Cannibalism has stormed the headlines in recent weeks, causing widespread shuddering and even paranoia about a possible zombie outbreak. Speculative fear reached levels worthy of an official re-assurance by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that no such outbreak existed.
But what would compel someone to consume human flesh, short of a survival scenario or a zombie apocalypse?
“For much of our cannibalism, it’s going to be a psychotic state,” said Dr. Sean Jennings, a professor of Psychology at Valencia College.
Many of the recent incidents feature a central character in such a “psychotic state.”
The first of them to capture public attention was the May 26 attack on 65-year-old Ronald Poppo by Rudy Eugene on a Miami causeway. In broad daylight, the naked Eugene chewed off most of Poppo’s face, growling at a police officer who ordered him to stop. The officer opened fire, shooting Eugene to death.
The Miami Herald reported that Eugene was in an “apparent drug-fueled rage,” and that a Miami police union official speculated he was on some sort of drug that “causes psychosis as the body overheats,” explaining the nudity. Later reports theorized the use of a new designer drug called “bath salts,” which has been described as a hallucinogenic amphetamine mixture.
According to a report on the CDC’s website, of 36 people who were admitted to Michigan emergency departments for bath salt usage between November 2010 and March 2011, the most common effects were agitation, tachycardia (increased heart rate), delusions and hallucinations. The report also claimed that some of the patients were violent with health care staff.
Jenning hypothesizes that Eugene, whom friends and family contest was a normal 31-year-old with no mental disorders, could have slipped into what he calls a “substance-induced psychosis.”
“Psychosis, by nature, is no more, no less than a giant break with reality,” he said. “He may have already been genetically or environmentally predisposed to a psychotic disorder, and the drug use propelled him into it.”
Other recent cannibal assaults have not included a drug angle. Two days before the Miami attack, Canadian porn actor Luka Rocco Magnotta tortured, killed, dismembered and ate parts of his lover, a 33-year-old man named Lin Jun, before sending a hand and a foot to Canada’s conservative and liberal parties, respectively.
On May 25, Kujoe Bonsafo-Agyei-Kodie went missing in Maryland, until portions of his corpse were discovered days later in the belongings of 21-year-old Kenyan student Alexander Kinyua, who had allegedly eaten parts of his brain and heart, according to the NY Daily News.
In both cases there were strong warning signs.
Magnotta was infamous among animal rights groups for killing cats in online videos with a vacuum-sealed plastic bag and a python, and Kinyua was previously charged in a baseball bat-assault on another student, who awoke from unconsciousness to find the future cannibal standing over him with a knife, as reported in the NY Daily News. Witnesses have also said that Kinyua openly spoke and wrote online about human sacrifice.
“Psychosis is a family of disorders, and so we have a lot of people who fall into that, and that’s mainly where we’re seeing these types of behaviors,” Jennings said, noting that people who are in a psychotic state are out of touch with reality, but aren’t typically dangerous.
“Some people do become dangerous to others. The extreme rarity is this psychosis that takes over and they’re killing people and eating them.”
Though much of the literal human consumption as of late looks like an eerie and sudden trend, Jennings doesn’t buy into the hype.
“I would say this ‘trend’ that the news is reporting is fictitious, because again, if we look back into history, we’re going to see people that have done this behavior,” he said, theorizing that the recent cluster of incidents is due to increased reliability of modern record-taking and the explosion of the population.
“Where we only had one case 50 years ago, the population was a lot smaller,” he said. “It might be the same rate, there’s just more of it because there’s more people.”