‘This is my design’: Transgression and Possession by Hannibal’s Cannibals

hannibaleatingwill[Note: You guys said you were interested, so here goes! This 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 a little 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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