There is always something entertaining about watching a good thriller. Not in the simple sense of the word, the suspense can be nerve-wracking, the terror almost unbearable, the violence scary, the spectator is waiting breathlessly to see if a heinous crime can be prevented. But it is entertaining in the sense that it isn’t meant to provoke deep thoughts or contemplation, but to create satisfaction that the mystery is solved, the criminal arrested, that the increasing tension is brought to a catharsis. The vast majority of spectators would never suspect religious ideas to be concealed within popular thrillers.
But a closer look at some of them may be surprising. Take, for example, The Silence of the Lambs, a thriller based on Thomas Harris’ novel, released in 1991. It is an extremely popular film, one of the few to get five Oscars at the Academy Awards, a huge box office success. Millions of spectators around the globe are horrified by the cruel and ruthless Hannibal Lecter. So what is it about this character that catches the imagination of so many? What makes him unique among a multitude of criminal characters appearing so often on our screens?
Perhaps it has to do with him fitting perfectly into a well-defined cultural pattern of evil set in our mind: that of the devil of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our image of Satan has some very distinct characteristics: he is a stranger, wandering upon the earth. He is vain and deceitful, an embodiment of the sin of hubris. He can assume various appearances, some extremely attractive, standing in sharp contrast with his evil nature. He has a unique insight into the human soul. He is often physically deformed. And, of course, above all, he is the embodiment of ultimate evil, which will always prevail. He cannot be understood through psychological means; he is an eternal opponent of God, his evil provoking not only fear but also awe.
Now, take a look at Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In The Silence of the Lambs we don’t know where he came from, he has no family or friends. (Later, in Hannibal and in Hannibal’s Rising, Thomas Harris added more information about his life; many see them as reduced forms of Hannibal, and certainly not as popular.) Regardless of his imprisonment in humiliating conditions, he manifests contempt towards others. A refined character also in prison garb, as he escapes he skins one guard and covers himself with his face, and at the end of the film he looks like an attractive tourist, wearing a hat and sunglasses. In the novel he is depicted as having a six-fingered hand. His cannibalism is a relatively rare quality of the Christian devil, though Giotto depicts Satan eating human beings. It could be his way of desecrating the Eucharist, transforming the spiritual union with God into a savage eating of human flesh.
And why exactly does the police ask for his advice? Surely there are other psychiatrists to consult. It is generally believed that he has an inner knowledge of the human soul and thus would be the only one who could understand the twisted logic of a psycho killer the police it trying to find. Clarice says “he damn sure sees through me,” and he observes she has a new band aid, without being able to see it. And above all, he says about himself: “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?” The spectators’ awe springs from their acknowledgment that no matter how hard people try to imprison him, he will escape
And there is a pact with the devil that Clarice makes. Traditionally, the devil wants the soul in the afterlife in return for granting a wish in this world. Here, perhaps a modern devil, Hannibal asks Clarice to reveal her childhood memories and traumas—her soul—and in return he will help her find the murderer.
Hannibal has been called a psychopath, sociopath, monster, Dracula—but interpreting him as a devil is fundamentally different. It is not merely descriptive, it sets the entire plot within the realm of “good” and “evil,” on moral grounds. As he says, no one judges anything in terms of right and wrong anymore, it is all about psychological analysis now.
Perhaps this is the heart of the outstanding success of The Silence of the Lambs: the spectators identify, even if unconsciously, a well-known cultural pattern, a character that feels so familiar, they simply know Hannibal is different from all other villains appearing on the screen. When they see his vanity, his power albeit his imprisonment in a small, dark, secluded cell, they know he will manage to escape; absolute evil, as we all know, can never truly be eliminated.