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What Hannibal Can Teach Us About Abuse

Television in recent years has excelled in portraying strong emotional bonds between men. From Supernatural to Sherlock, White Collar to Person of Interest, TV is the land of the bromance. It’s a not new thing exactly, most stories from the dawn of time have revolved around men and their relationships with each other, though usually they were based on families or conflict. TV recently has been digging deep into not just friendships, but intimacy in platonic bonds, and now venturing into codependency and dysfunction.

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And it seems it’s come to a glorious head in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, a beautiful and indulgent adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter books. The first season explores the depth of Hannibal Lecter’s evil through his relationship with FBI investigator Will Graham, a troubled man who uses his heightened empathy to put himself in the shoes of serial killers in order to catch them. Will spends so much time getting in bed with psychopaths, that he never sees the one that is closest to him, or realizes what he’s doing to him. Not in time, anyway.

(Spoilers under the cut for Hannibal and Will’s story arch, but spoilers for the actual overarching plot are minimal)

Hannibal and Will’s relationship is not a friendship, or a romance. It’s abuse. Hannibal deftly and subtly manipulates Will into questioning his own sanity, hides from him a serious medical issue, and then orchestrates scenarios that cause Will even more trauma. He hobbles him psychologically, makes Will totally reliant on his judgment, and makes himself the reigning authority on Will’s well-being as his psychiatrist, so that when Will’s colleagues come to him for advisement, Hannibal can confidently tell them Will is insane and violent. And they believe him.

How did he do this? And more importantly, why does it have such a massive effect on the audience? Browsing Tumblr last night during the season finale, one could see how quickly the fandom, who were for the most just as charmed by Lecter as the characters, had suddenly turned on him. All season, he had been carving people up and serving them for dinner, scrambling people’s minds and then throwing a switch blade in the middle of the room just to see what would happen. We all gaped in fascination. But after all that, it was Will Graham’s psychological destruction that was truly horrifying.

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I have a hard time watching and reading stories where the sanity of the main character is questioned. When there’s no possible way that they can explain themselves, because everyone else convinced themselves of an opposite perception. To me, that’s the ultimate horror story – not being believed, not being trusted. It’s such because it’s something that can actually happen, and has happened.

Two of the methods Hannibal uses on Will are called gaslighting and psychic driving. The former takes its name from a play, Gas Light, in which a man attempts to convince his wife that she’s insane by manipulating small elements of their environment, in particular, lowering the lights in the room and then denying that there’s anything wrong with them. It is a form of mental abuse that often rears its head in cases of domestic violence, as a means of one partner controlling the other. Hannibal begins this process slowly, by encouraging Will to reach towards the parts of him that connect to the killers he helps track down, gradually chipping away at Will’s sense of self and stability. It becomes more defined when Will’s illness – encephalitis – begins to heavily impair him, and not only does Hannibal hide Will’s diagnosis from him, but he uses it to his advantage. Episode 11, “Roti,” had a heartbreaking moment when Will, in a full blown hallucinatory state, begs Hannibal, “Please don’t lie to me,” when you know that’s exactly what Hannibal is doing. The fact that Will even says that shows that his trust in Hannibal is collapsing, but by then it’s already too late.

Psychic driving is something referenced within the show, after Dr. Chilton attempts to convince Abel Gideon, a man who brutally murdered his family, that he was the serial killer called the Chesapeake Ripper (who in fact is Hannibal Lecter). It is the practice of stripping someone of their identity and attempting to replace it with another. Later, Chilton and Hannibal casually discuss the merits of psychic driving over dinner, where Hannibal all but confesses that this is method he is using on Will, though with far more subtlety and expertise than Chilton could ever dream of. It’s not until the finale when it becomes clear what he’s doing. Sitting opposite each other in their respective doctor and patient chairs, Hannibal asks Will to see the crimes he’s accused of as the FBI does. To imagine himself as the killer, to understand what it would take for him to truly have committed the crimes. At this point, if you’re not practically screaming at the television set, I don’t know what show you’re watching.

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It’s no wonder that a psychopath like Hannibal Lecter chose the profession of psychiatrist after being a surgeon for many years. If there’s any greater power than having someone’s body prone to your will as they would be under anesthesia, it’s having their mind to manipulate like putty in your hands. The institution of psychiatry has a bad rap for marginalized groups, women and queer people in particular, as it was used for a long time as a hammer to keep them down. Those that stepped out of line could be institutionalized and subject to “experimental” treatments, such as un-anesthetized shock treatment and lobotomies. This, in effect, was institutionalized gaslighting. Phrases like “hysteria” were invented with the express purpose of labeling women incompetent, and it was not that long ago that queer identities were considered mental disorders.

Hannibal draws a riveting image of abuse and manipulation, and just because Hannibal Lecter is the sociopath of our darkest fantasies, and the show is often as dreamlike and strange as a fairy tale, does not make it feel any less real. Hannibal and Will (Hannigram, if you prefer) is an intriguing relationship for its moments of sensitivity and intimacy, but the show makes it clear that it is not a positive bond in the slightest bit. There are a lot of stories that refuse to call relationships what they are, and perhaps this case is easier because one of them is a bona fide serial killer. Nonetheless, I appreciate that Fuller told a story that was frank, but still artful. Because as strange as it is, the reality of it will no doubt strike a chord.

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Hannibal paints it’s central relationship as it should be, in darkness and anxiety. By the time the finale reaches its close, Will no longer sees Hannibal as his friend and confidant, but in his hallucinatory state, he sees a monster with blackened skin and tall antlers. He’s become the wendigo of nightmares, flesh-eating and seductive, calling Will’s name in the winter time, and Will didn’t see the danger until he was being consumed.

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7 thoughts on “What Hannibal Can Teach Us About Abuse

  1. This is such an excellent post — I may have to follow your blog just for further intelligent thoughts on a variety of subjects.

    I too watched the Hannibal reactions on tumblr with interest, particularly as pertains to the Hannibal/Will shippers, who seem to ascribe to the belief that if two men are on the same show and both are sexy in their own way, they really should be together. I’ve thought that was screwed up from the start, because if you watch the show actually paying attention to it, and to the character of Hannibal, you can see that FROM THE VERY FIRST MOMENT ON, Hannibal is abusing Will. In the pilot, he sends Will into a violent situation just to see how he’ll react in his unstable state. (Calls Hobbs, knowing he’ll retaliate with violence and Will must likely be forced to shoot him.)

    Hannibal is a psychopath! He has no compassion for Will OR Abigail. Since the beginning, he’s been slaughtering people — yet it’s only when he “turns on Will” (I’d argue, only when they see he’s been doing it all along… something the mass slash fans lived in denial of) that the fandom implodes with hatred. It says more about them than it does Hannibal.

    • Thanks so much!

      I agree, a lot of people took Hannibal and Will’s bond for a genuine one that was occurring despite Hannibal’s more malignant proclivities. They were certainly bonded, and I would even go far as to say that Hannibal even cares for Will, but not in the way a healthy human being does. His interest in Will did not, and never could, breed any compassion or selflessness, only a dangerous obsession.

      I always marvel at fandom’s ability to sympathize with and humanize any villain, no matter how terrible. So this was a nice, almost metatextual twist, a wink to the fans without being condescending, which is a masterful stroke on Fuller’s part. Now I’m just excited on where he’s going to take it next.

      • I started re-watching the first season this weekend, since it’s been awhile since I saw the earlier episodes. Mads said he plays Hannibal like Satan and it’s creepy all the parallels.

        Would anyone find Satan capable of empathy? I don’t think so!

        I think most viewers were seeing not the true Hannibal, which was right there in front of them, but what they WANTED from Hannibal. They want Will to be Hannibal’s redemption instead of his victim, so being slapped in the face with the truth hurts.

    • Absolutely, especially since the second and third seasons have aired. As I’ve heard it describe once, Hannibal is a child who chops off his doll’s hair for fun and then cries about it afterward. Sanctity of human life does not exist in the same way for him that it does for the rest of us. Human beings are playthings to him, beautiful playthings in some cases like with Bedelia and Will, but playthings nonetheless.

      • I think there’s some of that narcissistic lack of foresight, but I’d say the real meat of it is even worse. He wants to help his loved one self-actualize and be the best he can be. ❤ Unfortunately, this is Hannibal, and he's desperately lonely and for him the best Will can be is another psycho killer because then they can play together, yaaaaaaay!

  2. Pingback: Subjects & Themes: Internal Conflict | Oklahoma Horror Writers' League

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