Epicureanism has come to be associated with mindless indulgence in food and sex, even if those ancient Athenians called for more restraint than you’d typically see in your average horror movie.
Countless horror films, of course, have echoed cultural anxieties surrounding sex, but that other physiological need, food, is also a common ingredient. Poor impulse control is at the heart of every slasher film—usually the perp acting on his, but also the risk-taking behaviors of his victims. And it’s not much of a stretch to consider that there’s a genetic component to this, whether manifested in psychopathy or an inability to keep the fridge door shut.
According to a Bloomberg report, 2015 was the first year Americans spent more on dining out than on groceries, as at-home food prep shows proliferate and the real-life horror that is the obesity epidemic shaves years off our lives. Luckily, amidst all the Chicken Little warnings (lean, free-range chicken of course), more of us are finally getting the message about eating right.
When it comes to the kitchen, though, dangers abound.
Victims are routinely carved up with culinary implements in horror films, as kitchen knives come standard issue in a maniac’s toolkit. However, 1990’s Pledge Night gave us something different. A young college coed, Connie, is unloading groceries in the kitchen, and unbeknownst to her, the spirit of a poor soul who died in a fraternity initiation prank has come back from the great beyond to stalk unsuspecting Greeks.
Connie is slain in a funny off-screen egg-beater death, and given that we’ve seen what the device can do to heavy cream, it’s a shame we weren’t privy to a bit more egg-beater-related gore and mayhem. If you licked the cookie dough off of them as a kid (and perhaps got your tongue tangled within), you’d be especially affected. And even if not, any device with moving parts provides a particularly evocative means of killing, even if it’s only audibly referenced. After all, the ear is as important as the eye when it comes to horror.
In the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left, a perp gets his comeuppance via that cooking tool most familiar to the indolent college set, a microwave. (How it is used to zap a human head still attached to a body, operating with the door still open, remains a mystery.)
The local neighborhood curmudgeon in Night of the Demons (1988) finds himself on the wrong end of his own deadly windup—the ol’ razor blade in the apple routine that strikes the fear of God into parents every Halloween. In the film, a throat-piercing fruit is baked into a pie, which then slides down the man’s gullet in the glorious finale.
The repurposing of normal everyday household items for murder, connected to fact-based urban legends, is what makes these scenes particularly frightening: microwaved pets and Halloween food tampering have unfortunately bubbled their way into the public consciousness via very real news events.
And as scary as those cases are, arguably worse is when humans are food for other humans.
In the ’60s curiosity, The Undertaker and His Pals, two leather-clad greasy spoon operators (one of whom resembles Iron Chef America’s Bobby Flay) skulk about in the dark and knife their prey. They then process their victims through a sausage grinder and serve ’em up in a daily special. In the case of one unfortunate African American victim, they even ask a customer if they’d prefer “white or dark meat.” Risqué stuff for that decade or this one.
In the dark comedy Eating Raoul (it’s not hard to predict the denouement with that title), a married couple, Paul and Mary Bland, lure, kill, and rob swingers, unloading the corpses on a pet food processor. This is all to finance a dream restaurant, which will feature an unlikely menu standout, the “Bland Enchilada.”
Gourmand Hannibal Lecter’s Epicurean indulgences in The Silence of the Lambs are legendary. The psycho likes Tuscan reds, fava beans, and, of course, a human liver as the star of the dish, “elevating” a human entrée (to use a Gordon Ramsay-ism) typically associated with the jungles and Ramones-esque hairdos of cannibal movies. Ironically it’s Italy, a country known for gastronomy and a distinguished food culture, that gave us the genre that doesn’t waste a single piece of meat. For confirmation, just ask actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice.
Another Yelp-worthy addition to the cannibal canon: who could forget the suspiciously delicious Sawyer family chili with a secret ingredient in the 1986 sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?
Reducing caloric intake… or, more accurately, “forced starvation,” is a very common horror film phenomenon, too—think of a malnourished Lucie fleeing from subterranean captivity in the shocking opener to Martyrs (2008), having been kept alive by a plate of unpalatable slop force-fed to her between beatings. Director Pascal Laugier calls attention to Lucie’s animalistic state, degraded to a point where she’s treated no better than a pig at a trough.
The question of food scarcity is always eating at the margins of every zombie/contagion movie, though seldom explicitly addressed. How will food production come into play as small bands of humans rebuild society? Farming is boring to depict, but people have to eat something, especially if game meat is infected.
In 2012’s In the House of Flies, a young couple wake up to find themselves locked in a suburban basement with both their glucose levels and contact with the outside world meticulously controlled. A psychopath (voiced by Henry Rollins) who communicates via phone messages offers the duo a dead rat as sustenance.
The horror film genre is nothing if not a bountiful harvest of plotlines, as several films have put food preparation and chefs front and center. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) made viewers look askance at capers when he declared that one of the ingredients in a restaurant’s stock was “a rat turd” rather than the edible flower bud. The mental associations conjured up by movies like this one can last a lifetime, especially for those with an affinity for halibut.
In Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman bases an entire film on the disquiet surrounding the provenance of fast-food chain mystery meat, as nasty chicken carcasses are animated and possessed by revenge-fueled spirits inhabiting an ancient burial ground.
In Bitter Feast, faded celebrity chef Peter Grey decides to go after the prickly food blogger who penned a nasty review that ruined his bistro and reputation, turning the tables on him as it were. Dario Argento has killed off critics in his movies, so Chef Peter Grey’s overreaction is understandable here, as it’s hard for him to accept Mark Twain’s sardonic dictum, “The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all…”
In the revenge-dish-best-served-cold movie (think ceviche), Chef Grey kidnaps the critic, shackles him in a basement, and forces him to cook the perfect sunny-side up egg, one of the tasks frequently asked of, say, Hell’s Kitchen contestants. Unfortunately, the stakes are much higher for this amateur chef than a verbal dressing-down by a foul-mouthed Brit. And speaking of celebrity, the film adds a pinch of verisimilitude with a cameo by “Molto” Mario Batali. The TV chef makes the briefest of appearances before he’s whisked away like an unfinished appetizer.
In the 2011 low-budget horror movie The Craving, Ronnie, the chef/owner of a tapas restaurant called Diabla Pica (Devil’s Spear), skewers her way through the female population of San Francisco while wowing patrons with her paella and serrano ham. Her first victim is enjoying a relaxing bath and moisturizing her eyes with cucumbers when Ronnie hacks her to bits, naturally deploying impeccable knife skills. After cleaning up the scene, Chef Ronnie plops the now bloody cucumber into her mouth and savors it. Nobody can question her adventurous palette. The killer chef then sizes up her victims like potential menu items: “You’d make a tasty seafood medley!” She definitely puts the chop in cioppino.
A yogurt-like substance bubbling out of the ground has the populace atwitter and ad agencies working overtime in the 1985 feature film The Stuff—not unlike the current probiotic superfood claim that has customers rushing to the dairy aisle. However, in the movie, the sweetly addictive food in question is a sinister living parasite. Soon, in this consumer culture satire, no persuasive ad techniques are required as zombie masses become obsessed with The Stuff.
Food cravings, like giving in to sex or drug indulgences, aren’t associated with positive outcomes in horror films. Look how little screentime Drew Barrymore gets after caving to her snack impulses in Scream. She’s offed before she can even dig into her stovetop popcorn.
What’s great about the horror genre is, like food, it’s highly varied. At the transgressive end, we’re still shocked by sophisticates like Dr. Lecter (or the not-quite-as sophisticated walking dead) eating human flesh, or by the Sawyers gathering around the dining table for a parody of a typical family dinner in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2.
Horror films run the gamut from junk food to healthy helpings, and when the genre is at its finest, it can provide psychological nourishment that feeds the need to accept our own mortality.
Christopher Lombardo is co-author of Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons and co-founder of www.ReallyAwfulMovies.com and the Really Awful Movies Podcast.