The Silence of the Lambs made Hannibal Lecter a household name. This film came out in 1991—which means I have spent nearly a quarter century occasionally wondering if a fictional character would murder me. Not if he could, but if he would. Here’s how Hannibal became a permanent part of my brain.
Even the best parents occasionally fall down on the job, and it was one of those slips that led to me seeing The Silence of the Lambs when I was still in elementary school. My parents weren’t fans of censoring films, and they were interested in the film themselves—but they thought they were seeing a garden variety killer film and hadn’t counted on what Jonathan Demme and Thomas Harris were dishing out. The film has every possible kind of age-inappropriate content, from violence to emotional trauma to strong language. It’s surprising how much kids can pick up from tone of voice. Though I’d never heard the word before, I knew better than to ask my parents what a “cunt” was. Same with “fellatio.”
Or maybe I didn’t ask because I had so many other things to discuss. I loved the film, and the car ride home was filled with chatter about how smart it was to rip off a police officer’s face in order to escape in an ambulance. The film never gave me a single nightmare. It never made me afraid of the dark. Although I fear some ridiculous things, I’ve never in my life experienced a moment of anxiety about getting kidnapped by a demented serial killer.
But it would be wrong to say that the film didn’t affect me. Even as a child, I easily caught on to Hannibal’s rules. You get rude; you get eaten. Sometimes you get eaten by him alone. Sometimes you’re part of a communal meal. Sometimes he manipulates you into eating yourself (Hi, Miggs!), but if you stray over the line, you are on the menu. From that point on, for my entire life, whenever I’ve been impatient, or inconsiderate, or distracted, or tried to be funny and missed the mark, I can’t help wondering, “If Hannibal Lecter saw me do that, would he murder me for it?”
In providing a check on my behavior, Hannibal Lecter is joining an ancient order of beasties meant to frighten children. The Dictionary of Fairies calls them “Nursery bogies.” They take many forms. There’s Jenny Greenteeth, a goblin who lurks near ponds and drags playing children under with her long green teeth. There’s Churnmilk Peg, who pinches children plucking unripe nuts from the trees. There’s Asin, a cannibal who lures children into the forest. And there’s Brechta, the Stomach-Slasher, who slashes open the stomach of any child who eats the wrong food on the holy days.
Nursery bogies are, clearly, a group of monsters used to frighten children away from water in which they can drown, food that can make them ill, or any place they can get lost. And if there are a few monsters set aside just to make kids hesitant about neglecting their religion or sassing their elders, so much the better.
These stories aren’t meant to engender actual belief in children—they’re just a vivid way of clarifying the rules of behavior, and making a child think twice about breaking them. This being the standard, Lecter is a fine addition to the group. Really the only problem with him is that he’s a human being, and not a supernatural force—and the later books and the TV series pretty much took care of that. There’s nothing he can’t do, and there’s nothing he doesn’t know. So be good, kids.
I suspect that I’m not the only one with this particular neurosis. Hannibal Lecter is too well-known for me to be alone. But even if we don’t share the same character, we probably share the habit.
When people love fiction, there are some characters that become members of our social circle. We consider their reactions as well as we consider the reactions of our friends. Someone out there gets into tough situations, and thinks about what Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica would do. Someone manages to keep their chin up during a tough time, by thinking of Kaylee from Firefly. Someone right now is getting through a wedding by talking to Tyrion Lannister in their head. And someone has decided not to do something mean, because Captain America never would.
Perhaps there are better people to listen to than a psychopath, but that’s the best part of consulting with fictional characters. You only have to listen to them in some situations—like when to have good manners, or what wine pairs well with liver.