Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Needs Does He Serve By Killing? The Tao of Hannibal Lecter

In the impressive anthology Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, author and co-editor Daniel Shaw opines in his essay "The Mastery of Hannibal Lecter" that Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) "is one of the most powerful human characters in the history of horror" and that this is "the primary reason why we are so drawn to him." (Scarecrow Press, 2003, page 11.)

That is no doubt an accurate observation, and so today I want to gaze into the eyes and heart of this popular silver screen villain and see -- to paraphrase the good Dr Lecter -- "what is it in itself?" about him that makes Lecter so powerful a force in our psyches.

"What is his nature? What does he do...?"

The first thing to consider, perhaps, is the context from which Thomas Harris's Dr. Lecter sprang. The character -- a serial killer -- was created in the early 1980s (in the novel Red Dragon), but gained wider prominence after the release of Jonathan Demme's 1991 seminal (and oft-imitated) The Silence of the Lambs.

In other words, Hannibal "rose" in the American pop culture during the very epoch that the public was developing a deeper awareness both of the real life serial killer and the tools which could be used to catch this strange predator -- the tools of Forensic Science.

"Hannibal the Cannibal" entered the Cinematic Bogeyman Hall of Fame, for instance, not long after Ted Bundy was executed in Florida, and in the very year that Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended, 1991.

In terms of other cultural influences, best-selling
author Patricia Cornwell, a medical examiner in Richmond, penned the Kay Scarpetta novels (Post-Mortem [1990], and Body of Evidence [1991], for example). Cornwell’s literary work focused on a new kind of contemporary detective, one who could scour a victim’s corpse and pinpoint concrete evidence about the identity of the killer based on skin or hair fragments, semen samples, or DNA evidence. Forget crucifixes, prayer or arcane exorcism rituals, the key to exorcising serial killers from our culture rested in the law-enforcement deployment of behavioral science (psychology) and forensic pathology.

So clearly, Lecter appeared in The Silence of the Lambs at exactly the right time. But that serendipity alone doesn't explain the character's ongoing popularity, appeal and fame nearly twenty years later. To comprehend that, we must indeed understand "what he does," or more accurately, "how he does it." So, without further ado, I present the most important components of "The Tao of Hannibal Lecter."

1.) He Mostly Kills The Rude (Or, he operates by his own sense of morality).

Unlike many of the slasher bogeymen popular in the 1980s, Hannibal is not an indiscriminate killer. He isn't a berserker with a machete.

On the contrary, Hannibal selects his victims very carefully. He kills them because they have violated some code of behavior that he cherishes; and that personal code has something to do with...courtesy.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is directly responsible for the death of another inmate, Migs, who tossed a handful of his semen at Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she was leaving the cell block. Migs actions were disgusting and rude. They showed no respect for Clarice (and no chivalry, either) and so Migs violated Lecter's powerful sense of decorum. Lecter killed Migs by verbally upbraiding the man all night...until he swallowed his own tongue.

Similarly, In Hannibal, Clarice's F.B.I superior, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) manufactures false evidence against Starling, another violation of chivalry and decorum, and makes it appear to her superiors as though she is having an illicit, romantic relationship with Lecter. Again, Lecter strikes back at the man for his moral trespass. Specifically, Hannibal cooks Paul's brain and feeds it to him. But not before reminding him, "I hate rude people."

Lecter's treatment of Mason Verger (a convicted child molester) is very much in the same mold. Lecter realizes that the man is a monster, and then sees to it that the man cuts off his own face. "Try peeling off your face and feeding it to the dogs," he suggests, while Verger is hepped up on drugs. Then, he hands Verger a shard of broken glass.

Again, Hannibal's official, appropriate capacity here is as Verger's court-ordered psychologist...but Lecter detected a "higher" morality he could serve and did not wait for society to punish (or possibly not punish...) Verger. He did it himself.

In Hannibal Rising (2007), the audience witnesses an early example of Hannibal's sense of chivalry and moral code. A fat butcher (Charles Maquignon) insults Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), young Hannibal's lovely ward. The butcher's insult is sexual in nature (involving the shape and form of her genitals) and unforgivably crude. So Hannibal bides his time...then strikes back with a vengeance: gutting the butcher with a samurai sword, and then decapitating him.

The real problem with Hannibal Lecter, as Will Graham points out to the good doctor in Red Dragon, is simply that he is insane. Lecter's moral barometer is off the mark at times, and this fact makes the killer an unpredictable monster. For instance, Lecter famously killed an untalented flutist (and then served his corpse to the symphony board members...), but a poor performance (or even a series of poor performances...) hardly feels like an adequate justification for murder. Similarly, that census taker whose liver Hannibal ate (with a nice chianti and some fava beans...) could only have been so obnoxious, right?

In other words, Hannibal Lecter remains terrifying because the filmmakers (and Hopkins) allow us a glimpse of his moral code and justifications for murder, but not an ironclad, black-and-white understanding. Also, Hannibal brooks no interference over issues such as his personal freedom (as a few unlucky Tennessee police officers learn the hard way in Lambs). This means that Hannibal will always be at odds with characters like Clarice, and thus always a menace.

Still -- in broad strokes -- we can see that Hannibal punishes the morally corrupt who, for one reason or another, have escaped justice. He kills all the men who murdered his sister, Misha, in Hannibal Rising, destroys corrupt figures representing authority/the establishment (Krendler, Pazzi and Dr. Chilton), punishes rudeness (Migs) and, essentially, rewards politeness.

2.) He Appreciates The Finer Things (and Admires Beauty)

Hannibal Lecter is no mad-dog killer. He boasts a keen intellect, and is thus able to contextualize himself and his life in terms of literature, music, art and history.

In Hannibal, the serial killer presents in Florence a meticulous lecture on the work and life of Dante Alighieri, for instance.

In The Silence of the Lambs, we see his beautiful paintings of Florence in his cell, too. He isn't a dabbler...he's an artist and a scholar.

Hannibal admires physical beauty as well, particularly in women such as Lady Muraski and Clarice Starling. So much so, in fact, that Lecter is unwilling to corrupt such ideal beauty with his own hand.

At the conclusion of Hannibal, the cannibal half-heartedly makes a sexual pass at Clarice (Julianne Moore), aware that she will deny him; and more so that he wants her to deny him. She represents an ideal for him: an ideal of incorruptibility. And in denying his advances, Clarice passes Hannibal's test. (This is quite different than in Harris's novel, Hannibal, by the way, wherein Clarice and Hannibal run away lovers.)

It's odd to write these words of a serial killer, but Hannibal -- as a character and fright icon -- boasts clear aesthetic, intellectual and interpersonal standards, and in the tabloid, gutter culture of the 1990s (the era of The Jenny Jones Show, Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer), that was something that many people came to miss.

Also, it's critical to note here something else about Lecter's nature as a Renaissance man. Historically-speaking, the slashers of the early 1980s morphed into the rubber reality killers of the latter part of the decade: all-powerful supernatural forces like Freddy or Pinhead.

Arguably, Hannibal Lecter remains as frightening as either of those two silver screen bogeymen, yet there's an important distinction: he is grounded entirely in reality. To make Hannibal appear formidable the makers of the Lecter films (Ridley Scott, Jonathan Demme, Brett Ratner, Peter Webber) could not rely on the supernatural elements that built up Freddy, Pinhead, or even Candyman.

Instead, they presented a human character possessing full control of his psyche, in full control of his body, who -- simply put -- was smarter and more deadly than anyone else he might happen to share a room with. Hannibal is thus an unusual mixture of the best in us and the worst in human nature. He loves art and literature, but uses his knowledge of it to commit murder. He understands the human mind, yet uses that understanding to hurt others. He can paint a delicate, beautiful landscape...and then turn around and bludgeon a man to death. Hannibal is a gourmet cook...and a cannibal. He has achieved more than most men have in a lifetime...and yet Lecter is a monster.

3.) He Lets the Punishment Fit the Crime

Hannibal's moral code or sense of justice is not arbitrary or capricious. When this madman commits murder, the punishment fits the crime, at least, again, for the most part.

For instance, in Hannibal, Lecter makes certain that Inspector Francesco Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), -- who has accepted a three million dollar award for Hannibal's capture -- dies according to the traditional, historical method of those who have been avaricious: hanging.

Before he kills Pazzi, Hannibal informs the detective that avarice and hanging were linked in Medieval times. He then proceeds to hang poor Pazzi in the tradition of the detective's ill-fated ancestor. Hannibal then throws in a little disembowelment for good measure...

Paul's punishment -- seeing his own brain eaten -- goes back to Hannibal's considerable knowledge of Dante Aligheri. In The Inferno, in the second lowest circle of Hell, there were two men depicted there: Ugolino and Ruggiero. Ugolino was seen eating the skull of his betrayer, Ruggiero, and this ring of Hell was explicitly reserved for those guilty of treachery (against country, family, benefactors, etc.). Hannibal -- an expert in Dante -- no doubt saw Paul's betrayal of Clarice (his "kin" in the F.B.I.) as the sin for which he was to be punished. He picked a literary punishment that fit the specifics of the transgression.

In Hannibal Rising, a film which depicts Hannibal's earliest crimes, the audience sees how the serial killer develops this sense of "the punishment fitting the crime." Hannibal learns that his sister was not only killed, but eaten, and so sets about eating the men who committed this crime. It's an eye-for-an-eye punishment (or a cheek-for-a-cheek, as the case may be.)

4.) He is a Mentor (and he doesn't play favorites).

A man of great knowledge and yes, even wisdom, Hannibal is not shy about sharing what he knows (especially if there is a "quid pro quo" that interests him). As Hannibal notes, he comes to his victims and friends both "in the guise of a mentor."

Lecter mentors F.B.I. agents Will Graham (Ed Norton) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), but then turns right around and also mentors the budding serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy" (Ralph Fiennes) in Red Dragon. Hannibal is not confined or bound to our conventional sense of morality, and is thus a willing teacher to anyone who approaches him with respect and courtesy.

In Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, intrepid F.B.I agents go before Hannibal and must lay themselves bare before his laser-like mind; before his total understanding and mastery of human psychology. They do so willingly, to catch monsters like the aforementioned "Tooth Fairy" or "Buffalo Bill," but their experience is nonetheless terrifying to those of us in the audience. As Jack Crawford insightfully warns Clarice: "you don't want Hannibal Lecter inside your head."


So while Freddy Krueger arrives through the subconscious doorway of your dreams, Hannibal is, perhaps, equally powerful. He utilizes his uncanny, inevitably accurate, complete understanding of you -- your very identity -- against you. He gets inside your head in a different, more subversive way, perhaps.

Finally, Hannibal Lecter boasts a great, ghoulish sense of humor. Before killing you, he may ask "bowels in or bowels out?," or some such thing. Like Krueger, Lecter is an acknowledged master of the bon mot. In this case, however, the humor doesn't mitigate the terror in the slightest. When Lecter amuses himself at your're going down. Soon.

With Hannibal Lecter on the prowl, the lambs never stop screaming...


  1. Your analysis of one of the most enduring and disturbing horror villains is brilliant and I loved every minute of it. I would say more, but I have to rent and watch all these movies again immediately.

  2. One great examination of an extraordinary, seminal character (in book and film), John. There were those before Hannibal Lecter, and what came after. Your popular culture perspective is spot-on, as always. This time, I think you're psychic, my friend. You'll see why I say this when I post come Friday. Thanks, JKM.

  3. SteveW2:57 PM

    I'm not really a student of Hannibal Lecter, having only seen the original "Manhunter" and "Silence of the Lambs. So I'll just share a quote from the late Pauline Kael, on being informed that he eats the brain of Ray Liotta in "Hannibal" -- "Ah, a light meal."

  4. Hi everyone, thanks for the comments on The Tao of Hannibal!

    Monster Scholar: I appreciate your kind words very much. Thank you! I just finished watching all of the Hannibal movies in a row and it was an interesting experiment, to say the least. If you undertake the same mission, let me know what you think!

    Le0pard13: I'm curious to see what you have up your sleeve, my friend! I'm glad you enjoyed the piece, and you've piqued my curiosity...

    SteveW: Pauline Kael was a great critic...but she could be cruel! :)

    I like Ray Liotta a lot. He's forever in my good graces because of his performance in Good Fellas (1990). On the other hand, there is Operation Dumbo Drop to consider...

    best to all,


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