Why are there so many books and shows about cannibalism?

Chelsea G. Summers got one picture: a boyfriend accidentally hit by a car on purpose, some quick work with a corkscrew, and his liver served Tuscan-style on toast.

This figment of her warped imagination is what prompted Ms. Summers to write her novel A Certain Hunger about a restaurant critic with a taste for (male) human flesh.

It turns out that cannibalism has a time and a place. In the pages of some recent stomach-churning books and on television and movie screens, Ms. Summers and others suggest that time is now.

There’s The Yellow Jackets, a Showtime series about a high school girls’ soccer team stranded in the woods for several months, which premiered in November. The movie “Fresh,” released on Hulu in March, features an underground trade in human flesh for the wealthy.

“Lapvona,” Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel published in June, describes cannibalism in a medieval village overcome by plague and drought. Agustina Bazterica’s book Tender Is the Flesh, published in English in 2020 and in Spanish in 2017, imagines a future society that raises humans like livestock. Also in 2017, Raw, a film by director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau, tells the story of a vegetarian veterinary student whose taste for meat escalates after consuming raw offal.

Still to come is “Bones and All, starring Timothée Chalamet. The film about young love that turns into a passion for human consumption is expected to be released later this year or early next. Director Luca Guadagnino called the story “extremely romantic.”

A fascination with cannibalism, perhaps unsurprisingly, can do well, as Ms. Summers learned while writing “A Certain Hunger.”

When fact-checkers called in about the frenzied scenes in which the book’s anti-heroine prepares her murdered lovers with grotesque, epicurean panache, their inquiries about the intricacies of human butchery left Ms. Summers so disturbed that she became “a full raw vegan for two weeks”. The creator was terrified of her own monster.

The publishers may have been too. When Ms. Summers, who uses a pseudonym, shopped the book in 2018, it was rejected more than 20 times before Audible and Unnamed Press made an offer.

If she were selling A Certain Hunger today, Ms. Summers, who is 59 and lives in New York and Stockholm, believes it would be easier. “God bless the Yellow Jackets,” she said in a Zoom interview that was later interrupted by her dog, Bob, vomiting in the background.

Released in December 2020, her book began to experience a boom in popularity on social media — actress Anya Taylor-Joy posted about it on Instagram, and it received a lot of applause in a corner of TikTok known as BookTok — about a year later, around the time The Yellow Jackets debuted on Showtime.

The pilot episode of “Yellow Vests” shows a teenage girl trapped, bleeding like a deer, and served up on a platter in a gruesome ritual. Bloodthirsty fans continue to dissect the scene on Reddit, where a subreddit message board dedicated to the series has more than 51,000 members.

The tension in the show is in knowing that you know the cannibalism is coming, but when? And why?

“Yellow Vests” creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, who live in Los Angeles, say they wanted the plot to suggest that human consumption isn’t just about the characters’ survival. Not only does this add a spine-tingling eeriness to the already dark tale of a soccer team stranded in the desert, it also separates it from the real-life story of a Uruguayan rugby team trapped in the Andes in 1972, whose members resorted to cannibalism to survive. (This event was later dramatized in the 1993 film Alive, starring Ethan Hawke.)

“I think we’re often attracted to the things that repel us the most,” Ms Lyle, 42, said. Mr. Nickerson, 43, chimed in: “But I keep coming back to this idea, how much of our aversion to these things is an ecstatic fear of them?”

“Lapvona” by Ms. Moshfegh is also not overtly cannibalistic; unlike “A Certain Hunger,” there’s no suffocation with a bouquet of garni. But one scene involving a toenail is jarring.

Known for her disturbing stories that delve into the dark, including Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ms. Moshfegh, 41, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote “Lapvona” in the spring of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. “I wrote it in such complete isolation that I felt this incredible freedom to go wherever they took me,” she said.

The character who eats another person, the ultimate sin in his religious vegetarian village, does so in an act of “depraved desperation,” said Ms. Moshfegh, herself a vegetarian.

Bill Shute, the author of “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” says fictional stories about eating human flesh are as old as literature itself.

“When you take something that’s so horrible and put it through this lens of make-believe,” he said, “we’re burdened by it, but we know we’re safe.” At least most of the time: e— r Schut only made it halfway through Hulu’s “Fresh” before he had to stop the movie. “It was almost too well done,” he said.

But as his book documents, cannibalism has occurred all over the world throughout history, giving these fictional stories an unpleasant whiff of “what if

Historical examples in the book include “mummy,” a practice of using ground mummified bones to soothe various ailments popular in Western Europe in the 17th century; the infamous pioneers of the Donner Party who were trapped in the Sierra Nevada in 1846; ritual cannibalism that took place in Papua New Guinea until the 1950s; and famine-induced cannibalism in China in the 1960s.

Dr. Schutt’s book also includes the story of the so-called cannibal cop, a former NYPD officer who was arrested in 2013 for participating in fetish forums that fantasized about cannibalizing women, and later acquitted. The New York Post has published more than 30 articles about the case, including one that suggested a Halloween costume of a police uniform with a severed hand on a plate.

The flavor of this saga can be found in more recent allegations of sexual and physical abuse against actor Armie Hammer, which include that he sent cannibalistic messages to a romantic partner. Mr Hammer has denied the allegations and through his lawyer declined to comment for this article.

After the allegations became public, he was dropped from his agency, checked into a rehab facility and is now, Variety reports, selling stock in the Cayman Islands. Coincidentally, Mr. Hammer worked with Mr. Chalamet and Mr. Guadagnino on “Call Me by Your Name.”

As for what might be fueling the desire for cannibalism stories today, Ms. Lyle, the “Yellow Vests” co-creator, said: “I think we’re obviously in a very strange moment.” As possible factors, she pointed to the pandemic, climate change, school shootings and years of political cacophony.

“I feel like the unthinkable has become thinkable,” Ms. Lyle said, “and cannibalism is right in that category of the unthinkable.”

According to Ms. Summers, cannibalism is always symbolic. For the protagonist of her novel, eating human flesh can be seen as a way to hold on to a relationship that has ended. For Ms. Summers herself, the plot of A Certain Hunger cannot be separated “from my personal experience with poor nutrition, with the suppression of women’s appetites, the way the media chews up and spits out writers, the consumption of boogie — and the consumption of boogie, she said.

More broadly, Ms. Summers believes that the recent spate of cannibalistic plots may also be a commentary on capitalism. “Cannibalism is about being consumed and burned from the inside to exist,” she said. “Burnout is essentially over-consuming yourself, your own energy, your own will to survive, your sleep schedule, your eating schedule, your body.”

Ms Moshfegh said her theory was that “this could be an antidote to the real horror of what is happening on the planet”. Like Ms. Summers, Ms. Moshfegh sometimes couldn’t swallow her own work, describing the process of writing about cannibalism in “Lapwona” as “a little disturbing.”

“I had to think about what part of the body would be an interesting place to start,” she said, “and what it would feel like to hold someone’s severed hand in yours.”

The Yellow Vests props team had a similarly nerve-wracking task of determining what to use as artificial human flesh in the show’s pilot episode.

Should it be the lab-grown human steak made from stem cells that sparked outrage at a London museum? The animal-free chicken, beef, salmon and dairy substitutes that some companies are creating using similar technology?

In the end, the prop team went with venison.

But they will have to find an alternative for future episodes, Ms. Lyle and Mr. Nickerson said, because many of the cast are vegan.