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Eat, Drink, and Be Wary: Autosarcophagy and Autoerotism in Body Horror Cinema



"Kirsten Imani Kasai’s essay, “Eat, Drink, and Be Wary: Autosarcophagy and Autoerotism in Body Horror Cinema,” draws parallels between female self-mutilation, plastic surgery, and self-cannibalism, then recontextualizes them as assertions of feminist agency."
Excerpted from:
The Body Horror Book: Essays of the Macabre
Ed. Claire Fitzpatrick
Oscillate Wildly Press
July 30, 2017
Eat, Drink, and Be Wary:
Autosarcophagy and Autoerotism
in Body Horror Cinema
By Kirsten Imani Kasai
*Spoiler alert.* The 2014 film Eat closes with this startling scene: indulging an obsession with
self-butchering and her craving for the taste of human flesh, heroine Novella McClure cuts open
her chest, rips out her beating heart and hungrily devours it. Blood drips down her chin; her eyes
roll back in orgasmic ecstasy as she satisfies her most pernicious craving. Aside from the
ridiculous impossibility of such a feat, it’s an entrancing idea—to literally eat one’s own heart
Body horror cinema thrives on such scenes of gory madness. They’re the climactic peak
of the movie-going experience, and what true fans live for. I’ve seen most mainstream films
about cannibalism (Ravenous, 1999, Alive, 1993, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover,
1989, Eating Raoul, 1982) and the lesser-known (The Washingtonians, 2007, Compulsion, 2013)
but Eat stuck with me. Cannibalism is kind of a pet theme in my fiction1; I’ve always been
drawn to it. I’ve also got a thing for representations of the anatomical human heart (I’ve got one
tattooed on my back—a human heart hanging from a tree limb guarded by a watchful raven). Eat
serves up an addictive dish: heart + gore + pretty girl…I’m hooked. But beyond these surface
intrigues, why is this theme so compelling? Horror movie icon Bela Lugosi said, “It is women
who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out-
1Best Served Cold,Rhapsody in Snakeskin: Tales of Erotica and Horror (2012, Sizzler Editions)
and come back for more.” Like Novella’s yearning for the taste of her own flesh, so, too, do
horror audiences yearn for transgressive imagery and the blood-soaked breaking of boundaries.
Body horror aims to combine “sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling
psychosis”2 to spectacular effect. Autosarcophagy fits the bill marvelously. When used in genre
films, it is almost always a deliberate and premeditated act. In Splatter: Naked Blood, a woman
batters, fries and eats her own hand. Later she uses a fork and knife to dismember and eat herself,
starting with a quivering chunk of vulva, her nipple, and in a feat of lip-smacking deliciousness,
her own eyeball.
The body horror genre’s effective because it affects viewers at a primal level. Few things
are as threatening as a deliberate, malicious violation of the body’s physical integrity. Nothing’s
more squirm-worthy than self-surgery, and characters who eat themselves are performing
radical, surgical body modification … with their teeth. Autosarcophagy or autophagy (self-
cannibalism), self-harm and body modification in relation to women’s sense of autonomy, sexual
viability, aging and decay, are persistent themes on our cultural landscape. From fairy tales (in
early versions of Grimm’s Snow White, the evil queen asks the hunter to cut out Snow White’s
heart so she can eat it) to contemporary cosmetic surgery, the female body serves as a blank
canvas for the projection of fantasies (or delusions), and remains a powerful entity rife with
opportunities for destruction.
Cannibalism is taboo and therefore alluring. But we’re also used to it. For example, those
of the Christian faith are weaned on its mythology. The Eucharist is symbolic cannibalism.
“Take, eat,” said Jesus, “this is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
Like members of bloodthirsty, warring tribes, people have historically eaten human flesh to
attain an enemy or a beloved’s powers (as wonderfully portrayed in the film Neon Demon) or, in
the case of the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, funerary cannibalism (endocannibalism) is an
act of mourning to preserve the life force of the deceased individual. But the meaning and
motivations behind representations of cannibalism in popular culture are elastic and stretch to
accommodate new interpretations and roles. Further modernizing the theme, Jean des Forets,
2 Body genre films, Wikipedia.
producer of Julia Ducournau’s film Raw, applies a “sociopolitical reading [to] this trend” as
cannibalism gains more mainstream exposure in other 2016 films (French comedy Slack Bay and
the USA’s Neon Demon). Slack Bay producer Jean Brehat adds, “Cannibalism reflects the reality
of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, thanks to hyper-capitalism and a culture of
Unlike dramatic films that use cannibalism for purposes of social commentary or shock
value, autosarcophagy has but one goal: the erotic celebration and reclamation of personal
power. It may seem counterintuitive to equate individual agency, sexual expression and gender
identity as a responsive analysis to patriarchal stressors with self-harm and the disfigurement or
death of female protagonists in body horror films, but an exploration of the topic viewed through
this cinematic lens, provides startling cultural insights.
Flesh for Fantasy
My exploration of this topic focused primarily on four films: Eat (USA), Dans Ma Peau (2002,
France), Splatter: Naked Blood (1996, Japan) and Dumplings (2004, Three…Extremes, China).
These are gornographic4 morality tales of self-soothing gone awry. In each one, a breakdown
results in an escalating loss of control, and growing obsession with gaining the object of desire:
satisfying a forbidden hunger for one’s own flesh. As social or sexual pressures escalate, Novella
and Esther (Dans Ma Peau) turn harmless habits into deadly ones. Both Novella and Esther pick
or nibble at insignificant wounds, find relief and pick again. Self-cannibalism is cutting in the
In reality, this behavior is an impulse-control disorder on the OCD spectrum. Writing in
Motherboard, Jason Koebler says, “People who chew on their own skin are often called ‘wolf
biters,’ because that’s exactly what wolves do when they’re trapped or annoyed.”5
4 A portmanteau of goreand porn.The term can refer to just an extremely graphic scene of bloodshed or the
entire sub-genre of torture films.
Dermatophagia (or dermotaxia) is “a neurotic habit or compulsion to self-mutilate [one’s own
skin or appendages] with one’s teeth.”6 Interestingly, Eat was inspired by director Jimmy
Weber’s own bad habit. He says, “One day, I was chewing on my thumb and it started
bleeding. It hurt, but I didn’t stop. I just kept chewing and biting with glassy eyes even though it
was painful and I was still bleeding … About five minutes later, I had a pretty fleshed out story
about a struggling actress who used self-cannibalism to cope with her mental pain. The idea of
an extreme gore film with an emotional ending sounded fun.”7 And it is. Tendon-stretching,
skin-splitting, blood spurting fun. Yay, gore!
Skin picking and biting is fairly common. An estimated one in twenty people experience
some form of Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRB).8 The desire to admire, master or
manipulate the flesh develops into a compulsion to pick, eat, and repeat, yet self-cannibalism is
so inherently repugnant that it rarely exists outside of horror films. There are only nine cases of
autosarcophagy documented in medical literature so far, and the majority resulted from
psychosis or drug use.9 But one stands out—a 28-year-old woman who “has been known to eat
parts of her skin that were previously cut out of her body … for purposes of body modifications.”
Notes the author, “The patient had a normal childhood, is currently employed full-time as an
office manager, and is psychologically stable.”10 (Apparently, hers is just a lifestyle choice.)
Unlike Novella, this patient has made a conscious decision not spurred by the psychological
collapse we believe must be required as a precursor to noshing on one’s own limbs and organs.
Body horror is often an exploration, or exploitation, of fragility. The characters in these
films typically lack resources or family support. They don’t seek help or medical aid when
injured, sick or in the case of Starry Eyes (2014), possessed by a demon (or if they do, it’s
9 J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015 Feb;203(2):152-3. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000252.
Self-cannibalism (autosarcophagy) in psychosis: a case report. Libbon R, Hamalian G, Yager J.
10 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. Benecke, Mark M.D. The American
Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, September 1999. Vol. 20 - Issue 3: pp 281-285.
ineffective—too little, too late). Sara bleakly states “I don’t have any friends” shortly before she
guzzles the gushing, bloody essence of her roommate. In Wetlands (2013, Germany) a lonely
teen’s cringe-inducing DIY approach to her hemorrhoids lands her in the hospital, where she
gruesomely mutilates herself. They’re misfits and outcasts. People on the fringes of society who
go berserk in splendid fashion.
Although descending into psychosis and obsession, the women in these films initially
hide their afflictions and pretend everything is normal. Their breakdowns are private experiences
that happen in full view of others. Lovers, co-workers, doctors and nurses are often oblivious to
the sufferer’s agony. Isolation and social alienation are recurring themes in horror films, which
stimulate a primal fear of loneliness, rejection and invisibility. (American filmmaker David
Cronenberg’s a master of this; see Eraserhead, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Videodrome.) The
people around them are either too oblivious, egotistical or too powerless to intervene—
miraculously, no one ever chews through an artery, and vital organs can withstand clumsy
surgeries without causing any real trauma or loss of function. Whole fingernails pop off. Hair
and teeth fall out. (Cronenberg handles this brilliantly in1985’s The Fly as Brundlefly—a
wretched amalgamation of human and insect—adds his decomposing body parts to the collection
in the medicine cabinet as they fall off, one by one.) Scabbed and bandaged, the characters cover
their wounds and get on with their lives, or in Novella’s case, hobble on, as she’s eaten her toes.
Mean girls, bullies and antagonistic relationships at home and work create inescapable
stress that must be relieved. Novella, Esther and Mrs. Li struggle with social expectations of
thinness, beauty and unchanging youth, but Novella and Esther turn their attentions on
themselves with narcissistic, masturbatory drive. Esther sits naked in the bathtub pinching folds
of skin as a precursor to cutting (body dysmorphic disorder also makes an appearance in the
2014 films American Mary and Starry Eyes). But Mrs. Li’s quest for sexual vitality drives her to
eat fetus-stuffed dumplings prepared by the Sweeny Todd-esque Mei, who extols the
rejuvenating virtues of “kitten-like” five-month-old fetuses because they’re “so cute and
delicious” (Three…Extremes). Mrs. Li goes to stomach-churning extremes to attain the climactic
object of her desire. Vanity overwhelms all maternal instinct; she aborts her own fetus and
devours it. Once tasted, human flesh is delectable and the yearning for it eclipses all reasoning
inevitably leading down the slippery slope to cannibalistic compulsion and helpless addiction.
Cannibalism and Compulsion
Urban legends and folklore have long asserted that the taste of human flesh is addictive.
Ravenous (1999, USA), for example, relies on the myth of the wendigo (an evil, hungry ghost
with an insatiable appetite for people) to fuel its cannibalistic massacre. The idea that human
flesh is addictively delicious is an enduring one, but one that most have been quick to refute. Los
Angeles-area clinical psychologist Karen Hylen disagrees. “Disturbingly, cannibalism can even
be addictive,” she says. “People who have engaged in this act report feelings of euphoria or get a
‘high’ by performing the action to completion. The addiction begins as a fantasy that replays
itself over and over … When that person finally acts on their fantasy by eating human flesh, their
brain is flooded with the feel-good chemical dopamine, making them feel as high as if they’d
snorted a line of cocaine. The psychopath will then strive to reproduce that same high by
continuing to sample human flesh, unable to stop.”11 We assume that someone must be insane to
voluntarily eat human flesh but Hylen asserts, “These individuals … know exactly what they are
(Interestingly, there’s a biological component to autosarcophagy. A report published in
the journal Cell Metabolism found that “when you starve yourself of calories, your brain cells
also starve, causing your neurons to begin eating parts of themselves for energy. The self-
cannibalism, in turn, cranks up hunger signals.”i)
While gnawing on their own limbs or appendages, the women in these films seem
completely unfazed, as if stoned to numbness on their own pain, and their detachment stretches
the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. For once I’d like to see a more realistic
representation of the autophage in body horror. To the writers and filmmakers who construct
these characters, I say show us, in graphic, anatomical detail, the mortal agony of biting into your
own living flesh and let us vicariously revel in the toxic, orgasmic rapture of violent self-
destruction. Let us wallow in the tormented pleasure of its eroticism as you consume yourself,
bite by bite. Notably, filmmakers in the New French Extremity (NFE) movement are already
answering this call, producing works that deepen our understanding of the unbreakable link
between sexuality and violence.
Private Torments, Tormented Privates
“Sex and violence are our most natural instincts,” says Canadian film critic Alexandra West, “so
they’re what we always try to suppress the most.” Body horror films exploit our fears by
attaining maximum gross-out levels, but at their hearts, they are still stories with a purpose, an
internal engine that drives more than a visual feast of gore and entrails. West, author of the new
book Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity says, “These
movies use tropes to mask their insides, or they use horror as a Trojan horse for ideas. Blood and
guts is like the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.”12
“Sex, here, is linked with both subjectivity and consumption; sex is both alteration to
reality and conformism at its peak, writes researcher Cristina Bogdan Ph.D. “NFE artists choose
to use sex as a deviant experience, as another layer added in order to create a parallel reality [to]
link the erotic experience with spiritual/psychical violence, the carnal with the spiritual, totality
with the instant, the unconscious with conscious manifestation.”13
To further luxuriate in her affair with herself, Esther rents a hotel room. She lies on her
back, digging into her thigh with a knife as tears of blood drip onto her face as she tongues and
sucks the wound. Slick with blood, Esther makes mouth-love to her surgical gash, an image
that’s as erotic and stirring as any love scene. Later, Esther tucks a precious piece of her own
tanned skin inside her bra and tenderly kisses her breast. The sensual component of these films is
undeniable. Whether the interpretation and portrayal of eroticism is a choice made by the actors
or the directors, the message is clear. Just as the snake eats its tail (the alchemical Ouroboros) to
signify completion, the autophage finds union of body and soul in the consumption of her own
13 New French Extremity: An Exigency for Reality Cristina Bogdan.
flesh—a Eucharistic satisfaction of the “twin sensibilities of erotic desire and spiritual
satisfaction.”14 Village Voice reviewer Dennis Lim describes Dans Ma Peau as “a love story
between a woman and her own body that concludes with the relationship fully consummated.””ii
“Violence is deeply erotic,” says Bogdan, and in Esther and Novella’s cases, their
controlled loss of control transforms “the erotic body [into] the vehicle for salvation.” When “all
possibility for pleasure splits off and attaches itself to self-control,”15 the ritual butchering of
one’s own body becomes the ultimate, worshipful act of intimate adoration. Relief and
satisfaction are delivered through the annihilation of their own flesh as they literally eat
themselves out of a tormented existence and into bliss. In this example, self-cannibalism
achieves next-level status as a blissful and blood-soaked celebration of self. How lucky for us
that we get to watch.
Deeper, Harder, Faster: Expanding the Extreme
What can we expect to see in future body horror films? How will writers and filmmakers further
push the envelope of our tolerance, especially in regards to the narrow and well-defined niche
that is autosarcophagy? Aspects of the genre have already been used to counter the brutally
rapacious nature of venereal horror (bodies forcibly invaded, implanted, impregnated or altered)
and “take back the night,iii“ thereby turning tables on their assailants and/or their progeny. In
Prometheus (2012, USA), actress Noomi Rapace performs self-surgery to abort a monstrous,
alien fetus. Nestled within the claustrophobic confines of a patriarchal rape culture and
Hollywood’s legendary misogyny, it is a scene rich with socio-political feminist subtext.
Rapace’s character resists her assigned role as broodmare or alien incubator, thus reclaiming her
autonomy and personal power.
14Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me: Eucharist and the Erotic Body in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. Victorian
Poetry 2005, Winter, 43, 4. West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia.
15Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me: The Consumable Female Body in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’
Mary Wilson Carpenter. Victorian Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 4, Contemporary Critics Look at Victorian Poetry (Winter,
1991), pp. 415-434. West Virginia University Press.
Indeed, some body horror films can even be described as feminist. They explore
women’s issues in thorough and often nauseating detail (it’s horror after all) but these are stories
that allow women to be something other than a tool. Unlike male-centered films that” merely
discard the female form after mining its sexuality for the sake of disgust,” movies like
“Antibirth,” (2016, USA-Canada) a pregnancy-fueled “Thelma and Louise” styled nightmare
that “despite being directed by a man, jettisons the male gaze.iv Likewise, body horror can
be further applied it as a conscientious and critical tool with which to evaluate the shifting
landscape of women’s political rights, and deepen our cultural experience of all aspects of
gender violence, femininity, fertility, sexuality and eroticism. I thrill to watch these stories
impact the landscape of the genre, and our understanding of female-gendered experiences as
more women and feminist filmmakers take up the banner of body horror and proudly wave its
bloody flag.
iii Take Back the Night is a USA-based nonprofit dedicated to ending “sexual assault, domestic violence, dating
violence, sexual abuse and all other forms of sexual
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
  • Mary Wilson Carpenter
Mary Wilson Carpenter. Victorian Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 4, Contemporary Critics Look at Victorian Poetry (Winter, 1991), pp. 415-434. West Virginia University Press.