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Friday, February 26, 2021

Hannibal Lecter, The Great Anti-Hero of Horror [Unveiling the Mind]

Welcome to Unveiling The Mind. This bi-monthly column explores psychological horror and representations of mental illness within the genre.

Since Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror throughout London’s Whitechapel district, society has developed a morbid curiosity for that of the serial killer. Their crimes are horrific, repulsive, acts that none of us would ever daydream of committing – yet we can’t turn away from stories involving them.

The horror genre has become a safe means to observe these terrors. Through the numerous films and true crime documentaries that exist, audiences can satiate their dark intrigue and explore the haunted psyches of these killers. Cinema has produced a number of iconic serial killers throughout the decades, ranging from the madman in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, up to the brutal cruelty of Jack in Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built. But among all the killers introduced in horror, very few have come close to the status that Hannibal Lecter holds within the genre.

While his initial debut was in Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel Manhunter, Lecter’s horror stardom was cemented in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, where he was portrayed by the talented Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Ted Tally, Silence of the Lambs has become renowned as a classic, even becoming the first (and so far only) horror movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. In the 30 years since the film made its debut, this cannibal and psychiatrist has become one of horror’s most iconic villains. But why is that? What was it about Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs that both freaked out and won over audiences? Well that’s what this month’s installment of Unveiling The Mind is all about. In honor of the film celebrating such a major anniversary, I look to examine Hannibal Lecter and what makes him tick.

Before we get into that, I think it’s important to explore another question first: Why are we fascinated by serial killers?

An eerie way of considering our curiosity with these individuals is that, through the media, they are presented to us as a twisted sort of celebrity. In an article for Psychology Today, criminologist Scott Bonn shares, “Highly stylized and pervasive news media coverage of real-life serial killers and their horrible deeds transforms them into what I refer to as celebrity monsters.”

He goes on to also say:

“The average person who has been socialized to respect life, and who also possesses the normal range of emotions such as love, shame, pity, and remorse cannot comprehend the workings of a pathological mind that would compel one to abduct, torture, rape, kill, engage in necrophilia, and occasionally even eat another human being. The incomprehensibility of such actions drives society to understand why serial killers do incredibly horrible things to other people who often are complete strangers.”

In short, there is such a dissonance in comprehending the horrible crimes of these people, that part of us almost becomes driven to try and understand how someone is even capable of such madness. Media attention further fuels this curiosity by sensationalizing these killers and their acts. Their murders, though horrific and despicable, are a warped aspect of our pop culture. As Bonn even mentions at one point, “Exaggerated depictions of serial killers in the mass media have blurred fact and fiction. As a result, real-life killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of many people.”

Now that we’ve addressed the fascination behind serial killers, I also want to briefly talk about how serial killers tend to be represented in horror movies. This may be a bit general, but they tend to be presented in two forms of narrative perspective; from a distance and up close and personal. 

Distance comes in the form of killers like Seven’s John Doe. In movies like this, the excitement of the story comes in the form of catching the killer, and the mystique surrounding them, while also highlighting their murders for added thrill. The up close and personal direction comes in the form of stories like The House That Jack Built or Maniac (2012), where the central spotlight is on the killers and the audience gets to partake in a character study. In a film like Seven, there’s some interest surrounding the killer, but the film puts more focus on the murders over the actual person; when taking a more personal direction, there’s more attention provided to the character and observing their psyche. 

So where does Hannibal Lecter fit regarding these two models? Well, I think it’s fair to say that his character borrows from a little of each. A big element that makes him unique is how vicious of a person he is, yet, he spends the majority of the film in a cell. Clarice Starling and the audience get to be up close to him, but always at a safe distance. The film also doesn’t shovel exposition upon the viewer either; instead, there’s a brief scene of newspaper headings regarding Lecter’s kills, and a couple conversations about how dangerous he is. No backstory however regarding why or how he became the cannibal and killer he is today. That creates an allure surrounding Lecter, primarily keeping the audience in the dark as to how deep his treachery goes.

But for as treacherous as Lecter is, he comes off like a relaxed guy. Though our understanding of serial killers has developed overtime, there may be folks who feel that to be a serial killer, one must be completely unhinged. While some may be more outwardly ferocious, others can display high organizational skills and intellect. While Lecter certainly enjoys getting under people’s skin (no pun intended), he has an air of poetry to his words; his insight into the arts, philosophy, and science present him as someone of high society. On top of this, Lecter is also a psychiatrist. Who would ever think that a psychiatrist, someone who is certified and has devoted their life to studying the mind, could be capable of being insane? 

In these ways, Silence of the Lambs teases so much about Lecter that the audience wants to latch on and learn more. He is brimming with contradiction and irony; he is not some wacked out redneck killer, but a sophisticated person who enjoys eating others. This intrigue is a big aspect as to why I feel people enjoy watching Hannibal Lecter – but not the main reason. The core of Lecter’s ability to attract audiences, I think, is that he is horror’s most unique anti-hero. 

It’s fair to say that, for the most part, serial killers tend to be the antagonist of the stories they are part of. In Seven, John Doe is the main bad guy; Jigsaw is the main bad guy of the first few Saw movies. But in Silence of the Lambs, though Lecter is far from a good guy, he’s neither its central villain, nor totally a threat. He poses more of a psychological threat than physical, given how he probes Clarice’s mind, but he only ends up hurting a small number of people in the film. The film doesn’t shy away from expressing how dangerous he is, but it also provides more of a spotlight to Buffalo Bill’s killings, making him the prominent antagonist. 

In fact, besides the one portion in Silence of the Lambs where he kills people, Lecter’s role is that of assisting Clarice. He isn’t handing out free info on Buffalo Bill per se, but he actively contributes to helping her catch him, even deceiving other law enforcement and officials to favor her. Among the whole cast, he is the most supportive character to the protagonist. 

Unlikely team ups have existed for years and continue to be popular; one could view the interviews between Holden and Ed Kemper in Mindhunter to be such an odd duo. But in Silence of the Lambs, you have an FBI trainee teaming up with a serial killer – one who is genius and vile. Lecter engages with people who he either wants dead, to eat, or to play with. For him, Clarice is a special specimen, one he can psychically feast upon, but also assist.

Traditionally in cinema, the serial killer is a character meant to be hunted and defeated –in Silence of the Lambs however, Lecter is already captured. As the audience, we are intrigued to learn more about him; the minimal detail provided to us, the unnervingly calm demeanor he expresses, the evil we can sense from his eyes and words, it all stirs us to want to see more of him. We also sort of root for him when it comes to Clarice. So much of the film is working against her and her goals to become an official FBI agent. Yes, her boss gives her a chance to work on a case, but it is Lecter who sees possibility in her; he is the one that pushes her to the limits to solve the case surrounding Buffalo Bill.

This role of the anti-hero, of the protagonist’s aid, has been an aspect that has stuck with Lecter’s character. While a prequel to Silence of the Lambs, Lecter also assisted Will Graham in Red Dragon. The same set of characters shared a similar dynamic in the TV show Hannibal; in this case though, the show follows a Lecter who is not locked up and able to move about freely in the world. The show also made for a superb demonstration of how Lecter carried himself in the public eye, and how this madman was capable of coming across so charming and likeable. 

Throughout his narrative journey, Lecter has always been the evil to somewhat help the good guy. It’s a bizarre, complex relationship. In Hannibal, we see him dangerously tread the tightrope while working with law enforcement on cases – providing what he can to help while making sure to cover his own dark secret. It makes for exciting storytelling and a wealth of character depth. 

This dynamic between Lecter and protagonists looking to capture killers is what I think has won over the hearts of so many. He subverts expectations of the hero-villain relationship. He gets close to the protagonist, whether it be Clarice or Will, with each developing a sort of grim kinship with him. Can you think of such a relationship in horror? Who has Jason, Freddy, or Leatherface befriended? For so much of the horror genre’s history, the villain has purely been a source of evil to be stopped, to be fought against, to be rejected. But Hannibal Lecter contradicts this ideology. He is all those things, but he is also someone who participates in acts of justice. It isn’t just his way with words or his viciousness that draws us, but his duality of being both the foil and the aid to the hero. 

In a world where we are already so fascinated by the anomaly that is the serial killer, Hannibal Lecter adds a whole other layer of morbid appeal. He is a presence of darkness that also does good. 

Lecter’s means of toying with the line of morality has allowed him to gain a massive fandom in the world of horror. It’s remarkable too, given how he isn’t a supernatural threat or anything of existential immensity, but rather a human being. He is a man, normal appearing on the surface, who has committed horrendous crimes and exudes terror. Yet, we can’t turn away from his charm. We can’t escape the pull he has on us. When we see him working alongside Clarice or Will, we go to voice our support for him – but then stop. This is the villain; this is a monster.

How has he gotten in our heads?


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