Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Hannibal Lecter: Origin, Facts and Fiction

Lecter Profiled

Video cover: Silence of the Lambs
Video cover: Silence of the Lambs

To profile Hannibal Lecter, we must ignore the vivid character Thomas Harris has depicted in his books as well as Anthony Hopkins's chilling portrayal of Lecter in the films The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.  Instead we must treat Lecter as what the Bureau refers to as an UNSUB, an unknown subject.   A useful profile is not based on what the profiler hopes to get (a sociopath, a paranoid schizophrenic, etc.), but on what he has (crime-scene evidence).  We know from the books that Lecter has killed at least fourteen times, and Harris has described these killings variously—some in great detail, some only in passing.  By examining the crime scenes Lecter left behind, we may be able to gain some clues as to his origins.

During Clarice Starling's first visit with Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter mocks the FBI's system of categorizing serial murderers as organized or disorganized:  "...Most psychology is puerile, Officer Starling, and that practiced in Behavioral Science is on the level with phrenology.  Psychology doesn't get very good material to start with.  Go to any college psychology department and look at the students and faculty: ham radio enthusiasts and other personality-deficient buffs.  Hardly the best brains on campus.  Organized and disorganized—a real bottom-feeder thought of that."

Book cover: <em>Hannibal </em>
Book cover: Hannibal

Despite the doctor's low opinion of their method, the FBI would classify him as an organized killer because his crime scenes show that he had a plan and he carried it out.  The murder of Italian Chief Investigator Rinaldo Pazzi in Hannibal, for example, took extraordinary planning in order to duplicate the gruesome defenestration and disemboweling that one of Pazzi's ancestors suffered.   Lecter generally spends some time with his victims, which is another characteristic of an organized killer.  He savors the experience as he plays out his fantasy, which is the motive for all serial murder.

Serial killers cherish a personal fantasy of one sort or another, and killing lets them live out that fantasy.  Ed Gein, for example, killed women and wore their skin because he wanted to be a woman.  Lecter picks his victims to fulfill his own unique fantasy.  Interestingly, however, all of Lecter's victims are men.  Despite his fascination with Clarice Starling, his fantasy apparently doesn't include women.

A murderer's modus operandi (MO) is the actions he must take to complete the kill.  The murderer's signature is what he does beyond that, ritualistic behavior that satisfies some aspect of his fantasy.  Cannibalism is Lecter's signature, but Lecter is not satisfied to simply eat his victims.  He must feast on them.  The elaborate preparation for a five-star meal of human flesh is as much a part of his fantasy as eating the flesh.  The preparation of the still living brain of Paul Krendler, Starling's nemesis, is a recipe worthy of Gourmet magazine.

Personation, the positioning or systematic mutilation of the victim's body, is another trait commonly exhibited by organized serial murderers.  The killer may leave some object on or near the body or he may take something from the body.  Whatever the act of personation is, it's intimately linked to the killer's fantasy.


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