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Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot


It may no longer be possible to eat fava beans without thinking of Hannibal Lecter.

He's the creation of crime novelist Thomas Harris, but it was Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of him in the film The Silence of the Lambs that turned him into one of the most notorious fictional villains in American pop culture.

Lecter was born out of our real fascination with serial killers — but crucially, he's got a touch of fiction about him that makes him a little more likable. Certainly when Hopkins was offered the part, he was intrigued.

"I thought, Oh it's one of those parts — it's the dark man, the boogieman at the top of the stairs," Hopkins says. "You know, we all have that from our childhood fantasies — the unknown shadowy person, which is very attractive and neurotic as well — but I thought, It's one of those parts, and I think I'm going to enjoy this."

Lecter is dark. But he's also funny. Jodie Foster, who played FBI profiler-in-training Clarice Starling, says she found Hopkins' portrayal frightening — but it was more than that.

"He still played the wit of Hannibal Lecter," Foster says. "He played all of the layers of hiding, instead of trying to understand whether his parents beat him or whether he was abused as a child. You know — instead of trying to make us feel sorry for him, he allowed Hannibal to have that veneer of evil."

And evil he is. Fortunately, in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is already in prison for his crimes. Once a respected psychiatrist, he's killed at least seven people — and eaten them, hence his nickname, Hannibal the Cannibal. Adding to his dark veneer: his home in a dungeonlike cell with no windows, in the basement of a mental institution.

For most of the film, we see Lecter through the eyes of agent Starling, sent to get some information from Lecter to help catch another serial killer. Lecter frightens Starling, clearly — and yet he takes a mentor-like attitude toward her. The net effect? Creepy, but ingratiating.

'They Draw You In ... '

"Hopkins has the capacity to just draw you in," says Helen Morrison, a psychiatrist who has studied real-life serial killers. "Which is a little similar to what a serial killer can do. They draw you in, and then it's like being in a Venus flytrap — it's over."

Plenty of real-life research went into the creation of Hannibal Lecter. Harris was a crime reporter who covered several serial killers before he wrote The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins studied up on them before he played the part.

Morrison, for her part, thinks Hopkins nails certain behaviors and characteristics of the real thing — and she's interviewed dozens of them, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Wayne Williams. She says they can be alluring because they seem so normal.

It was just that way the first time she met a serial killer.

"I walked into the interview room, and there was this individual sitting there in a powder-blue suit," she remembers. "And I thought, Oh this is interesting; I wonder when they're going to bring the serial killer in. Until I realized that this individual sitting in front of me, who looked like Casper Milquetoast, was responsible for some fairly horrendous murders."

Only once in The Silence of the Lambs do we actually see Lecter at his most murderous. One moment he's quietly sitting in a temporary cell listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations and preparing to eat a lamb-chop dinner served by the guards. The next moment he has broken free of his handcuffs, and he eats one guard and clubs the other to death. Throughout there is no change in his placid expression.

An Appetite for Dignity — Or Else

Clarice Starling never sees Lecter at his worst. To her he appears human, and she treats him that way. A sort of bond develops between them. In a strange way, they relate to each other, says Foster. Lecter has been locked away and treated like a lab rat by his jailer; Starling grew up poor and has worked her way up.

"She wants dignity — and interestingly, Lecter does too," Foster says. "That's his little thorn in his side, is he wants to be treated with dignity. And if you don't, he'll eat you."

Because of her unique relationship with Lecter, Starling comes to feel that he wouldn't attack and eat her. Indeed, when the movie ends, she has caught the serial killer she was out to get — and Lecter has escaped. But before he disappears, he makes a brief phone call — and a promise.

"I have no plans to call on you, Clarice," he says. "The world's more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy."

More proof, says Foster, that Lecter is more than just a bad guy.

"He's not just a cardboard villain," she says. "You see his vulnerabilities; you see that he cares for her in the way that he can. That he has a kindness toward her ... and yes, we're seduced by that humanity, by his light touch with her — in the way that you would hope a great dad would be."

Oooooh — a great dad? That's where Hannibal's character serves the needs of fiction, says Morrison, the psychiatrist.

"In real life, he never would have become attached to her," Morrison says. "I sit with these serial killers for eight, 10 hours at a time, and I come back day after day after day — and every time I walk in to them, it's as if I were starting all over again."

Real serial killers have no empathy, in other words. But in Lecter, we get a little sweetness — and that may be what makes him better fiction, more likeable and more enduring.

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Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and