Lecter’s Enduring Appeal


Cannibal serial killer and psychiatric genius Hannibal Lecter first emerged in Thomas Harris 1980 novel Red Dragon and probably remains the most iconic literary character of the 20th century. It wasn’t until Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic The Silence of the Lambs (the novel was released three years earlier) that Lecter gained rockstar status and became the most influential villain in American art to date. Most potboiler crime thrillers on Amazon are in some way based on a cruel, genius psychopath playing mind games with a tortured detective, and Se7en (1996) with the now disgraced Kevin Spacey as brilliant serial killer John Doe, and the amusingly titled Sigourney Weaver vehicle Copycat (1995), are just a couple of examples of Lecter rip-offs, a list of which could go on for hundreds of pages.

Moors Murderer Ian Brady in his disgusting, evil memoir Gates of Janus makes light of psychiatric profilers like FBI Profiler Robert Ressler (the inspiration for Jack Crawford) and Robert Hare (inventor of the Psychopath Analysis Test) when he wrote “(it’s a) lucrative industry, popularised by such box-office successes as Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs, both of which films featured the fictitious, insane serial-killer-psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (played by Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins, respectively). Psychiatry, being an art, is only as good as the individual practitioner. Mediocre forensic psychiatrists, particularly those in penal and academic circles in America and Britain, smitten by the popular Lecter Syndrome, have jockeyed for fame and fortune by loudly proclaiming they have some special psychological insight into the ‘criminal mind’; ironically, one could therefore interpret such a claim as inadvertent admission that they themselves possess more criminal traits and characteristics than average.”

If nothing else, it seems obvious that every monstrous serial killer has heard Lecter’s name, and presumably likes to think of themselves as criminal geniuses who simply had the misfortune to get caught. In a previous Splice article I commented on genuine psychopaths and the unreality of genius criminals like Lecter.

The awful irony of this is that Harris did in fact base Lecter on a real life serial killer, which he finally admitted to in 2013, who was a real-life doctor and murderer in a prison in Monterrey he met as a 23 year old crime reporter in Mexico. Harris gave him a fake name “Dr. Salazar”, and described him as a “small lithe pale man with dark red hair”. What scared Harris was that “there was certain intelligence and elegance about him.”  Since 2013 the records of the Mexican prison doctor were investigated and it was discovered that “Salazar” was actually upper class physician Alfredo Ballí Treviño, who murdered and mutilated a lover’s body; he was also thought to have kidnapped, murdered and dismembered several hitchhikers during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Harris admitted he also incorporated some of these details into Buffalo Bill‘s development as the gender dysphoric killer in Silence of the Lambs.

However, Harris may have been inspired by Trevino, but it’s unlikely that the killer had anything in common with the vampiric icon. It is the aesthetic refinery of Lecter that sets him apart from other serial killer characters, something that few (if any) murderers share.

Anthony Hopkins’ terrifying, Oscar winning performance in 1991 made it the most talked about film of the year and guaranteed Harris’s novels would remain on the bestseller list forever. Hopkins would later ham it up for the pay in the film adaptations of Hannibal (2000) and 2002’s cash-in Red Dragon which inspired many 4-Chan debates into whether Brian Cox (Hannibal Lecktor) from Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter (The first Lecter film which predates the Lambs novel, an adaptation of Red Dragon) was the ultimate psychopathic hero. Now that there has been a hugely disturbing, arthouse, three season adaptation (2013-2015) of the Lecter mythology Hannibal (available in Netflix) some say Mads Mikkelsen is the true representation of the monster. Either way, Hannibal Lecter isn’t going anywhere.

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