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When we hear the word “cannibal,” the first thing that comes to mind for many people is the Silence of the Lambs villain, Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer who would eat his victims’ organs with a glass of wine. But while Lecter is a fictional character, he is based on several real-life murderers who dined on their victims after a kill.
Cannibals have always existed throughout human history, according to anthropologists: As a cure for overpopulation, a means of survival during a famine, or even a way to contend with grief, nearly every culture has consumed human beings for some reason at one point in time.
But what’s not so common are murderers who kill for sport and then devour their victims. Of the estimated 2,000 active serial killers in the United States, between five and 10 are probably cannibals as well, says Dr. Eric Hickey, professor of forensic psychology at Walden University.
Cannibals, says Hickey, are almost never true psychopaths, who have trouble making meaningful connections with other human beings. In general, they tend to develop extreme attachments to people and suffer from neediness and low self-esteem.
“Cannibals tend to feel really insecure and can’t have normal relationships,” Hickey says. “Eating their victims gives them a sense of power, because their victims can never leave.”
Because cannibals can have emotional attachments, their victims’ deaths are usually quick, wanting to spare the other person pain. “They’re not interested in their victim suffering, like Ted Bundy was. They’re not looking for sadism. They simply want access to the body,” says Hickey.
What’s more, cannibalism is usually a sexual act: “Whenever killers eat other people, they’re acting out a fantasy about relationships and intimacy,” Hickey says. “They start experimenting with sexual fantasies about voyeurism and necrophilia, and as they’re fantasizing they explore that behavior. You don’t usually see people jump from killing to eating. It starts with watching people sleep, then drugging victims, then you want to be with someone who’s buried or unconscious—and it progresses from there.”
Here are six killers who stalked, murdered and eventually consumed their victims.
Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes were so heinous they made headlines around the world. For more than a decade, Dahmer lured men to his apartment with the promise of sex or money and drugged his victims before dismembering them. When police raided his apartment in July 1991, they found various body parts from his 17 victims, such as severed heads, arms and torsos, stored in his freezer. Dahmer later admitted to eating the thighs, hearts and organs of many of his victims.
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During his prison sentence, Dahmer would reportedly fashion his food into severed limbs—complete with ketchup “blood”—to shock the other inmates. This “taunting” led to fellow inmate, Christopher Scarver beating Dahmer to death in 1994.
In January 1936, Albert Fish was executed for the murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd, whom he had lured away from her parents two years earlier under the pretense of going to a birthday party. Fish had taken Grace to an abandoned house, strangled her to death and dismembered her body—but he didn’t stop there.
After Grace’s murder, Fish sent a letter to her grieving family, detailing how he had eaten parts of her body after she died. When police caught up with Fish, he confessed to two other murders and told police he had also consumed the body parts of a 4-year-old boy named Billy Gaffney. In a letter to his attorney, Fish confessed that he drank Gaffney’s blood and had made a stew out of his organs.
Born in 1828, Levi Boone Helm spent his teen years goading people into fights and ran off to California in his early 20s after murdering his cousin. In California, and then later in Oregon, Helm began to develop a taste for human flesh, cannibalizing a friend who had died by suicide and then killing and eating ranchers and other fugitives while he was on the run from law enforcement.
But Helm claims he had a moral duty to dispose of the remains of his victims in such a gruesome way. Before his capture and execution on January 14, 1864, Helm confessed to friends that he had killed several men and had “been obliged to feed on some of ’em.”
Gregory Scott Hale
Before his June 8, 2014 arrest, Gregory Scott Hale of Summitville, Tennessee was posting some disturbing things on his personal Facebook page. According to reports, Hale routinely joked about killing, eating and burying people in his backyard.
But Hale’s musings quickly became a reality: After picking up a woman at a local liquor store, Hale brought her back to his house, murdered her and then admitted to police later that he had eaten a part of her body.
When officers searched Hale’s backyard, they found the decapitated head, hands and feet of his victim, 36-year-old Lisa Marie Hyder. The victim’s heart was later found in a neighbor’s yard, where Hale had thrown it before his arrest.
Nicknamed “The Butcher of Rostov” and “The Red Ripper,” Andrei Chikatilo was one of the most prolific killers in Ukraine, confessing to 56 murders (though only charged with 53) during his 12-year-long crime spree.
Some experts think Chikatilo, who started killing in the late 1970s, became interested in cannibalism at an early age. He claimed his mother would tell him about an older brother who had been killed and cannibalized by their neighbors. Although the story was never verified, it would match up with the aftermath of the great Ukrainian famine of the 1930s in which widespread cannibalism was documented.
As an adult, Chikatilo would lure young women into the woods, rape and mutilate them, and then eat their sexual organs, as well as removing other body parts like their nose and eyes. Chikatilo was arrested in 1990 and executed for his crimes in 1994.
Born in Japan in 1949, Issei Sagawa experienced “cannibalistic urges” at a young age. In an interview with Vice News, Sagawa describes looking at his elementary-school classmates and longing to eat their flesh, stating that he became obsessed with eating “tall, healthy-looking Western women” due to an inferiority complex.
At age 27, Sagawa moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where he later met classmate Renee Hartevelt and persuaded her to come back to his apartment to translate poetry for him. There, Sagawa shot and killed Hartevelt, raped her corpse and ate parts of her body over the next several days.
Sagawa, later nicknamed the “Paris Cannibal,” was eventually caught and deported to Japan, where he was committed to a mental institution—but due to a technicality, Sagawa could not be legally detained and was set free. Sagawa remains free to this day, and lives on his own in Kawasaki, Japan.