Hannibal the Vampire

In a modern-day world where the vampire myth has been done to death in spin-offs and variants, one of the best parallels we have to the classic monsters found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and John Polidori’s The Vampyre is the gentlemanly serial killer Hannibal Lecter, originally created by Thomas Harris and aptly played on the screen by Anthony Hopkins.

The Modern Vampire

Vampires have been a prevalent myth throughout human history and have popped up in a variety of cultures. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll focus on them in their most widely-known form, largely defined by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These vampires appear human, but are actually monstrous creatures that feed on the blood of the living. They are associated with death and decay, and represent the prevalent fear that much of humanity has that death and disease can not only kill someone, but can change them into a monster.

Count Dracula

Much of the modern vampire myth comes from people’s ignorance of death and decomposition before the days of modern medicine. Early vampires were bloated, ugly things resembling a decaying corpse. In some cases, bodies in medieval times were staked through the heart to prevent their return as vampires. Because people didn’t fully understand the decomposition process, they didn’t realize that the gasses swelling within a corpse make it do strange things, including moving in certain circumstances. Also, because medicine was a shaky practice at best, people would sometimes be diagnosed as dead while they were still alive. Those individuals would end up buried alive, and an inspection of their coffins would reveal fingernail scratching on the inside of their lid. If the person was particularly violent in their attempts to get free, they would have blood on their face from where they struck the lid of a coffin. That blood would resemble a vampire’s mythical feeding, furthering the myth. Events like the Black Plague and other diseases which physically altered a person’s body before and after death furthered these myths. Vampires are often associated with rats, bats, and wolves, all of which have ties to sickness and disease.

The image of Count Dracula, a suave, attractive, and seemingly gentlemanly man, adds to the horror of the vampire image, and is probably the main reason why Bram Stoker’s tale has become the iconic presentation of what a vampire is. While early vampires could be easily rooted out and seen as monsters, Dracula appeared to be humans in most regards. Only those who were highly educated knew how to discern a vampire from a normal person. Suddenly, death and pestilence wasn’t something that could be recognized on first sight. It was a subtle, seductive force that took people when they least expected it.

The traditional vampire is a creature born of physical disease and decay. Hannibal Lecter is similar, but instead is a monster born of mental illness. By the late 20th century, psychology and psychiatry had become mainstays in American society. Almost everyone has spoken a therapist at some point in their lives, and children are being diagnosed with mental illnesses such as ADD, depression, and other ailments at an increasingly early age. Like Dracula, Hannibal takes ailments once thought to be easy to define and makes them subtle and unfamiliar. He is introduced in the midst of an insane asylum filled with raving lunatics – people who obviously have no place in society. But he himself is a gentleman, an educated man, and a charming man. His senses are so keen that he can identify FBI agent Will Graham based on smell alone. He has a love of culture and is one of the most educated men alive. He is gentlemanly when Clarice Starling comes to visit him, and he never loses his air of civility even in his surroundings. He also defies definition – Dr. Chilton and other psychiatrists try to turn him into a case study and are left mystified as to his true nature. When he finally escapes from prison, he is able to live for years in normal society, with no one ever suspecting what he really is. Just as Dracula was a corpse who walked among men, Hannibal is a lunatic who seems sane. The once easily identifiable features of a sociopath became forever blurred with his introduction.

In terms of appearance, it’s worth noting that the transition from book to film made Hannibal’s derangement even more subtle. In Thomas Harris’s novels, Hannibal had maroon-colored eyes and a sixth finger. Those features were abandoned in the films, where Hannibal’s appearance was, except for some subtleties, identical to Anthony Hopkins, the actor who portrayed him. If possible, Hannibal became even more charming than in the novels thanks to the actor’s distinctive voice and handsome appearance.

Making a Feast of the Living

The key attribute of any vampire myth is the vampire’s need to feed on living creatures. The traditional vampire sucks the blood of the living as both a means of sustenance and as a way to spawn. Even vampires who have noble intentions need to devour living creatures. Nick Knight, the vampire cop from the television series Forever Knight, manages to get around his need to kill by drinking cow’s blood instead, although it comes at the cost of some of his vampiric power. Furthermore, on the rare occasions during the series when he is given the chance to feed on a human being, his lust for blood becomes almost uncontrollable, to the point where he accidentally kills one person due to his insatiable hunger. Vampires, at their core, need to feast on the living. It is part of their curse, and the only way they can survive.

Christopher Lee Dracula

In this case, the parallel between vampires and Hannibal Lecter is obvious. While Hannibal doesn’t specifically drink the blood of his victims, he has an uncontrolled hunger for human flesh. He doesn’t kill for the sake of killing. He doesn’t take trophies like many sociopaths do. Instead, he is a gourmet cook, using the bodies of his victims as his ingredients. The body parts that Hannibal takes includes tongues, testicles, and the flesh from the shoulder and back – all key areas targeted on livestock for various cuisines.

Hannibal Lecter Escape

Again, this is an area where the traditional vampire focuses on physicality but Hannibal focuses on psychology. The traditional vampire needs to devour his victims due to a physical hunger. Hannibal needs to devour his victim due to his psychological deformity. He continues this insistence on eating his victims even at the risk of his own capture, eventually drawing the attention of Will Graham as a result.

A Hypnotic Gaze

While vampires have a wide variety of powers, one of the most traditional abilities is their hypnotic gaze. Through eye contact, vampires are able to seduce and control their victims, causing them to willingly step toward their own demise. While Hannibal lacks the supernatural power of Dracula, his gaze is no less important and powerful. His eyes become a focus in the novels immediately when the maroon points in them are described. In the film adaptations, the directors use many close shots of Hannibal’s face. Anthony Hopkins added his own level of importance to Hannibal’s gaze by making the choice not to blink while in character. This decision gives the character the qualities of a snake, hypnotizing and overriding his victim’s will with his own.

Dracula Eyes

Hannibal’s power is on display in full force in the film version of Silence of the Lambs when he questions Clarice Starling about her past. The exchange is comprised almost entirely of close shots of Hannibal’s unblinking stare as he questions Clarice, interposed with Clarice’s almost pained face as she tells about the most traumatic experience of her childhood.

Hannibal Eyes

While there is no actual hypnosis on display in the scene, Hannibal’s insistence and Clarice’s reluctance to go on makes it clear that, despite being caged, Hannibal is in control. Later, in the novel version of Hannibal, Hannibal’s mental manipulation reaches a nearly supernatural level when he uses hypnosis and drugs to seduce Clarice, ultimately eloping with her – a theme that has been repeated throughout vampire lore in the many depictions of Dracula trying to seduce a mortal woman as his bride.

Standing on the Threshhold

One of the more obscure but nonetheless frequently used tropes in vampire fiction and films is the symbolism of doorways and entrances. Vampirism is a gateway between life and death, existing as neither and both at the same time. Vampire films often take great pains to get shots of vampires standing in doorways, under arches, and on other such thresholds. One of the most classic examples of this imagery occurs during an iconic shot of the film Nosferatu, with the vampire pausing on his way through a doorway before entering the room to confront his next potential victim. In several vampire stories, the vampire is physically unable to enter someone’s home without permission, which gives more focus to the treacherous nature of the vampire as he must trick someone into inviting their death inside.


Once again, Hannibal is not bound by such supernatural means, but the symbol of doorways does remain an important symbol throughout the stories. For the entirety of Red Dragon and most of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is imprisoned, with most of his scenes taking place during an interrogation. Will Graham and Clarice Starling stand just outside of Hannibal’s cage, while Hannibal himself remains on the other side of the bars. Despite the FBI agents’ freedom and his imprisonment, the issue of control is constantly blurred. In order for the agents to get anything in their interrogations, they need to make concessions to Hannibal, either getting his books back after Dr. Chilton has had them removed from his cell or offering him better facilities. Hannibal can’t leave his cell without permission, and Graham and Starling are the two people who he slowly extracts that permission from. The film versions once again go further to emphasize this point. Rather than using traditional prison bars, Hannibal is instead sealed off from the world via a protective Plexiglas barrier. The gateway, while still there, is further blurred by the fact that it is almost invisible, noticeable in some shots only through a reflection or the air holes at the top of the cell.

Hannibal Cell

Even when Hannibal escapes during Silence of the Lambs, the doorway remains an important symbol. Despite his capabilities, Hannibal does not escape until someone has opened the door for him. In the film, he welcomes the guards into his cell almost as though he were hosting a dinner – which he is, in a twisted and gruesome way. In both versions, guards come to collect the remains of his meal, first handcuffing Hannibal to the bars of his cell. Despite all their precautions, what would hold a normal man is no hindrance to Hannibal. He escapes from his cuffs easily, and has a free path out of his cell thanks to the fact that the door has been opened for him. Even then, Hannibal doesn’t merely flee the building. He has a better plan, which involves tricking the authorities into willingly letting him leave the premises. That plan brings us to another parallel to vampirism: shapeshifting.

A Villainous Transformation

Because of their deceptive nature, vampires are often depicted as having the ability to change their shape. They can usually transform into bats, rats, or wolves (again, all plague-bearing creatures), but can also sometimes take the form of another person, either disguising their true identity or assuming the identity of another. Hannibal shows this ability in two ways. First, prior to his capture and after his escape, he is able to blend seamlessly into society, taking the role of a respected psychiatrist despite his sociopathic nature. Even after his capture, he is highly respected for his medical knowledge. His knowledge is sought after by professional journals, much to the outrage of his rival Dr. Chilton, who struggles and fails to gain such acceptance. When speaking, he is able to present the façade of a harmless gentleman. This deception proves invaluable in his escape, as the police officers who guard him are convinced that he has lost his edge and should be easy to handle. In terms of perceptible mentality and social graces, Hannibal Lecter is able to almost perfectly disguise his true nature, even when he is plotting someone’s demise.

Hannibal at the Concert

During his escape in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal takes his transformative ability one step forward, literally changing his shape. After killing two guards, he cuts off one guard’s face and some other parts of his body, placing it over his own flesh and playing the role of the wounded guard to perfection. Believing him to be the actual guard and not the escapee, the police who find him load Hannibal into an ambulance and rush him to the hospital – unwittingly giving him permission to leave the premises and making for an easy escape in the process.

The Corruption of Heroes

The ability of a vampire to transform other people into monsters separates the mythological creature from a mere killer. A traditional vampire not only drinks blood for sustenance, but also creates other vampires through the process. Hannibal, likewise, shows the ability to permanently transform his victims when he chooses.

His crimes go far deeper than just taking a living person and making them a corpse. His attack on Will Graham in Red Dragon leaves deep mental scars, which by the end of the novel also leave him physically mutilated when his manipulation of Francis Dolarhyde allows the killer to attack Graham at his home. He leaves deep emotional scars on Clarice in Silence of the Lambs and then wholly transforms her in Hannibal, to the point where she goes from being a devout officer of the law to Hannibal’s lover. Through drugs and psychological manipulation, he convinces Mason Verger to cut his own face off and feed it to dogs in Hannibal, leaving his former patient physically scarred and even further mentally deranged for the rest of his life.

Mason Verger

When using his abilities to his fullest, Hannibal is capable of either killing a man with mere words, as he did to his fellow inmate “Multiple” Miggs in Silence of the Lambs, or forever altering them and transforming them from normal humans to concubines or monsters, as he did with Clarice and Mason, respectively.

Hannibal the Vampire

Many horror stories have mirrored the vampire myth over the years, but few have captured the mythological monster so completely without ever mentioning its name than Thomas Harris’ iconic cannibal.

Hannibal Lecter

Most high-quality and popular horror stories tell us something about the time period when they came about. The vampire myth is about the pervasive fear of death and disease and the way they can transform an otherwise good individual into something monstrous and grotesque. It arose out of humanity’s lack of understanding about the process of death, and has continued throughout the years because even now that we know how a body decomposes and what effects a plague has we still fear the transformative nature of death and the final crossing of a boundary we still don’t understand.

Hannibal Lecter, while not a vampire in the literal sense, carries on the tradition of the vampire myth, bringing it into the realm of psychology. Even as we define and codify mental derangements, even as we produce a battery of pills to prevent it and reverse its damage, it is still something whose nature we do not fully understand and whose effects frighten us. Hannibal Lecter embodies that fear. Without his derangement, he is in many ways the perfect male – handsome, charming, physically powerful, and utterly brilliant. He is almost superhuman and more than capable of hiding his madness. Moreover, he is capable of transforming others, driving them insane or physically crippling them. He feasts of the flesh of others and is a perfect example of the new psychological vampire.

While many modern day tales try to tell a vampire story, sometimes even using actual mythological vampires, few have gotten so close to the base horror of such creatures as Hannibal Lecter has.


Images: Orion Pictures, Universal Studios, Hammer Horror, Prana Film, Universlal Pictures

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