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Hannibal Lecter

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A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
~ Dr. Hannibal Lecter's most famous line.

Hannibal Lecter is an iconic fictional character in a series of novels by Thomas Harris that were adapted into films and a television series. He is one of two main antagonists in The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, the antagonist turned anti-hero in Hannibal, the main protagonist turned anti-hero in Hannibal Rising and the titular main antagonist of the TV show, Hannibal. The character is an extremely brilliant but mentally ill serial killer. In film, he was most frequently portrayed by Anthony Hopkins but originally portrayed by Brian Cox who later portrayed both the originial William Stryker from X2: United and Agamemnon from Troy. In television, he was portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen.


Early life


Hannibal over a prison jail

Hannibal Lecter was born in the wake of World War II on August 7, 1944 on the Eastern Front, Lithuania. He was born of a Lithuanian count (father) and an Italian noble (mother), and at first he led a pleasant life devoted to his younger sister Mischa. As the war was ending, Nazi turncoats and others fleeing the Russian advance into Germany hid out on their parents' estate. Keeping them hostage, the deserters ran out of food in the harsh winter and eventually cannibalized his sister, leading her away by pretending they were going to play. Lecter prayed daily for his beloved sister's return but eventually found her remains, sparking his obsession with cannibalism and rendering him temporarily mute. It was also at this moment that he lost his belief in God.

He later escaped from the deserters and hid in an orphanage, where he was found by his uncle and his uncle's Japanese wife, Lady Murasaki. Hannibal forms a quasi-romantic attachment to her after his uncle's death, but she is unable to turn him from his obsession with avenging his sister. To this end, he hunts down, tortures and kills every man who took part in her death, forsaking his relationship with Murasaki. Hannibal then enters the Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

Hannibal becomes a prominent psychiatrist and part of Baltimore's high society. He secretly continues his cannibalistic activities, his victims include a musician who played a favorite piece of his poorly and Mason Verger, one of only two victims to survive Lecter's attacks (albeit as a paraplegic with no face). Lecter adds his victims' remains to his culinary creations and serves them at his popular dinner parties. However, Lecter is eventually caught by Will Graham, a special investigator with the FBI who correctly associates the wounds inflicted on one of Lecter's victims with an old medical book that he spots on the doctor's bookshelf.

Several years after his incarceration, Graham consults Lecter in an attempt to catch serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, who is known to law enforcement and the media by the pseudonyms "The Tooth Fairy" and (later) "The Red Dragon." He does so successfully, although he is disfigured in the process, owing to personal information with which Lecter has covertly supplied Dolarhyde.

The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal Lecter behind bars

Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

A few years later, a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill begins kidnapping, killing, and skinning women. The FBI, desperate for some insight, sends trainee Clarice Starling to unknowingly gain information. After she is assaulted by one of the inmates, Lecter becomes interested and gives her cryptic clues to Bill's identity in return for painful memories of her childhood. She is eventually able to use these clues to track Bill down, but not before Lecter stages a dramatic and bloody escape, disappearing without a trace, though he sends Starling the occasional letter.


He reappears in Florence, Italy as a prominent but reclusive historian and lecturer under the name Dr Fell. He is discovered by a local policeman, Inspector Pazzi, who attempts to sell him to Mason Verger. Lecter kills Pazzi and escapes, returning to America and seeking out Starling, who is still searching for him. Lecter's interest in Starling is initially caused by his belief that she can serve as a vessel for Mischa's personality (he plans to brainwash Starling and condition her to assume Mischa's personality). He is, however, captured by Verger, who wants revenge and plans to feed the doctor alive to man-eating pigs. But due to the machinations of Verger's sister Margot, who was routinely abused by her brother as a child, Lecter is rescued by Starling. He goads Margot into killing Mason, assuring her that he will voluntarily take the blame for the murder.

Lecter then abducts the unconscious Starling and enacts his plan to brainwash her into becoming Mischa. He kills Paul Krendler (a Justice Department official who is an adversary of Starling's) by lobotomizing him and serving his brains for dinner. The dinner party consists of Lecter, Starling, and Krendler himself, who is still alive for part of the meal and unwittingly eats some of his own brains. Starling, under the effects of drugs as well as Lecter's hypnosis, knowingly and willingly cannibalizes Krendler's brains. However, when it later becomes clear that she will not be sublimated, she and Lecter become lovers.

The two are last seen in Rio de Janiero, where Starling's loving companionship has suppressed the doctor's cannibalistic urges, and they enjoy a hedonistic life of high culture together. It is implied that Lecter has conditioned Starling into becoming nearly as calculating and dangerous as he is.

TV series

See: Hannibal Lecter (TV)

Hannibal appears as the titular main antagonist of the TV series of the same name where he is portrayed by Mads Mikelsen who also played the 007 villain Le Chiffre.


Hannibal possesses a very convoluted personality. It is impossible to determine exactly what mental illness he suffers from, or even if he suffers from one at all, as his knowledge and training enable him to outsmart the standard tests with minimal effort. Few symptoms are described, though in Hannibal he describes his disbelief that the universe is linear, expecting somehow that time will begin to run backwards and, as he puts it, "the broken teacup will run back together" and Mischa will return. Lecter is believed to have antisocial personality disorder. A more fitting diagnosis would be narcissistic personality disorder as he sees himself as a superior form of life, fit to decide who is worthy to live or die. He describes the majority of human kind as "poor dullards" and yet thrives on others' admiration, a case in point being his unwillingness to part with Francis Dolarhyde's letter because, according to Will Graham, "it was full of compliments."

Like many evil geniuses, Lecter is impeccably cultured and sophisticated despite his vicious tendencies. Rather than simply killing for fun, he kills those who exhibit poor taste or bad manners, fine taste and good manners being both an obsession and a compulsion to him—similar to the villain Jigsaw. He also kills those whom he finds morally repulsive, such as pedophiles, being quite protective of children as the result of his sister Mischa's murder. This is also served as the catalyst for his mental illness. Despite his cordial, refined personality and good manners, Lecter is a sadist who derives great pleasure and amusement from killing his victims, usually in a particularly gruesome manner.

His fondness of Clarice Starling is evident from their first meeting, and though initially it is only on his part, it eventually becomes mutual. Lecter is at first fascinated by Starling's mix of foolishness and craftiness, such as when she uses his embarrassment at her assault to gain information. He then begins to trade answers about the case for details on her background, and he continues to contact her even after his escape. After his return to the U.S. he seeks her out without her knowledge, and it is hinted by numerous characters that he has fallen in love with her. After she rescues him and resists his brainwashing, the two become lovers, their romantic relationship suppressing his cannibalistic urges.

Lecter is possibly the most intelligent human alive, possessing an intellect that cannot accurately be gauged by any test known to man. He is an expert in psychology (though he does not believe it to be a science) and is able to frighten, manipulate, and bend others to his will with mere words. He is also able to use his immense presence and commanding but subtle personality to great effect. His mental abilities are staggering, having created a memory palace (a mnemonic system) that is comparable in size and complexity to the Topkapi Palace. As such, Lecter does not forget anything, able to revisit a specific memory whenever he wishes by accessing the items that "furnish" his memory palace.


Hannibal red eyes

In the books, Dr. Lecter was portrayed as having maroon eyes, a rare genetic mutation. The film posters of Hannibal (pictured) and Hannibal Rising depict him with red eyes.

Lecter, as described in Thomas Harris's novels, is a small, lithe man who possesses incredibly wiry strength in his arms. In The Silence of the Lambs, it is revealed that Lecter's left hand has the condition called mid-ray duplication polydactyly, i.e. a duplicated middle finger. In Hannibal, he performs plastic surgery on his own face on several occasions and surgically removes his extra digit. Lecter's eyes are maroon and reflect light in "pinpoints of red." He has small, white teeth and dark, slicked-back hair with a widow's peak.


A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
~ Hannibal Lecter's famous quote in The Silence of the Lambs
I do wish we could talk longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner. 'Bye.
~ Lecter's last line in The Silence of the Lambs
Paul will not miss this bit any longer.
~ In Hannibal.
This is going to hurt.
~ In Hannibal.

Villains and Horror Concepts

As is noted in the "Trivia" section below, Dr. Lecter spends most of his time in two of his major roles as a minor antagonist or even semi-willing/unwilling protagonist, as he is imprisoned and assists his captors in stopping other villains.

There is a horror trope for this that makes the Lecter character more compelling, "Nothing Is Scarier" . Because Dr. Lecter is purported to be more intelligent, more perverse, and more violent than both the captors he is assisting and the (extremely scary) villains he is helping to catch, showing him imprisoned makes him infinitely more scary. The concept is such that anything he could be shown to do in book or film is very scary, but the audience can imagine something even scarier. "I was afraid when I saw the 10 foot bug at the top of the stairs, but it could've been a 100 foot tall bug." "I was afraid when I saw the 100 foot bug at the top of the stairs, but it could've been a 1000 foot tall bug."

Dr. Lecter is considered a seminal character for this type or horror. Because his character is so well designed and his back story so terrifying, it is difficult for any action his character can take to actually live up to the horror one imagines he can inflict.



  • Despite being the icon of his series and a serial killer, Lecter does not seem to take the role of antagonist in the films, as he is imprisoned for most of The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon and gives protagonists Clarice Starling and Will Graham information on antagonists Buffalo Bill and Francis Dolarhyde, and the role of antagonist in Hannibal is taken by Mason Verger. Lecter is always either a supporting protagonist or antagonist, or an anti-hero.
  • Although he is known to be a cannibal and eats two characters in the course of the films (Frederick Chilton and Paul Krendler), Lecter has never been shown eating anyone onscreen. The only cannibalism scenes occur in Hannibal, in which he feeds both Krendler and an unnamed boy pieces of Krendler's brain (the movie ends before Lecter eats the rest), and at the beginning of Red Dragon, in which he does not eat the victim himself but serves him as food to guests.
  • The films give different endings. In the film Hannibal, Starling handcuffs Lecter to herself, but he escapes by severing his own hand with a meat cleaver and then fleeing via airplane. This does not happen in the novel from which the film was adapted.


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