When Anthony Hopkins was promoting Red Dragon, he told the press that Hannibal Lecter's popular success could be attributed to the fact that 'He is the dark side inside all of us.'
On first glimpse, it would seem that Sir Anthony has simply been living in California too long. Psychotherapy is all well and good - or, to put it another way, all bollocks - but embracing your inner flesh-eating murderer may seem a step too far. Most of us don't feel that inside every hairdresser and quantity surveyor there's a cannibal trying to get out. Nor, indeed, that outside every cannibal is a person trying to get in. Nevertheless, whether Hopkins is aware of it or not, the idea has a long tradition.
Freud wrote that civilization trains each newborn child out of its innate primitive desires, and 'These primitive desires are those of incest, cannibalism and murder'. He was cross with his sister at the time, and had skipped lunch. But was he right?
Recently, cannibals seem to have been cropping up on all sides. Only two weeks after the hilarious German man-eater Armin Meiwes was given an eight-year jail sentence for eating an engineer, and this week police arrested an Englishman who was caught cooking a man's brain on the hob of a Walthamstow flat.
The Englishman appears to be your traditional sort of anthropophagic villain - killing and eating unsuspecting victims - in the same genre as notorious bogeymen Ed Gein, Albert Fish, Andrei Chikatilo, Jeffrey Dahmer, Nicholas Claux and Sweeney Todd. Armin Meiwes is a far more interesting case, having found a willing participant on the internet and eaten him with full mutual consent. And possibly a dab of mustard.
Investigating officer Wilfried Fehl told the German court that he had discovered a vast cannibal scene in Germany: 'We are talking about dentists, teachers, cooks, government officials and handymen.' (By which he presumably meant 'people at every level of society' rather than just those specific groups. Which would be bizarre).
The briefest of web searches unearths large numbers of Meiwes-wannabes and, even more commonly, those who seek Meiwes wannabes. On the handy 'alt.sex.snuff.cannibalism' newsgroup, you will find the hopeful posts:
'Looking for a real chef willing to roast male long pig alive. Anyone out there'
'I am a 25-year-old male looking for someone to devour me piece by piece. I'm not interested in talking to anyone who's not serious about eating me. I mean it. I have a sporty physique and am six foot two'
'i am search a human-butcher , for me , i will in the year 2004 butchered, you can me splitt, cut and eat , alive'
and the simple yet effective:
'i butchering you and eat your horny flesh.'
This particular brand of fetishism seems more popular in Europe than Britain, although we take the idea seriously enough that one UK-based fake cannibalism site was forced to rephrase its pages to make the joke clear. (It is definitely worth a quick visit to www.cannibalism.org.uk to decide which of the five clarifications is your particular favourite).
Whatever you might think of the actual business of eating an engineer's pan-fried penis, there is something undeniably beautiful about the meeting of like minds which took place between Armin Meiwes and his dinner. All his life, Armin had dreamed of eating somebody. All his life, Bernd Brandes had dreamed of being eaten. The invention of the Internet allowed these two soulmates to meet, both dreams to be realized, and Armin to tell the world that he now plans to write a cookbook.
The court case - like the film Alive, which told the story of the Uruguayan rugby team who survived after a plane crash in the Andes by eating the bodies of those who died - forces us to reconsider the absolutism of the idea that 'eating people is always wrong'. (Mind you, rugby players would eat anything. If Lawrence Dallaglio can advertise McDonalds, he can certainly chow down on an engineer's sautéed cock).
Nevertheless, like Chris Morris's distinction between different sorts of AIDS, perhaps we should learn to distinguish between Good Cannibalism and Bad Cannibalism...