Hannibal returns to NBC for its third season this week with Mads Mikkelsen reviving his role as psychiatrist and cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Fans of the show wait with bated breath to see how the serial killer will fare in his new life in Europe with companion and therapist, Dr. Bedelia du Maurier. Those who tune in for the blood and gore associated with the famous criminal often find themselves asking, “Who is the real Dr. Lecter?”
Dr. Lecter first appeared in 1981 in the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. American author Harris went on to create three further suspense novels about the psychiatrist, all of which were well received and turned into successful films. The most well-known of these novels, Silence of the Lambs, was first published in 1988. Over the years, Dr. Lecter has been played by some of the world’s most accomplished actors. As well as Mikkelsen, Anthony Hopkins and Brian Cox have also brought their own sinister edge to the role, proving that mastering the art of the super-villain is an interesting task, if not an easy one. Hopkins won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1991 for his iconic performance of Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs. Fans of the thriller series will always debate who represented the true psychotic killer, but it is worth noting that when it comes to screen time, Mikkelsen has made more appearances as the doctor.
For ardent fans of both the books and the screen adaptations, sooner or later the question will arise as to whether Dr. Lecter was simply a warped creation of Harris’ mind or if he was based on a real person. A morbid and grisly topic, cannibalism has always fascinated followers of the horror and thriller genres, not least because of its roots in reality. Where it is easier to accept that far-off indigenous groups throughout history ate their enemies during warfare or dined on the weaker members of the tribe during times of famine, it is a little more difficult to accept that some people in the 21st century are happy to eat their next door neighbor if the mood takes them.
Famous cases of cannibalism include Jeffrey Dahmer who, between 1987 and 1991, killed and ate no less than 17 young male victims. In 2001, German computer technician Armin Meiwes gained worldwide notoriety when he advertised on the Internet for a willing victim to eat. He found one and, after consuming 20kg of his dead participant, was eventually caught by police, and is currently serving life in prison. Cannibal and child molester Joachim Kroll, who died in 1991, ate so much flesh during his lifetime that human entrails were found to have clogged up his digestive system. Then there was Albert Fish, who in the 1890s stalked Washington D.C. looking for young victims to kidnap, torture and devour. Known as “The Brooklyn Vampire,” Fish ranked as favorite for many years when enthusiasts were asked: “Who is the real Dr. Lecter?”
It was not until 2013, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the best-selling novel, Silence of the Lambs, that publicity-shy Harris came forward and admitted that the infamous, chilling character was, in fact, inspired by a real-life criminal he had met during his early 20s. In the 1960s, Harris had been in Nuevo León, Mexico, visiting prisoners in the Topo Chico Penitentiary as part of his research for a science fiction publication. While there, he heard the story of a fracas that had broken out between an inmate who was attempting to escape and a prison guard, who consequently shot the escapee. The convict survived, however, thanks to the life-saving skills of fellow inmate and qualified doctor, Mexican Alfredo Ballí Treviño.
Intrigued by the story, Harris arranged to meet with Dr.Treviño and, during the interview, learned that he had been incarcerated for killing his gay lover and chopping him into tiny pieces. He had carefully placed the compacted parts of his lover into a small box and buried it on nearby farmland in his hometown of Monterrey. The box was later discovered by a curious farmhand, prompting Treviño’s arrest. Harris admitted he had never truly discovered why the doctor had murdered his lover, but remembers that during their meeting, there”was a certain elegance about him.”
Harris’ Dr. Treviño died from cancer in 2009, apparently aware that he was the inspiration for one of modern literature’s most disturbing villains. He had spent the last years of his life as a free man, practicing medicine in the very office where he had killed and dismembered his former lover. The revelation of the real Dr. Lecter is sure to sate the curiosities of devout thriller-fiction fans, but for viewers of NBC’s Hannibal, Season 3 promises more questions, suspense and intrigue than it does answers.
By Alison Klippenstein
Random House: The Official Website of Thomas Harris
Daily Mail: Revealed: The Mexican doctor who chopped up his gay lover and was the inspiration for fictional cannibal Hannibal Lecter
Examiner: Albert Fish: the real Hannibal Lector
Latin Times: The True Story Of Hannibal Lecter: How The Real Life Hannibal Murdered His Last Victim And Tried To Bribe Arresting Officer
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In Line Photo Courtesy of Ben F. A. Klippenstein