Cannibals or Ghouls? The Elusiveness of Language in Bones and All
Miyako Pleines on the Crucial Distinction Between Choice and Curse
The first person Maren eats is her babysitter. She’s a baby when she does it, older than six months because she has teeth, but not old enough to swallow the bones just yet. That will come later—the devouring whole—when she’s matured enough to separate her actions from her ethics.
So begins Camille DeAngelis’s novel, Bones and All, about a young girl named Maren who is cursed with the volatile compulsion to eat anyone who desires her. As she grows, those she consumes are typically boys, then men. Always, they seal their own fates: it is their wanting that brings about their deaths. For Maren’s part, she can’t help it. She was simply born this way, drawn to eat those who crave her, chomping them up, bones and all, until their bodies become a part of her own. This thing Maren does is unacceptable, and yet, for her at least, it is always inescapable.
When her mother abandons her, Maren is forced to try and navigate the world alone, until she meets a young man named Lee who also happens to share her same cravings, and the two embark on a road trip across America as they attempt to understand their place in the world. DeAngelis’s book has recently been adapted for the screen by Luca Guadagnino, the director of the Academy Award winning film Call Me by Your Name (2017) and the recent horror remake of Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece, Suspiria (2018). The film version of Bones and All has some marked differences from DeAngelis’s novel, but the heart of the story remains intact. However, the specifics of Maren and Lee’s condition have been altered considerably: while DeAngelis considered her characters “ghouls,” the film has been heavily marketed as “a cannibal love story.”
Screenwriter and producer David Kajganich admits that part of the reasoning for describing the film’s main characters as cannibals is simply due to marketing: “If you described them in a marketing campaign as ghouls, people would have a very different understanding of what the film was likely to be about,” he explains. “They needed to pick a word that would brace you for the fact that yes, you’re going to see people biting into and chewing on other people.” Still, this specific word has dominated headlines for months leading up to the film’s release, and while it certainly prepares the viewer for what they are going to experience, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a doubly clever marketing move, given that Timothée Chalamet—who plays Lee in the film—starred in Call Me by Your Name alongside Armie Hammer, who made headlines in 2021 over allegations of sexual abuse and speculation that he has a cannibal fetish.
While it may seem obvious to refer to people who eat other people as cannibals, DeAngelis takes great care not to give a name to Lee and Maren’s condition (they refer to themselves only as “eaters”). The beauty of the novel, then, is that it resists getting caught up in the business of categorization: Maren and Lee are simply two outcasts who also happen to eat other humans.
Though the text resists classifying its antiheros, DeAngelis speaks to their origins in her acknowledgements: “When people who know I’m vegan hear I’ve written a novel about cannibals (ghouls, really, but “cannibals” is easier), they think it’s bizarre, hilarious, or both,” she writes. She elaborates on this in an email: “Though I joke that it’s my ‘teen cannibal road trip novel,’ the ‘eaters’ are ghouls rather than cannibals. The difference: a ghoul does the impossible in gobbling up his or her victim (leaving few if any traces, hence the title), whereas a cannibal’s gruesome activities adhere to physiological laws.”
In Kajganich’s film, Maren and Lee are no longer ghoulish in nature. Gone is their immediate ability to devour their victims whole. Instead, when Maren and Lee eat, a body is always left over. “[David] has tweaked the ‘rules’ of eating so that Maren’s undeniable craving is not supernatural in nature, meaning that the eaters in the film are cannibals,” DeAngelis says. “This change resolves the unhappy catch-22 of pairing a girl who eats anyone who shows her affection with a boy who can only eat people he despises.” For the most part—especially when it comes to the film’s revised ending—this decision to root Maren and Lee’s condition in cannibalism rather than ghoulishness works. But when you look at the histories of ghouls and cannibals, aligning Maren and Lee with the latter begins to feel more revolting than revelatory.
While one label paints Maren and Lee as provocative predators, the other affords them the generosity of being seen as casualties of a terrible affliction.
Historically, the origin of the ghoul derives from ancient Arabic culture. In “The Arabic Ghoul and its Western Transformation,” Ahmed K. Al-Rawi defines the ghoul as a male or female creature “with fangs and cloven feet, who were thought to appear in different shapes, to travellers, in the wilderness. They were said to delude travellers and to lead them astray in order to kill them.” Al-Rawi states that “the origin of the ghoul is unknown” in Arabic culture, but their presence within Arabic tales runs deep. However, their desire to eat corpses is a trait that emerged when Antoine Galland translated Arabian Nights from Arabic to French.
In the case of Maren and Lee, the duo is more closely tied to Galland’s westernized version of the ghoul. Either way, their ghoulishness is not a choice but a curse—which puts them in direct conflict with the classification of cannibal.
In western society, cannibalism has a long history of being abhorred, the epitome of unethical. Consider depictions of cannibals in literature and film such as the flesh-eating gang in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and the family in Tobe Hooper’s film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which set the stage for the perverse narratives that highlight the aberration behind cannibalistic diets. Of course, there are instances in history where cannibalism is redeemable—i.e. the Donner party—but for the most part, when we think of cannibals today (Hannibal Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer), we picture those making a conscious and situationally despicable choice to consume one of their own.
Bones and All seeks to derive sympathy for its two main characters. In DeAngelis’s world, their illicit eating habits seem to derive from genetic chance. Maren’s first experience devouring another human happens when she is a baby, unable to fully understand the meaning and savagery of her actions. How then are we to label her a cannibal when her desire to eat human beings exists largely outside of her own ability to rationalize what she’s doing?
For Lee’s part, he tries to justify his habit by only allowing himself to consume those he deems to be morally apprehensible, as if by eating ethically bankrupt people, he is cancelling out his own ethically bankrupt actions. It’s a Twilight-esqe way of justifying his situation: sure, the Cullens are vampires, but they only drink the blood of animals.They are monsters, yes, but they are not monstrous.
The horror genre is full of all manner of monsters. Sometimes these monsters are killers, but often, audiences are asked to sympathize with the accursed. Frankenstein’s monster didn’t choose to be brought back to life in the rotting corpse of his new body, and the gill-man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon is only trying to evade capture and protect the body of water that he calls home. Even horror’s most iconic creatures such as werewolves and vampires are victims of unjust attacks, a rare moment of fate that has led them to the immortal and cursed lives they’re now forced to endure. As ghouls, Maren and Lee fall into the same category as these monstrous others, relegated to bodies that desire one thing even though their minds know they shouldn’t. They are forced to live on the fringes of society, outcasts unable to assimilate simply because of what they are.
For me, the distinction between cannibals and ghouls is significant: while one label paints Maren and Lee as provocative predators, the other affords them the generosity of being seen as casualties of a terrible affliction. They are monsters, yes, but they are not monstrous.
Kajganich views cannibals and ghouls differently: “When I think about ghoulishness in the classical sense, to me that connotes a pretty aggressive kind of hunger, almost like a gluttony, like a selfishness, a sort of overamplification of hunger, … and I don’t see the characters in Bones and All in that way.” He continues, “[Their eating] seems very practical to me. It seems very precise. It happens when the hunger comes, not out of a sense of wanting to enjoy or celebrate anything. To my mind that’s why I would use the word cannibal. But even cannibal isn’t quite correct to me.” And so, both Kajganich and DeAngelis use the term “eaters” to refer to the characters. Language, it seems, is elusive.
At its core, Bones and All is a story about acceptance. Maren and Lee cross paths during a time in their lives when they’re both in desperate need of solace. In DeAngelis’s version, for the weight of their love to offset their horrific actions, their eating habits must exist as a curse rather than a choice. But even though the film’s version of Maren and Lee is rooted in cannibalism rather than ghoulishness, Kajganich still manages to evoke sympathy from viewers for the young couple. Their true humanity lies in their love for one another, an intimacy which ultimately delivers them from evil.