By Anju Miura
“Get Psyched” explores the complicated process of human thoughts and behavior to help you understand who we really are. I write this series in the belief that understanding psychological theories will make your life easier, or at least, teach you why life could be so hard. After reading my stories, you’ll get psyched.
Since the release of the iconic American thriller movie series “Manhunter,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal,” Dr. Hannibal “Cannibal” Lecter has gained popularity as a charming serial killer.
Although Lecter has previously been described as a “sociopath” or “psychopath,” there is no such psychological disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Instead, the DSM-5 lists psychopathy and sociopathy under Antisocial Personality Disorder, which exhibits common characteristics of psychopaths such as a lack of empathy, disrespectful behavior and aggressiveness.
Lecter’s gentle behavior and loving attitude toward the FBI investigator Clarice Starling raises the question about his psychopathy: is Hannibal Lecter really a psychopath under the definition of ASPD?
Antisocial Personality Disorder
According to DSM-5, ASPD is defined as “individuals who habitually and pervasively disregard or violate the rights and considerations of others without remorse” caused by personality impairments found in both intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning.
Identity dysfunction includes egocentrism, which is self-esteem derived from personal gain, power or pleasure.
Lecter pursues power and pleasure through slaughtering and eating his victims and focuses on his own desires with no regard for the perspectives of others — an important factor of egocentrism.
People with ASPD typically display a lack of concern for feelings, needs or suffering of others and a lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another. Obviously, Lecter is remorseless for taking the innocent lives, but he doesn’t seem to lack concern for feelings of others.
Before his arrest as a cannibal serial killer, he was a prominent psychiatrist. His profession demanded him to understand what others think and feel.
Also, Lecter is always protective of FBI agent Clarice Starling.
In “Silence of the Lambs,” he agrees to help her investigation in exchange for learning about her childhood. In “Hannibal,” Lecter also nurses Starling back to health after she’s wounded in a gunfight and cuts open the head of the co-worker who harassed her.
More importantly, Lecter sends her a pair of Gucci shoes from a magazine she was reading. What an ideal boyfriend.
Characteristics of ASPD
One of the characteristics of people with ASPD is the inability to form mutually intimate relationships. Exploitation is a primary means of relating to others, including by deceit and coercion. They may try to control others through emphasizing dominance or intimidation.
These traits may sound like the description of Lecter — he is persuasive and dominating. Nevertheless, Lecter is fond of Clarice, and it’s hard to dispute his attraction to her. After their first meeting, Lecter plans a new crime series only to confuse Clarice and then attempts to establish a unique, intimate relationship with her.
Another typical characteristic of ASPD is hostility, persistence and excessive anger. Some may respond with anger or irritability to minor slights and insults.
However, Lecter is laid-back and always calm. He seems to get upset sometimes but has never thrown a temper tantrum or reacted heartlessly and vengefully toward others.
His choice of victims
Dr. Deborah Schurman-Kauflin explains that cannibals don’t have a specific type of victim.
“When looking at the victims, it wasn’t anything the victims said or did wrong … It is simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Schurman-Kauflin wrote in an article in Psychology Today.
However, Lecter tends to choose his victims intentionally, selecting those who are self-centered, selfish and arrogant.
For example, Lecter drives an inmate to commit suicide after he verbally harasses Clarice in their prison cells. Other victims are also specifically chosen either because they try to bring down Lecter or they harass and disrespect Clarice.
As a Hollywood movie character, Lecter contributed to our understanding of a “psychopath,” but he doesn’t satisfy all the criteria of an ASPD diagnosis. Maybe he is just a well-educated, intelligent cannibal who fell in love with Clarice.
Of course, maybe murdering and manipulating others for love isn’t the best way to win someone’s heart.