Our Enduring Love Affair With Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Hollywood's quintessential serial killer.

Posted Mar 07, 2016

The powerful visceral appeal of serial killers has led to a macabre love affair between them and the American public. Society’s passion for serial killers is well documented by its insatiable appetite for Hollywood films on the subject, which number in the hundreds over the years.

The box office returns reveal that Hollywood and the public love stories about serial killers. From the earliest known film on this subject, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) and its sequels, serial killer films consistently make big profits, attract large audiences, and generate cult followings.

These films typically present a gruesome story of serial homicide in the most graphic way possible and yet, ironically, the perpetrator is often portrayed as a sort of anti-hero. According to the findings of my research, movie audiences will generally root for the serial killer to succeed in his mission at some level.

No serial killer in history has projected the monster as anti-hero image more powerfully or vividly than Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Despite his fictional origins, Hannibal Lecter is perceived by many people to be the quintessential American serial killer. His stature in popular culture was enhanced by the NBC television series Hannibal which focused on his early life and career.

As a larger-than-life popular culture icon, Dr. Hannibal Lecter constitutes a mythical and almost supernatural embodiment of society’s deepest and darkest fears. Society is riveted by the diabolical depiction of Lecter because he enables people to project their fears onto a clearly delineated supervillain.

He is made even more frightening by the fact that he is an accomplished medical doctor and psychiatrist. The broad appeal of Dr. Lecter to the public was expressed by criminologist Dr. J.C. Oleson who wrote:

"Hannibal Lecter may be such an attractive character because he is something more than human (or something less): a vampire, a devil, or some infernal combination of the two. Springing from the literary tradition of Milton’s Satan, Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and Stoker’s Count Dracula, the character of Hannibal Lecter may be so successful because he plays upon the public’s primal fascination with monsters" (1).

Like many Hollywood monsters and boogeymen, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is exciting and magnetic because he is completely goal-oriented, devoid of conscience, and almost unstoppable.

Hannibal Lecter is uniquely different than any other Hollywood movie monster or killer, however. Unlike cartoonish characters such as Godzilla or Freddy Krueger, Dr. Lecter is human. He is also brilliant, witty, and even charming. Similar to the avenging angel serial killer Dexter, he has a set of strict ethical principles that he lives and kills by, but unlike Dexter, his motives are not altruistic.

My research suggests that Dr. Lecter’s enduring popular appeal and the terror he invokes are due to the fact that he is depicted as a mortal man. In many ways, he is like the rest of us. He bleeds and he feels pain. His humanness makes him a much more relatable and identifiable villain to the public than other one-dimensional monster characters in films.

At the same time, his similarity to the public also contributes to his ability to induce fear. Much like Ted Bundy in real life, Hannibal Lecter seems normal—terrifyingly normal. He represents our worst collective fear in the modern world—that is, the fear of the murderous everyman who lives next door.

Paradoxically, because Dr. Lecter is depicted as a real person rather than a supernatural monster or boogeyman, he elicits greater empathy and greater fear at the same time. He is simultaneously very frightening and fun to watch. That is why we love him.

I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers, including David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) with whom I personally corresponded in my book, Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. 

References

(1) Oleson, J.C. 2006. King of killers: The criminological theories of Hannibal Lecter, Part 1.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 13 (1), p. 130.