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  • Writer's pictureS. Yumi Yamamoto

Hannibal: the Art of Perspective

I wrote this paper for a Master's level course on literary theory and popular media. I chose "Powers of Horror" by Julia Kristeva and the TV show "Hannibal" written by Brian Fuller. I'm a HUGE fan of the show and I felt it portrayed the concepts of abject horror very well. As it's almost Halloween, I thought this would be a perfect time to share 👻 Enjoy!


"I like this Dragon, Will. I don't think he's crazy at all. I think he might be quite sane. A magnificent thing: to watch the world through his red haze."

- Hannibal Lecter, And the Woman Clothed in Sun

Abject horror is not universal, and it is not timeless. Many of the classic stories that were terrifying in their day have become nightly reading for some, and more modern pieces rely heavily on gore or the supernatural to fill readers with fear. In a way, horror has become a genre of cheap thrills and tricks: tropes and pseudo-psychology mixed together to create a story that is read once and thrown away. Why, then, do we continue to embrace it? What makes such terrible subjects like cannibalism and murder so appealing? Julia Kristeva attempts to define and explain "abjection" in Powers of Horror: a kind of break down of meaning and the disturbance of identity and order[1]. This is clearly seen throughout the three seasons of the television show Hannibal, but not quite in the same aspects. While the show does cater to more basic elements of the genre (gore chief among them), the true disturbance shared by all characters are their interactions with perspective. I argue that perspective, more than anything else, is what makes the story frightening and complex, which in turn creates more sophisticated horror.

FBI agent Will Graham has a peculiar set of neuroses and disorders that allow him to assume the mind of killers: "pure empathy". However, Will is unstable, and goes to Hannibal for help. Throughout the first two seasons, we find that the two grow intimately closer, especially where Will is concerned. Will takes on more and more of Hannibal's personality, and even deeply wishes to run away with Hannibal, leaving the law behind. The attraction-repellence between them is something they both akin to love, though it lacks traditional romance. Hannibal is finally imprisoned in season three, but he does not disappear. Will has been tainted by Hannibal's perspective and even needs it in order to do his job as a Profiler. It is here, finally, that honest conversations about these characters come to light. This is aided by one of Will's foil characters, Dr. Bedelia DuMarier, who has nearly as much insight as Will does.

In the episode And the Woman Clothed in Sun, Bedelia is seen giving a kind of lecture about her time with Hannibal in Italy "behind the veil" as it were. This series of lies describes Bedelia slowly being drugged and becoming a completely different person under Hannibal's influence. 'Deeply felt truths about myself as Bedelia DuMarier were smoke and mirrors of the highest order… Everything we see, everything we remember, is nothing more than a construct of the mind.'[2] This horrible becoming is Kristeva's "abjection of self"[3], where Bedelia's very foundations of being are stripped away. The show twists this further, as this "loss of self" is not the true version of events. Bedelia herself is now a construct. The victim-story she wove and proved to the FBI has now become her public reality, and she is perfectly fine with that. Her audience enjoys her story, and she has become a desirable person. She toys with the "alchemy of lies and truths", breaking down her own sense of self in order to outwit the law and entertain. She has not only made herself abject, but she revels in it. Bedelia is more herself than she's ever been before. This is a kind of primer for the next scene she is in.

Will has come to talk to Bedelia about Hannibal, and the conversation sums up how they are handling their appalling darkness. Bedelia forgives Hannibal for planning on eating her, even going insofar as to justify that a kind of natural evolution is at work. Will argues that evolution can't be the basis for morality, otherwise murder and cannibalism become acceptable. Bedelia replies that 'they are acceptable… to murderers and cannibals'[4]. Why, though? While the two characters never explicitly answer why, it is implied that not just vile people believe that murder is acceptable. Will is a "good" character, and yet has killed. I argue that it is these people's perspectives – and a change in those perspectives – that allow the behaviour to exist.

Kristeva, Freud, and Lacan would argue that a change of perspective would have to occur at a young age, wrapped up in parentage and sexuality[5]. While I do not disagree that the early years of a person's life has great influence, I do not think that it is solely during childhood that these influences can occur. At this point in the story, Hannibal has held influence over Will for about three years. When they first met, Will could not handle having taken a life, even if that life was an evil one. By the time Will knows what Hannibal is, Will is ready to do whatever it takes to have Hannibal killed. Yet, Will remains essentially the "good protagonist" throughout the series. It is Hannibal's careful nurturing of Will's mind that allows Will to be both good and a murderer. The abjectivity of murder no longer haunts Will as it did in season one because his new reality has been taught to him. Looking back at all three seasons, it is not just Will who changes his perspective. Hannibal manages to convince every main character to commit murder, and each of them accepts it.

Still, there is a difference between Will and Bedelia that comes from a more basic perspective, which is more of a choice than a lesson. Bedelia admits her wavering ethics and objectivity. She appears to understand exactly where she stands, and that place is something more akin to the Freud's Id than the Ego. Kristeva touches briefly on Freud's concepts of the Id, Ego, and Super-ego, claiming that the Ego aims to be the center of the "solar system of objects"[6]. This is a balance and an assumption that is maintained throughout Powers of Horror. What if that center balance were to change? What if the Id were more toward the center? Or a Super-ego that was taught different norms?

Further into the conversation, Bedelia asks Will what he would think if he saw a wounded bird in the grass. He responds in a way most polite society would answer: 'It's vulnerable. I want to help it.'[7] This attitude is attributed to Will's compassion, though he is fully capable of violence. His Ego has a balance that caters more to the demands of the Super-ego than the selfish Id. However, Bedelia's answer to the scenario is calmly, 'My first thought is also that it's vulnerable. And yet, I want to crush it; A primal rejection of weakness that is every bit as natural as the nurturing instinct. Of course, I wouldn't crush it, but my first thought is to do just that.'[8] This blurring of norms is fully realised in Bedelia during a flashback sequence where she kills one of her patients. Again, I believe that the show takes this abjectivity one step further, as the murder is not really the frightening part of the scene. During the flashback, Bedelia has shown herself to be nothing but professional and helpful. It is in the split moment when she switches from psychiatrist to murderer that the real horror is felt. It is not a "giving in" to primal instinct, it is the conscious desire to end the man's life: curbing "other's suffering for its own profit"[9]. At no point does Bedelia seem bothered by this. In fact, she advocates for this choice: 'The next time you have an instinct to help someone, you might consider crushing them instead. It might save you a great deal of trouble.'[10]'

Why does this matter, though? Hannibal is a uniquely told story that has captivated a rabid audience. The show was cancelled after three seasons due to "continually low viewership" in comparison to other shows, but had several companies vying for the rights to immediately produce the fourth season. The fan-base of the show is still so active and demanding that the show's writer, Bryan Fuller, has promised to return the show in a few years' time. Few horror stories evoke true disgust and terror like Hannibal, with characters that manage to retain their tender qualities. Fuller's play with perspective has created a stunning, seductive story unlike any other of its genre: a complex horror that is both sinister and beautiful. It is worth looking at why this has been so successful.

The concept of "what is seen" versus "unseen" has been a trope in horror for a long time. One of the easiest examples is of the monster who is not revealed until the very end of a story, but whose influence is felt or rumored[11]. Yet, this is a simple and literal concept that plays off natural human fear of the unknown. As consumers, we accept this kind of horror because it still manages to give us a thrill even though we understand we are being manipulated. Hannibal, on the other hand, offers full clarity by the third season. Everyone knows who and what Hannibal is, and yet there still remains an element of fear. His influence is felt outside of his prison cell, and his taint on other characters is not forgotten. The audience's experience of the abject comes from watching our beloved characters succumb to Hannibal's darkness in order to survive, and then live with that darkness. Despite the characters' wishes to have a normal and/or good life, the fact remains that each of them has committed some unforgivable crime and gotten away with it. They live with their self-abjection, even when the immediate threat of Hannibal has been "removed". The title of hero is blurred; some even become villains in their own right. On the other hand, with "monster in the house" type stories, our heroes remain heroes despite their means of survival. They do not have talks like the one Will and Bedelia share because the story's focus is on the monster/threat, not the protagonists. The writers of these trope-reliant stories hope that their imagination is enough to come up with something horrific to tantalize their audience. Many times, however, this fails and audiences are left disappointed.

This brings up the question of what abject horror is, and what exactly it relies on to be executed properly. As previously stated, many philosophers and psychologists have attributed what we find to be abject as something founded in childhood and parental relations. To a degree, this is correct. Kristeva gives the example of dislikes of certain foods to be based on the norms of her upbringing[12], and it is assumed that this kind of example can be used for all things she finds distasteful. However, this is not a universal distaste. Food is taken to a radical extreme in Papua New Guinea, where there are tribes that have historically practiced cannibalism in a socially acceptable setting. The barrier that most Western society has against human flesh is not felt in that part of the world. In this way, a story like Hannibal would not be terrifying. Similarly, stories that rely on the supernatural do not frighten those who do not believe in things like ghosts and demons. The concept of the abject relies heavily on a shared normality, a shared perspective of how life is and should be. Inevitably, what we find to be abject will determine our attraction to certain stories, and relying solely on these concepts will limit the audience the work reaches.

I propose that what can truly be learned from Hannibal is the way the characters interact with their own views on the abject, or their society's view of the abject. The clearest example is Francis Dolarhyde, who was born with a harelip and kept in a nursing home during his childhood. Everyone he knew looked at his "deformity" as something hideous. His way of handling his face was to be transformed. He wished to become stronger, better than what he was, and thus eventually became a great red dragon. Dolarhyde's harelip is not truly abject in the view of society. His blind lover tells him that people don't feel that he should be sensitive about his face. Yet, this harelip is a major factor in what he becomes and why his personality starts to split. Slowly, the abject is defeating him and turning him into something altogether more horrifying than a man with a small deformity. That is why Dolarhyde is frightening, not that he kills. It is his perspective, and the refusal to adopt a different one, that causes fascination, sympathy, and rejection of Dolarhyde.

Perspective can build and destroy us, and it can change at any point in our lives. Perhaps it is, above all, that we fear becoming that which we were taught to hate; that the people who have done the most harm in the world had reasons and logic that made their actions understandable. As a genre, horror has lacked subtle handling. Hannibal has managed to complicate feelings of fear and love by simply showing us all perspectives. What we see and how we see it can determine what we are, what we become. In essence, we are our own monsters. It just takes the right light to see it.

[1] Julia Kristeva and Leon S Roudiez, Powers Of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 4.

[2] Hannibal (Hollywood: Bryan Fuller, 2015), And the Woman Clothed in Sun.

[3] Julia Kristeva and Leon S Roudiez, Powers Of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 5.

[4] Hannibal (Hollywood: Bryan Fuller, 2015), And the Woman Clothed in Sun.

[5] Barry, Peter, Beginning Theory: An Introduction To Literary and Cultural Theory, third revised edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), Chapter 5.

[6] Julia Kristeva and Leon S Roudiez, Powers Of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 14.

[7] Hannibal (Hollywood: Bryan Fuller, 2015), And the Woman Clothed in Sun.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Julia Kristeva and Leon S Roudiez, Powers Of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 15.

[10] Hannibal (Hollywood: Bryan Fuller, 2015), And the Woman Clothed in Sun.

[11] Blake Snyder, Save The Cat! (Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions, 2005), Chapter Two.

[12] Julia Kristeva and Leon S Roudiez, Powers Of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 2-3.

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