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The Real-Life Inspirations Behind Hannibal Lecter

Thomas Harris's inspiration for entertainment's most notoriously terrifying fictional serial killer is wrapped up in the stories of several, real-life psychopaths. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is decidedly more terrifying than Dexter Morgan, Norman Bates, and Patrick Bateman, who are a few of the best fictional serial killers ever created. The cannibalistic doctor may be make believe, but Hannibal Lecter's inspirations really did live... and kill.

The writers, filmmakers, and actors who have encountered the character look to people like Alfredo Ballí Treviño and Ted Bundy to make Lecter as horrifyingly real as possible. Many of the killers who inspired Lecter share his smooth personality, his witty intellect, and occasionally his taste for human flesh. 

Lecter made his first appearance in Harris's 1981 novel, Red Dragon. A movie adaptation soon followed as 1986's Manhunter, as well as Harris's next novel, the 1988 sequel, The Silence of the Lambs. Harris's books were quite popular, but Manhunter failed at the box office and it wasn't until the 1991 film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs that movie audiences really got a taste of Lecter's charm. Since then the character has appeared in several other films, as well as Hannibal the TV series and is considered the number one movie villain by the American Film Institute. 

Harris's evil yet compelling creation has become legendary, but many are still wondering: What or who inspired the birth of Hannibal Lecter? 

  • Photo: Florida Department of Corrections / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ted Bundy confessed to the deaths of at least 30 women from 1974 to 1978. Like Dr. Lecter, Bundy was very intelligent and used his charm to gain his victims' trust. He would fake disability or injury to get women to help him move boxes or books in and out of his car, a tactic also used by Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb in Silence of the Lambs. Bundy took out the passenger seat of his car in order to better fit the unconscious women he'd trick into helping him. He even disguised himself as a police officer once to inspire trust in his victims, a practice loosely invoked by Lecter's macabre impersonation of a guard during his Silence Of The Lambs escape. 

    Bundy managed to evade suspicion after several reports that he matched the suspect description because he was such an upstanding citizen. His coworker and acclaimed true crime author Ann Rule noted that Bundy was the same height and weight as the man terrorizing the Washington town, but explained it away, not wanting to believe her friend could be responsible. Authorities arrested Bundy twice, but he managed to escape custody before fleeing to Florida and killing several more women. He was finally captured after being stopped for a traffic violation. 

    Lecter's ability to gain the trust of desperate FBI agents while behind bars subtly conjures the persuasiveness of Bundy, who won over and married Carole Anne Boone during his trial in 1980. She described Bundy as "dignified and restrained," both of which could apply to Dr. Lecter as well.

    Before Bundy's electrocution in 1989, he detailed his methods and motives for author Stephen G. Michaud, blaming his actions on an early exposure to pornography and an inner demon who took control when Bundy faced his violent self. Although Hannibal's motivations are left to speculation, he too incurs the ramifications of his inner demons, as evidenced by his composure in conversations with Clarice as compared to the one and only time audiences see him kill in The Silence of the Lambs.

  • The Monster Of Florence And One Suspect's Trial Inspired Harris

    From 1968 to 1985, a killer stalked lovers in Florence, Italy. The murderer struck at least 16 times, shooting unsuspecting couples in vehicles and tents. After killing the couple, the murderer used what police believed to be a specialized knife to cut out female victims' sexual organs.

    The "Monster of Florence" case caught Thomas Harris's attention while he was traveling in Florence and writing the third novel in the series, Hannibal. Harris specifically references elements of the story in the novel, including the book's Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, who was inspired by the commissioner in charge of hunting the real version of the Monster of Florence. Although the commissioner is eventually captured, hanged, and eviscerated by Lecter, his desire to take on the monster emulates the real Pazzi.

    In the Hannibal TV series, the commissioner appears again, hunting a killer he refers to as the "Monster of Florence." TV's version of the commissioner is unable to prove Hannibal's guilt and another man goes away for his crimes, paralleling the case of suspect Pietro Pacciani, whom Harris was intrigued by. 

    Pietro Pacciani was one of the most publicized suspects the Monster of Florence case. He was a farmer who was convicted of murder and sexual assault in the past. Harris attended his trial in 1994 and witnesses claimed he took notes on yellow legal pads. A jury convicted Pacciani despite a lack of hard evidence, but he was later acquitted.

  • Katharine Hepburn And Hal 9000 Inspired Anthony Hopkins's Take On Lecter 

    The Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally claims he pictured Anthony Hopkins in the role of Hannibal Lecter as he wrote the script. Despite Tally having nothing to do with the casting process, Hopkins won the role. Hopkins's version differs from the character written by Thomas Harris but also channels his core qualities. According to Tally, "Hopkins is sexy in the way that the character is weirdly sexual. And he's very, very smart. You can't fake that smartness on a big screen." Tally also pointed out Hopkins trained himself to act without blinking, doing so only once in the movie, very slowly, during a dramatic moment. 

    Hopkins says Lecter's evil mysteriousness drew him to the part, commenting, "It's the dark man, the boogeyman at the top of the stairs... we all have that from our childhood fantasies - the unknown shadowy person, which is very attractive and neurotic as well."

    Helen Morrison, a psychiatrist who studies serial killers, says Hopkins's Hannibal "has the capacity to just draw you in which is a little similar to what a serial killer can do. They draw you in, and then it's like being in a Venus flytrap, it's over."

    Hopkin's co-star, Jodie Foster, who plays Clarice Starling explains, "He played all of the layers of hiding, instead of trying to understand whether his parents beat him or whether he was abused as a child... Instead of trying to make us feel sorry for him, he allowed Hannibal to have that veneer of evil."

    Hopkins recalled his first time reading as Lecter and the inspirations who helped him become the character the American Film Institute declared the greatest movie villain. When asked how he developed Lecter's chilling voice, Hopkins replied, "Well, I thought it was a cross between Katharine Hepburn and the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey."


  • Mads Mikkelsen Played A Devilish Version Of Lecter Based On History's Most Notorious Psychopaths  

    The 2013 TV series Hannibal allowed writer, Bryan Fuller and Lecter actor Mads Mikkelsen to create their own interpretation of the character. Fuller explains that his influence for TV's Hannibal came from the two pages in Harris's Red Dragon where Will Graham describes how Lecter led him to a nervous breakdown that landed him in an institution. Fuller decided to explore the man who broke Graham and to do that he had to "make up a lost chapter of a Thomas Harris novel. So it was about staying true to the canon of Harris and what he told us happened, but then taking those two pages and turning them into 13 episodes.”

    Mikkelsen's Hannibal is different from prior versions in that the character is less of a person and more of a devil. He's also sophisticated, charming, and carefully controlled. Mikkelsen describes his Lecter as "a three-piece-suit man who is in love with the fine arts, who loves fine cooking. Everything banal, he hates; everything refined, he loves." 

    Mikkelsen admits that he is fascinated by serial killers, namely the biographies of "Stalin, Hitler, Genghis Khan, people like that," allowing him to gain a greater understanding of Lecter's psyche. These infamous killers helped him create the persona of someone who is: 

     ...in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever, Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind.

    Despite Lecter's rich tastes and ability to charm and connect with others, he is still a demon, as Mikkelsen adds, "When he rips out the tongue of a nurse, his pulse does not rise above 60 beats per minute. That is not a person; that is the Devil."