In this editorial, we are going to explore why certain fandoms can go so far as to justify murder, like the Hannibal fandom. The fandom of any given works can often to be a fascinating facet of creativity. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, for example, forced popular culture to acknowledge that BDSM can exist in a desirable light, even if its depiction in the books is grossly inaccurate.
This apparent dissociation from reality is certainly common among fandoms, but it becomes particularly sinister when the fandom manages to justify serious crimes. If the Fifty Shades fandom can be accused of promoting abusive relationships, then the Hannibal fandom can be accused of justifying murder.
Before we get into the fandom of Hannibal, we must first discuss the original material. First comes the book series by Thomas Harris – which has become a staple in horror since their creation – consist of the titles: Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising.
The order is dependent upon publishing date and the order of events in the books. After these came the films: Manhunter¹, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon which all (except Manhunter) starred Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Last but not least is the NBC TV series titled Hannibal, starring Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy.
Though the books were popular in their own right, it was Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal that truly hit pop culture. As usual, Hopkins’ acting skills went above and beyond, capturing audiences across the world as much as his character did Clarice. The interest never died as Silence of the Lambs became a part of classroom lectures both in film studies (director Jonathan Demme knew what he was doing) and psychology (much to the annoyance of professors²).
Then 2013 rolled around, and Bryan Fuller created the Hannibal TV series. The series differentiated from the movies, in that it took many pieces from the original books and threw them all into a blender. That blend attempted to explore the character of Hannibal before he was incarcerated, and his relationship with a certain FBI agent, Will Graham, the one that would eventually “catch” him.
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As it began with Hopkins, so it ended with Mikkelsen: the seductive portrayal of a charming serial killer. Fans found him irresistible. Despite Mikkelsen and Hopkins not being the same type of typical heart-throb as, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, they still managed to win the hearts of their perfectly sane fans. Just as Christian Grey can manipulate consent from Anastasia in Fifty Shades, so Hannibal Lecter can make murder sound like the best “fava beans and a big Amarone” you have ever had.
It is not so much that fans buy into murder and look for it in real life; they buy into the manipulation of facts. Most fans are aware of how powerful this manipulation is, and the Hannibal fandom is generally mature enough to understand that no matter how many points Hannibal has in charisma, he is still a serial killer.
That said, it is those charisma points that the fandom thrives on. Hannibal can calculate the exact thing to say that will have anyone weak in the knees. It is the cocktail of his of academic intelligence, social graces, and refined tastes that contribute to this irresistible charm.
For some, it might be the fact that Hannibal is well-groomed and clearly a man of very high society (he is an actual Count, after all). For others, it might be the fascinating depths of his mind and the unique way he views himself and others. What kind of serial killer purposely takes revenge on behalf of Clarice³, a woman he met once? Or runs off to Brazil with her because he finds her interesting and subsequently stops murdering people for her?
“Evil’s just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it’s that simple.” ― The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.
It helps as well, that Hannibal is not actually a psychopath. In actuality, Hannibal is a cocktail of personality disorders that do not necessarily collect into a cohesive whole. He exhibits two out of the seven traits that diagnose Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), according to the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition).
He also shows elements of Histrionic Personality Disorder, but he certainly is not the emotional type. He is narcissistic, but he does not need validation from other people; he is also intelligent enough to be right about his superiority over others most of the time.
The Hannibal fandom takes all the above and runs like hell with it. Most of the fandom, especially those that write fanfiction for the TV series, interpret Hannibal as a bit more emotionally involved than he is. They have a tendency to ignore the murders (on occasion) and the character of Hannibal. By this, I mean his personal brand of personality disorders.
In the books, Hannibal is not the type to form emotional relationships, much less romantic ones. He cares little for the well-being of others, especially those he finds ugly with discourtesy, like Miggs and Chilton. Hannibal purposely constructs situations just to watch how people react; a psychoanalyst at a hardcore level.
Yet in fanfiction, Hannibal focuses almost entirely on his relationship with Clarice (or Will Graham if the work is after the TV series). He is emotionally involved with her in a way he never could be in the books.
It is a willful ignorance of Hannibal’s “crazy” elements, in favor of apparently “good” elements. In reality, Hannibal’s “good” elements are the result of an intellectual connection with Clarice, and his own version of a moral compass, especially one that so firmly deems “discourtesy” unforgivable.
The line between the horrible reality of Hannibal’s psychological conditions and the kind of fantasy justice system his fandom perpetuates is often blurred. Hannibal is someone who can take easy revenge on sexual assault perpetrators, something that can seem very attractive to a certain audience.
Especially in the TV series, it can feel like Hannibal is in such complete control that the consequences of his murders can never be felt. Hannibal does not feel regret, and his fandom takes no time to find it for him, despite making him more emotionally involved than he is in the books in doing so. They constantly justify his murders by making the victim either a threat to Hannibal’s safety or ugly with discourtesy in some way, usually to do with sexual assault.
This justification of murder is hardly healthy, just as justifying abuse is not. So far, however, both seem to stay within fictional works and not the real life of fans. We have yet to see huge stories come out where a teenager was in a relationship because the man was just like Christian Grey, or helped to cover up murders because the murderer was just like one of Hannibal’s.
Fantasy hardly ever mixes with reality for most sane people, and I would say that the Hannibal fandom is no exception; they are simply exploring the creative possibilities of their minds, and the nuances of their attraction to Hannibal. Most, if any, will never intend to translate such exploration into reality.
¹Manhunter is a 1986 film starring William Petersen as Will Graham and Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter. Truth be told, it did not portray the canon books well. Much of the significance of Hannibal as a character was lost in 80s film tropes and abstract filmmaking that was less understandable to the general populace.
²Hannibal Lecter has the cocktail of psychological conditions that are not at all considered psychopathy. Hollywood has churned out an unhealthy stereotype that does not jive well with psychology texts.
³I am referring to the incident within the first few pages of The Silence of the Lambs, where another prisoner (Miggs) manages to throw his semen at Clarice as she walks by. This ugly discourtesy moves Hannibal to give Clarice the information that would help her the most. When Clarice returns later to see him again, Miggs is dead. His death is described as Hannibal trying to break from the boredom of incarceration, but it is clear he did for Clarice.