Dissection of Psychology: A Look Inside of the Mind and Nature of Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Sean Reiman

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When making a psychological profile of an individual, it’s important to recognize the motives, the habits, and the needs of said individual, to notice every little movement and ask “what is it in itself?” These questions and observations are used in the psychological community every day on criminals, mental patients, and those who suffered from both fates. Two “fates” are amusingly tied to the mere manifestation of the psychologist known as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Although the character himself exists within several adaptations of the same universe, we will only be looking at the 1988 novel Silence of the Lambs (written by Thomas Harris) and the 1991 movie of the same name, though certain “cannon” elements from the prequel “Hannibal” will be referenced as a tool of dissection for the character. Researching everything about Dr. Hannibal Lecter will complicate things. He seems to shapeshift between different adaptations, which is why we’re only focusing on the novel and movie Silence of the Lambs

Since the character of Dr. Lecter is such a monster character to tackle and examine, we’ll have to go part by part, focusing on certain aspects throughout the piece. The first thing we can establish is his appeal, both to the main character Clarice Starling and to the readers and viewers of the book/movie. It is increasingly apparent that audiences love the fictional portrayal of extremes of human conditioning. When looking at villains in stories, they generally fall under the category of chaotic evil, having no respect for anyone or anything but their own gain in any given situation. While the other side of the spectrum is considered chaotic good, heroes of the story who help others selflessly with no concern for their own safety, as long as the job gets done. What makes Dr. Lecter such an insanely interesting character to experience is the fact that he can be a part of both extremes of the spectrum. On one hand, he is extremely courteous and at times even nurturing, like when the inmate who replaced Miggs after his death (Sammie) was cared for by Dr. Lecter, as he had an increasingly apparent learning disability with signs of childhood abuse that most likely kept him in that state of mind through the rest of his life. When showing up to the asylum after Miggs’s death, Sammie was forced into the cell next to Lecter, who then started teaching and caring for Sammie for the rest of the story even though Sammie is only present for very little of the actual written dialogue in the book. 

Knowing this, Lecter seems like an individual who cares for others, but, of course, there’s the savage and animalistic impulses of Hannibal, including cannibalism, sadism, and psychological torment to others. He disfigures the nurse within the asylum when she goes to perform an EKG on him. He bites off her eye, breaks her jaw, and eats her tongue. These are the reasons why readers (including myself) find him so interesting. In one situation he is caring and empathetic, but in other situations he is savage and evil. There almost seems to be a supernatural side to the character, as he has many resemblances to a certain blood sucking villain in literature, and later, film. Dr. Lecter, as described in the book, is a pale white male with maroon eyes and is considered quite charismatic and charming. Clarice Starling even admits that he “would be attractive if not so threatening” while she looks over the case files later in the book. Thomas Harris (the author) even pays tribute to this comparison by having Clarice Starling express the feeling of “just giving blood” after first meeting Dr. Lecter in Chapter 3 of the book. In the movie they also make a reference to this. When Clarice Starling goes to interview Lecter after he had been transferred, a police officer in the elevator asked if Lecter was some sort of vampire.

Another interesting thing to note about Dr. Lecter is his apparent “freak of nature” like appearance. As previously mentioned, his eyes are maroon, which is not a common color. He also is described as having a sixth finger on his left hand. “Polydactyly” is what this condition is known as; however, in most cases, the patients finger is severely deformed and out of place. In Lecter’s case, however, his left middle finger is perfectly replicated, giving him two perfect copies of each other. Given that he is a cannibal, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to assume that this sixth finger was a sort of “sixth sense” metaphor for the Lecter character. Thomas Harris also gives Lecter a profound sense of smell, being able to smell anything, but is hard of hearing, giving even more metaphoric meaning to the “animal/hunter” analogy towards Lecter. Hyperosmia is the real-world condition of a “heightened smell” that can be present in specific human DNA, however, in Lecter’s case in the book, he is (as stated before) able to smell everything. A line from Harris’s novel from the perspective of Lecter describes Lecter’s world as “full of rich colors, but not much sound,” which gives Lecter another predatory analogy trait. 

One of the things that made the Lecter character so interesting to audiences was his obvious immense and genius level intellect throughout the book and movie alike. The amount of world knowledge and perception makes him a danger to be reckoned with. Not only is he smart, but, obviously, what makes him so dangerous to anyone around him is the fact that he can detach empathy from himself at anytime. He can do unspeakable things and still go on with a clear conscience. He is considered the most dangerous criminal in the world, as it says in the book that the binds that confine Dr. Lecter were used for the most “dangerously psychotic criminals in the world” which obviously suggests Lecter to be in that category. Through research, I haven’t found any criminals anywhere near Lecter’s intelligence although in an interview after the rerelease of the book in 2013, the author, Thomas Harris, said that he took inspiration from a real life serial killer who he said was named “Dr. Salazar” although Harris later revealed that he made up the name in order to hide the true killer’s identity. So there’s no real evidence of anyone quite like Lecter in the real world, at least that I could find. In the past there have been criminals who have cannibalistic motivations like Lecter, but none of them matched up to Lecter’s intellect. Not by a long shot. Although in all fairness, cannibalism is a practiced ritual in some parts of the world, but it is illegal in America, and in terms of cannibals within the last century or so within America, there aren’t a whole lot. The idea of “trophy collecting” comes up in the novel and movie, a term used in reference to serial killers who kept some sort of prize from their victims. Dr. Lecter, however, never kept any trophies, which is one more trait that separates him from other serial killers both in the lore of the book and in real life. 

People draw comparisons between Ed Gein, a famous serial killer and body snatcher who often made trophies from the victims bones and innards and Dr. Lecter. While the story of Ed Gein as a child does closely relate to some of the childhood trauma that Lecter went through, the serial killer side of Ed Gein is more similar to the escaped serial killer during the length of the novel, Buffalo Bill, who kidnaps women for three days, shoots/hangs them, and then skins them. The comparison between Ed Gein and Buffalo Bill is obviously the act of trophy collecting that both of them partook in. Not much is known about Buffalo Bill before his death at the end of the novel, especially about his childhood, so it’s hard to say if Ed Gein and Buffalo Bill relate in that way. Dr. Lecter and Ed Gein do, however. Through some research it is revealed that during Lecter’s years as a child, a group of soldiers were forced to cannibalize a little girl in order to stay alive. This little girl was Dr. Lecter’s sister. It is also revealed that Lecter’s father was quite abusive and manipulative, which is a direct link between Gein and Lecter, as Gein was dominated by his mother throughout his entire childhood and young adult years. 

One other serial killer who had an interesting link to Lecter was the 19th and 20th century cannibal known as Albert Fish. Fish grew up as an orphan for most of his childhood, and like many children coming out of orphanages at that time period, he turned to a life of crime. His crimes were much more savage than any other criminal at the time. He would kill and eat anyone he wanted (and not always in that order). See, people with psychopathic tendencies often have a certain social inability. They can act long enough to make it in society (the clever ones can anyway), but when they are left to their own devices they can prove quite savage. Little tell tale signs involving courtesy and manners can often be giveaways to psychopathic tendencies if seen in succession of each other from the same person. Lecter, on the other hand, is a proven psychopath, and yet he shows no signs of discourtesy towards anyone he talks to unless he wants to hurt them, whether that be physically or emotionally/mentally. This dissociates him from any real life killer that has been caught and questioned. Interestingly enough there was a killer in the 1980’s and 1990’s known as Jeffrey Dahmer who had some shocking similarities to Dr. Lecter in terms of his killing strategies. Jeffrey Dahmer was known to kidnap homeless/lost teenage boys, rape them, murder them, and then eat them, which obviously ties to Dr. Lecter because of the cannibalism. The only difference between Dahmer’s cannibalism and Lecter’s is that Lecter ate other people whether they were alive or dead, while Dahmer would only eat the bodies of people he had already raped and murdered. The only other interesting connection between the book and Dahmer was his sexuality although that is more of a tie to Buffalo Bill than Dr. Lecter. Both Buffalo Bill and Dahmer were homosexuals, but their targets were different genders from the other. Bill targets fat or obese women, while Dahmer targeted homeless or lost teenage boys.

Another thing to mention about Dr. Lecter (thought not as important as other points) is his comedic routine as the “comedy killer.” Through many points in the book, we see him placing or doing things that has a  very darkly toned humor to them, or he does things when time is not on the FBI’s (or anyone else who questions him) side. During an interrogation of the identity of Buffalo Bill, instead of giving information for the hour and a half they were there, Dr. Lecter sat in silence, and at the end made a paper chicken out of a page from the Buffalo Bill case file. When Clarice goes to find Raspail’s car in the storage facility, Lecter places a wooden dildo inside the pants of the mannequin sitting next to the head in the vase. And finally when Clarice goes to question Lecter for the final time in the novel, Lecter forces her to tell him what happened to her as a child. She then relives the trauma of the screaming lambs in her childhood, which pleases Lecter. After she leaves, in order to escape the cell, Lecter orders a second dinner in order to distract the guards. What does he order? Lamb chops, extra rare, a little joke towards the suffering of the main character, Clarice Starling. While there are even more subtle jokes Lecter crudely makes throughout the novel involving the fates of the various victims and other characters, those were some of the more memorable ones to point out. 

The character Dr. Lecter is twisted and sick, but gentle and courteous. An artist and a gentleman, but a cannibal and a criminal. The sick torment and dark humor is represented best in the first interaction between Clarice Starling and Dr. Lecter in Chapter 3 of the novel. He has two drawings, one taking place in Florence. It is a drawing of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere. Ironically enough, Buffalo Bill’s first victim was taken and killed in Belvedere, Ohio. There’s another drawing of Golgotha after the Deposition; it shows what the thief who was promised Paradise really got. He was promised Paradise and then was crucified. It is a possible connection between many different characters in the story, but it would all be speculation; there isn’t any real connection between the story of Golgotha after Jesus’s crucifixion and the characters in the story, so it’s likely just a nod towards Lecter’s hatred of religion. It’s mentioned later in the interaction between Starling and Lecter that Lecter recreationally collects and documents data of church collapses. He finds it almost hysterical when he tells Clarice of the most recent collapse that had happened in Sicily. A total of 65 elderly citizens were killed, which Lecter saw as a cruel act of God and also finds it humorous. He says, “If He’s up there, He just loves it, Agent Starling. Typhoid and swans – it all comes from the same place.” Another subtle reference towards Lecter’s hatred of religion is the punishment he receives from Dr. Chilton after Lecter convinces Miggs to kill himself by swallowing his tongue. Dr. Chilton put out a TV with a recorded gospel program playing on it. When Lecter doesn’t have visitors, they turn the volume all the way up, forcing him to listen to it. Unfortunately, there isn’t much insight in the book or movie that gives much background on Lecter’s religious distaste, though it is likely to be a reflection of the author, Thomas Harris, who admitted to be atheist and not too fond of religion. A slight personal touch to the character.

The character known as Dr. Lecter has been an interesting and thought provoking cultural icon ever since his debut in the first book in the series known as “Red Dragon” and is still to this day a character who is not entirely figured out by the audience who experienced him all those years ago or the audience who picked him up more recently (like myself). He has ties to real world criminals, and yet there isn’t any single serial killer I could find who is exactly like him. As mentioned before, this “Dr. Salazar” person, that Harris says is his inspiration for Lecter, was admitted to be a fake name to cover the identity of the killer, whether real or just a made up explanation from Harris. Lecter is a monster, a pure psychopath, and a savage cannibal, yet he is also a gentleman, an intelligent psychologist, and a caring/nurturing caregiver in other cases. That’s what makes him so interesting and unrealistic when compared to real human conditions. He is expressed by Harris to have both sides of the human morality all shoved into one mind. Pure savage cannibal and pure intelligent doctor. He has physical anomalies but even those can be considered perfect, given the perfectly replicated middle finger on his left hand. Thomas Harris says that Lecter’s world is full of vibrant colors but has very little sound. He is pure evil, and no one can quantify what he really is: a monster.