HANNIBAL AD PORTAS!!….Hannibal is at the gates!! This was a cry that struck fear into the hearts of the Romans when the Carthaginian general did the unthinkable: He crossed the Alps and invaded Roman Italy!! For fifteen years, from 218 – 203 BC Hannibal, his army and his famous war elephants maruaded around Italy, rarely enticing the Romans into open battle, but causing mayhem and panic nonetheless. Hannibal became a boogeyman and the phrase HANNIBAL AD PORTAS sent a generation of Roman children running for the shelter of their beds.
I thought it quite apropos in light of the recent news that Richard Armitage will join the season three cast of the NBC drama Hannibal. In this case, the drama centers around the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, a character featured in a series of novels by Thomas Harris, and most recently adapted into a television series by Bryan Fuller et al. That Richard Armitage would play the role of Francis Dolarhyde aka The Tooth Fairy, a vicious serial killer, caused something of a stir throughout Armitageworld, including many reactions that ranged from ambivalence to downright aversion. HANNIBAL AD PORTAS!! indeed.
My personal reaction was neither ambivalent or averse. I was intrigued. Excited even. I love the exhilarating adrenaline rush that being scared produces. Some people ski Double Black Diamonds (seriously dude, one word: avalanche.), I watch scary movies. I don’t tend to like gory films, although I’ve seen the “classics” (Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc). Rather, I love the buildup of creepy, edge of your seat ghost stories like The Sixth Sense or Stir of Echoes (Which is why I was totally pulling for the rumor about Richard Armitage in The Mystery of Casa Matusita to be true…IMDb lists the film as “In Development” so who knows?). I also thoroughly enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001) and The Red Dragon (2002). There is some violence and some gore in all of them, but it is used as a plot device, not the entire plot. (Although I grant you…the bit with Ray Liotta and the brain in Hannibal was truly disturbing.) I have not watched Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal as yet, but not because I have any underlying issue with the content…I’ve made my way through Dexter and The Walking Dead with little trouble. Truthfully, I just don’t like watching episode by episode network television anymore (Damn you Netflix and your whole series streaming! You’ve ruined me for week to week network programming!!). Richard Armitage taking on the role of a quiet guy/serial killer? I’m all in.
Then I learned that many of my fellow fans…some of whom I know very well…were expressing varying degrees of ambivalence and aversion to the series and the role. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the past week. I wondered why the thought of this role, that bothers others so much, only intrigues me. I’m not a violent person by nature. My husband, who grew up in West Philadelphia, laughs at me because I have never, EVER hit someone with the intention of hurting them. Goofing around with a sock in the arm? Sure. Punching someone in the face? Never. (Upon instruction, he informed me once that if I ever actually made a fist and hit someone I’d only break my thumb since I tucked it inside my fingers…thanks dear!) You’d be correct if you calculated that I’ve also never shot, stabbed, sliced or dismembered anyone either. I diligently teach my children, “we do not hit” (or shoot, stab or dismember) as a means of conflict resolution. I have not been the victim of violent crime (neither though, I hazard to guess have the majority of people averse to the Hannibal role been affected directly by a serial killer). My sort of detachment puzzled me.
Upon reflection, I suppose that part of my lack of sensitivity comes from the material I study. Violence was a regular, ingrained component of the ancient world. With none of the notions of sanctity of life that came with the spread of Judaeo-Christian traditions, life was precarious…frequently at the whim of one or another invading army, marauding barbarian or anyone more powerful whose way one stepped into. Horrible death was all in a day’s reality for many in the ancient world.
As I thought more about it, I realized that there might even be a reason closer to home that fictional content like Hannibal doesn’t strike me as awful as it might others. In the summer of 1991 I had just graduated from college and was living in Milwaukee. In July of that year, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested. I, along with the rest of Milwaukee…later the nation, watched in mute horror as the full magnitude of Dahmer’s depravity was revealed. A serial murderer with a predilection for necrophilia, dismemberment and cannibalism, Jeff Dahmer had been living and hunting among us for decades.
Looking at pictures of him today still turns my stomach, but if one didn’t know who he was, what he’d done, there is nothing superficial that says “cannibalistic serial killer.” He looked pretty much like any other thirty year old guy hitting the bar scene on a Saturday night. In fact, there is every possibility that my path crossed with Dahmer’s on any number of occasions from 1990-91 since his favorite “hunting ground” happened to be very near the neighborhood in which my friends and I hung out. Being female, we were never in any danger from Dahmer, whose victims were exclusively young men, but the reality of it all is chilling nonetheless. I frequently passed his apartment building when I decided not to take the freeway to my bestie’s house, completely oblivious to what was going on inside of it.
The scene of his crimes has long since been demolished…the lot is maintained as “vacant greenspace” by a private developer. Jeffrey Dahmer is long since dead…sentenced to life in prison, he was beaten to death by another inmate in 1994. Even though all of the physical evidence of his crimes has been cleaned away, the impact of them remains. What I learned from the whole thing, perhaps what has somewhat desensitized me to fictional accounts of such events, is that true horror lives and walks undetected among us every single day. Maybe a fifth row seat for the real thing makes television incarnations played by actors less troubling to me somehow? I don’t really know.
Essentially, when it comes to Hannibal, each person must decide for his or herself what personal tolerance is. Watch or don’t watch…it is totally up to the individual, and not a reflection of the depth of commitment to the career of Richard Armitage or a measure of the quality of one’s fandom. This seems a simple thing, yet I was dismayed to see that once again rancor emerged in discussions of the role and people’s views of it.
Over the course of my 2-1/2 years in Armitageworld, I have seen this wide divide open again and again. The topic doesn’t really seem to matter. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against energetic discussions of both sides of a subject. On the contrary, diverse opinions and lively debate are qualities of a vital community. What would we talk about if we all agreed about everything? I guess my basic point is that it is neither a moral failing to appear in or to enjoy a show like Hannibal, nor is it a triumph of virtue to abhor it, and it serves absolutely no purpose to rip one another apart via social media on this or any other topic.
Come this summer I’ll be watching Richard Armitage in Hannibal…maybe I’ll see you at the watercooler!
“si vis amari ama”
(if you wish to be loved, love)