If I know tabloids like I think I do, someone deep in the bowels of the New York Post is currently a few hours into a mockup of a Year of the Cannibal spread. This fall, NYPD officer Gilberto Valle was dubbed the “cannibal cop” after his arrest for allegedly plotting to kidnap young women for the purposes of roasting them in an oven. Last week, a New Jersey man named Robert Mucha was charged with enticing a minor into sexual activity; he was also accused of chatting online about his desire to abduct, molest, and cook children. (Mucha told law enforcement that he “regularly masturbates to a fantasy in which he bastes a two-year-old boy in barbecue sauce and then skewers, cooks, and eats the child like a Thanksgiving turkey.”) And earlier this summer, a Florida puppeteer named Ronald Brown was arrested after talking online about raping, murdering, and eating young boys. (Brown once worked for a Christian Television Network program called Joy Junction.)
What’s behind this wave of sexualized cannibalism? In a 2005 Village Voice story about cannibal fetishism, Katherine Gates wrote that “[c]annibalism has existed around the globe and throughout history, but perhaps only in the 21st century has it become an erotic lifestyle.” Indeed, the Internet is a wonderland for aspiring erotic cannibals. In 2006, a German man named Armin Meiwes was sentenced to life in prison after killing and consuming a willing victim whom he met online. Both Mucha and Brown used Yahoo Messenger to chat with likeminded perverts. Various websites and discussion groups cater to the fetish, including one I’m not happy to have found that's called “The Butcher Shop.” The “femcan” community also attracts men who are aroused by the thought of being cooked and eaten by women. “Hi, I'm a female cannibal and I like to eat males,” writes “Rita B. Flesh,” the organizer of a “group for real female cannibals and men who want to be eaten by us.” How will they eat you? “We will either butcher you or cook you in a big oven. During the summer, we may also roast you on a spit.” (Online cannibalism fantasies invariably include spits.)
Cannibalism is a real thing. Sometimes it's a ritual practice, as with the pre-industrial Maori of New Zealand, who would eat their enemies during wartime. ("I get very upset with anthropologists who say that we ate the brain to gain the knowledge of our enemies and their hearts to gain their courage. Fiddle-faddle, we ate them because those are the best parts," an indignant contemporary Maori told Carole Travis-Henikoff in her book Dinner with a Cannibal.) Other times it's a survival tactic, as with the stranded Uruguayan rugby team immortalized in Piers Paul Read's Alive. Sometimes, bad drug trips are to blame—earlier today, I wrote about Big Lurch, the cannibal rapper; and a Florida man named Rudy Eugene was allegedly under the influence of “bath salts” when he ate a homeless man’s face this spring. And it's important to note that the dismemberment and subsequent stewing of body parts does not necessarily constitute cannibalism. Though 68-year-old Frederick Hengl was recently arrested after authorities found segments of his dead wife cooking on their stove, the DA found "no evidence of cannibalism." (Perhaps Hengl was just trying to dispose of the body. Perhaps he just liked the smell.)
Sexually motivated cannibalism is a real thing, too. In the early 20th century, a New York house painter named Albert Fish was executed for kidnapping, molesting, and eating several children. Fish composed several disturbing letters in which he described the thrill he got from eating flesh. (His final letter, composed hours before he was executed, was described by his shocked attorney as “the most filthy string of obscenities that I have ever read.”) Later, the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was said to have ingested his victims.
But today’s online communities seem unlikely to be harboring a bunch of Dahmers. It’s pretty clear that places like “The Butcher Shop” are for sharing outlandish sexual fantasies, not plotting schemes to capture and eat people. That 2005 Village Voice article noted that, Armin Meiwes notwithstanding, online “rumors of genuine cannibalism are invoked to ramp up sexually desirable anxiety,” and that “almost every person who claims to want to go through with it is just a poseur.”
That may have been the case with all three men who were recently arrested for their supposed cannibalistic intentions. There is no evidence that any of the accused actually followed through on their elaborate plans. By creating detailed files on potential victims and making lists of the items he would need to carry out his scheme (a car, some rope, chloroform), “cannibal cop” Valle was possibly pursuing a disturbing fetish, one that’s very easy to mistake for a criminal conspiracy. But while Valle didn’t drug, kidnap, or roast anyone in his oversized oven, he did illegally access the National Crime Information Center database to help build his distressingly detailed victim files. (He also boasted of his desire to become a professional kidnapper, which doesn’t help his case.)
As for Brown and Mucha, both men were independently corresponding with a Kansas man named Michael Arnett. All three were arrested as part of Operation Holitna, an international child pornography investigation. Arnett apparently helped stoke each man’s fantasies of eroticized child cannibalism; when Arnett was arrested, authorities found photographs of an infant in a roasting pan. If these guys aren’t cannibals, they’re certainly pedophiles. And that’s scary enough.
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