Arts and Culture

Ethel Cain, Religion and Why Cannibalism is Having a Moment

Lottie Armitage

‘You’re so handsome when I’m all over your mouth,’ sings Hayden Anhedönia, arms outstretched, claw-like fingernails glinting. We’re in ‘Heaven’, London’s most famous gay nightclub, but Anhedönia’s words aren’t a celebration of love. She’s not even singing about sex. Her lyrics are preoccupied with something more sinister.

Anhedönia is better known as Ethel Cain, the name she chose for a fictional alter-ego – the titular Preacher’s Daughter of her 2022 album, raised in the rural South. The concept album follows Ethel as she reflects on her difficult past before travelling west with a new lover. This optimism for a fresh start is short-lived, however: Ethel is murdered and cannibalised by her partner. The lyric we just heard, taken from the final track on the album, is literal. It’s gory, suggestive and straight to the point, not a lyric that would be expected in such a heartfelt pop ballad – but Anhedönia is not known for adhering to a radio-friendly format.

Despite her success, her image has never been conventional. Her Instagram profile is full of photographs of her posing in desolate fields; part farmer’s daughter, part cult leader. Her body is covered in hand-poked religious tattoos. The overall impression is of someone who combines the dramaticism and religious imagery of Florence + the Machine with the Southern Gothic melancholy of Nicole Dollanganger – and what motif could tick both boxes more effectively than cannibalism?

Though exact beliefs differ between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Christian tradition is that communion – the ritual of sharing bread and wine – is representative of Jesus’s flesh and blood. There is something inherently Gothic about this consumption of a sacrifice. At the beginning of ‘Ptolemaea’, the ninth track on the album, a distorted voice addresses Ethel as a ‘sweet mourning lamb’ – after years of sitting in church learning about what a great act of love it is to sacrifice yourself, she becomes a sacrificial animal to her own lover. 

Not long after the album’s release, the film Bones and All, starring Timothee Chalamet, entered cinemas. Like Preacher’s Daughter, parts of it are sweet, aesthetically beautiful and appealing to pop culture – also, it’s about cannibalism. It follows lovers Lee and Maren, both of whom engage in the act, with Lee expressing his wish for Maren to eat him after death. The sentiment is physically off-putting yet undeniably romantic. Is it because Christianity tells us that sacrificing your entire self to someone else is the deepest expression of love you can perform? Is it because we’re inherently drawn to taboo subjects?

Maybe, as Anhedönia so eloquently puts it in her earlier song ‘Selby Wall’, we simply enjoy stories where someone decides to ‘go fucking feral’. It’s hard to believe that the woman on stage, with her neatly brushed hair and grateful smile, is responsible for those lyrics. Then her sleeve slips, revealing the almost obsessive number of cross tattoos on her arm, and everything is clear again. Us feral girls don’t eat people, but that doesn’t mean we won’t write about it.

Image Source: Getty Images