Sure, some adventurous foodies have (legally) dabbled in human meat tacos. And there was that one time a performative artist used cannibalism as a politically-charged metaphor for consumerism. But Todd and Bateman level cannibals are – thankfully – extremely rare in today’s world. So rare, in fact, that a lack of data leaves little scientific literature on the subject.
Still, in a bid to get to the psychological root cause of pathological cannibalism (as opposed to ritual and survival cannibalism), scientists writing in the Journal of Forensic Science presented and compared the cases of five cannibalistic patients (all male, all aged 18 to 36) hospitalized in a secure unit in Villejuif, France.
They found that there were two groups: those suffering from severe schizophrenia and those suffering from a mixed personality disorder with sadistic and psychopathic features associated with extreme paraphilia.
Paraphilia refers to “abnormal” or “deviant” sexual practices. It turns out that just under half of Canadians (and, in all likelihood, Americans too) have paraphiliac fantasizes, which could include voyeurism, frotteurism, and masochism.
However, in order to have a paraphilic disorder, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a person must “feel personal distress about their interest” or “have a sexual desire or behaviour that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviours involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent.” It is unlikely that one in two Canadians fit into this category (or fantasize about cannibalism).
The two cannibalistic patients that did fall into this group had long-term cannibalistic fantasies going back “many years”. What encouraged them to act on those fantasies was a feeling of humiliation. According to the study authors, both assaulted their victims during a period of low self-esteem. What's more, both cannibalistic acts had a sexual dimension to them.
According to the study authors, the acts "relieved tensions related to anger and increased self-esteem". They were "a way to eliminate one’s feelings of inferiority or vulnerability in a megalomaniac atmosphere".
The three cannibalistic patients described as severely schizophrenic, however, acted impulsively during a moment of perceived threat against a parent. In this sense, the cannibalistic act was also an act of self-defense and rather than savor the flesh (as the mixed personality patients did), the flesh was eaten raw and unprepared.
One factor that unites all five cases, the researchers found, was a dysfunctional childhood with sexual abuse, violence at home, or emotional neglect.
As the study authors point out, the study is limited with just five patients involved in the case report. Not only do the patients fit a certain demographic (male, aged 18 to 36), they were all hospitalized in a secure unit suspected of mental illness. People who have engaged in cannibalistic acts but have not been hospitalized or found mentally unsound may display different behavior patterns.
"We do not claim to generalize these findings," write the study authors. "The extreme clinical complexity of these cases requires careful further analysis."