Cannibalism Was Driven by Ego, Narcissism or a 'Perceived Threat of Destruction' in These 5 Bizarre Cases

From the Hannibal Lecter film series to Cormac McCarthy's dystopian novel The Road, depictions of cannibalism haunt the popular imagination.

Thankfully, in today's world, the practice is extremely rare, although this is not to say that it has been completely eradicated. Cannibalism still takes place in a handful of remote indigenous communities where it forms part of traditional rituals, and has even been reported in starvation situations where the individuals involved had no choice but to eat human flesh to survive.

In some exceptional cases, the practice has been linked to severe mental illness, something researchers describe as "pathological cannibalism," Live Science reported.

Now, a team of scientists has investigated five cases of pathological cannibalism for a study published in the Journal of Forensic Science, in an attempt to cast light on the potential motivations behind such unspeakable acts.

Research into this topic is thin on the ground, not least because collecting sufficient amounts of data is tricky given how rare cannibalism is. In addition, it is often difficult to produce objective analyses when looking into such horrific practices, the researchers say.

Despite these issues, the team—led by Sophie Raymond from the Unité pour malades difficiles (UMD) Henri Colin in France—assessed and compared the medical records pertaining to five pathological cannibalism cases involving male patients aged between 18 and 36—all of whom had been hospitalized at a secure psychiatric unit in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif over a two-decade long period.

The patients that the researchers focused on fell into two categories: They either suffered from severe schizophrenia or mixed personality disorder characterized by "sadistic and psychopathic features" linked to a condition (paraphilia) in which individuals experience abnormal sexual desires, that often involve extreme ore dangerous activities.

The researchers note that they had traumatic upbringings in which they were abused—sexually or physically—or were neglected by their caregivers, LiveScience reported.

In the cases of the three patients with schizophrenia, the researchers argued that their acts of cannibalism were a kind of "self-defense" reaction to a "perceived threat of destruction." For these patients, "survival depends on the annihilation or assimilation of the other," the authors wrote in the study.

Meanwhile, the researchers conclude that the two patients with mixed personality disorder were more concerned with "ego and narcissism." In these cases, they practiced cannibalism to overcome severe underlying issues through a powerful act of violence.

"Feelings of humiliation seem to be the trigger, and both patients assaulted their victims at a time when they suffered a loss of self-esteem," the researchers wrote in their study.

While the results of the study are intriguing, the authors warn that wider conclusions about cannibalism in general cannot be drawn from this study alone, given that it only deals with a very small number of extreme cases.

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Stock photo: What drives people to cannibalism? Getty