Have you noticed how often ingestion is featured very prominently in horror movies? Think about zombies, vampires, cannibals, and all those evil creatures that turn humans into food. Or remember how many gory scenes take place around tables, kitchens, or butcheries. One may ask why we should be even interested in the most horrific and disgusting appearances of food on film, which are clearly aimed at troubling and shaking us. Food is supposed to be all about pleasure and celebration, right? Or at least, that’s the prevalent approach in the increasingly popular food film genre, from fiction to documentaries and animation.
However, a reflection on the less savory manifestations of eating and cooking on the silver screen may uncover dynamics about our complex and often ambivalent connections with food that otherwise would go unobserved. That is the goal of What’s Eating You? Food and Horror on Screen, a new collections of essays edited by Cynthia Miller and Bowdoin Van Riper. For the editors, food in horror movies “explores the troubled relationship between food and the dark side of human nature,” while examining the consequences of “our willing sacrifice of taste, quality, and even health on the altar of convenience.” In other words, the horror is in us and about us.
It is no mystery that food had moved from a crucial necessity and an economic resource that used to run almost invisibly in the background - except in the case of crisis - to the forefront of media and popular culture, social movements, and political debates. Even the most utilitarian approach to food is not totally free from other kinds of preoccupations about who we are and what kind of image we project of ourselves. As a consequence, consumption becomes a tool of self-realization.
Where we shop, the choices we make about what and where we eat, and even how we think and speak about it have become crucial to defining our cultural and social standing in ways that are quite different from the past. At the same time, expressing our identity and its specific traits (one can, say, be white, conservative, gay, obsessed with exercise, eager to avoid gluten, ready to gobble down Mexican food while asking for a higher border wall), while self-asserting, makes us also easier targets for the focused marketing of companies that are increasingly interested in meeting all our preferences. At a cost, of course…
As what we consume increasingly influences and expresses who we are, food becomes both attractive and dangerous. It constitutes crucial boundaries: through ingestion, food blurs the distinction between our bodies and the outside world, as not only a source of physical and emotional nourishment but also a possible carrier of hazardous if not harmful –or even deadly - substances. Through sharing, it contributes to removing the separation between individuals and communities (from family to nations and beyond). But the table is also a place of exclusion: decisions about what to eat, how, and with whom determine who is one of us, and who, on the other hand, is not.
The vile creatures that haunt the history of cinema while devouring human flesh are clearly not us. At the same time, as I proposed in my book Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture, they may give expression to those aspects of our inner life we cannot deal with, and that’s what makes them really scary. Suddenly, the divide between what devours and what is devoured may turn out to be more blurred than we’d care for. The success of horror movies suggests that we are fascinated by characters that express their limitless hunger at all costs, to the point of dismembering and consuming human beings. These scary creatures give free rein to drives and desires that we would find otherwise unacceptable, like the unbridled hunger and the single-minded longing for ingestion that seem to define us as infants and later on – in sublimated and controlled ways – as adults.
For those who enjoy being scared and disgusted by cinema, What’s Eating You? is a stimulating and often entertaining read. For anybody else, it is a smart provocation to look at ourselves and our society with irony and a certain amount of healthy detachment.