Anthropologists in Films: ‘The Horror!’


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Anthropologists in Films: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’i

By Gavin Weston, Jamie Lawson, Mwenza Blell & John Hayton


Drawing upon 53 films featuring fictional representations of anthropologists this paper explores the popular depiction and perception of anthropology through examining the portrayal of the discipline in film. Finding that 26 of the 53 can be categorised as horror films, this paper examines the role of anthropologists in these films as experts and mediators for seemingly alien ‘others’ and how this lends itself to frequently heroic depictions. Parallels are drawn with Conradian voyages into the ‘heart of darkness’ and with ethical dilemmas and controversies involving real anthropologists. We argue that this body of work represents an excellent opportunity for anthropological teaching while we also implore anthropologists to play more active roles in shaping public perception of the discipline in regards to both analysis and production.


Anthropologists have vested interests in their collective public image. The process of building relationships with research participants in order to gather data, and issues of access and trust, are influenced by popular conceptions and misconceptions of what we do. People inevitably form their own personal views of academic disciplines, but perceptions are at least partially shaped by popular media representations of anthropology and anthropologists. In turn, those representations are likely to have been influenced themselves by personal views of directors, actors and script writers and broader notions of academia.

Psychologists have explored the popular perception of their discipline through films (Schultz 2005; Young 2012) as have Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock (2013) regarding cinematic representations of development. An awareness of the necessity to play an active role in public perception of archaeology has led to an earnest engagement by archaeologists with the diffuse media terrain in which it is situated (Marwick 2010; Bonnachi 2012). In these cases it has been noted that mainstream mass-media create representations of academics and practitioners that have the scope to reach sizeable audiences. These provide opportunities to shape popular perceptions of practice. As Krasniewicz notes “Movies are more than just the stories they tell. They are symbolic constructs, systems of symbols that help people think, feel, and act” (Krasniewicz 2006: 10). While anthropologists should be encouraged to take this facet of filmic representations seriously we need to be aware that fictional anthropologists are both shaped by and active in shaping these popular understandings. So what should we do?

Anthropologists have long found themselves represented within popular culture: Frazer’s Golden Bough made its way into both Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium (2004 [1928]) and Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu (1999[1928]). More recently it found its way onto the fictional bookshelves of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1979) and Alan Moore’s V (Moore & Lloyd 1989). Rosemary Firth (1984: 7) noted five distinct nods to Frazer in novels written between 1960 and 1980. References to Carlos Castaneda and Jane Goodall have found their way into The Simpsons. These appearances represent just a small proportion of the intersections between anthropology and popular culture - many more examples could be given. Such representations vary in their accuracy, and range between the real and the fantastical, but each plays a role in shaping public perception of anthropology. It would be beneficial for the discipline to play an active role in discussing the ways in which we are represented in popular culture. Are anthropologists represented realistically? Do real-life anthropological dilemmas make their way into fictionalizations of our discipline? What dramatic purposes do anthropologists serve?

Against a backdrop of an abundance of horror films on the list, this paper argues that the widespread representation intercultural/interspecies expertise lends itself to a particular narrative purpose where anthropologists frequently act as mediators. We also argue that the frequent use of travel from the urban to the ‘exotic’ leads to an abundant use of Conradian ‘heart of darkness’ trope, whereby the supposed ‘savagery’ of the ‘other’ is used to critique the ‘savagery’ of western capitalist modernity, but doing so in a way that remains exploitative of indigenous peoples. We argue that these patterns, along with frequent allusions to real-world anthropological controversies and ethical dilemmas, lend such films to being an interesting pedagogical tool. This paper also demonstrates that there is a widespread, widely consumed body of work that both reflects public perception of our discipline while also playing a role in shaping that opinion. That being the case we argue for more active engagement with film production and analysis and with anthropological representations in popular culture more generally.

Anthropologists in Films: our aims and approach

This paper presents an exploration of how anthropologists are perceived in the popular imagination through an analysis of mainstream movies. In order to answer the questions with which we ended the previous section, we compiled a list of films featuring anthropologists. This in itself is trickier than one might expect due to anomalies regarding categories, misinformation and resultant wild-goose chases.

We chose to look specifically at films, rather than casting our net across the entirety of popular culture. Within this medium we restricted ourselves to non-ethnographic, non-documentary films as these are of little help in our analysis of anthropologists in fictional or fictionalized films. We were open to non-English language films so long as they were subtitled, dubbed or within the realms of linguistic competency of the authors. We also excluded films which dealt with broadly anthropological themes or ideas, but which did not contain an anthropologist character (The Gods Must Be Crazy was repeatedly suggested but rejected for this reason). While we avoided television series (as this would have led to exponential growth in the task) we did watch made for TV movies, straight to video/DVD releases as well as cinematic releases.

The List

Collectively the authors of this paper have expertise across social, biological, medical and visual anthropology. We began our lists with those films we already knew and added those suggested by friends and colleagues. We compiled the bulk of the list through searches of keywords such as ‘anthropology’ and ‘anthropologist’ in plot descriptions on the Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia and Google. Suggestions from friends and colleagues were perhaps the most frustrating sources: Half-remembered title-less films, slightly incorrect attribution of anthropological careers to characters, and a slow drip of additions to the list until the final weeks of the viewings. Some films turned out to be duplicates bearing alternate titles (Laure/Forever Emmanuelle, The Beacon/The Haunting at the Beacon), while others (like Alone in the Dark) were watched in their entirety only to turn out to be devoid of anthropologists. To make our list, a film had to contain at least one character, however minor, who was explicitly identified, by themselves or other characters, as an anthropologist. Nevertheless, we encountered so many grey areas and points of contention in identifying anthropologists that the process of applying these criteria could constitute a paper in itself. Two important questions which we tackled were: 1) Are students of anthropology anthropologists? To some extent this question was moot, since most films in which student anthropologists appear also contain their fully qualified supervisors. We included all films containing student anthropologists. 2) Are archaeologists anthropologists? Outside the US archaeology and anthropology are considered separate (albeit linked) disciplines. Even within the US there are archaeology departments working outside the umbrella of anthropology departments. Consequently we took the position that archaeologists are often, but not always, anthropologists. As such we only included those archaeologists who emically, described themselves, or etically, were described by others, explicitly as anthropologists. While Indiana Jones (who is never described by himself or others as an anthropologist) was not included, the fictionalized incarnation of Bronislaw Malinowski played by actor Tom Courtenay in The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Treasure of the Peacock’s Eye gets that film onto the list. Archaeologists were therefore only included on the list where an anthropological identity was clearly stated. 3) What about primatologists, sociologists etc.? Other disciplines that intersect with anthropology were also addressed using the emic/etic descriptive rule. While Dian Fossey is disappointingly described as a zoologist in the film Gorillas in the Mist, the appearance of a fictionalized Louis Leakey in several scenes keeps the film on our list. Incidentally this film, being a biographical film, or biopic, highlights another grey area. Although based on real events, the film is a fictionalized account of those events, rather than a documentary, therefore it is included.

The final list of films is:

  1. A Return to Salem’s Lot. 1987. Cohen, Larry. Warner Bros.

  2. Agantuk. 1991. Ray, Satyajit. Eagle.

  3. Altered States. 1980. Russell, Ken. Warner Bros.

  4. American Geisha. 1986. Philips, Lee. Interscope.

  5. Anaconda. 1997. Llosa, Luis. Columbia Pictures.

  6. Avatar. 2009. Cameron, James. 20th Century Fox.

  7. Beach Party. 1963. Asher, William. American International Pictures.

  8. Boggy Creek 2: And the Legend Continues. 1985. Pierce, Charles. Hollywood DVD.

  9. Candyman. 1992. Rose, Bernard. Tristar.

  10. Cannibal Ferox. 1981. Lenzi, Umberto. Grindhouse Releasings.

  11. Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. Deodato, Ruggero. United Artists/Grindhouse Releasing.

  12. Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. 1989. Athens, Jonathan. Eighty-Eight Films.

  13. Festen. 1998. Vinterberg, Thomas. Scanbox Danmark.

  14. Fierce People. 2005. Dunne, Griffin. Lionsgate.

  15. Gargoyles. 1972. Norton, Bill. Hen’s Tooth Video.

  16. Gorillas in the Mist. 1988. Apted, Michael. Universal Studios.

  17. Iceman. 1984. Schepisi, Fred. Universal Studios.
  18. In a Savage Land. 1999. Benett, Bill. Divisa Red.

  19. Instinct. 1999. Turteltaub, John. Buena Vista Pictures.

  20. Jerome Bixby’s Man From Earth. 2007. Schenkman, Richard. Anchor Bay.

  21. Jungle 2 Jungle.1997. Pasquin, John. Walt Disney Pictures.

  22. Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land. 1952. Landers, Lew. Columbia Pictures.

  23. Krippendorf’s Tribe. 1998. Holland, Todd. Touchstone Pictures.

  24. Last of the Dogmen. 1995. Murphy, Tab. Savoy Pictures/Pathe.

  25. Laure/Forever Emmanuelle. 1976. Anonymous. Severin.

  26. Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. 1974. Baker, Roy Ward & Chang, Cheh. Warner Bros./Dynamite Entertainment.

  27. Mistress of the Apes. 1979. Buchanan, Larry. Cineworld Pictures.

  28. Mogambo. 1953. Ford, John. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

  29. Moscow Zero. 2006. Lidon, Maria. Sony Pictures.

  30. National Lampoons Dorm Daze 2. 2006. Hillenrbrand, David & Hillenbrand, Scott. Lionsgate.

  31. Night of the Demon. 1980. Wesson, James. VIPCO.

  32. Night School. AKA Terror Eyes. 1981. Hughes, Ken. Paramount Pictures.

  33. Nomads. 1986. McTiernan, John. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
  34. On the Town. 1949. Donen, Stanley & Kelly, Gene. Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

  35. Species. 1995. Donaldson, Ruggero. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

  36. Tenure. 2009. Million, Mike. Blowtorch Entertainment.

  37. The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Treasure of the Peacock’s Eye. 1995. Schultz, Carl. Universal Television.

  38. The Call of Cthulhu. 2005. Leman, Andrew. HP Lovecraft Historical Society.

  39. The Exorcism of Emily Rose. 2005. Derrickson, Scott. Screen Gems.

  40. The Haunting at the Beacon. 2008. Stokes, Michael. Sabbatical Pictures.

  41. The Haunting. 1963. Wise, Robert. Warner Bros.

  42. The Lost World. 1960. Allen, Irwin. 20th Century Fox.

  43. The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human. 1999. Abugov, Jeff. Independent Artists.

  44. The Nanny Diaries. 2007. Berman, Shari & Pulcini, Robert. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

  45. The Plumber. 1979. Weir, Peter. Pathe Distribution.

  46. The Relic. 1997. Hyams, Peter. Paramount Pictures.

  47. The Serpent and the Rainbow. 1998. Craven, Wes. Universal Pictures.

  48. The Truth about Demons. 2000. Standring, Glenn. Boulevard Entertainment.

  49. Throw Momma from the Train. 1987. DeVito, Danny. Orion Pictures.
  50. Trog. 1970. Francis, Freddie. Warner Bros.

  51. Wild in the Streets. 1968. Shear, Barry. American International Pictures.

  52. Wishmaster. 1997. Kurtzman, Robert. Live Entertainment.

  53. Zombie Holocaust. 1979. Girolami, Marino. Cornerstone Media.

A handful of films featuring fictional anthropologists eluded our efforts to track them down: A.D.A.M.; Meine Tante, Deine Tante; Young Wild and Wonderful; Muffin Man; Basilisk; The Lost Tribe; Notes on Love; Jugular Wine; Yodha and Feast. Our experience of the constant drip-drip of suggestions while assembling our list leads us to expect that there will be others out there, and doubtlessly more will be produced in the future. Yet having searched far and wide, this appears to be the most comprehensive list of films containing anthropologists produced at the time of writing. All films were watched by at least one author.

The Reviewing Process

Since the authors watched films separately, we created an online review form (using JotForm) to coordinate the reviewing process. The form called for basic descriptions of the plot and themes of the film; details regarding the name and specialization of the anthropologist character(s); a physical description of each anthropologist; their dramatic purpose; their prominence and role in the film; the ‘accuracy’ of the depiction of the anthropologist and their research methods; whether the film confused anthropology with another discipline; whether there are similarities with real-life anthropologists or anthropological writings; and what the filmmakers/audience sees the role of the anthropologist being. Space was also given for noteworthy quotes and other thoughts. Submissions from the online form were collated in a shared Dropbox folder and read and discussed by all authors.

The Films

The earliest incarnation of an anthropologist we found occurred in On the Town (1949). In the Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra musical Ann Miller’s character, Professor Claire Huddesen, leads a museum-based dance while singing of her desire for a ‘Prehistoric Man’. The professor’s interest in anthropology was, she explains, sparked by her father, who suggested she find an intellectual direction in which to take her more general interest in “man”. The ensuing musical number contains several problematic depictions of other cultures and relationships between men and women. Huddesen becomes a central character for the film, as one of the ‘love interests’ for three sailors on shore leave in New York. The next anthropologist we found occurs in Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land (1952), part of the comic-derived series in which Johnny Weissmuller extends his jungle-based antics beyond Tarzan. Angela Greene plays Dr Laura Roberts and identities herself as an anthropologist by saying "I'm an anthropologist - a specialist in man's development." The main function of the anthropologist in this film is to act as a MacGuffin, a Hitchcockian plot device that only really matters insomuch as it moves the narrative forward, driving the plot toward the discovery of a race of not very big (but surprisingly hairy) giants and to help demonstrate Weismuller’s Jungle Jim character’s heroism by being repeatedly saved by him (at one point this involves Jim punching a hippo unconscious). The degree of realism in the portrayal of anthropology in the film is somewhat undercut by the fact that Roberts’ area of anthropological expertise is giants.

There are occasional films that represent anthropologists going about their general academic life (e.g. Tenure) and often dramas unfold in the midst of pieces of fictional anthropological fieldwork. But more often anthropologists in these films serve as ciphers. The real-world tendency for anthropologists to be met with vacant stares when explaining their job to lay-people suggests a widespread ignorance of exactly what anthropologists do. As a result filmic anthropologists are blank canvases for writers, directors and actors. We should probably not expect all film-makers to want to make films about the mundanities of anthropological life as Rosemary Firth noted of anthropologists in literature:

“it soon became clear to me that none of these novelists was mainly concerned with ethnographic fieldwork or with the ethnographer's difficulties, but used him as a kind of lay figure on which to build a romance, a thriller or a satire, against a highly exotic background.” (Firth 1984: 7).

At its most lurid this easy-access is used for what Firth describes as “the use of an exotic scenario as a peg for erotica” (1984: 8). Laure and Mistress of the Apes do exactly this while online reviews and the current DVD cover suggest that at some point in its history the hardcore pornographic film Young, Wild and Wonderful featured anthropologists or anthropology students as characters, but this appears to have been edited out of the version to which we were able to gain access. A host of others movies mix sex and horror while others such as American Geisha (based on Liza Dalby’s (1983) ethnographic research), In a Savage Land and Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human clearly draw upon popular ideas from Mead (2001[1935]) and Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages (1941). While this represents a noteworthy pattern within these films, a more startling pattern leapt from the list. Even before we began watching the films, it was clear that we were going to have to discuss the relationship between anthropology and horror.

Anthropologists in horror

26 out of 53 films on the list are readily categorized as horror films. Compared with other genres such as comedy (seven films), ‘erotica’ (three films), or musicals (three films) the horror content swamps other genres. The films range from the, by contemporary standards, very mild ghostliness of The Haunting (1963) to the violent extremity of Cannibal Ferox and cover a wide variety of horror sub-genres spanning zombies, cannibals, aliens, house invasion, ghosts, vampires, sasquatches, serial killers and demons. The taxonomic category of the horror film allows for much slippage: Species might be categorized as a sci-fi film; Altered States, in which a psychologist and an anthropologist experiment with other states of consciousness, might be considered a sci-fi or thriller. With such diversity to the sources of horror, spanning the supernatural, non-supernatural and extra-terrestrial, Kim Newman’s (2011) idea of ‘nightmare movies’ – those movies which deal with fears and anxieties – is appealing. There appear to be three principal reasons for the abundance of anthropologists in horror films all relating in some way to the deployment of anthropologists as experts in these fear-related contexts.

The first explanation is that anthropologists are, or have been, genuinely expert on the fearsome phenomena in horror movies. Whether it is seminal texts on witchcraft (such as Evans-Pritchard’s (1976) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande) and spirit possession (such as Lewis’ (1966) Ecstatic Religion) or more recent texts such as White’s (2000) Speaking with Vampires, anthropologists have a track record for engaging with those beliefs and practices that are readily associated with fear and the unexplained. Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, presents a fictionalized version of real anthropologist Wade Davis investigating voodoo zombification in Haiti. While the end result is more Craven than Davis, (the story veers wildly from Davis’ (1987) slightly contentious account of the use of psychoactive drugs towards Craven’s story of spirit possession, magic and witchcraft), there is a clear connection between real and fictional anthropologist. Through dealing with myths, the occult and supernatural forces in our research (and often doing so in a culturally sensitive way that prioritizes cultural meaning over empirical evidence of beliefs and practices) we open ourselves to fictionalized depiction of the same subject matters.

The second relates to something broader about the understanding of our expertise. In more than half of the films watched anthropologists act as mediating experts in regards to other worlds. This takes wildly varied forms with anthropologists acting as mediators to ghostly underworlds (Moscow Zero, The Beacon), demons (The Truth About Demons, Nomads, Gargoyles), lizard-gods (The Relic), vampires (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) and aliens (Species). Beyond horror films the anthropologist is typically cast as an expert intermediary on tribal others, a role not unrelated to real world anthropological expertise. We have traditionally stood on the cusp between two spheres of socio-cultural reality – from one, claiming special knowledge of another. Writing about the ambiguity of the category of native anthropologists Narayan writes, “Those who are anthropologists in the usual sense of the word are thought to study Others whose alien cultural worlds they must painstakingly come to know” (Narayan 2009: 671). Such claims of expertise, even when concerned with the mundane world, sometimes come close to the otherworldly knowledge of shamans, mystics or the possessed described by the fictional anthropologists Dr Sadira Adani in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005):

Dr Adani: “In my fieldwork, I've seen many people who experienced a sense of being invaded by an entity from the supernatural realm […] Based on my study of the case file I believe that Emily Rose was a hypersensitive. A person with an unusual connection to what Carlos Castaneda called ‘the separate reality.’”

As (real) anthropologist I. M. Lewis explains, when such other-worldly knowledge is recognized as meaningful by a particular group this translates to a position of authority:

“Transcendental experiences […] have given the mystic a unique claim to direct experiential knowledge of the divine and, where this is acknowledged by others, the authority to act as a channel of communication between man and the supernatural” (Lewis 1971: 15).

The recognition of our academic knowledge of an ‘other’ often gives us the authority to act as channels between social worlds. In horror films this often translates as expertise of a supernatural other; an extension of the recognition of our expertise in the mundane world. We take on the role of quasi-shamanic guides to these confusing other worlds becoming the gatekeepers to ‘exotic’, ‘otherworldly’ knowledge. Whether this takes the form of Annie Braddock’s assessment of upper-class New Yorker’s strange alien behaviors in the Nanny Diaries or Eric Stoltz’s character’s knowledge of Amazonian snake cults in Anaconda – we are cast as the experts straddling between worlds.

This expertise is often not due to literary research or the hard-earned experience drawn from extensive fieldwork. In Cannibal Holocaust (1980) it does not matter that for Professor Harold ‘this will be his first journey to Amazonia’ – he is an anthropologist and therefore expert enough on the tribal ‘other’ for him to be invaluable in the search for a missing film crew. Even with a local guide assisting the characters this esoteric knowledge of rituals will somehow be of use in finding missing persons in a forest. Expert knowledge of ‘the other’ destines us to these intermediary and protective roles. Fictional anthropologists often seem to be the appropriate people to turn to if you need someone to protect you from the supernatural. This depiction of anthropologists as quasi-mythical heroes comes at least partially from within the discipline:

“In the form of the standard prophetic myth of the heroic quest […] Levi-Strauss transformed an expedition to the virgin interiors of the Amazon into a vision quest, and turned anthropology into a spiritual mission to defend mankind against itself” (Doja 2005: 650).

Sontag notes this image of the anthropological hero is one that spread out from Levi-Strauss across the social sciences and to the wider public (Sontag 1994; Hartman 2007). Decades after the peak popularity of Triste-Tropiques (Levi-Strauss 1973[1955]) it is probable that this popular image has waned slightly.

The third role played by anthropologists is expositionary. As experts anthropologist are often given the clunky lines that explain what is going on allowing for the plot to go forward. In The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974) Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (described by his son in the film as an anthropologist) states:

Van Helsing: “Perhaps, in some academic circles, I am acknowledged as an authority in some specialized areas, but no more than that”

Once such expertise is modestly established the anthropologist is then called upon to expound. This being a Shaw Brothers kung-fu/Hammer Horror vampire cross-over, Van Helsing’s role is to cross-culturally translate vampire lore – setting up the rules for killing vampires:

Van Helsing: “They are immensely strong and possess black-powers. They abhor anything that has a holy significance. They fear the word of the Lord. In Europe the vampires walk in dread of the crucifix. Here it would be the image of the Lord Buddha.”

In a deviation from standard anthropological ethics he uses this knowledge to kill the object of his study. Likewise in The Relic the anthropologist character Dr Margo Green is left to do the expositionary work to explain why the South American human/lizard mutant enemy the Kothoga, who keeps attacking people in their museum, is eating so many brains by bastardizing the ideas of famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould:

Dr Green: It’s a commonly held belief that life evolved gradually by natural selection. Dr Fock argues that sometimes a sudden evolutionary change creates a grotesque and short-lived abhorrent species.

And later:

The hormones listed in this analysis of the leaf, they're all produced by the human hypothalamus. Of course, it's a much more concentrated form here. One milligram of this material is equal to more than 100 milligrams of the hormone produced by the hypothalamus.

With this explanation expounded, the detective and anthropologist can get back to the horror action.

The expositionary expertise of anthropologists is not always scientifically grounded. Sometimes the status of the anthropologist is used to give weight to guess work. It even happens in Altered States, a film containing one of the best researched anthropological characters on the list. Dr Emily Jessop departs from her tendency to make theoretically and scientifically valid statements to drive the plot on thus:

Emily Jessop : I’ve got this sort of gut feeling that something phenomenological did happen, that there was some kind of genetic transformation. I don’t know why I think this, in defiance of all rationality, but I do. And now that I do I’m terrified.

Due to the profound flexibility of our discipline and the lack of common knowledge about what we do we can be the voice of science AND the voice of gut feelings. But sometime the gut feelings involved are of a very different type.

Cannibalism, Anthropology and the Heart of Darkness

Arens’ (1979) polemic book Man Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropography lies at the centre of our discipline’s debates regarding cannibalism. The book argues that socially sanctioned cannibalism by an exotic ‘other’ was a fantasy fabricated under colonialism with weak or non-existent evidence taken for granted by anthropologists who deserved a reprimand for their wilful ignorance. More recent debates have shown there to be more complexity than these binary positions suggest (Goldman 1999). The publicity Arens’ book and subsequent debate received saw the idea make its way into what the authors have come to think of as the ‘Anthropology Cannibal Trilogy’: Zombi Holocaust (1979), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Cannibal Ferox (1981). Each of the ‘Cannibal Trilogy’ sees anthropologist characters encountering a cannibalistic, exotic other. In each, the ‘barbarity’ of the cannibals is surpassed by the ‘barbarity’ of the ‘westerners’ in the film. In Zombi Holocaust the ritualistic cannibalism of the islanders is outdone in cruelty by the zombification experiments of an American scientist. In Cannibal Holocaust the cannibalism of the Amazonian Yacumo tribe is justified by the rape, murder and destruction carried out by the film crew they end up eating. The film even finishes with Gloria (the film’s anthropologist) asking ‘I wonder who the real cannibals are?’ In Cannibal Ferox the Paraguayan Manioca tribe only turns to cannibalism to avenge themselves of having been raped, murdered and enslaved to mine emeralds. It ends with the surviving anthropologist publishing her thesis as Cannibalism: the End of a Myth in a direct echo of Arens.

All three of these films use New York as a juxtapositionary civilized ‘us’ to contrast with a barbaric ‘other’. While perhaps slightly ham-fisted in its delivery, the point being made across these films is directly addressing issues of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, asking the audience ‘if you think these cannibals are barbaric – then you should think about your own culture’. This trope extends beyond the border of these three movies. The Indian film Agantuk sees the following exchange:

Husband: "What about cannibalism? Have you yourself had human flesh? Is this not the most barbaric, savage, uncivilized practice?"

Uncle (anthropologist): "No, I have not eaten human flesh, though I have heard that it has a certain taste. Yes, cannibalism is barbaric. But do you know what is even more barbaric and uncivilized? - The sight of homeless people and drug addicts in a city like New York. The ability of one civilization to vanquish others by the mere push of a button. That is a hundred times more barbaric!"

The ‘we are the savages’ trope extends beyond cannibalism and is discussed in relation to the savagery of aristocratic Americans in both Fierce People and The Nanny Diaries, in relation to scientists in Iceman, hunters in Instinct and colonizing humans on alien planets in Avatar. In each case the anthropologist ends up supporting the side of the brutalized other. In the case of the ‘Cannibal Trilogy’ they end up supporting the cannibals. In the case of Zombi Holocaust the anthropologist is made their queen. The irony of using Arens’ idea regarding the fabrication of cannibalism as a starting point to show a cannibalistic ‘other’ is perhaps lost on the those who set out to make films where the sine qua non is shots of mud-caked people eating intestines. While there is sympathy for the cannibals across these films, and while the anthropologists are shown to be ‘on their side’, it is hard to watch them without feeling that their primary objective is to shock rather than to address the ethnocentric construct of a cannibalistic/savage Amazonian ‘other’. This odd sense of the filmmakers wanting to have their cannibalistic cake and eat it is highlighted by the highly postmodern discussion of the film within a film device in Cannibal Holocaust.

TV Executive: Today people want sensationalism. The more you rape their senses the happier they are.

Professor Monroe: Ah, yes, that's typical western thought. Civilized isn't it? That's what Alan thought and that's why he's dead. The Yacumo Indian is a primitive and he has to be respected as such. You know, did you ever think of the Yacumo point of view? That we might be the savages?

In a film that graphically depicts gang rape, amputation, decapitation and impalement alongside genuine animal slaughter to such an extent that the film was banned in many countries and the director was (wrongly) charged with making a snuff filmii – these discussions of sensationalism are as much a commentary on Cannibal Holocaust as the film within a film Monroe is discussing. Yes – the viewer is being asked to reflect on their own desire to watch such a film, but this does not change the fact that it was the makers of Cannibal Holocaust’s choice to use the Yacumo, a thinly veiled fictionalization of the Yanomami, to make a sensationalist film about cannibalism.

The use of a cannibalistic ‘other’ to say something about the savagery of the ‘west’ carries a strong parallel with Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Joseph Conrad. While his defenders argue that Conrad was inherently anti-colonialist Achebe takes Conrad to task (Achebe 1988; Philips 2003) for the hypocrisy of using Africa and Africans as mere tools to say something about colonial authorities. Likewise, generic Amazonian tribes-people are cynically used here to critique apparent flaws in contemporary ‘western’ ways of life. The circuitous path by which ‘natives’ are shown to become cannibals is a poor excuse for turning indigenous peoples into bogeymen.

Echoes of Conrad do not end with the light-weight version of ‘cultural critique’ (Marcus & Fischer 1999) concerning the savagery of ‘the west’. The central metaphor of Heart of Darkness (Conrad 1992[1899]) is a journey upriver: the story of a voyage up the Congo is told by the narrator while on a journey up the Thames. While the framing device of travelling up-river and away from civilization is echoed across many of the films on the list, the symbolism of the boat as a vessel taking us away from civilization towards barbarity is still echoed in an era where planes might be considered the normal mode for travel to remote areas. Boat rides up rivers appear in thirteen films while sea-based boat trips appear in another five. These journeys symbolize moves towards somewhere ‘more natural’, somewhere less civilized. In these contexts the boat itself becomes a heterotopian space between two imagined spaces. The voyages they take are distancing, representing journeys towards something ‘other’.

The Conradesque quality of films with anthropologists in reaches a peak in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death which features many of the same ideas as the ‘Cannibal Trilogy’ but with tongue firmly in cheek. The tone of the film is hinted at on the back cover of the DVD:

"To avoid a serious avocado shortage the U.S. government hires feminist anthropology professor Margo Hunt (Shannon Tweed) to find the man eating Piranha Tribe who inhabit the avocado jungle of Southern California, assisted by chauvinist Jim (Bill Maher) and a dim-witted student named Bunny, Hunt must convince the tribe to move to Malibu condos while simultaneously fending off her rival Dr Kurtz (Adrienne Barbeau)."

Drawing on both Conrad and Coppola’s adaptation Apocalypse Now, the self-awareness is clear. Rather than an exotic other – it’s an avocado-forest dwelling feminist tribe in California. The cannibalism is directed towards men and instigated by a feminist anthropologist (knowingly called ‘Kurtz’) who has ‘gone native’. While the acting may be generously described as patchy, the script - clunky, the budget – ominously low; the uncritical use of the ‘we are the savage’ trope, the Conrad-like metaphors and the obvious ‘cultural critiques’ are all deflated here through parody.

In relation to the representation of Amazonians as cannibals it is perhaps worth noting that at the time of writing Eli Roth’s Green Inferno, which continues the genre, now appears to be on indefinite hiatus. But what is perhaps more noteworthy is that he showed Amazonians Cannibal Holocaust.

"We went in the Amazon deeper than anyone has ever shot a movie before. I went so far up the river, we went to a village where they had no electricity, no running water, and they never before had seen a movie or television […] We had to explain to them conceptually what a movie was, and we brought a television and a generator and we showed them Cannibal Holocaust. They thought it was the funniest thing that they had ever seen, but we had to know whether they were down with it to let us in their village." (Empire 2013)

While this is perhaps an ambiguous place to finish this discussion, it points towards the consumption and impact of these films being more complex than one might think.

Ethics and Controversies

Journalistic attention to anthropological (and wider academic) controversies leads to certain ethical violations and grey areas entering the public imagination. It should not be too great a surprise that the ethical behavior of anthropologists is scrutinized in these films. Academics are in positions of power as the producers of knowledge and we ought to expect a level of distrust - we should expect to be critiqued and lampooned. As academics in films we are not alone in this. In films featuring US psychiatrists nearly half of them violate ethical boundaries – with nearly a quarter committing violations of sexual boundaries (Gharaibeh 2005).

While the anthropologist Dr Stephen Arden does (accidentally) have sex with the alien he’s hunting in Species the ethics of the sex lives of anthropologists is approached a little more circumspectly through our preoccupation with Malinowskian/Meadian fascination with the sex lives of those we study in Laure, The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human, and American Geisha. So while there are hints of ethical issues pertaining to anthropologists and sex we are, thankfully, not portrayed as sexually predatory in the same way as psychiatrists tend to be. Still, we do have our ethics interrogated in other ways.

Rather than sex, death is more frequently the area where filmic anthropologists cross moral lines. In a reversal of the Cannibal Trilogy, where anthropologists end up supporting cannibalism as a form of resistance against western oppressors, vampires are painted unambiguously as the enemy. In Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing both kills vampires and teaches others how to do so through his ‘anthropological knowledge’ of vampire lore. Likewise, A Return to Salem’s Lot features an anthropologist killing vampires with holy water and a coffin burning massacre. In his defense, this comes after the vampires captured him to force him to write an ethnography about them to use as a vampiric bible for future generations. Generally acts of killing by anthropologists are framed as ethically appropriate. Even in areas outside of the supernatural this seems to hold true.

Instinct sees Anthony Hopkins’ anthropologist killing park rangers to protect the gorillas he is researching and with which has bonded (carrying faint echoes of Dian Fossey’s anti-poacher activism). The film ultimately portrays Hopkins’ character as the hero, although it does highlight the moral ambiguity of the act through a framing device that questions the sanity of his having ‘gone native’. The ethics seem relatively clear-cut within the bounds of the film. But as an anthropologist watching these films it is hard not to see echoes of concern about military collaboration through Project Camelot , the Human Terrain System (Price 2008) or even Benedict’s Chrysanthemum and the Sword (2006[1946]) through which concerns arise regarding the use of anthropological knowledge for military repression or targeting. These issues reverberate throughout Avatar where Norm, the xenoanthroplogist (a job description only explicit in the script), is part of a team of researchers working alongside mining corporations and the military to better understand an alien species in the area they want to mine for the gravity-defying mineral ‘unobtanium’. As negotiations are met with resistance the military step in and the direct attack on their sacred tree suggests military targeting drawing upon anthropologically-derived knowledge of their cosmology.

The ethical complexities of violence are discussed in relation to human tendencies in other films. Altered States explores the human propensity towards violence and features conversations which are seemingly derived from debates around Man the Hunter (Lee & Devore 1973) drawing parallels between human and baboons’ violent predispositions.

Emily Jessop: "Originally man was just another savannah-living primate, like baboons […] I observed instances of predation which involved the unmistakable behavior of hunters. A pair of baboons killed a Thompson's gazelle and ate it. There was even a rudimentary communication between the two baboons, so I've become fascinated with the work being done on nonverbal communication in apes."

Likewise the use of the Yacumo in Cannibal Holocaust as a thinly disguised Yanomami also represents a clear, deliberate use of Chagnon’s (1968) ideas of biological propensity to fierceness.

Perhaps the most direct critique of anthropological ethics comes in the form of discussion of fakery. Krippendorf’s Tribe and Laure both feature anthropologists faking their findings. In Krippendorf’s Tribe Richard Dreyfuss’ titular anthropologist uses family members to fake footage of a lost New Guinean tribe to cover up his misappropriation of grant money. In Laure Professor Gualtier Morgan introduces Laure to his research of the Mara tribe as a way to promote the naturalness of free love. It later transpires that he has been fabricating the tribe’s exploits by shooting footage of villagers who are not the Mara. It further transpires that the Mara do exist and that he was faking footage to protect the Mara: a complex web of metafakery. Cannibal Holocaust might also be considered as part of this discussion insomuch as an anthropologist engages with the veracity of a fabricated film.

This fakery relates to two specific controversies involving anthropology: Carlos Castaneda’s fabrication of data and the faking of documentary footage of the Tasaday. The former saw Castaneda retrospectively accused, years after his ethnography became a best-seller, of fabricating and plagiarizing his account of Yaqui shamanic practices (Weston 2012). The latter saw a ‘stone age’ ‘lost tribe’ ‘discovered’ in the Philippines in the 1970’s only for this to be exposed as a hoax in the 1980’s (Hyndman 2002) when their supposed former isolation from wider Filipino society was widely debunked. In the case of Castaneda the anthropologist was the perpetrator of the hoax, in the case of the Tasaday it was an anthropologist, Oswald Iten, who was responsible for exposing the hoax. As far as the public perception was concerned, however, their appearance in National Geographic was to all intents and purposes an anthropological hoax.

Somewhat eerily the film Laure is set and was shot in the Philippines in the 1970’s. So while the film’s Mara perhaps draw upon the eroticization of the Tasaday (National Geographic’s eroticized depiction of the Tasaday is noted by Hyndman 2002) the linking of this to ideas of fakery appears to be entirely coincidental. It also predates Derek Freeman’s critique of Margaret Mead – but there are clear parallels to be seen there too. As Lutz and Collins (1993) note regarding National Geographic’s readership, the exoticized and eroticized content perhaps tells us more about the readers than those depicted. The backdrop of the real Mara controversy is almost entirely coincidental in pursuit of showing exotic looking naked people.


While throughout this paper we have explored the popular perception of anthropologists the prominence of ethical debates and controversies hints at the other potential use these films serve as a pedagogical tools for use in teaching. While some of these films contain ‘strong adult themes’ and might not be appropriate for student screenings, a much larger cross section cover themes and practices that represent good starting points for debate. If you want to discuss ethnographic voyeurism The Plumber provides an interesting gateway. If you want to discuss the ethics of anthropological advocacy then Richard Pryor’s Malcolm X-esque anthropologist (Wild in the Streets) or Avatar might be good starting points for discussion. With issues of racism, representation, academic credibility and power imbalances being present across these films, they serve as provocative starting points for discussion.

More often than not filmic anthropologists appear in scenarios that are closer to fantasy rather than reality. Despite this, we adjudged that significantly more than half of the films on this list feature either ’mostly accurate’ or ‘entirely accurate’ representations of anthropologists. Only seven films were judged to feature ‘entirely inaccurate’ depictions of anthropologists. The tendency also leaned towards representing anthropological protagonists relatively sympathetically. While ethical violations occur, and moral dilemmas are profuse, more often than not anthropological protagonists are portrayed occupying the moral high-ground. Some films reflect our own preoccupations back towards us – whether it be ‘heroic’ self-stylings or tendencies regarding the othering of our research subjects. Some of these films provide savvy critiques of anthropological research practice while at other times we are just used to drive plots along. Some films are noteworthy for just being good films (Gorillas in the Mist, Festen), other films, often from the horror genre, are noteworthy in being so badly made that they become entertaining. In short there is no one neat archetypical representation of anthropologists to emerge from this – probably due to the fact that no neat archetype exists in the real world. But what does emerge out of this analysis are some interesting patterns.

Among the minor patterns we can see preoccupations with the sex-lives of exotic others, cannibalism, heroic anthropologists and fabricating research. In movie-world around 7% of anthropological research concerns Sasquatches. There are bigger patterns – our tendency to appear in horror films; our functional roles as experts mediators for ‘the other’; and our tendency to engage with ethical dilemmas reflecting real world controversies. These are patterns that allow for anthropological characters to appear in dramatic stories where the heightened (often life or death) stakes of moral choices provide space for reflection and critique of real-world anthropological practice. It is in this intersection between real-world ethics and fictionalized dilemmas that these films perhaps serve the greater purpose for anthropologists to engage with this body of filmic work. If we ignore these representations of our discipline they serve us little purpose – but if we actively engage in discussing them – showing them to students or scrutinizing their accuracy or inaccuracy in mainstream forums – we become part of the process by which these films shape people’s awareness and understanding of anthropology. If these films shape and are shaped by popular understandings of anthropology we should be more cognizant of that and join in with the discussion.

What might such an active engagement in the representation of anthropology as a discipline look like? Responses ought to be in some way proportionate to the accuracy/inaccuracy of the depiction of anthropologists and to the size of audience for the film (or TV show or other media). While academic publications might be one place in which praise and critique might occur - the use of blogs, vlogs and op-ed pieces in mainstream media would clearly play a more public role in a diffuse mediascape (Appadurai 1990) and help shape a general sense of better or worse depictions of anthropology, anthropologists and those we study. We might also benefit from a more open flow of anthropological knowledge in the form of advice or consultancy for filmmakers. Films such as Jungle 2 Jungle or Avatar have paid anthropologists for consultancy work, but presumably not all productions will be able to budget for a resident anthropologist. Many anthropologists would probably rather not be shadowed for months in the field or lab by a Hollywood actor in search of the essence of anthropological behavior: but had a well-meaning anthropologist cast their eye over the script for The Exorcism of Emily Rose they might have pointed out that the film-makers are making a very interesting point about cultural relativism, but that it is slightly undermined by the use of the largely debunked Carlos Castaneda (Weston 2012). While writing in response to anthropological depictions is one way in which anthropologists might address issues of representation, a more active engagement with film-makers also offers potential to shape depictions. This does not necessarily demand a coordinated programme of active engagement – more an aggregation of the willing with a general understanding that this is a worthwhile endeavor.


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i Acknowledgements: the authors would like to thank Natalie Djohari, Charlotte Joy, Isaac Marrero-Guillamón, Martin Webb and Justin Woodman for their helpful comments on this piece. We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers whose insightful comments were incredibly welcome and their work was greatly appreciated.

ii A snuff film is an exploitative piece of footage that contains the real murder of a person, without use of special effects. Their existence and prevalence is a hotly debated issue.


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