Just the word “cannibalism” makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, doesn’t it? Cannibalism, due to that tremor it sends down your spine, is a pretty common horror theme. It’s got its own set of micro-tropes and expectations. And — like other tropes — cannibalism can get worn out rather quickly and even come across as lazy when the writers don’t bring depth to the characters involved. Last week on “Chapter 7” of American Horror Story, after Lee, Audrey, and Monet were captured by the joyfully trope-ridden, cannibalistic Polk family, it finally became clear that Ryan Murphy’s take was going to be basic AF.
The show explored cannibalism once before with the Raspers in Asylum, but never took its tropes to the level that Roanoke reaches with the Polk family. Murphy has claimed that his Raspers aren’t cannibals, which is wrong. The creatures are former patients of Briarcliff Manor who were subjected to Dr. Arden’s depraved experiments, and they eat human flesh when Arden and Sister Mary Eunice provide it to them. When one breaks into the asylum, it kills and eats a nun while chasing Kit (Evan Peters) because the creatures have clearly developed a taste for their own kind due to Arden and the Sister’s ministrations.
Though the Raspers — named for the sound they make when they breathe — seem to be pretty standard horror fare, they are more chilling than the Polk family will ever be. Whereas the Raspers were beaten, injected, and tortured into their inhuman state by an individual with less humanity than his experiments, the Polks have been enacting this kind of suffering for generations of their own accord. They are cruel for no apparent reason, and act as stereotypical, dirty, backwoods hicks who live in the sticks and follow weird-ass family traditions. They’re exactly what you expect television cannibals to be. What Ryan Murphy is giving us with the Polks isn’t cutting edge; it has existed in entertainment for a very, very long time.
Cannibalism was popularized by characters such as Hannibal Lecter in the ‘80s. Italy had a booming cannibal entertainment industry of its own at the same time, and ended up influencing American entertainment alongside Lecter and the gang. Because it’s a globally popular theme in horror — humans feeding on the flesh of other humans — there are countless tropes to sift through that came into being decades ago. But cannibal tropes are pretty widely recognized, and Murphy hits a plethora of them.
Murphy introduces the Polks, a standard clan of cannibals, by having show-within-a-show actors play them in My Roanoke Nightmare. They kidnap Dr. Elias Cunningham — fulfilling the captured by cannibals trope for the first time — tie him to a board, and save his life from arrow wounds just so they can carve him up like a Thanksgiving turkey. “Y’all must be famished,” Mama Polk says to the Millers, offering up bits of Elias’s leg to the panicked couple as well as Elias himself in an act of autocannibalism. Oh, and did we mention that Mama Polk knows how to get the best meat from people? She does, and she’s proud of it, just like Lecter himself — a real Epicurean. “I offer food to welcome you to my home. It’s not poison. … I like my meat sweet,” Mama tells the Millers. Don’t forget the Polks’s paranoia over assuming the Millers think they’re better than them, either. “You’re no better than us,” Mama warns. How could anyone consider themselves above a family that eats people?
And then there’s the even more lurid Wendigo trope. Wendigo legends vary from culture to culture, but most define a Wendigo as a person who eats human flesh and subsequently turns into a cannibalistic monster. The Polks certainly lost all their humanity; they allow their children to become feral and let them roll in the mud and suckle on pigs, they eat (and torture) their neighbors, and they take part in ritualistic sacrifice with a satanic clan of ghosts. In “Chapter 8” alone, the Polks pull teeth from people’s mouths with pliers, nearly sexually assault one of their captives, and call a black woman “it” while a Confederate flag hangs in the background.
Murphy has packed his backwoods cannibal family with so many tropey details and ramped up the shock value so high that these things almost feel inconsequential. How is Roanoke improved with the addition of rote cannibalism that’s finished essentially two episodes later? Just like the ghosts of AHS seasons past, the monsters here are all sound and fury; and don’t advance the season’s plot or work as a foil to develop its heroes. They’re just set pieces, shakily clutching knives and laughing maniacally while they appear onscreen for their 15 minutes in the spotlight.
In ‘Roanoke,’ as in previous seasons, there are just too many storylines at work, and not enough focus on one particular theme. That’s why Murphy’s leaning so hard on these cannibal tropes: He doesn’t have to add any additional character details or depth to what are ultimately plot devices. So far in Roanoke, we’ve got everything from sacrifices to old gods because of, basically, a house to the first Supreme — all the way to cannibalism. It’s a bit of a mess. If you’re going to make your weird mid-season twist mean something, then make the snake eat its own tail for once rather than letting your plots slither around willy-nilly like a deranged hydra. (Oh, and we won’t even get into the stereotype of “backwoods hicks preying on city dwellers.”)