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Friday, 16 February, 2001, 01:23 GMT
The real Hannibal Lecters
Dahmer, Shawcross and Hannibal Lecter: a gallery of cannibals
Dahmer, Shawcross and Hannibal Lecter
Hannibal Lecter is back in cinemas all over the UK this weekend, but as BBC News Online's Chris Summers discovers, the truth about real life cannibals is far scarier than the fiction.

Cannibalism is mankind's most sacred taboo.

But, as the popularity of the Hannibal Lecter films shows, we are all fascinated by the cannibal.

On Friday night cinemas all over the UK are screening Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs.

The film's central character is a cultured cannibal, played by Anthony Hopkins, who finds himself on the run but living in luxury in modern Florence.

What is most disturbing about these people is their banality, their normalness.

Daniel Korn, TV producer
Real life cannibal killers tend not to have the wit and black humour of Dr Lecter or the culinary imagination to mix human liver with Chianti and fava beans.

Next week Channel 4 begins a three-part documentary on cannibalism.

The first programme in the series, Cannibal, begins by tracing the extraordinary lives of real life Hannibal Lecters: men such as Arthur Shawcross and Issei Sagawa.

Ancient appetite

Later episodes focus on new archaeological evidence that our ancestors may have routinely resorted to cannibalism and cases in which modern-day humans have resorted to the last taboo simply to survive.

Daniel Korn, who produced the series and has written a book about the phenomenon of cannibalism, managed to track down a real life Hannibal Lecter to the streets of Tokyo.

Issei Sagawa, now 51, admits murdering a French friend, Renee Hartevelt, in a Paris apartment in 1981 and devouring parts of her body.

Two years later a French judge decided he was mentally unfit to stand trial and should be placed in a secure mental hospital indefinitely.

Childhood game

In 1985 he was sent back to Japan. The authorities there considering putting him on trial for the Hartevelt murder but the French refused to hand over the dossier and later that year he was freed after convincing a doctor he had regained his sanity.

Sagawa told the programme makers he had been obsessed with cannibalism from the age of three, when his uncle used to play a game pretending to be a flesh-eating giant.

He said killing and eating his friend was the fulfilment of a lifelong desire.

Sagawa says he will never kill again. But neurologist Professor Jonathan Pincus, who has read his psychiatric report, told the programme he doubted whether Sagawa could keep his word.

'Normal people'

The Channel 4 team also visited another real-life cannibal, US serial killer Arthur Shawcross.

Shawcross, 55, who murdered 11 women - mainly prostitutes - between February 1988 and January 1990, told how he first tried cannibalism in Vietnam,

Mr Korn says that while Sagawa, Shawcross and another famous cannibal - the late Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer - were all deranged, they did not fit our stereotype of a cannibal.

He said: "What is most disturbing about these people is their banality, their normalness.

'Unimaginable savagery'

"It is not as if they are a spectre of evil because that is probably what you are expecting.

"It's the fact that these people are chatting and they are horribly normal, everyday people, yet they are capable of these acts of unimaginable savagery."

But having studied the subject for his book, Mr Korn said he did not believe the practice was restricted to the criminally insane and may always have been a central part of human behaviour.

He says 800,000-year-old bones bearing signs of defleshing or "the cannibalism signature" have been found at Gran Dolina in Spain.

Cannibalism is a very natural, latent characteristic of our behaviour

Daniel Korn
Bones dating from 12,000 years ago, with similar marks, have been found at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset - and more, from about 3,000 years ago, were unearthed near Eton College.

Fijians were apparently eating their enemies 150 years ago and "head hunting" and cannibalism only died out in Borneo and Papua New Guinea earlier last century.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence of people - such as the survivors of the 1972 Andes aircrash - resorting to human flesh as a last resort.

Cannibalism is "a very natural, latent characteristic of our behaviour", says Mr Korn.

Food for thought indeed.

Hannibal is released in the UK on Friday.

See also:

08 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Hannibal sparks censorship row
05 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Hannibal the cannibal returns
09 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Third Hannibal film planned
01 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Neanderthals were cannibals
13 Dec 98 | Asia-Pacific
Fijians find chutney in bad taste
06 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Pot gives up cannibalism secret
30 Oct 99 | World
World's worst killers
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