident that some seemingly autosarcophagic acts occur unwillingly or without conscious knowledge. For instance, the eating and swallowing of dead cells from the tongue and cheeks would hardly be classed as a genuine from of self-cannibalism. Even if someone is aware of the act, it still doesn’t necessarily mean it is an auto-cannibalistic act. For instance, the swallowing of blood following a nosebleed or the accidental biting of one’s own tongue wouldn’t be classed as an autosarcophagic act. Nor would the biting and eating one’s own fingernails or hair (trichophagia), although some may class these behaviours as types of pica).

However, there are documented cases of autosarcophagy where people have eaten their own skin as an extreme form of body modification. Some authors argue that auto-vampirism (i.e., the practice of people drinking their own blood) should also be classed as a form of autosarcophagy (although again, I think this is stretching the point a little).

The practice has certainly come to the fore in some high profile examples in the fictional literature. Arguably the most infamous example, was in Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal (and also in the film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott), where Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter psychologically manipulates the paedophile Mason Verger into eating his own nose, and then gets Verger to slice off pieces of his own face off and feed them to his dog. In what many people see as an even more gruesome autosarcophagic scene, Lecter manages to feed FBI agent Paul Krendler slices of his own brain. In real life (rather than fiction), autosarcophagy is typically a lot less stomach churning but in extreme examples can still be something that makes people wince.

Cases of forced autosarcophagy where people have been forced to eat their own body parts (like the fictional scenes in Hannibal) have been sporadically reported. For instance, forced autosarcophagic acts are known to have occurred as a form of torture during war. The Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614) – and now viewed as the most prolific female killer in history – allegedly forced some of her servants to eat their own flesh (and she was also alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins as a way of keeping herself youthful). In the 1500s Spanish colonizers forced the indigenous natives to eat their own testicles. More recently, there have been incidents of forced cannibalism in the 1991Haiti coup and reports in 1998 of Sudanese youth being forced to eat their own ears (published in an article on human rights in The Lambeth Daily, August 6, 1998)

Depending on the definition of autosarcophagy used, the spectrum of self-cannibalism could potentially range from behaviours such as eating a bit of your own skin right through eating your own limbs. Here are four autosarcophagic examples that have been widely reported in the media but are very different in scope and the public’s reaction to them.

  • Example 1: Following a liposuction operation in 1996, the Chilean-born artist Marco Evaristti held a dinner party for close friends and served up a pasta dish with meatballs made from beef and the fatty liposuction remains. The meal was claimed by Evaristti to be an artistic statement but was highly criticized as being “disgusting, publicity-seeking and immoral”.
  • Example 2: On a February 1998 episode of the Channel 4 British cookery programme TV Dinners, a mother was shown engaging in placentophagy when she cooked her own placenta (with fried garlic and shallots), made into a pate and served on foccacia bread. The programme received a lot of complaints that were upheld by the British Broadcasting Standards Commission who concluded that the act of eating placenta pate on a highly watched TV programme had  “breached convention”.
  • Example 3: In 2009, Andre Thomas, a 25-year old murderer on Texas death row (and with a history of mental problems) pulled out his eye in prison and ate it.
  • Example 4: In a previous blog on vorarephilia I examined the case of the German man Bernd Jürgen Brande who engaged in self-cannibalism (cutting off and then eating his own cooked penis) before being killed and eaten by Armin Meiwes, the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ (who also shared in the eating of Brande’s cooked penis).

Only the latter case has been discussed and written about in scientific journals, and even then, the focus has tended to be on the cannibalistic acts of Brande’s killer rather than the auto-cannibalistic act of Brande himself. After a search through the academic literature I could only find eight studies that have ever reported directly on autosarcophagy. These were all case studies and comprised papers published by:

  • Mikellides (1950, two cases, Cyprus – no details as the article was written in Greek)
  • Comarr and Feld (1964, one case, male tetraplegic who bit off flesh from his fingers but spit the flesh out rather than eating it, USA)
  • Betts (1964, one case, psychotic male who large amounts of his own skin, subcutaneous tissue, and blood from his shoulders, USA)
  • Mintz (1964, one case, psychotic male who ate his own middle finger, USA)
  • Beneke (1999, one case, non-psychotic 28-year old female who engaged in self-cannibalistic acts [e.g., eating small strips of skin] as part of a lifestyle choice in relation to extreme body modification, USA)
  • de Moore and Clement (2006, one case, psychotic male who abused amphetamines and ate two of his own toes, Australia)
  • Monasterio and Prince (2011, one case, non-psychotic 28-year old male who amputated and ate his own finger, Australia)
  • Sunay and Menderes (2011, one case, an elderly 80-year old man with Alzheimer’s who ate two of his fingers, Eastern Europe).

Dr Friedemann Pfafflin (a forensic psychotherapist at Ulm University, Germany) and who has written about Armin Meiwes, the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ asserts that “apart from acts of cannibalism arising from situations of extreme necessity…the cannibalistic deeds of individuals are always an expression of severe psychopathology”. However, a couple of the case studies in the literature – while very rare – show that major psychopathology was absent so this is not universally true.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Ahuja, N. & Lloyd, A.J. (2007). Self-cannibalism: an unusual case of self-mutilation. Australian and New Journal of Psychiatry, 41, 294-5.

Beneke M. (1999). First report of nonpsychotic self-cannibalism (autophagy), tongue splitting, and scar patterns (scarification) as an extreme form of cultural body modification in a western civilization. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 20, 281-285.

Betts, W.C. (1964). Autocannibalism: an additional observation. American Journal of Psychiatry 121, 402-403.

Comarr, A.E. & Feld, M. (1964). Autocannibalism in a tetraplegic patient. American Journal of Surgery, 107, 642-643.

de Moore, G.M. & Clement, M. (2006). Self-cannibalism: an unusual case of self-mutilation. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 937.

Huffington Post (2009). Andre Thomas, Texas Death Row inmate, pulls out eye, eats it. TheHuffington Post, September 9. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/09/andre-thomas-texas-death-_n_156765.html

Mikellides, A.P. (1950). Two cases of self-cannibalism (autosarcophagy). Cyprus Medical Journal, 3, 498-500.

Mintz, I.L. (1964). Autocannibalism: a case study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 1017.

Monasterio, E. & Prince, C. (2011). Self-cannibalism in the absence of psychosis and substance use. Australasian Psychiatry, 19, 170-172.

Pfafflin, F. (2008). Good enough to eat. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 286-293.

Reuters (1997). Meatballs made from fat, anyone? May 18. Located at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2007/05/18/oukoe-uk-chile-artist-idUKN1724159420070518

Sunay, O. & Menderes, A. (2011). Self cannibalism of fingers in an alzheimer patient. Balkan Medical Journal, 28, 214-215.

The bite of passion: Vampirism as a sexual paraphilia

Although vampirism as a sexual paraphilia has been noted in the academic literature for many years (in fact there are references to it in Richard van Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 text Psychopathia Sexualis), there has been very little empirical research and most of what is known comes from clinical case studies. To complicate things further, vampirism (i) is rarely a single clinical condition, (ii) may or may not be associated with other psychiatric and/or psychological disorders (e.g., severe psychopathy, schizophrenia, hysteria, mental retardation), and (iii) may or may not necessarily include sexual arousal. Other related conditions have been documented such as odaxelagnia (deriving sexual pleasure from biting), haematolagnia (deriving sexual satisfaction from the drinking of blood), and haematophilia (deriving sexual satisfaction from blood in general), and auto-haemofetishism (i.e., deriving sexual pleasure from sight of blood drawn into a syringe during intravenous drug practice).

In 1964, Vandenbergh and Kelly defined vampirism as “the act of drawing blood from an object, (usually a love object) and receiving resultant sexual excitement and pleasure”. In 1983, Bourguignon described vampirism as a clinical phenomenon in which myth, fantasy, and reality converge and that other paraphilic behaviour may be involved including necrophagia, necrophilia, and sadism. Also in 1983, noted that vampirism is a rare compulsive disorder with an irresistible urge for blood ingestion, a ritual necessary to bring mental relief; like other compulsions, its meaning is not understood by the participant”.

In 1985, Herschel Prins published what is arguably the most cited paper in the field (in the British Journal of Psychiatry), and proposed that there were four types of vampirism (although confusingly, one of these sub-types is not actually vampiric as no blood ingestion takes place and some of the satisfaction gained may not necessarily be sexual). These four types were:

  • Necrosadistic vampirism (i.e., deriving satisfaction from the ingestion of blood from a dead person);
  • Necrophilia (i.e., deriving satisfaction from sexual activity with a dead person without the ingestion of blood)
  • Vampirism (i.e., deriving satisfaction from the ingestion of blood from a living person)
  • Autovampirism (deriving satisfaction from the ingestion of one’s own blood).

In Prins’ typology above, vampirism evidently overlaps with that of necrophilia. However, earlier papers (such as Vandenbergh and Kelly’s in 1964) clearly differentiated between necrophilia and vampirism, arguing that vampirism shouldn’t be mixed with necrophilia given that vampirism is often focused on the living. Vandenbergh and Kelly also differentiate vampirism from sexual sadism (due to the fact that vampirism doesn’t always include pain and suffering). In fact, in a literature review of sexual sadism, Yates and colleagues (2008) included the “rare phenomenon” of vampirism in their review. Drawing on the work of Jaffe and DiCataldo (1994), they described those people who get sexual arousal from bloodletting (either through cutting or biting), and for which a small minority enjoy sucking and/or drinking the blood too. Vanden Bergh and Kelly (1964) noted that the sucking or drinking of the blood from the wound is often an important part of the act but not necessarily essential.

Using the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Dr Joel Milner, Dr Cynthia Dopke, and Dr Julie Crouch (2008) argue that if the individual’s vampirism causes pain and suffering in their victims it should be classed as a sexually sadistic paraphilia. However, if the victim does not suffer in any way, the vampirism should be classed as a paraphilia not otherwise specified (P-NOS). Milner and colleagues argue this approach is consistent with other P-NOS classifications involving other body fluids/substances (other than blood) such as urophilia (urine) and coprophilia (faeces).

Any discussion of vampirism wouldn’t be complete without at least a mention of Renfield’s Syndrome (RS) although it has yet to be included in the DSM. Renfield was a fictional mental patient in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1887) who ate living things (flies, spiders, birds) believing that this would bring him greater ‘life force’ powers. The RS disorder, named in 1992 by clinical psychologist Dr Richard Noll (DeSales University, Pennsylvania, USA), is a rare psychiatric compulsion (not necessarily sexual and often linked with schizophrenia) – in which sufferers feel compelled to drink blood. As with some of the papers written on vampirism as a sexual paraphilia, this has also been called ‘clinical vampirism’. Like the character Renfield, RS sufferers believe that they can obtain increased power or strength (i.e., the ‘life force’) through the imbibing of blood.

RS sufferers are predominantly male (although there are known female vampirists), and like many paraphilias, the disorder often originates from a childhood event in which the affected individual associates the sight or taste of blood with psychological and/or physical excitement. It is during adolescence that the attraction to blood can become sexual in nature. Clinical evidence suggests female RS sufferers are unlikely to assault others for blood, but male RS sufferers are potentially more dangerous. It has been noted that RS usually comprises three stages:

  • Stage 1 – Autovampirism (autohemophagia): In the first stage, RS sufferers drink their own blood and often bite or cut themselves to do so (although some pay just pick at their own scabs).
  • Stage 2 – Zoophagia: In the second stage, RS sufferers eat live animals and/or drink their blood. The sources animal blood may come from butchers and abbatoirs if they have no direct access.
  • Stage 3 – True vampirism: In the final stage, RS sufferers drink blood from other human beings. The sources of blood may be stolen from blood banks or hospitals or may be direct from other people. In the most extreme cases, RS sufferers may commit violent crimes including murder to feed their craving.

In a 1981 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Dr M. Benezech and colleagues reported a case study of cannibalism and vampirism in a French paranoid and psychotic schizophrenic. After trying to kill a number of people (mainly neighbours) between 1969 (when he was aged 29 years) and 1978, he attempted a vampiric rape on a child in 1979. Although he was stopped he went on later that day to murder an elderly man and successfully ate large pieces of the victim’s thigh, and attempted to suck his blood. Here, the vampirism was seen as secondary to the schizophrenia. A similar type case report of a 21-year old eastern European schizophrenic vampirist was published in 1999 by Dr Brendan Kelly (St James Hospital Dublin, Ireland) and colleagues in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine. However, the patient didn’t attempt to suck blood from himself or others but instead frequented a hospital accident and emergency department in search of their supply of blood for transfusion.

In a 1989 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr A. Halevy and his colleagues reported the case of a 21-year old man (who had been in prison since he was 16 years old) who had anaemia and gastrointestinal bleeding as a result of self-inflicted injuries and blood ingestion on multiple occasions (for instance, one incident involved him cutting his arm with a razor blade, draining the blood into a glass, and then drinking it). He was classed by the authors as an ‘autovampirist’ in Prins’ typology although the authors were unable to determine if there was any sexual motivation involved.

In one of the few papers to examine more than one case study, Dr R.E. Hemphill and Dr. T. Zabow (1983, at the University of Cape Town) examined four vampirists in depth, including John Haigh (the English ‘acid-bath murderer’ who killed six people during the 1940s and drunk the blood of his victims), along with reference to other criminal vampirists. Hemphill and Zabow noted that since childhood all four cases had cut themselves, and that to relieve a craving they had drank their own, and others’ (human and/or animal) blood. All four cases were said to be intelligent with no mental instability or psychopathology in any of their family histories.

Most recently Dr K Gubb and his colleagues at the Tara Hospital Johannesburg (South Africa) published a case study of a 25-year old African man suffering from ‘psychic vampirism’ in the South African Psychiatry Review. In this paper, they argued that this particular type of clinical vampirism had never been reported in the literature before. The man was brought in for psychiatric treatment by his mother after he had become withdrawn, stopped socializing, was undressing in public, and started talking to himself. He claimed to hear the voice of ‘Sasha’, a “flame vampire from the scriptures of Geeta”. The man himself beleived he was “Vasever – lord of the vampires”. He claimed to have survived by hunting as a vampire by hurting more than 1000 humans “zooming in and out of them” (rather than biting them). Schizophrenia was diagnosed. The authors claimed that the vampirism was only of academic interest “because of its relative scarcity” but did not influence the diagnosis or treatment in any particular way.

They concluded that vampirism may be representative of some pathology other than schizophrenia (or simply represent an alternative belief system). Unlike other vampirism cases in the clinical literature, there was an absence of a fully developed psychopathic personality, along with a complete absence of sexual and gender identity disorders. This, they speculated, “may have protected the man from developing the homicidal, cannibalistic, libidinal and sexual features of vampirism seen in the other cases”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Benezech, M., Bourgeois, M., Boukhabza, D. & Yesavage, J. (1981). Cannibalism and vampirism in paranoid schizophrenia. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 42(7), 290.

Gubb, K., Segal, J., Khota1, A, Dicks, A. (2006). Clinical Vampirism: a review and illustrative case report. South African Psychiatry Review, 9, 163-168.

Halevy, A., Levi, Y., Ahnaker, A. & Orda, R. (1989). Auto-vampirism: An unusual cause of anaemia. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 82, 630-631.

Hemphill R.E. & Zabow T. (1983) Clinical vampirism. A presentation of 3 cases and a re-evaluation of Haigh, the ‘acid-bath murderer’. South African Medical Journal, 63(8), 278-81.

Kelly, B.D., Abood, Z. & Shanley, D. (1999). Vampirism and schizophrenia. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 16, 114-117.

Jaffe, P., & DiCataldo, F. (1994). Clinical vampirism: Blending myth and reality. Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 22, 533-544.

Miller, T.W., Veltkamp, L.J., Kraus, R.F., Lane T. & Heister, T. (1999). An adolescent vampire cult in rural America: clinical issues and case study. Child Psychiatry and Human Development 29, 209-19.

Milner, J.S. Dopke, C.A. & Crouch, J.L. (2008). Paraphilia not otherwise specified: Psychopathology and Theory In Laws, D.R. & O’Donohue, W.T. (Eds.), Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment (pp. 384-418). New York: Guildford Press.

Noll, R. (1992). Vampires, Werewolves and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Prins, H. (1985). Vampirism: A clinical condition. British Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 666-668.

Vanden Bergh, R. L., & Kelly, J. F. (1964). Vampirism: A review with new observations. Archives of General Psychiatry, 11, 543-547.

Wilson N. (2000) A psychoanalytic contribution to psychic vampirism: a case vignette. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 60, 177-86.

Yates, P.M., Hucker, S.J. & Kingston, W.A. (2008). Sexual sadism: Psychopathology and theory. In Laws, D.R. & O’Donohue, W.T. (Eds.), Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment and Treatment. pp.213-230. New York: Guildford Press.

Eaten to death: A beginner’s guide to vorarephilia

Vorarephilia – usually shortened to vore – is a sexual paraphilia in which people are sexually aroused by the idea of being eaten, eating another person, or observing this process for sexual gratification. Since the behaviour is unlikely to actually be carried out by the vorarephiliac, the behaviour is more likely to be fantasy-based via different media (e.g., fictional stories, fantasy art, fantasy videos, and bespoke video games). The behaviour doesn’t necessarily involve digestion and/or pain. Probably because it is both rare and fantasy-based, it doesn’t appear in any psychiatric manuals such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Vorarephilia can sometimes co-exist with other fetishistic behaviour such as masochism (sexual arousal from receiving pain), hypoxyphilia (sexual arousal from suffocation and oxygen restriction), and ‘snuff’ fetishes (sexual arousal from seeing someone die). In some cases vorarephilia has been argued to be a variant of macrophilia (i.e., sexual fascination and/or fantasy relating to giants). Most of the fantasies of vorarephiliacs involve the person being the ones being eaten (i.e., the ‘prey’, although a few like to be the ‘pred’ taken from the word ‘predator’). Some vorarephiliacs are known to derive pleasure – sometimes sexual – from watching some animals (e.g., snakes) eating other animals whole.

There have been many different types of vorarephilia documented including ‘hard vore’ and ‘soft vore’. Being primarily fantasy-based, almost any orifice or body part can be capable of vore (e.g., ‘vaginal vore’, ‘anal vore’ and ‘cock vore’). Very briefly:

  • Hard vore (sometimes simply called ‘gore’) is where the person is often subjected to horrific injuries and involves lots of blood because of the ripping, cutting, biting, tearing and/or chewing of flesh. It is not typically thought of as either sensually or sexually motivated.
  • Soft vore is where the person (that may not necessarily be a willing victim) is consumed alive and whole and is typically unharmed before reaching the stomach but then may be asphyxiated and/or digested. Compared to ‘hard vore’, soft vore is usually seen as more sensual and sexually oriented because of its relatively non-violent nature.
  • Female genital vore (vaginal vore) is where the person is consumed by the vagina and taken into the womb (and often referred to as ‘unbirthing’ or a ‘reverse birth’).
  • Male genital vore (cock vore) is where the person is consumed by the urethral opening of the penis and taken into the scrotum, prostate, or bladder.
  • Anal vore is where the person is consumed by the anus and taken into the rectum, colon, or stomach.
  • Breast vore is where the person is consumed by the nipples and taken into the breast.

Here’s a confessional piece I found on a psychology forum discussion group:

“I’m almost 17 now. But since I was really young, I’ve been a phagophile (with a specific interest in being swallowed whole). I’ve had a few girlfriends now, but my present one is by far the most engaging and interesting person I have ever met. She’s the only one I’ve engaged in any real sexual contact with. After meeting her, my interests expanded somewhat; she’s the only person I’ve ever been interested in eating. Fortunately this was impossible, for obvious reasons: I was still thinking in terms of “soft vore”, in which no damage is done to either party. This is where things get difficult. We’ve been together a while now and within the past few weeks, I’ve begun to shift towards “hard vore”. This includes cannibalism: I’ve been attracted especially to biting at her neck, hands, and nose. I feel that I’ve done a good job at communicating this to her, so I haven’t crossed any lines because I’ve controlled myself.”

The motivational driving force underlying vorarephilia is some ways appears to resemble that of sadomasochism from a dominance and submission perspective. Devouring someone could be viewed as the ultimate act of dominance by a predator, and the ultimate act of submission by the prey. Paradoxically, most vorarephiliacs have no real interest in cannibalism, although a few do. Possible vorarephiliacs include the Japanese man (Issei Sagawa) who in 1981 killed and then ate a Dutch woman (Renée Hartevelt), and the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer who killed 17 men and boys and engaged in both cannibalistic and necrophilic acts with his many victims between 1978 and 1991.

However, the most infamous vorarephiliac is arguably the German Armin Meiwes. His case was referred to at length in a 2008 essay in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, by Dr Friedemann Pfafflin (a forensic psychotherapist at Ulm University, Germany). Meiwes, a computer technician, gained worldwide media attention as the ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ for killing and eating a fellow German male victim (also a computer technician). Meiwes had allegedly been fantasizing about cannibalism since his childhood and frequented cannibal fetish websites and posted around 60 advertisements asking if anyone would like to be eaten by him. Meiwes claimed around 200 men responded to his request but only one finally met face-to-face.

In March 2002, Bernd Jürgen Brandes responded to Meiwes’ advertisement on the Internet. At their one and only meeting at Meiwes’ house, their first cannabilistic act was for Meiwes to bite off Brandes’ penis and then jointly cook and eat it. Brandes then drank lots of alcohol, cough syrup, and took sleeping pills, and was stabbed to death by Meiwes in his bath (and videotaped). The body was then stored and over time, Meiwes ate large amounts of it (about 20 kg). The one aspect that shocked most people was not the fact that Meiwes ate a lot of Brande’s body but that Brandes appeared to consent to being eaten. Email exchanges between Meiwes and Brandes were later shared in the court case:

Brandes: “Thanks for your mail. You really turn me on…Winter with the temperature at around 5 to 15 degrees below freezing is good weather for slaughter. Great to be naked and tied in weather like that and to be driven to the slaughter. Where you then stun me and I collapse. You then hang me up, jerking, and cut my carotid artery. Warm blood flows. Everything goes routinely. I don’t have any chance to escape my slaughter at the last moment. It’s a real turn-on, the feeling of being at your mercy being in your possession. Having to give up my flesh”

Meiwes: “It’ll be awesome, anyway. Your tasty body on show like that. Spicing it…Tying you up will be no problem, I’ve got rope and some cuffs for your hands and feet. I’ll really enjoy the bit with the needles. I’ll see if I can get hold of some really long ones. I can’t wait for you to be here”

It wasn’t until about 18 months after Brande had been killed that the German police started to investigate Meiwes. An Austrian student had seen Meiwes boasting that he had successfully killed and eaten another man. The police then arrested Meiwes and found human body parts in the freezer and the videotape of the killing. In court, Brandes’ consent to being killed was accepted by the jury and Meiwes was given an eight and a half year prison sentence for manslaughter. Neither Meiwes or Brandes were deemed mentally ill by the court appointed psychiatrists. Dr Klaus Beier (Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine, Free and Humboldt-University of Berlin, Germany) was the expert witness who twice provided forensic expertise on Miewes. He said that:

“Armin suffered neither from a psychosis nor any other mental illness or any personality disorder. Quite the contrary, he had a normal IQ and his social competence was high. To everybody who had private or professional contact with him, Armin seemed to be an open-minded and friendly contemporary man who, in the forming of contacts, appeared pleasant-natured, flexible, and socially competent, even agile. Even extremely experienced police officers, who could not believe what he had done, had to put on record that, if they had not known about the offence, Armin M. never offered anything conspicuous during the entire period of investigation.”

A later paper by Dr Beier in response to Dr Pfafflin noted that:

“Before the age of 11 years [Armin] was preoccupied by the idea of incorporating another male by eating his flesh. This paraphilia caused him to seek unsolicited partners who pretended to mirror his desire insofar that they should have the wish of being incorporated. It took him years to find such a counterpart using the frighteningly developed subculture on the internet for that purpose, where people with this special inclination can encourage each other.”

Dr Pfafflin outlined some other cases of German cannibalism including cases he was personally involved in. he said that:

From my intensive knowledge of both these case histories just referred to, I have no doubt that every form of cannibalism, excepting at most those which happen in times of extreme hunger and whose only purpose is to secure survival, has a pathological, perverse background.”

Little is known about how prevalent this type of behaviour is although Meiwes claimed that based on his internet activity on cannibal fetish websites that there were at least 800 Germans that shared his passion for wanting to eat another person. The number of people that have a desire to be eaten and actually go through with it is likely to be incredibly small – but the internet helped Meiwes locate a willing victim.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Adams, C. (2004). Eat or be eaten: Is cannibalism a pathology as listed in the DSM-IV? The Straight Dope, July 2. Located at: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2515/eat-or-be-eaten

Beier, K. (2008). Comment on Pfafflin’s (2008) “Good enough to eat”. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 164-165

Brundage, S. (2002).  Fetish confessions. The Wave Magazine 2(15). Located at: http://web.archive.org/web/20070927061721/http://www.thewavemag.com/pagegen.php?articleid=22026&pagename=article

Pfafflin, F. (2008). Good enough to eat. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37, 286-293.

Pfafflin, F. (2009). Reply to Beier (2009). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 166-167.

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