Hannibal Lecter has been a fixture in contemporary horror since his introduction in Thomas Harris’ seminal 1981 novel Red Dragon. Even though Harris, at the time, may not have understood why readers wanted more of his character, media featuring or referencing the character has been around for 40 years. CBS’s new show, Clarice, although it legally cannot use his name due to ownership issues, is the most recent addition to the Lecter canon. Lecter––a respected forensic psychologist, staunch supporter of the arts, and cannibalistic serial killer––is reminiscent of literary vampires. He is magnetic, charming, refined, and excruciatingly intelligent; it is hard for anyone to divert their eyes from him despite his inherent evil and insanity. Protagonists such as Lecter challenge the audience to expand the limits of their empathy and recognize their own yearnings and desires in villainous characters.
Due to Lecter’s legendary status—a consequence of Anthony Hopkins’ unsettling performance in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—it would be easy to chalk up his lasting popularity to the camp and gore of the stories which feature him. The fan cult of Hannibal Lecter, however, is substantially less interested in cannibalism and murder than it is about the dichotomy of attraction and repulsion, all-consuming love, and desire. Harris’ 1999 novel, Hannibal, and NBC’s 2013 TV show adaptation of the same name both feature characters—Clarice Starling and Will Graham, respectively—falling in love with Lecter. Both relationships are loaded with manipulation and mind games, and are a far cry from healthy representation. In fact, the ending of Harris’ novel was so vehemently rejected by audiences that Jodie Foster famously refused to reprise her role as Starling for the film adaptation. NBC’s Hannibal fully embraces Harris’ vision for the characters, highlighting the seductive nature of a character like Hannibal Lecter. The show also goes further: Where the 1999 novel preferred subtext and thinly veiled references regarding Starling and Lecter, the show has Graham (Hugh Dancy) explicitly ask whether Lecter (Mads Mikklesen) is in love with him.
“Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for you, and find nourishment at the sight of you? Yes. But do you ache for him?” Bedelia du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), Lecter’s therapist, tells Graham.
Transcending the relationship at hand, this question turns a mirror to the audience, explicitly bringing them into the narrative of the show. The audience is thrust into a moment of introspection, and identify parts of themselves in these morally bankrupt characters. This question has been asked in many other works, from the origins of the literary vampire—Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula—to more modern works such as Netflix’s You (2018-), BBC’s Luther (2010-2019) and Killing Eve (2018-), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s exceptional Phantom Thread (2017).
All of these works challenge the audience to understand and empathize with characters while simultaneously accepting the immorality of their actions. By gaining the audience’s empathy, these works force society to question the notion that media should only reflect the best of humanity. The fictional mutually obsessive relationships at the centre of each story have the inherent ability to heighten the already overwhelming emotions of desire and attraction. Although some may find it morally corrupt, these stories gain popularity by allowing audiences to live vicariously through the on-screen dynamics.
Watching Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Eve (Sandra Oh), Hannibal‘s Will and Hannibal, and Phantom Thread’s Alma and Reynolds poison, stab, shoot, and maim each other in the name of love is a dazzling and intoxicating experience one could only wish for themselves—although, without the bloodshed. These shows, movies, and books are, in the end, about how far one can go for someone they love. For many people, having someone passionately confess their love to them is all they could ask for. With this in mind, The Silence of the Lambs’s iconic Valentine’s Day release makes perfect sense.