“So shoot, buddy. What’s up?”
This is what the local DJ asks one of his callers, ominously, in Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything, a small-town-Ontario zombie novel in which the affliction – cannibalism – is spread virally through language.
The book – which became a horror film, directed by Bruce McDonald, in 2008 with the tagline “Shut up or Die” – feels especially ominous this week, or the week of the Zombie Apocalypse, or the week in which actual cannibals went viral by way of the Zombie Apocalypse or Miami Zombie meme.
Yet there is a critical difference between the two most gruesome flesh-eaters, whose attacks have gone viral.
One, who was shot dead while snarling and “grunting” like a rabid dog, was quite a bit like a zombie; the other, who uploaded his handicraft online, is, incredibly, much scarier than that.
The first, Miami Zombie, is Rudy Eugene, who, on May 26, ate the face of a homeless man named Ronald Poppo on the MacArthur Causeway ramp, while crazed on “bath salts” (a synthetic psycho-stimulant.)
The video, Man Eating Another Man’s Face in Miami, quickly became a YouTube hit. Although it shows only the aftermath of the cannibalism, it made Eugene more famous than the Maryland college student who recently confessed to murdering then partly eating another man, or the Texas mother who killed her newborn, then ate three of his toes and part of his brain.
Tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories about a zombie outbreak are exploding; zombie survival kits are widely available, and zombie-safe condos exist.
Our long-time fascination with shambling, undead cannibals has mutated from a trend (climaxing, arguably, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mutant-collaboration by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith) to both a real-life phenomenon and concomitant mass fascination.
Montreal’s Luka Rocco Magnotta, who was apprehended in Berlin on Monday, is the other alleged cannibal, turned superstar. The crimes of which he is accused are not those of a mad snapping animal out of his mind on PCP moonshine, but someone eerily collected and possessed of the “deformed creativity” that distinguished criminologist Elliott Leyton has ascribed to some mass murderers in his acclaimed Hunting Humans.
Magnotta is accused of torturing, raping and murdering a student named Lin Jun, whose body was discovered in pieces, some of which had been mailed, in mock judiciousness, to opposing government parties.
Lin’s body was also cannibalized. A film of his murder soon appeared. Called, by gore enthusiasts, 1 Lunatic 1 Icepick, it is unwatchably sickening, and must not be described.
On the wall of the crime scene, Magnotta is alleged to have written: “If you don’t like the reflection. Don’t look in the mirror. I don’t care.” This is not the piquant witticism of a Hannibal Lecter, the anthropophagic gourmet whose acts, anticipating Dexter, were seeded in revenge and crimes against his good taste.
Yet the words ascribed to Magnotta are powerful, condemning us, as they do, for watching, obsessing, staring into that abyss that is, of course, gazing right back.
The peu importe attitude is also a far cry from William Heirens, the convicted American serial killer who wrote, in lipstick, above the body of the woman he murdered: “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself.”
No, modern crime is far more lacking in affect, affect that may change the tenor of the work being created.
Online, Magnotta is called a “Porn Star on the Loose.” Seductive photographs of the Scarborough native abound.
In other words, it’s a hot story with long legs, and, like Miami Zombie, there are accompanying visuals, visuals that once would never have been accessible to us (consider the auterism of that other Scarborough native, Paul Bernardo), which not long ago belonged strictly to the Faces of Death/Best Gore video region – and a small, nervously travelled region it was.
How is it that something as disgusting and insane as cannibalism, adumbrated by its graphic depiction and dissemination, is – at this moment – so mainstream? That is, are people eating people because cannibalizing is trending?
Yes and no.
No, as the drug-crazed and/or mentally ill killers cannot be read as stylish purveyors of morbid fashion.
Yes, in the Lin Jun case and in one important way: the fame-hungry accused, above all, is exquisitely sensitive to contemporary tastes.
His past (he has modelled, done porn and tried out for reality TV shows) and his alleged wall messages tell us as much. He is like Kevin, the youthful psychopath and namsake of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. Here is Kevin, in the film version, speaking in a TV interview: “It’s like this: you wake and watch TV, get in your car and listen to the radio … nothing is really happening, and you go home and watch some more TV and maybe it’s a fun night and you go out and watch a movie. I mean it’s got so bad that half the people on TV, inside the TV, they’re watching TV. What are these people watching? People like me.”
Yes, this is a youthful rhetoric, something like brooding along with R.E.M or New Order (which is the soundtrack to the awful film of Lin Jun’s murder, cherry-picked from American Psycho), views on the modern-ish condition, but both the actual and fictional murderer are right to question our watchfulness, our actual complicity.
On Monday, when Magnotta was apprehended, stories about him metastasized online, and the entire enterprise had an undeniable feel of large, trashy celebrity.
If zombie memes signal that we have an “Oops there goes gravity” (as the Eminem song goes) view toward freakish crimes, the Magnotta case underlines a more disquieting element of our condition.
He is, importantly, not a meme or joke.
Magnotta is too frightening to laugh at, because of what he is accused of and who he is. He was reportedly arrested at an Internet café looking at himself online: His narcissism, hollowness and fame feel perfectly matched.
Matched at a time in history when the gutter has become the star.