The Heritage of Horror – Hannibalising the Past

Genre is an important aspect of media compartmentalising, and every aspect of television exhibits a reliance on genre. It is a key concept to the study of television as each television show derives ideas from the genre they are a part of. There are many genres in the televisual world from drama to soap opera, crime to comedy and each of them displays their own characteristics when it comes to defining a programme or series. This characterisation is not always simple, as many genres can become multi-faceted, combining many different genres and taking influence from ideas within each to produce something different. This essay will endeavour to define and discuss the horror genre, in relation to both its history, and current day imaginings. The primary text that shall be studied in relation to the genre is Hannibal, a series rich with references to the past, with an important place in the history of horror, and the study shall begin by defining what exactly television horror is.

Using terror and horror as its primary weapons, the horror genre intends to invoke a negative emotional reaction from its viewers, using violence, disgust and the distortion of reality, coupled with a consistent visual style, low-key lighting, mysterious performances, jarring score and subtle camera techniques to create anticipation, and with it, relief. Horror creates a world which viewers find difficult to understand; a place where the perceived rules of normality and familiarity do not apply, a place where black and white become indistinguishable.


This definition of horror is one that applies most suitably to modern horror television, a definition different than what would suit Film or Literature. The definition was reached through the study, interpretation and repurposing of the definitions of others. Firstly, Stephen Prince’s definition in his book The Horror Film suggests the world of horror is one in which ‘normality and abnormality, reality and illusion become virtually indistinguishable’ (Prince, 85). Combining this with Helen Wheatley’s definition which details ‘a domestic form of genre which is deeply concerned with the domestic,’ (Wheatley, 1) the familiarity of horror is highlighted, in turn emphasising the differences from the familiar that create the horror. Wheatley continues in her book Gothic Television to detail the vagueness of the term Gothic Horror, highlighting the writing of Ledwon, who states ‘part of the difficulty lies in the fact that rather than speaking of one monolithic category of “gothic”, it is more appropriate to recognize that there are many “gothics”’ (Ledwon, 261). The above definition speaks for the horror genre as a whole, and while recognises the difficulty of defining the many nuances, casts a wide enough umbrella to encapsulate most of horror television.

Catherine Johnson highlights in her book Telefantasy this broadness, as she describes Telefantasy (a fan discourse term) as ‘a broad generic category to describe a wide range of fantasy, science fiction and horror television programmes.’ (Johnson, 2) She names these genres as non-verisimilitudinous genres, in that they have many over-lapping elements, ‘disparate enough to pose problems for a clearly defined generic classification.’(Johnson, 2) This analysis certainly brings up a difficult aspect in defining horror in that horror can be a part of every genre. Many television shows from The Simpsons to Game of Thrones can contain horror elements as well as fully dedicated horror episodes, spoofed sincerely, for example, The Simpsons ‘Treehouse of Horror’ series. To this end, the definition used by this essay includes the use of practical techniques, ones that are usually kept consistent throughout television shows to segregate one-off episodes and sporadic uses of the genre.

Stephen King has made the claim that television is a platform on which fictional horror cannot succeed in his book Danse Macabre, as ‘it is very difficult to write a successful horror story in a world which is so full of real horror,’ (King, 250) a claim which is disagreeable, as this analysis would discredit any horror hosting medium of its capabilities to use the genre, as film is home to documentary and criminal biographies belong to literature. Further to this, King adds ‘television has really asked the impossible of horror programmes – to horrify without really horrifying, to sell audiences a lot of sizzle and no steak.’ (King, 252-254) While this can be a purely subjective notion for an audience, as different fears strike different people, this is an inadequate critique of the television as a storytelling platform, emphasising the rules on what is deemed decent to be displayed. This point is made moot in the 21st Century, as televised horror can be as graphic and frightening as anything seen in a cinema or even read in a novel, for example AMC’s The Walking Dead, an immensely popular horror series in which cast and extras are torn limb-from-limb on screen, with little emphasis on subtlety!

Given importance in this essay’s definition of horror are the on-screen practical elements that create the tone and reflect the genre. Unlike many genres, horror can be defined purely by its use of production techniques as an atmospheric device, and the visual tone of horror owes much of its look to the gothic, as Wheatley describes –

‘[Horror television]… is visually dark, with mise-en-scene dominated by drab and dismal colours, shadows and closed in spaces. Programmes of this genre are also inclined towards camerawork and sound recording taken from a subjective perspective… Gothic television is thus heavily impressionistic at times.’ (Wheatley, 3)

Horror is an easy genre to identify visually, and as Wheatley states, make use of the impressionistic to create horror. The use of these techniques can be seen in many horror programmes, all of which mentioned in the original definition are present in the modern television retelling of Hannibal, an adaption of the book Red Dragon, which as well as a television series, has spawned a series of well received films. Hannibal’s place in the history of the horror genre is an interesting one, given its place in both the modern era, and the distant past.

The origins of horror are somewhat unclear, as it is difficult to place a timestamp on a feeling a human can experience. However, it is sensible to believe ‘the origins of the horror story may be traced to the beginning of narrative itself,’ as Dixon claims in A History of Horror (Dixon, 1). He continues ‘before there were horror movies, there were written or spoken horror narratives, fables handed down from one generation to the next.’ (Dixon, 1) It is possible these fables and stories may in fact be the likes of Homer’s Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, or perhaps even the stories of The Bible’s Old Testament, each of these works containing gods, demons and the struggles of man. Ancient communities, in a way similar to communities of modern times, may have shared stories of ghouls, ghosts, werewolves and windigos around campfires. Known as Folklore, a term coined in 1848, the term links together ‘Many aspects of cultural traditions past and present… created or done jointly by members of a group… it generally has its roots in the past, but is not necessarily very ancient; it has present relevance… it has both stable and variable features, and evolves through dynamic adaption to new circumstances.’ (Simpson, 1).

Essentially, folklore was an older form of community storytelling – perhaps a storytelling technique lost to modern society due to an emphasis on mass media and available information. Around these campfires, the stories that would inspire the gothic writings of the later centuries were told, from blood-sucking monsters to the dead rising from their graves. Superstition was the cultural norm, and the many myths of the world were created. ‘The mythic dimension of culture contains traditional stories and actions whose source is the persistent need to deny chaos and create order. It contributes to the security of social and cultural existence.’ (Silverstone, 70) This exemplifies that life in time of superstition was deeply impacted by its own works of fiction, as these stories gave its audiences security, as modern storytelling does today – perhaps in a different way, through fandoms and social groups, but none the less the same. The myths of the past are important, as the world they create ‘is a world apart, but it is also close at hand,’ (Silverstone, 70) signifying the reality of horror, and as Wheatley states, is deeply associated with the domestic.


Continuing, Dante’s Divine Comedy from 1310 lays out a template of visions, damnation and religious fears, which may be where the horror story began. However, as Dixon states ‘Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is generally considered the first horror novel.’ (Dixon, 1) The 18th Century was seen as the era of Gothic Horror, and using The Castle of Otranto as example, focused on the supernatural, and a move away from realism in literature. Moving forwards, the Penny Dreadful rose to popularity among the lower classes, offering a fright for merely a penny. ‘One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar,’ Chesterton (A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls) states as the more privileged classes enjoyed the modern horror literature of the era, from Frankenstein (1818), to Dracula (1897) to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, with short stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). In a sense however, it was the penny dreadful that prevailed into the 20th Century, as cheap periodicals took hold, perhaps due to the real life, yet oddly otherworldly closeness of Jack the Ripper, and birthed ‘perhaps the most influential Gothic writer of the twentieth century,’ (Dixon, 10) Howard Phillips Lovecraft, ‘who wrote for the “pulp” magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s.’ Horror began to diversify in this era, with Lovecraft himself spawning a new sub-genre, Cosmic Horror. It was also in this era however, that film began its rise to power.


In this early era of horror film, the scriptwriters took their cues from the rich body of horror literature available to them, leading to many adaptions of classic horror tales from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908) to Frankenstein (1910) to Nosferatu in 1922. As horror continues its transformation through different mediums, it finds its home on television through many different shows, growing in popularity as a storytelling device. The adaption of the horror genre to the television marked a departure from the film standard of horror, as Sobchack details ‘Post-War American Horror has become increasingly marked by a thematic recognition that the social world can no longer be conceptualised and dramatised as an opposition between private and public spheres.’ (Sobchack, 145) As well as making a comment on the changing post-war world, this analysis also details the colliding public and private spheres, as the world of visual horror was made all the more personal with the introduction of the television, which may have led to the style of television horror being different to film horror. Indeed, shows like The Twilight Zone acted as a representation of the Weird Tales periodicals of the 1920’s and 30’s. Using the episodic model to its advantage, The Twilight Zone and television were able ‘to explore gothic horror more fully’ (Wheatley, 126) and eventually develop into full, connected series such as The X-Files or the recent Penny Dreadful.

Having grown for many years across the platforms, Contemporary Horror Fiction emerges, playing host to writers such as Stephen King, and even sporting children horror franchises such as Goosebumps. Among these new releases in horror literature, a book named Red Dragon was released, written by Thomas Harris. The book features the characters Jack Crawford, an FBI detective, Will Graham, a criminal profiler, and most famously, Hannibal Lector. Hannibal Lector was a psychologist, but also a cannibal, being the chief antagonist of the book and its sequels. Red Dragon and the Hannibal Lector franchise play an important role in the history of horror, as he is a horror fiction character who has touched literature, film and television, without having been an adapted classic. Ignoring Manhunter (1986), an early attempt to adapt the Hannibal series to film, the first was Silence of the Lambs. Critically acclaimed, the film went to spawn a sequel, Hannibal, as well as a remake of the Red Dragon adaption, Red Dragon. All films starred Anthony Hopkins as the titular cannibal, all being positively received. Of course, as adaptions, they used the literary techniques of their respective mediums to tell the story of Hannibal Lector, and differed greatly because of it. Following the adaption to film, 2013 was met with Hannibal, a NBC series with the aim of rebooting the Hannibal franchise. A new cast, new visual style and new stories was created, one that would best suit a relationship between its two lead characters, Will Graham and Hannibal Lector. However, this relationship was to be portrayed differently, it was to be explained in a way that only the television could truly portray, and that is through the shows links to the ancient past, folk-lore, which all leads to a statement about the television itself. This relationship is shown through the Windigo, and the Windigo speaks for television as a storytelling device.

‘Television, as indeed all other forms of mass communication, uses specific items of folklore, myth and representations of ritual within its discourse,’ states Roger Silverstone in The Message of Television, (Silverstone, 50) and no where is this more prevalent than the horror genre. Television shows from Penny Dreadful, to Grimm, to Hemlock Grove and American Horror Story all portray elements of the mythic in their content, creating a ‘clear dichotomy between ancient and modern,’ (Silverstone, 53) as well as linking the eras, drawing horror into the contemporary.

One such myth is that of the Windigo, and through its use in Hannibal, ties the past to the present. The Windigo (or Wendigo) belongs to a ‘class of anthropophagous monsters, “supernatural” from a non-Algonquian perspective, who exhibit grotesque physical and behavioural abnormalities and possess great spiritual and physical power. Either many or all windigos were once human beings, transformed, usually irreversibly, into their monstrous condition.’ (Brightman, 337) This transformation was associated with the consumption of human flesh, and Algonquian traditions believed those who ate the flesh would transform. Portrayed as a vicious beast, with most artwork surrounding the creature adorning exposed bones, hanging skin and stag-like antlers, it comes associated with a mental disorder, Windigo Psychosis. ‘The phrase “windigo psychosis” refers in academic literature to an Algonquian-specific psychiatric disorder whose sufferers experienced and acted upon obsessional cannibalistic urges,’ (Brightman, 337) essentially, a psychosis that would manifest in the presence of cannibalism, or thoughts of cannibalism. Argued by many is the validity of windigo psychosis as a genuine condition, its origins in medical-history or folklore and the portrayal of the associated beast, but what cannot be argued is the psychosis is taken for reality by Hannibal, and used to represent the relationship between its two main characters. The first series of Hannibal consists of Will Graham trying to track down the notorious Chesapeake Ripper, a killer seen to cull his prey in dramatic, artistic ways, their bodies always found with a missing organ or other body part. It becomes apparent to the viewer before the protagonist that Hannibal, acting as Will’s psychiatrist, is behind these murders, and it covertly influencing his patient to look in other directions. Will’s mind crumbles further throughout the case, due in no part to his own mental conditions and the nature of his work as a profiler, with his lust to catch the killer being represented as a black stag. However, this stag symbol transforms upon Will’s realisation of Hannibal’s guilt into a windigo.


The windigo can be seen as an element of Will Graham’s slowly crumbling mind, a graphic depiction of his relationship with his doctor, taunting him as he plays more and more into Hannibal Lector’s hands, reminding him that he has partaken of human flesh and is beginning his transformation into something darker. The windigo appears as a misshapen, antlered distortion of Hannibal Lector himself, his body painted black, only interrupted by dead, white eyes, which reveals itself in the darkest moments of Will’s weakness, emphasising the hold that Lector has in Will’s mind. When Will uncovers Hannibal as a murderous cannibal, the Windigo appears, almost as a manifestation of Hannibal within Will’s own psyche.

The image of the beast is unsettling, and rather vague in its symbolism, as many audience members may not be able to identify the blackened monster as the windigo. Hills explains ‘classic horror monsters retain just enough monstrosity to act as a narrative threat in present-day settings, but their power to disgust and repulse is reduced, and they ultimately come to connote pastness.’ (Hill, 123) This may be true of vampires, werewolves and witches, but in relation to the windigo, the opposite can be said, becoming both a symbol of folkloric past, and an unsettling visage of modern greed. The creature’s cultural anonymity, as well as its association with the primal human fear of being devoured, makes the windigo a deeply upsetting symbol on the screen, as its strength and regularity increases with the dwindling sanity of the shows protagonist. Will, with his already weakened mind through his work in the FBI, has succumbed to windigo psychosis. The windigo shapes Will and changes him as a character.

‘Myth tells us how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality… myth then, is always an account of a “creation”; it relates how something was produced, how it began to be.’ (Eliade, 5)

The windigo and its mythic properties are responsible for the transformation of Will Graham as a character from a disturbed FBI criminal profiler to a monster, indulging in his darkest fantasies, killing as Hannibal does, almost transforming into a windigo himself. Will nearly becomes a monster, created by a myth, made to be through the windigo – a creation of a supernatural being. Wheatley describes gothic television as being ‘heavily impressionistic at times,’ being more ‘inclined towards camerawork and sound recording taken from a subjective perspective.’ (Wheatley, 3) Viewers are privy to the internal visualisation of Will’s mental instability, through horrific montages of darkness, symbolism and windigo sightings showing the psychotic tendencies of the protagonist. The use of the windigo as a symbol of mental decay and cannibalistic intent could only be displayed through use of the impressionistic and experimental – nigh impossible in the literal lest Hannibal lose its anchor in a twisted reality.


While it is important to acknowledge the impact of production techniques on creating an effective television show, it is perhaps more important to observe the method of its publication. Why does Hannibal benefit from being a modern horror television show, rather than a film or piece of literature? The reason is television and horror’s links to folklore.

‘Television preserves forms of cultural experience that were previously though of as being the peculiar prerogative of “primitive societies”, and that in so doing it anchors our experience, historical, changing, uncertain into another which is relatively unchanging and more certain.’ (Silverstone, 1)

Television and literature have much stronger ties to folklore than film, and television has its links tied even closer, as it is the modern bonfire. A place where viewers gather in small circles to hear new stories, a place over which audiences can discuss stories and tales. As aforementioned, horror is tied to folklore through its history, with the primal human fears defining horror as something that has always existed. Superstition and dogma gave way to ghost stories and folklore solidified them as community stories, something a group of people could share and pass on. In this sense,

‘Myths and television fulfil the same purpose or satisfy the same needs, be they individual or social. Often too it is argued that myths are the products of contemporary culture and are similar in their form and their content; they convey similar messages in similar ways.’ (Silverstone, 49)

This comment returns the argument to the current day, where Hannibal, a tale that does not exist without the modernity of todays society, with use of the FBI, medical practices and psychology to ground it in the contemporary. However, Hannibal now and the windigo stories of the past do in fact convey similar messages in similar ways, as mentioned by Silverstone. Both heed the same message of cannibalism and the effect it has on the human psyche. Both involve the myth and mystery of the windigo as a chief storytelling device. Silverstone believes ‘the mythic world of television demands a response which it itself conditions and constrains. It does not exist without us,’ (Silverstone, 84) solidifying the importance of folklore in a modern horror context, as horror seeks to derive from its audience a primal emotion – fear.


Television is based on the idea of community, as ‘we are participants and not just patients, and this is through our participation in the entirety of television’s culture, through newspapers, magazines, and in conversation.’ (Silverstone, 84) The television itself acts as a transitional device across time, linking the communities of now and then into solidarity through its use of myths, folklore, and ultimately, horror. ‘The mythic is a world apart, but it is also close at hand. It acts as a bridge between the everyday and the transcendent, the known and the unknown, the sacred and the profane.’ (Silverstone, 70) Whilst the myths of the past can be looked upon as fantastical stories and horrific insights, it is important to acknowledge that myths are indeed close at hand, as they are being created in the horror of the moment. ‘Myths grow out of a man’s experience of the world,’ (Silverstone, 52) and so it is clear to see how the series of modern horror television and the mythic stories of folkloric past are linked, tying horror irremovably to its roots in community tradition. In her book Rural Development through Contemporary Television, Raja Pokharapurkar explains that through history –

‘The structure of communication is more or less constant. It is the “message” that is to be passed on by the sender to the receiver, which remains a constant principle… the aim of communication has not changed as we move from the talking drums to the television.’ (Pokharapurkar, 15)

Through the television the past is made present, and the message of television is the same as the past – to tell stories. It is a transitional device, one that clings to its role as the successor to folklore as the community storytelling in the same way the mythic remains entwined with the horror stories of modern television.

In conclusion, Hannibal is more than simply a horror television show, as it has its roots in film and literature, as well as providing a link to the distant past, emphasising the influence that the horror stories of folklore have on modern storytelling. More so, it speaks for the connecting power of the television as the storytelling medium of the current day, the way in which communities of viewers can bond and share, connected by their interest in modern folktales, tales that may be a future generations myths. The horror genre is important in the field of broadcasting and in the television schedule, as it is a transitional device, one that reconnects its audience with the origins of storytelling, and the origins of community.


Works Cited
Print Resources
-Brightman, Robert. ‘The Windigo in the Material World.’ Ethnohistory (Autumn, 1988). Duke University Press.
-Chesterton, G.K. ‘A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls.’ The Defendant (1901). J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, London.
-Dixon, Wheeler. A History of Horror (2010). Rutgers University Press.
-Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality (1998). Waveland Press.
-King, Stephen. Danse Macabre (2011). Simon and Schuster.
-Ledwon, L. ‘Twin Peaks and the television Gothic.’ Literature/Film Quarterly (1993).
-Pokharapurkar, Raja. Rural Development Through Community Television (1993). Concept Publishing Company.
-Silverstone, Roger. The Message of Television: Myth and Narrative in Contemporary Culture (1981). Heinemann Educational Books.
-Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Stephen. A Dictionary of English Folklore (2000). Oxford University Press.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Otis Turner, US, 1908)
Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, US, 1910)
Hannibal (Ridley Scott, US, 2001)
Manhunter (Michael Mann, US, 1986)
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1922)
Red Dragon (Brent Ratner, US, 2002)
Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, US, 1991)

American Horror Story, FX (2011-)
Hannibal, NBC (2013-)
Hemlock Grove, Netflix (2013-)
Penny Dreadful, Showtime (2014-)
The Twilight Zone, CBS (1959-1964)
The X-Files, Fox (1993-2002)


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