Zombies and cannibals.

Let’s begin this post with an exercise. Take a moment, and try to bite a chunk out of your forearm. I’ll wait.

I’m going to guess that you couldn’t do it—if you actually tried, that is. I certainly couldn’t (and, for the record, I’ve tried on more than one occasion). But it’s a certain kind of couldn’t: what we might loosely call a psychological or instinctive couldn’t—our lizard brains prevent us.

I’m after a different kind of couldn’t: I’m curious whether or not it is physically, physiologically possible for a human being—say, a thirty-year-old male with reasonably well-preserved teeth—to bite into and tear a chunk off of another living human being’s limbs or torso. The biting-my-own-arm experiment is really unhelpful in answering this question: sure, I coud bite my arm harder than I’m willing to bite it, but I have no way of judging if that extra force would be sufficient to puncture and tear human skin and muscle.

Why am I interested in this question, you might be wondering? Zombies, that’s why.

I’m currently working on a paper—and by “working on” I mean “I wrote and submitted an abstract to a conference and I’m not writing anything else until I hear if it was accepted”—…a paper about the connection between zombies and late-early-modern (1650-1800) European representations of cannibals. One of the things I’m interested in is tracing a genealogical path between the two—someday maybe I’ll write a post about that. Right now, I’m interested in teeth:

Gnarly-ass zombie teeth. They don’t look capable of chewing on a raw steak, which I’m guessing—but only guessing—is easier than chewing on tasty (again: guessing) human flesh. The point is that her teeth are prominent—like, say, this dude’s teeth:

Pointy damn teeth, and the defining feature of the photograph. Without the filed teeth, the photograph is something else, something less memorable: the teeth make the man.

I’m not sure I have a point yet, except to point out that teeth are perhaps the defining feature of both cannibals and zombies. The defining action of both is, of course, that they eat people; and, certainly, other physical features are more prominent—zombies are more or less decayed, cannibals are “black” (in the sense that they aren’t “white”). Both of those markers are external, on the skin, difficult if not impossible to conceal—but the teeth can be hidden until the moment of biting.

There’s something to that: think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (the film) when Bilbo, old and decrepit, sees the Ring in Frodo’s possession and suddenly lunges at him—no, don’t think about it, watch it: scary teeth! I’m sure I could find examples in, I don’t know, Alien or any adaptation of Dracula ever made. The teeth are revealed at the moment when the threat is revealed as a threat: or, rather, the revelation of scary (read “pointy”) teeth is what reveals the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat—one that is about to attempt to eat whoever it is that’s just seen those scary teeth.

Hopefully my abstract will be accepted, and I’ll have an excuse to keeping fleshing this out—and we can all ponder together whether or not human teeth are capable of what zombie teeth do, and why that might be important.

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5 Comments on “Zombies and cannibals.”

  1. We’ve been watching “True Blood” from HBO recently. Have you seen it? On there, the vampires’ fangs “pop” whenever their lust or anger is aroused. They play on the moment you talk about–the revelation of “the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat”–in that, often, the vamps react by hiding the teeth in embarrassment. So while they reveal the vamp as monster, they also become an indicator of vulnerability.

    • hgoldsmith says:

      I’ve seen a few episodes of True Blood—didn’t notice the fang thing, but it sounds interesting. Vampires just don’t do it for me—they’re too individualized. The thing I like about zombies is the loss of identity zombification entails.

  2. The night before last I dreamt that several of my capped/crowned teeth had broken or fallen out. The dreamer then explored his own associations as follows: “I have recently just been to the dentist, and not only is it time consuming, but also it is expensive. So my thoughts while semi conscious were something like – “Oh no, not another visit needed to the dentist!” But in writing this I have realised another association. During my last visit I sat near a very attractive young woman who was obviously restless and probably in pain. It took me ages to gain enough courage to speak to her. I asked her if she had been waiting long. We then got into easy and interesting conversation. I couldn’t help wishing that I had a woman in my life like her. And afterwards thoughts about her have arisen fairly often.

  3. […] frequently uses) and even ‘die’ with prolonged lack of food (although they still have unnaturally powerful hands and jaws, though we only see them in action a few […]


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