The White male has become the monstrous Other in his own nation, a nation he does not recognize and that no longer recognizes him. In America, his invisible suffering finally found a voice after one mention of Rosie O’Donnell changed everything.
Be-cucked and floundering, the Republican establishment looked on in horror as the enigmatic billionaire Donald Trump flicked their testicle-dice on his rear-view mirror. After his win, with the commentariat scratching their heads as to how they could’ve missed all of the signs the much-maligned American hinterland was fed up with being the lone societal punching bag, various coastal elites traversed what they regard as the backwoods backwaters of the nation ostensibly looking for answers, but mostly voyeuristically providing “decline porn” and freak show-peeping to the dinner party set back home. There was no attempt to understand who these people are, or why they are not even so much angry, though they are—furious in fact, but more betrayed and dismayed.
The critic Robin Wood argues that horror films usually elicit our interest in, and sympathy for, the monster. Usually these films become the vehicle for the monster, the Other, that is tormenting the normal members of a society. There is typically the normal, moral hero who must stand against this creature. Robin Wood argues that in these horror films, the monster is usually the center of interest and sympathy from the audience. It is the strangeness and the complexity of the monster that elicits the interest in it rather than in the moral character, the character supposedly so like us; however, the argument that the monster is a center of sympathy from the audience is a far more Byzantine proposition.
Typically cast out of normal society, the monster returns to have its revenge upon those that define the social norms. For example, in John Carpenter’s Halloween, Michael Myers has been sequestered away from society for the grisly murders of his family, confined to an asylum. On the anniversary of these murders, he returns home to wreak havoc. He is the Other, the social pariah who society has turned away from. He has a seeming singularity of purpose, but there is more to him behind that mask. This elicits interest in the psyche of this so-called monster: what are his motivations, his back-story, et cetera?
As Robin Wood would argue, Myers’s traumatic background should elicit sympathy from the audience. However, this is not wholly accurate. The assertion that horror films elicit interest in the monster is almost wholly true; the assertion that the monster is a source of sympathy from the audience is another issue entirely. How else do we explain the alien in Alien? It is a creature wholly unlike us as humans. Its motivations and back-story are very engaging, as it is so unlike us, and is a complete unknown (or was until Prometheus and Alien: Covenant). Yet the notion that it inspires sympathy from the audience is absurd. When the alien is finally destroyed, it pleases the audience. The creature seems driven to do one thing: kill.
Perhaps there is more, but we are incapable of understanding the actual thought process of such a creature. It is seemingly the complete embodiment of the Other. It does not look like us, it does not act like us, it does not communicate like us, and, most critically, it doesn’t think like us—at least not on the surface. The alien is a parasitic organism that thrives on the destruction of others. It has an incubation period inside of another live organism before killing it and effectively hatching. From there it feeds and grows.
The alien is driven to thrive and survive despite what havoc it may wreak on the ecosystem around it. So is the alien really that much different from much of humanity? Physically it bears absolutely no resemblance to us, but its will to survive drives it to kill, feed, and re-produce—the baseness of which humans hate to acknowledge, but without which our species would not survive, either. The alien is amoral and is not burdened by a guilt complex or notions of whether it is wrong to kill. It is an uncomfortable idea for the vast majority of society. It is very difficult for us to really have any sympathy for the alien, which speaks to the value system of our society and the degree to which we attempt to sugar-coat and ignore the more unsavory aspects of our existence.
Perhaps sympathy could be derived from the fact that it would not survive if it did not feed, but it’s hard to sympathize with something that has to continually destroy multiple lives to subsist. The alien is far more like us than we would care to admit, but how can we possibly excuse countless killings/murders despite the monster needing to survive or having a troubled childhood like Michael Myers?
And what of situations where we may find ourselves subconsciously rooting for the monster as we do in Silence of the Lambs for Hannibal Lecter? Thanks to his intellect and charm, is that more a reflection of Lecter or of the audience? What does that say about us? Additionally, can we truly call what we feel for Lecter sympathy, or perhaps more of a camaraderie? The point is this: in horror films the monster is virtually always a subject of interest due to its complexity; any resulting sympathy is usually fleeting as a consequence of the function of its existence as the projected Other more than anything else. The monster or Other serves a purpose—in its inscrutability, it is easy to project our fears and anxieties, and as it is so unlike us, it makes it easier to banish or kill. There is a terrific episode of Black Mirror that deals with this notion of “Otherizing” in war-time. As with the alien in Alien, there is perhaps more linking the monster to the audience than the audience would care to admit. Robin Wood’s statement is the statement of someone assuming an absolute position as critic, removed from immersion in the art. A feeling of sympathy is a reflection of removal from a situation.
This is why the study of Alien and Silence of the Lambs is so interesting. The two monsters could, on the surface, not be more different. Yet they both inhabit a similar space in our cultural ideology. The alien is truly not us; it is another species. Hannibal Lecter has committed one of the greatest taboos in Western society: cannibalism. Lecter may not be able to help his cannibalistic nature; but in a way, he is more inhuman than the alien. There is a certain amount of ritual involved in his killings. He is so cold and calculating on the one hand that he is almost inhuman. Yet he is also the epitome of what humans aim for: he is cultured, he is intellectual, and he values things like art and classical music. In this respect, the alien has no human characteristics, yet it is motivated by a profoundly base desire for survival. The alien forces us to consider what we would do in order to survive. It is difficult to forgive the alien for surviving when its life costs numerous human lives, but is this really so different from humanity? The survival of humanity revolves around the consumption of other organisms. How are humans any different to the alien than cattle or chickens are to humans?
Hannibal Lecter’s consumption of human flesh is a luxury, as he does not have to eat it strictly from a needs standpoint—there are plenty of other food options available. Yet his need is motivated by something deeper; this is the epitome of a cultured human being governed by base desires. He is compelled to consume human flesh simply because psychologically he feels that he has to. What would we do if there was no other option to survive other than to consume human flesh? The aversion to cannibalism is quite pronounced in Western culture, and for good reason, but in New Guinea the Highland tribes raid the coastal tribes and very often consume their flesh. The notion of cannibalism sickens us, but it also fascinates us. The multifaceted elements of Lecter absolutely captivate us as an audience.
Most horror films on the surface are a force of good pitted against a force of evil. Clarice Starling is a force for good—she is moral and she is a servant of the law. She upholds the law and thus is a reflection of our morals as a society. Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill are the Other; their behavior (read: crimes) is completely unacceptable according to our cultural values. We do not condone eating people or killing them and fashioning accessories out of their skin. We do condone bringing these people to justice according to our laws and confining them away from the rest of society.
In the vast majority of horror films, it is the monster and not the hero that elicits the interest because of that complexity. There is a certain one-dimensionality to the good guy. In the case of Silence of the Lambs we have Clarice, who despite getting help from Hannibal Lecter to catch Buffalo Bill, does not deviate from her ultimate goal of catching the killer and bringing him to justice. Despite her relationship with Hannibal, when he manages to get free from prison, Clarice does not maintain the collaborative spirit. Rather, despite the long odds, she attempts to get him to reveal something about his location over the phone. She does not compromise her morals. Conversely, Hannibal does not have an ideology as such that he represents. He is the ultimate monkey wrench, a walking paradox; Hannibal is a man both governed by his most base of desires, yet completely in touch with the most refined aspects of culture.
Alien represents an interesting interpretation of this hypothesis as well. The film pits two forces, the alien and Ripley and her ship-mates, against each other for survival. Ultimately, though, it becomes a showdown between Ripley and the alien. Toby Young writes;
“Ripley’s extraordinary resources echo the huge reserves of the alien… Unlike the male members of the crew, Ripley is clear-sighted and level-headed. She sizes up the threat immediately and recognizes - and is prepared to do - what is necessary to defeat it.”
Ripley, interestingly, exhibits stereotypically masculine characteristics, as does the alien-as-provider—yet both are female. Ripley has a single-minded purpose, to defeat the alien and survive, and although the alien has a similar purpose, its status as the Other, so physically unlike humanity in appearance and origin, elicits disgust from the audience. Additionally, the fact that the alien is hardly ever seen for more than a few chaotic or darkened seconds leaves a considerable amount up to the imagination. The use of light and dark is a very Gothic motif.
That same fascination with back-story, the unseen, and the monster extends to Silence of the Lambs. We see very little of the true horrors of Hannibal Lecter in the film, and perhaps that is why it is so easy to be seduced by his humor and charm. It isn’t until the countless other sequels that we get more than a glimpse into the depths of evil that this man commits. The idea of his actions being off-screen, his past shrouded in mystery, so much of this man unseen, is a very Gothic idea. David Sexton writes:
Another bloodline passes through Stoker’s Dracula. We learn in Hannibal that, like Dracula, Lecter is a central European aristocrat. His father, too, was a count and he believes himself to be descended from a twelfth-century Tuscan named Bevisangue (blood-drinker). Like Dracula, Lecter drains his victims. After meeting him for the first time, Clarice Starling feels ‘suddenly empty, as though she had given blood’. Lecter, like Dracula, has superhuman strength; he commands the beasts, and he lives in the night. Barney, the warder, tells Clarice on her second visit that Lecter is always awake at night, ‘even when his lights are off’. Many of his physical attributes resemble those of Dracula. ‘His cultured voice has a slight metallic rasp beneath it, possibly from disuse’, we are told in The Silence of the Lambs. Dracula, says Stoker, speaks in a ‘harsh, metallic whisper’. Dracula’s eyes are red, Jonathan Harker realizes when he first meets him, in the guise of a coachman. Later, when he sees Dracula with his female acolytes, he says:
‘The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell-fire blazed behind them.’
‘Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center.’
As with the alien in Alien the true horror and fascination is with the unseen. With everything shrouded in darkness, there is a mystery about these monsters, and there is also a tinge of spectacle. Continues Sexton, “Lecter is the face that looks back at us out of our own boredom. He is our monster, the evil we embrace for our diversion. And he feeds on us.” Both Hannibal and the alien, while ostensibly the Other, are also a reflection of the dark underbelly of our society. They were born out of the imaginations of members of this society and reflect the things that we want to keep buried. Sexton elaborates:
In Hannibal, this idea is made explicit in a manner distinctly reminiscent of the accusation embedded in ‘Au Lecteur’. Lecter attends the exhibition of Atrocious Torture Instruments, but not to look at the exhibits. He faces the other way, back at the spectators, for his thrills. ‘The essence of the worst, the true asafœtida of the human spirit, is not found in the Iron Maiden or the whetted edge; elemental ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd,’ the oracular narrative voice proclaims.
Indeed, the films are our spectacle, and they drag the evil into the theatres, forcing the audience to question their very nature.
We are pleased when the alien is destroyed, and when Buffalo Bill is brought to justice, but what about the typical response to Lecter? The audience feels a certain camaraderie with him; they delight in his ability to outsmart everyone, and they are seduced by his charms. Yet what if Hannibal was a real man, how would the general public regard him? The alien is an outright monster, completely inhuman. Hannibal looks like any of us, yet his crimes are arguably more heinous, more, dare I say, inhuman. In reality, a man like Hannibal would delight in the media spectacle that his actions would create; the general public would both revile him and be drawn to him. In our culture of spectacle, life-as-cinema blurs the distance from the screen to the viewer. Just as Robin Wood assumes the stance of the absolute critic, so, too, do most audiences ostensibly assume the stance of the entertained—and yet there cannot be a total detachment. Lecter, like the audience, needs the public spectacle, the attention, to survive, just as the alien needs organisms to survive and reproduce. They are strictly parasites. Returning again to Sexton:
Barney warns Dr. Chilton, as he says goodbye to Lecter, that his new guards don’t know how to deal with him. ‘You think they’ll treat him right? You know how he is—you have to threaten him with boredom. That’s all he’s afraid of. Slapping him around’s no good.’ But ennui is not just his fear—‘Any rational society would either kill me or give me my books’—it’s his origin. Lecter uses his own boredom as a threat to others. When he is extracting the story of the silence of the lambs from Clarice and she is not delivering what he wants, he says;
‘If you’re tired, we could talk towards the end of the week. I’m rather bored myself.’
Lecter is willing to gamble his boredom as a means to leverage Clarice into getting what he wants. Without the attention, Lecter exists in a vacuum: his works, his psychological ploys, go unnoticed. He would simply wither away. Yet Lecter also understands that perhaps the greatest fear of modern society is also boredom, conditioned as they are to worship the spectacle. The devouring of human flesh is symbolic with both monsters. As they are borne out of us, in a sense they are both practicing a form of cannibalism.