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“‘This is my design’: Transgression and Possession by Hannibal’s Cannibals,” by plain-flavored-english

[Note: You guys said you were interested, so here goes! This is a little different from my previous metas. It started as a paper I wrote for an MA class called ‘Exploitation Cinema’ where I placed the NBC show Hannibal in a wider context of cannibalism in film. It’s pretty rough, since I’ve cut it down by about 2,000 words and edited it to make it a little more accessible.]

In what is now an iconic scene from Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter taunts FBI trainee Clarice Starling by telling her about a census taker he once killed. ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti’, he says, sucking in a hissing breath as though relishing the taste that lingers in his memory. Lecter and his psychiatrist enthrall Clarice—and, by extension, the audience—with verbal reconstructions of his murders, lingering on the cannibal’s perverse sensual enjoyment. Yet while the early Lecter films show only titillating glimpses of the killer’s ‘art’, the camera in the NBC serial Hannibal (2013 –) lingers with an almost detached fascination on the artist’s corpse-tableaus and haut-cuisine dishes, as though tempting the audience with their grim beauty. Instead of titillating us with tales of gore, Hannibal’s Hannibal dismembers and prepares each corpse in front of our eyes, holding the finished plate under our noses as though to say, ‘There, doesn’t that look good?’ Lecter’s pleasure is no longer a sign of incomprehensible monstrosity; it has become our pleasure as well.

Where does this perverse allegiance between audience and killer come from? The cannibal figure in fiction has evolved significantly over time. In Cannibalism in Literature and Film, Jennifer Brown argues that cannibalism is common in fiction not because it has been much practiced in reality (anthropological evidence shows incidents of cannibalism are actually very rare) but rather because it is an almost universal taboo, thus serving as an easy indicator of threatening and encroaching Otherness. The view of the cannibal is that of dangerously ambiguous figure, one who crosses or disregards the essential dividing line that separate the human body (in most cultures considered sacred, superior, or inviolate) from animal bodies. Human consumption of human flesh upsets what Brown calls ‘the most fundamental boundary between the “self and else”’ (7).

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Cannibalism in film: Ed Gein and the 1970s rural cannibal

In colonial English literature, cannibalism was typically referenced in order to emphasize the difference between the ‘savage’ colonized ‘Other’ and the ‘civilized’ colonizing hero. Pre-70s Hollywood horror also largely shows monsters as explicitly Other: either foreign, or inhuman altogether (Dracula being the most classic example). In the 70s, however, the monster-figure began to put down roots in America soil. Though cannibals still remained outside of ‘normal’ society, they now took a distinctly American form: the hillbilly cannibal family, as seen in Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). These films challenged and threatened the ideal of the nuclear American family, which had previously been treated as the quintessence of goodness and normalcy.

Many film theorists claim this shift began with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho (1960), a film where the monster that threatens normalcy is as much a product of the domestic sphere as he is a threat to it. Psycho and the later hillbilly horror films were both inspired by the same real-life serial killer: Ed Gein, ‘The Butcher of Plainfield’, a Wisconsin murderer and body snatcher who dismembered women and fashioned their bodies into grisly trophies. Upon his arrest in 1957, Gein was enthusiastically psychoanalyzed by the Freud-happy doctors and journalists of his time, who described his crimes as the product of a mother-complex and a gender disorder, diagnoses that threw the sacred American family into scrutiny. In a similar vein, while the Gein-inspired cannibal films show their monsters to be filthy, uneducated, and incestuous or sexually deviant, they also blur the lines between the suburban family being terrorized and their cannibalistic counterparts. In The Hills Have Eyes, for instance, the two families engage in almost equal violence and the film ends with a close-up of the middle-class father savagely stabbing his hillbilly opposite number to death.

Hills’ director Wes Craven has cited the Vietnam War and its unprecedented media coverage as the event that made him realize Americans could be evil. In films of that period there is a noticeable shift from foreign invaders to white American monsters which belies a palpable cultural anxiety, a suspicion that the Other is not other at all, but rather that which has always been repressed by mainstream society.

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Cannibalism closes in: Jeffrey Dahmer and the 1990s urban cannibal

If Ed Gein is the model on which the hillbilly cannibal is based, then it is ‘The Milwaukee Cannibal’, Jeffrey Dahmer—who raped, murdered, and cannibalized young men for over a decade before his capture in 1991—who gives rise to the urban version of the monster. Where the former was literally peripheral, located outside the city, the latter was symptomatic of city life. Where the former was poor, uneducated, and dirty, the latter appeared to conform to the demands of society. The media coverage of Dahmer focused a great deal on how surprisingly ‘normal’ the man seemed (read: white, educated, American). This kind of discourse regularly appears in the ‘monster beneath the surface’ trope that haunts 90s cinema: an emphasis on the apparent disconnect between how normal a killer appears and how depraved he is beneath the surface. Yet the killers in these films are also a product of society: Patrick Bateman (American Psycho, 2000), for instance, is not only presented as a poster boy for Manhattan yuppie-ism, but his crimes are shown to be extensions of the dog-eat-dog nature of the city itself, revealing—as 70s domestic cannibalism does—the horror in the norm.

The norm in this case is not a domestic ideal but a socioeconomic order. In the 1991 novel on which American Psycho is based, Bateman is consistently unable to eat the beautiful and unfulfilling upscale cuisine he describes. Both the film and the book frequently combine his urges to buy and kill or treat them as interchangeable. His consumerism, both materialistic and literal, is a reflection of the savagery and insatiable emptiness behind the Manhattan social scene he represents.This is a commentary that hearkens back to Marx’s description of capitalism as cannibalism. Bateman’s sexual-cannibalistic crimes are also a commentary on the porn culture and ‘meatifying’ of women in the 80s; he is inspired to kill the prostitute Christie when he sees her displayed under a sign saying ‘M.E.A.T.’ Bateman’s cruelty and elitism are inextricably bound; like Dahmer (who primarily killed racial minorities), he kills those he sees as the underclass.

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Cannibalism and elitism: Silence of the Lambs

Like Bateman, Hannibal Lecter comes from a position of social superiority, killing and eating those he considers ‘rude’, a gesture that places upper class aesthetics over humanist ethics. Lecter is not only wealthy, cultured, and highly educated, but as a psychiatrist and former surgeon he has the social power to dissect and label other people’s minds and bodies. His murders are manifestations of this elitism and position of social superiority. According to Brown, cannibalism ‘creates ambiguity because it both reduces the body to mere meat and elevates it to a highly desirable, symbolic entity; it is both disgusting, and the most rarified of gastronomic tastes.’ (4) This paradox—cannibalism as both the lowest form of savagery and an assertion of superiority—is especially noticeable in the Lecter films. In particular, the relationship between power (reducing another’s flesh to ‘mere meat’) and taste (elevating it to fine cuisine) is a recurring theme.

Of the films themselves I find Silence of the Lambs most interesting in that it features two, arguably contradictory, versions of monstrosity: the obviously Gein-inspired ‘Buffalo Bill’ and the almost parodically cultured Lecter, who reflects a more contemporary monster-archetype (the 90s ‘monster beneath the mask’). With Lecter narratively (if not morally) positioned on the side of the FBI, the two archetypes are in direct opposition. Lecter’s politeness and sophistication is contrasted favorably with the behavior of Buffalo Bill and Lecter’s vulgar cell neighbor ‘Multiple’ Miggs, whom he torments to death. The audience feels a perverse allegiance towards Lecter that is internal to the moral system of the text; in other words, he is attractive relative to the other killers because he is simply, to quote the Joker, a ‘better class of criminal’.

This perverse allegiance between audience and monster only increases from Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon (2002), in which Lecter is a pivotal but peripheral figure, to Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal Rising (2007), where he is more of an anti-hero or villain protagonist. Lecter becomes more and more central and therefore more and more a figure to be, on some level, identified with. It’s an excellent illustration of Brown’s argument that ‘while the representations of the cannibal moving from the colonies, to the rural domestic, to the urban centre suggest a geographical and temporal shifting, beneath all of these texts is the unsavoury truth that the white man was always cannibalistic’ (14).

Clash of the cannibals: Hannibal

Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is a kind of prequel to Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, chronicling the harrowing psychological cat-and-mouse game between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. Here the rural-urban dichotomy is even more clearly marked by two conflicting cannibals: Lecter himself, and Garret Jacob Hobbs, a serial killer whom Will Graham catches and kills early on (and is later haunted by in dreams and hallucinations). While the as-yet uncaught ‘Chesapeake Ripper’ (Lecter) is an urbane cannibal, Hobbs (‘The Minnesota Shrike’) is rural construction worker. Their respective approaches and philosophies could not be more different: Lecter’s is highbrow and aesthetic—he takes select cuts from his victims and turns them into culinary masterpieces that he serves to the social elite at elaborate dinner parties—while Hobbs worships at the alter of utilitarianism, ‘honoring’ his victims by using the entire corpse, even whittling knives out of their bones and stuffing cushions with their hair. The intertwined issues of taste and power become obvious when the police discover the corpse of a young girl artistically arranged on a stag head in the middle of a field. The victim and the use of antlers matches Hobbs’ profile but is actually the (art)work of Hannibal Lecter. Graham immediately notices the difference between Hobbs’ style and Lecter’s, describing the latter as ‘field kabuki’, arguing: ‘Our cannibal [Hobbs] loves women… This girl’s killer thought that she was a pig’. Interestingly, it is Lecter’s disdain for his victims (seeing them merely as livestock to be consumed) that gives his murders their trademark ‘sophistication’ and ‘taste’. Graham later gives a lecture on the field murder, explaining: ‘The killer who did [it] wanted us to know he wasn’t the Minnesota Shrike. He was better than that. […] He had intimate knowledge of Garrett Jacob Hobbs’s murders, motives, patterns—enough to recreate them and, arguably, elevate them to art.’

Lecter’s crimes are extensions of his affluence and ‘class’; the killer uses the anatomical knowledge he learned as a surgeon in a gleaming, expensive chef’s kitchen. Hobbs, on the other hand, has gained his knowledge from hunting deer and other animals; he mounts and dismembers the bodies in a rustic hunter’s lodge in the woods. His cannibalism is thrifty and unmistakably incestuous; he kills girls who remind him of his daughter Abigail with a bizarre tenderness, telling her that it is the only thing keeping him from killing and consuming her out of ‘love’. All this recalls the rural cannibal paradigm, and the inevitable result of its collision with Lecter’s sophisticated urban cannibal is, of course, violence.

The ambiguity of cannibalism—base utilitarianism vs. monstrous elitism, consumption as reverence vs. consumption as sacrilege—is embodied for once by two killers in a single text. But the truly ambiguous figure is Will Graham, who endures physical and emotional violence both at the hands of Lecter and in the form of Hobbs’ ghost, which haunts him in dreams and hallucinations. With his ability to empathize and identify with both murderers, Graham is the vessel through which Lecter and Hobbs battle for dominance. It is his extraordinary suffering (‘Somebody please help Will Graham’ became an online meme during the first season) that carries the emotional bulk of the show; he is the one walking through the valley of the shadow of death; he is the one being tested. As part of his campaign to frame Graham, Lecter takes advantage of encephalitis-induced seizures to drug, hypnotize, and otherwise manipulate the disturbed profiler into believing that he himself is the Chesapeake Ripper. Near the end of the first season, Graham wakes up from a nightmare and vomits the severed ear of one of Hannibal’s latest victims into his kitchen sink. Later, after Graham begins regaining his lost memories, he remembers (in one of the most visceral scenes of the show) Hannibal forcing the ear down his throat through a plastic tube while he seizes. The cannibal is not merely consuming, but invading and possessing the protagonist, forcing him to become a cannibal himself.

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Personality horror vs. demonic horror: the cannibal possesses us

In his psychological history of modern horror films, film theorist Charles Derry categorizes the horror film into three subgenres: horror of personality, horror of Armageddon, and horror of the demonic. With Lecter’s invasion and possession of Graham we witness a shift from the first to the third genre, a change that had its seeds in Silence of the Lambs but was not fully realized until Hannibal. According to Derry, the serial killer film almost always falls into the ‘horror of personality’ category; he points specifically to the 1960s and the finale of Psycho, which marked the beginning of Hollywood’s abiding fascination with mental disease, personality disorders, and the potential evil lurking inside the human brain. ‘In a way,’ he writes, ‘the psychological explanation enables us to distance ourselves from the horror: “It’s all right, it was something in his mind that made the killer sick”’. (Dark Dreams 2.0, 24) By shifting to demonic horror, Hannibal begins to erase the possibility of distance. 

Derry identifies four defining themes of demonic horror: vengeance, the corruption of innocence, mystic phenomena (especially possession), and Christian symbology. Although Silence of the Lambs mostly falls under the category of personality horror, some demonic themes do make an appearance: the religious lamb iconography, for instance, or the portrayal of Lecter as a devil-like figure with an almost mystical ability to enter his victim’s minds (Lecter is never shown devouring human flesh, but rather seems to feed on people’s emotions). Lecter even characterizes Buffalo Bill as sinful rather than psychologically disturbed (‘Hecovets’). In Hannibal, however, personality/family horror is shoved aside entirely, literally killed off in the first act in the form of Garret Jacob Hobbs. (This dismissal of the psychoanalytic explanation is foregrounded by American Psycho, where Patrick Bateman self-consciously mocked the psychiatry cult—‘I’m a child of divorce, give me a break!’) Lecter, of course, cannot be diagnosed and explained away; he is the psychiatrist, and he wields diagnoses for his own advantage. If Hobbs is a personality-monster (a family-made and family-oriented cannibal), Lecter is a pure demonic monster, not motivated by any classifiable human pathology. Though some other films provide Lecter with a family background, it is hardly even alluded to in the show; he has simply dropped into Baltimore as though from another realm.

Curiously, and perhaps even paradoxically, this shift to the demonic also means a return to a foreign monster of the Dracula-type. Hobbs is an American ‘everyman’, not a hillbilly but a construction worker with a seemingly generic Minnesotan family—Will even describes Hobbs’ victims, whom he chooses based on their resemblance to his daughter, as ‘very Mall of America’. On the other side, Lecter is played by Danish film star Mads Mikkelsen, who speaks with his own, distinctly Scandinavian, accent. The character’s ostentatious three-piece suits and exotic dishes (generally presented with French or Japanese titles) further emphasize his foreignness. His style stands in obvious contrast to Graham, one of the scruffiest-looking characters on an otherwise elaborately and elegantly stylized show. Most of the characters, indeed, are almost distractingly well dressed and the darkly imposing sets and visuals of the show are more beautiful than realistic, frequently crossing the line into what might be termed scenery and costume ‘porn’. The aesthetic of the show emphasizes the extent of Lecter’s demonic influence—the whole universe is his and it is Graham who is the outsider, exiled in his tiny farmhouse, which is frequently shown as a little island of light in a great expanse of darkness (‘like a boat on the sea’).

Indeed, possession, corruption, and Christian symbolism—the key motifs of demonic horror—are the thematic tripod on which Hannibal rests. With his so-called ‘empathy disorder’, Graham is more medium than profiler, channeling the spirits of the killers he pursues. His insights are like clairvoyant visions that leave him disturbed and shaking, follow him in dreams and hallucinations, and lead to sleepwalking, automatism, and loss of memory. Because Graham allows himself to be possessed by evil, he is at risk of contamination; we the audience fear the innocent profiler will really be pushed into committing murder. Graham eventually becomes desperate enough to send a serial killer to assassinate Hannibal, a failed attempt that he later blames on Hannibal’s corrupting influence: ‘I’m not innocent; you saw to that’.

Graham—and by extension, the audience—is possessed by literal visions of murder. While some of the earlier films like Silence of the Lambs feature stand out shots from the killers’ point of view, Hannibal is founded on the premise of literally seeing from a monster’s perspective. There are extended sequences where Graham relives each murder scene as the murderer, imagining himself in the killer’s place, narrating his/the killer’s actions and innermost thoughts. As he stares at each grisly tableaux, he repeats his catchphrase: ‘This is my design’.

The audience comes along for the ride; through the power of Graham’s vision, we are able to experience how the killer’s artistic imagination paradoxically makes each crime scene come alive. Pools of blood shrink, withered flowers and rotten food become fresh again, and corpses are resurrected and reanimated. In a strange sense, Hannibal is the antithesis of a slasher film; its narrative is not one of murder as dismemberment but rather as reconstruction. Each corpse becomes a piece in the serial killer’s oeuvre; one is transformed into a building block for a gruesome totem pole, another becomes part of a handcrafted cello, another becomes a beehive or a garden plot, yet another is a pigment in a pointillist tableaux. Like Graham, whose innocence is in constant jeopardy, we too are implicated by looking. Brown quotes Nietzche: ‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you’ (206). For Hannibal’s Milton-esque devil, God himself is the monstrous abyss. ‘Killing must feel good to God too,’ he says; ‘He does it all the time’.  Later, as he stiches a murderer-artist into his tableau of corpses, designed to look like a giant eye from above, he says, ‘God gave you purpose, not only to create art, but to become it. […] Your eye will now see God reflected back. He will see you. If God is looking down on you, don’t you want to be looking back at him?’ As we look back at the murder-artist, his gaze infects us; the self that looks too long at the other can no longer tell where it ends and the other begins. We become the killer; if this is Graham’s design, then it is ours too.


‘This is my design’: Transgression and Possession by Hannibal’s Cannibals” ©plain-flavoured-english, originally posted on 13 June 2015

One comment on ““‘This is my design’: Transgression and Possession by Hannibal’s Cannibals,” by plain-flavored-english

  1. Pingback: The Fan Meta Reader 2015 Masterpost | The Fan Meta Reader

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This entry was posted on July 9, 2015 by and tagged , , .
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