In Defense of Hannibal and Its Use of Gore
In the April 4, 2014 issue of Entertainment Weekly, journalist Mark Harris writes an editorial titled “Less Is More When It Comes to Gore.” In this piece, Harris argues that three current television series—The Walking Dead, The Following, and Hannibal—rely too heavily on gore as their source of horror. He states:
These shows are definitely gross, gory, and explicit. They are, in their ways, everything that horror should be. Except scary.
Harris makes some strong points, primarily that there is great value in leaving certain elements of horror to the imagination. In many psychological horror movies or tales of suspense, for example, it is definitely beneficial to withhold information from the audience. In Alfred Hitchcock’s famous horror films, such as Psycho and The Birds, the scenes of violence are surprisingly few, and the action is quick. Likewise, in a film like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the bloodiest scenes are mere flashes in the characters’ minds. Harris also claims quite correctly that television shows in particular have a hard time being scary due to the feeling of safety we get from watching at home and the familiarity we feel from returning to the same show week after week. Classic horror shows such as The Twilight Zone and The X-Files overcame this problem by taking the audience someplace new each week.The latter dabbled in displays of gore, but it certainly did not rely on it. These approaches to horror are tried and true, but are they necessarily appropriate for the three shows that are the targets of Harris’s criticism? I do not watch The Following or The Walking Dead; thus, I cannot address Harris’s claims about those shows (readers can feel free to discuss them in the comments). However, I watch Hannibal, and I think that as far as this show is concerned, Harris is wrong.
In Hannibal, based on characters created by Thomas Harris and adapted for television by executive producer Bryan Fuller, we indeed see many murders grotesquely presented to us, from corpses mounted on deer antlers to bodies used as mushroom fertilizer, from corpses flayed to look like angels to a human skull re-purposed as a beehive. And yes, these scenes are gory and explicit, and when we see Special Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) act out the murders in his mind in an attempt to empathize with the killers, the blood flows plentifully. Does this detract from the show being scary, or does it serve another purpose? I would like to counter Harris by demonstrating how Hannibal‘s focus on the aesthetic dimensions of murder necessitates an emphasis on the visual (and visceral) properties of the victims. This is especially true in regard to Hannibal Lecter’s (Mads Mikkelsen) victims, parts of whom inevitably end up as ingredients in his exquisitely crafted meals. Also, I believe that we can better understand Will Graham’s struggles with his empathy disorder by seeing how extreme the murders are that he must reenact in his mind. The idea of “less is more” would weaken our sympathy with Will in this regard, just as it would weaken our aesthetic and emotional responses to the murders.
In “Seitz on Hannibal: It’s All a Dream, and It Hurts,” published on Vulture, critic Matt Zoller Seitz admits that Hannibal is “the goriest show on TV.” However, he also points out that we rarely see the murders being committed but are only witnesses to the aftermath: the “art-directed-to-the-nines” crime scenes. These scenes are where we are faced with the idea of the murders being works of art. The show does not shy away from this, and the characters—primarily the investigators—often talk about the crime scenes as if they are trying to decipher the meaning of a painting. Hannibal Lecter, a cultured aesthete, is often the one most appreciative of these diabolical works. He tries to add a similar level of artistry to his own murders and subsequent feasts. Seitz theorizes:
[…] the relationship between the killers and profilers on this show is a metaphor for the relationship between the artist and a viewer. The serial killers all seem to fall into one of two categories: originals and copycats. The profilers analyze their handiwork for “signatures” and pore over crime scenes with the obsessive thoroughness of art historians or critics trying to separate bad art from good and good from great. Think about how often one cop will torpedo another’s “identification” of a crime scene by saying, in effect, “I don’t think the work is sophisticated enough to be the work of that particular artist, as you claim” — as if they’re trying to figure out whether a painting is a bona fide masterpiece or a forgery by studying the brushstrokes. The killers paint in blood and entrails, or distort corpses into sculpture or mixed-media works.
If we accept the show on these terms, then we must embrace the “blood and entrails” as part of the complete painting, so to speak. We cannot judge a painting by ignoring certain aspects of it. Nor can investigators hope to solve a crime by discounting certain pieces of evidence. Just as they must face the totality of a crime scene, gore and all, so must we, the audience.
To demonstrate the actual aesthetic function of the gore in Hannibal, I want to highlight a murder from the episode “Mukōzuke” of the show’s second season. The victim in this case is sliced lengthwise, and each slice is displayed in glass. This draws immediate comparison to the art installations of contemporary artist Damien Hirst, who has worked with animal corpses in a similar fashion. One piece in particular, Mother and Child (Divided), features a cow and calf, each sliced lengthwise, with each half separately displayed.
In Hannibal, the investigators study the crime scene in an attempt to discern what message the killer was trying to send by presenting the body in this striking manner. This is perhaps not too different from the way gallery goers would walk among Hirst’s works and discuss what they might mean, what the artist was trying to say in such explicit and gory terms.
The fact that the gore might elicit feelings of disgust does not in any way detract from the idea that Hannibal is asking us, like Damien Hirst, to look at the displays of death aesthetically. To be sure, I think that is the point. In her book Savoring Disgust: The Foul & the Fair in Aesthetics, the philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer discusses at length the aesthetic dimensions of disgust. In one chapter, in listing artworks that utilize aesthetic disgust, she not only mentions Damien Hirst—she mentions Hannibal Lecter and The Silence of the Lambs as well. She writes:
[…] here are works that disgust because of the treatment their difficult subjects demand.
Yes, and I would suggest that Hannibal and Hirst both use gore to disgust their audiences in just this way: to grab our attention and force us to confront difficult subjects (i.e., death and mortality) head on.
To return to the subject of Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalism, this is another example where the gore serves a very specific purpose. We see Hannibal prepare the organ meats of his victims, quite graphically, and then present them to guests with artful and beautiful plating. Again, in this instance, the show asks us to view the murders aesthetically, and the primary emotional response it seems to seek is indeed disgust. The disgust is more pronounced because we see the preparation of the meals and then see them consumed by Hannibal’s oblivious dinner guests. This strong feeling helps us understand just how demeaning the act of cannibalism is, how it reduces people with distinct personalities to mere foodstuffs. Yet the disgust also helps us see to what extent art (e.g., Hannibal’s attractive plating) can sometimes conceal and blind us from these darker truths. Thus, I would say that the use of gore in Hannibal allows it to communicate powerful ideas to us by way of our aesthetic and emotional reactions to it (e.g., our feelings of disgust).
To highlight one final example, I want to look at the show’s depictions of Will Graham’s empathy disorder. Will is considered one of the best crime scene investigators because of this disorder. He can take the evidence of a crime scene and extrapolate backwards to reenact the scene in his mind from the killer’s point of view. The show presents this mental activity to us in full detail. Thus, we watch Will Graham, our protagonist, killing the very victims for whom he is seeking justice. These scenes might involve slicing, stabbing, strangling, and other discomforting acts of violence. Why put the audience through this? The arc of the show’s first season involves Will Graham suffering under the mental toll of his empathy disorder. Each case he helps solve seems to bring him closer and closer to a complete mental breakdown. Would his mental hardships be as believable to us if we didn’t experience firsthand just how emotionally distressing each investigation is to him? I think that by showing us the full extent of Will’s empathy with the murderers, we are able to feel the same feelings of disgust that he feels. Thus, we can better sympathize with him and his personal struggles.
As I mention above, I think that the idea of “less is more” in terms of gore would not necessarily be beneficial to Hannibal and would weaken its methods of communicating its ideas to the audience by eliciting strong emotional responses, such as disgust. Does the gore make the show less scary, as Mark Harris claims? Perhaps, but I think that the show’s aims are quite different from those of typical horror. I think that it has more in common with works like Damien Hirst’s art installations (discussed above), Grand Guignol theatrical presentations, or Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell. It does not simply want to scare its audience. It wants us to confront complex ideas about death and mortality and to consider our visceral and intellectual responses to these ideas. Ultimately, I think that the show wants us to scare ourselves. The gore is simply a tool to aid us in this endeavor (and quite an effective one at that).
What do you think? Leave a comment.