Experts warn that the recent glut of reported acts of cannibalism in the United States, Canada, Japan and Sweden is a trend that -- figuratively as well as literally -- can feed on itself.
At least six bizarre acts of human consumption drew lurid attention worldwide in recent weeks, including coverage of Monday's arrest in Paris of Canadian porn actor Luka Magnotta, 29, who is suspected of torturing, killing and eating a Chinese engineering student and mailing other unconsumed body parts to Canadian officials.
"Cannibalism is such a rare and extraordinary offense that it has captured the attention of the world," said Jack Levin, co-director of the Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston and a widely recognized expert on serial murder.
"Any crime can be imitated, and often is when it receives a tremendous amount of attention. And these have gotten international attention," Levin said.
Criminologists widely believe that the 1999 mass murders at Colorado's Columbine High School contributed to other copycat school killings that only subsided when global attention was diverted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. "Many of the school shooters mentioned Columbine prior to their acts," Levin said.
There's been a drumbeat of bizarre stories involving human consumption in recent days.
The trend began when self-described Tokyo "asexual" Mao Sugiyama had his genitals surgically removed and advertised online to serve "my male genitals (full penis, testes, scrotum) as a meal for 100,000 yen." Five diners attended the event April 13.
Sugiyama's story drew attention on U.S. websites two weeks ago when it was noted that no criminal charges were filed because the act of consensual cannibalism is not a crime in Japan.
But what followed was a quick succession of apparently unrelated criminal acts, including:
-- Miami police shot and killed Rudy Eugene, 31, on May 26 after he refused to stop eating another man's face. The victim, Ronald Poppo, a 65-year-old homeless man, remains hospitalized in critical condition.
-- Alexander Kinyua, a 21-year-old student at Morgan State University in Maryland, was arrested May 30 on suspicion of killing his roommate, Kujoe Bonsafo Agyei-Kodie, and then eating his heart and portions of his brain. Agyei-Kodie was last seen alive May 25.
-- A former researcher at Sweden's Karolinska Institute was arrested and held for psychiatric evaluation for allegedly cutting off his wife's lips and eating them after he suspected her of infidelity, according to accounts published May 31 in Stockholm. Neither the man nor his wife, who survived the attack, was identified.
-- Texas authorities said Otty Sanchez, 33, confessed to killing her infant son, Scott, Sunday with a steak knife and two swords before mutilating the corpse and eating body parts that included the brain, nose and toes.
The causes of cannibalism have been much discussed in recent years by scholars who often describe a psychiatric profile eerily similar to that of schoolyard killers like Columbine's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
"Most cannibals are extreme loners," concluded Deborah Schurman-Kauflin in a 2011 article for Psychology Today magazine. "They do not have friends and they are bitter about it. Killing and eating a victim ensures that the offender is never alone."
Perhaps America's most famous cannibal was Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee-born serial killer arrested in 1991 for torturing, strangling, dismembering and, in some cases, cooking and eating, 17 boys and men. Dahmer, too, was a loner.
"Some of these acts I have termed 'affectionate cannibalism' -- a way the killer has of keeping the victims with him in a very physical sense," said Levin. "I believe Jeffrey Dahmer's cannibalism was affection."
Schurman-Kauflin assured her readers that cannibalism is rare: "Don't worry. It is not likely to happen to you."
"I don't think these events are a trend," he said. "They are blips on the radar screen. This will only last as long as the attention lasts."
(Email Thomas Hargrove at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)