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Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal

Introduction: Adaptation and the Monstrous Return

The world of contemporary neo-Gothic fiction is rife with intertextual exchange, full of the resurrection and dissection of stories. Between these adaptational impulses and the growing post-modern desire to “be suspicious of monster hunters, monster makers, and above all, discourses invested in purity and innocence” while simultaneously “recognizi[ing] and celebrat[ing] our own monstrosities” (Halberstam 27), revisions of monstrous figures from literature and film abound. Television, in particular, provides a context for horror in which form mimics content, since “television in its serial form allows for a powerful manifestation of the uncanny” (Belau 2). The small screen also provides a venue for ambitious adaptational choices: scholars laud NBC’s Hannibal (2013-2015) for the way it cannibalizes and rearranges its source material to create a new story anchored by the relationships of Lecter himself. Creator Bryan Fuller sets his adaptation before the capture of pop culture’s most famous serial killing cannibal and reconstructs associations between Hannibal and Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film), opting instead to center his series on the all-consuming relationship between Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson) and FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat articulate a similar motivation in focusing on a villain when they recount how, in the leadup to their Dracula (2020), they “made a promise to ourselves that… we’d make Dracula the hero of his own story” (Fullerton). Gatiss and Moffat’s adaptation, made available through Netflix, consists of three episodes which trace Dracula’s influence across time and place. Although the series includes Dracula’s predation on Jonathan Harker, his goal to travel to England, and his link to characters like Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, the adaptation (much like Hannibal) takes significant liberties in order to focus on Dracula more intentionally. Although Hannibal and Dracula have been briefly mentioned together by several scholars as examples of the same kind of “queer horror fiction” (Slyter 4), the deeper intertexts that connect these two television programs have yet to be explored. By tracing the connections between Hannibal and Dracula from their source materials to their reshaping for the television screen, this essay will demonstrate their shared celebration of transformation: in adaptational form, in revisions of content, and in the human-monster relationship.

Television’s formal resonances with horror are amplified by the ubiquitous use of streaming platforms to consume this kind of new media. The recurring form of serial television has long been understood by critics as a strategic venue for horror, since it mimics the resurfacing of the repressed. New forms of media distribution serve to amplify this effect, in what Belau and Jackson refer to as an “acceleration of seriality” (2). Content created in the era of binge-watching, alters not only the presentation of the story but how that story is received. Although Hannibal originally aired on NBC, it has enjoyed periods of time on Netflix that have resulted in upticks in fan interest, including repeated resuscitation of rumors surrounding a fourth season (Herman, Triton). Writing after Hannibal’s Netflix availability but before the most recent round of renewal rumors, film scholar MaryKate Messimer uses the language of haptic visuality, “a cinematic method used to subvert the power dynamic of the traditional cinematic gaze,” to analyze the viewing experience of Hannibal in the context of online streaming (Messimer 184). Messimer makes the argument that “watching television online allows for a physically present and personal viewing experience that is perhaps even more suited to affective and haptic analysis” (185). The embodied experience of streaming television surrounded by home comforts and with privacy to enable affective reactions otherwise stifled by the public realm of a theatre calls attention to the viewer’s embodiment. Such a perspective sheds light on online streaming’s relationship with the horror genre, which both depicts extreme bodily reactions and entices them from its audiences.1 Although Moffat and Gatiss’s adaptation aired in a three-day span on the BBC, the episodes were released together on Netflix, inviting a binging approach to watching. The fan response solicited by online television becomes part of the adaptational phenomenon, as well; Belau and Jackson note that “popular narratives take place through a broad network of media outlets. A viewer not only watches a television show, but also becomes part of a larger media experience that includes blogs and fansites, as well as various layers of intertextuality” (3). Streaming television adaptations manifest a shifting and hybrid experience of engaging with media, both in the direct watching of them and in the peripheral audience responses.

A Human(e) Monster?

The category of horror to which Hannibal and Dracula belong is rooted in a renewed interest in monsters and monstrosity, and especially in their potential for complex morality, desire, and humanity. The proliferation of monsters who are humanized or otherwise positioned as protagonists is perhaps most evident in media geared towards teenage audiences, a phenomenon that brought a number of extremely popular franchises with “good guy” monsters to the forefront between the 1990s and 2010s. Texts like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Twilight saga (2005-2012), and Teen Wolf (2011-2017) all portray individual monsters (whether vampires, werewolves, demons, banshees, or other creatures) as markedly different than their more bloodthirsty kin. Significantly, much of this content treats its monstrous heroes as defined by a biological difference that they resist or overcome: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel drinks blood from blood banks, Stephanie Meyer’s famously “vegetarian” vampires feed only on animals, and new initiates into Scott McCall’s werewolf pack in Teen Wolf submit to being locked up during full moons until they are more in control of their lycanthropic transformations. As part of their humanization, these characters are or become humane, caring for and prioritizing the welfare of the human communities in which they live. Although fascinating in their own right, these monsters have been, at least to some degree, “defanged.” Their physiological monstrosity persists, but their morality aligns them firmly on the side of the protagonists. These monsters subvert the idea of monsters as predators by being the exceptions that prove the rule through their good behavior.

Conversely, the monsters I focus on in this essay are impossible to categorize simply as the “good guys.” Moffat and Gatiss’s interpretation of Dracula is, on the whole, unfeeling. He kills numerous people, often in gruesome ways, and he seems to feel no sympathy for most of his victims, even taunting them with their impending deaths. When he enters the convent where Sister Agatha van Helsing lives in pursuit of Jonathan Harker, he rips off the head of the Mother Superior. In a gory parody of bridal traditions, he then decides he will choose his next victim by throwing the Mother Superior’s head to the audience with a cheeky “Catch!” (see Figure 1).

Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Dracula prepares to throw the Mother Superior’s severed head to a group of nuns in “The Rules of the Beast.”

Hannibal Lecter presents a special case; a human understood as a monster rather than a supernatural creature, he too challenges the easy ability to empathize with a monster whose behavior differs from the rest. Although his monstrosity does not stem from fantastic physiology, those around Hannibal characterize his proclivities as inborn. Fuller’s Will demonstrates disdain for categorizing criminals as “evil,” but in the novels Thomas Harris’s Will Graham conceptualizes Hannibal as biologically villainous: “He’s a monster. I think of him as one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time. They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don’t put it on the machines and it dies. Lecter is the same way in his head, but he looks normal and nobody could tell” (Red Dragon 67).  Hannibal insists that he has chosen his behavior, despite childhood trauma that could suggest a psychological cause. When his therapist, Bedelia du Maurier, asks “Why can’t you go home, Hannibal? What happened to you there?” Hannibal responds definitively with “nothing happened to me. I happened” (“Secondo”). Regardless of his motives, Hannibal kills and eats people. He kills based on a moral code belonging solely to him, articulating his standards for victims by saying, “whenever feasible, one should always try to eat the rude” (“Tome-wan”). Unlike the vegetarian Cullens, Hannibal does not require any bloodshed to live, but he dines on human flesh anyways. Neither Hannibal nor Dracula turn away from their murderous ways throughout their respective series, and as such, their subversion of traditional ideas about predators and prey are more nuanced. Each becomes a protagonist with whom the audience is asked to sympathize, but neither alleges innocence to gain that sympathy.

In the world of recent queer media, Hannibal is significant because the response of its audience demonstrates the potential of viewers to empathize with and even root for an unethical character. Hannibal has been lovingly analyzed by both fans and academics; its cultural impact on viewers of horror television is notable, and indeed makes its interweaving with Dracula a strategic choice. Although Hannibal’s serial killing ways are distinctly inhumane, ravenous audiences overwhelmingly view him in a complex or even positive light, developing the nomenclature of “Fannibals” to describe themselves. Hannibal provides a genre-compatible template for the humanization of a monster coexisting with acts of monstrosity, and indeed the connection that Gatiss and Moffat create between these programs and their titular characters builds on existing comparisons that stretch back across prior materials to the source texts themselves. 

Creating a Monster: Literary Beginnings

The figures of Count Dracula and Hannibal Lecter have garnered comparisons over the years from scholars and laypeople alike who note their similarities. The overlaps between the two figures speak to the ways monsters (both human and paranormal) have historically been coded as other. One such critic, Gabriel A. Rieger, observes that “both characters are exotic aliens, eastern European social nobility (both are counts) set apart by their archaic manners from the modern world they inhabit” (102). These connections date back to Hannibal’s original literary debut. Although Hannibal is not a vampire, his physical characteristics recall Dracula’s, drawing on a vampiric tradition to reinforce his monstrosity. In his novels, Harris’s descriptions of Hannibal are consistent with popular imaginings of Dracula. Hannibal’s “maroon” eyes “reflect the light in pinpricks of red” (Harris TSOTL 14), recalling the “red light” (Stoker 70) that transforms Dracula’s eyes when he is angry. Writing for the Guardian after Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs but long before Fuller’s adaptation, David Sexton draws on Harris’s novels to establish a lineage from Dracula to Hannibal, whose portrayal by Anthony Hopkins had just won the designation of “cinema’s best baddie” (Sexton).  In addition to noting their physical similarities, from their “metallic” voices to their “superhuman strength,” Sexton draws a link between loss of blood and loss of energy: “Like Dracula, Lecter drains his victims. After meeting him for the first time, Clarice Starling feels ‘suddenly empty, as though she had given blood’” (Sexton). Hannibal and Dracula are alike in the manifestations of their monstrosity, and scholars have also shared similar speculations about aspects of their identities that have been historically deemed monstrous.

Both Hannibal and Dracula have been examined for their homoerotic possibilities. In Harris’s novels, Hannibal presents a cornucopia of queer-coded traits: an eccentric European bachelor, fastidiously groomed, fashionable, and involved in fine arts. Fuller’s adaptation makes visible (and visual) this queer-coding by reveling in aesthetic visual excess, from Hannibal’s eclectic suits to his extensive and artistic table centerpieces. Dracula (1897), meanwhile, has drawn attention for the ways homoerotic desire is coded and concealed. Marjorie Howes writes that “the text’s absent center, hinted at, approached, but always repressed and rechanneled through female victims, is the penetration of a man by a vampire” (108). Other scholars, including Talia Schaffer, turn to Bram Stoker’s personal life as evidence for the queerness under the surface in Dracula, particularly the “intimate and varied history lasting for at least twenty years” that Stoker shared with Oscar Wilde, whose indecency trial occurred shortly before Stoker would begin drafting his novel (381). Of course, beyond the connections to queerness, Hannibal and Dracula violate significant taboos by their shared consumption habits. The uncanny act of consuming human flesh (or blood) separates Dracula and Hannibal into a particular category of villains: anthrophages, or people-eaters. Demme’s 1991 film adaptation The Silence of the Lambs draws this dietary connection clearly, when a police officer asks FBI trainee Clarice Starling “Is it true what they’re saying, that he’s some kind of vampire?” Clarice responds in a manner that reflects Hannibal’s own monstrosity, saying “they don’t have a word for what he is” (Demme). The connection between monsters and their human victims is liable to be reduced to consumption, especially when a predator-prey relationship is established. Still, by shifting the perspectives of extant monster stories to instate monsters as protagonists, creators like Fuller, Moffat, and Gatiss evoke the capacity to transform in form and content and rewrite the human-monster relationship.

Intertexts and Interchangeability

Both Hannibal and Dracula engage in a particular kind of representational recombination, drawing elements from their source materials and dispersing them broadly. Fuller’s text provides a refraction of earlier adaptations of Harris’s Hannibal universe and characters. As previously established, despite being the protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice does not appear in any of Fuller’s thirty-nine episodes. Nevertheless, her dialogue and mannerisms become apparent in Fuller’s adaptation: recognizable, sometimes even word for word, but attributed to a wide variety of different characters.  Hannibal scholars including Lori Morimoto and Gabriel A. Rieger note the way that Fuller’s adaptation complicates a simple transference of forms from textual to visual. Instead, Morimoto argues, Hannibal takes the approach of “cannibalizing both novels and films for their parts in ways that simultaneously reflect and exceed them” (266). Some of these connections initially appear more straightforward; Rieger characterizes Fuller as “map[ping] the character of Clarice onto Will” (114), but Fuller’s approach is layered with complexity.

The link between Will and Clarice is significant in part because of the role they share as romantic prospects for Hannibal, but the transfer of characterization is not that simple. As Morimoto notes, Fuller seems to have no qualms about decontextualizing content from his source material, as demonstrated when a monologue from one of Harris’s novels “is in the series divided between two characters across three different episodes” (268).  This decontextualization occurs with direct romantic parallels as well: both Clarice and Will, for example, end up carried out of Muskrat Farms in Hannibal’s arms (see Figure 2) (“Digestivo,” Hannibal 476). Other parallels, however, are not so easily translated. Near the end of Harris’s Hannibal, Lecter and a drugged Clarice Starling share a meal consisting of Paul Krendler’s brains in Italy (531). In Fuller’s adaptation, the scene shifts: the brains destined to be eaten are Will Graham’s, whose consumption is for Hannibal an act of love rather than revenge (“Dolce”).2 It is not Clarice that dines with Hannibal here, but head of FBI Behavioral Sciences Jack Crawford. The recontextualization of links between characters and even the motivation behind a visually similar scene highlights Fuller’s ability to “remix” Clarice, scattering her pieces throughout his series. Even without the presence of Clarice herself, the show is shaped by her.

Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Hannibal carries an unconscious Will away from Muskrat Farms in “Digestivo,” just as Hannibal carries Clarice in Harris’s Hannibal.

The branding of Dracula and Hannibal as the same kind of “queer horror fiction” (Slyter 4, emphasis added) despite the heterosexual link between Agatha and Dracula speaks to a recognition of the way Will, Hannibal, and their relationship have been fragmented and refracted in Moffat and Gatiss’s show, as well as a familiarity with the context of queer horror more broadly. Hannibal and Dracula both emerge into a world where increasing attention is paid to the historical links between queerness and monstrosity. Harry M. Benshoff’s seminal book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film speaks to the way this association has bloomed from “the confluence of contra-straight sexuality with the development of the gothic, both in terms of its production and its thematic concerns” (17) to a more relational condition, wherein the queer audience members are linked to the movie monster through shared experience. Benshoff argues that

while straight [viewers] usually return to their daylight worlds, both the monster and the homosexual are permanent residents of shadowy spaces: at worst caves, castles, and closets, and at best a marginalized and oppressed position within the cultural hegemony. Queer viewers are thus more likely than straight ones to experience the monster’s plight in more personal, individualized terms. (13)

At the intersection of this emerging understanding of queer links to monsters and the increasing turn towards humanized portrayals of monsters lies what Jacquelin Elliot calls “the postmodern desire for a reclamation of queer monstrosity” (249). Hannibal provides a powerful example of a “queer Gothic story [that] explicitly depicts queer desire and does not revert to conventional morality in its depiction of queer, monstrous anti-heroes” (Elliot 263). By engaging intertextually with Hannibal, Dracula signals its proximity to queer horror, despite a central straight relationship.

Invocations of Hannibal within Dracula are associated with queerness through proximity. In one early and particularly illustrative instance, Agatha van Helsing verbalizes a key question for those who investigate queer subtext in stories of monstrosity: “I’m asking, Mr. Harker, if you had sexual intercourse with Count Dracula” (“The Rules of the Beast”). Immediately after posing this tantalizing question, the scene cuts away to the title sequence, which recalls Hannibal’s. Both series’ title sequences are characterized by plumes of abstract blood red on a white background. In each case, these flowing images are accompanied by dissonant and uneasy music. The queerness of Hannibal is a defining characteristic of the show, and so by invoking the Hannibal title sequence in proximity to a direct address of queer sexuality, Dracula emphasizes what has already been established in the few minutes of preceding content. Like Hannibal and Will, Jonathan and Dracula shared “dinners … conversations … intimate moments” (“The Rules of the Beast”). The framing of the title sequence indicates a queer relationship between Dracula and Jonathan, where Hannibal parallels Dracula. While the commonalities between Dracula and Hannibal are perhaps the most obvious among the leads of these two adaptations, drawing as they do on decades of connection between the two villains, the echoes of Hannibal that appear in Moffat and Gatiss’s adaptation go beyond those similarities. In a similar way to how Clarice appears in Fuller’s adaptation, echoes of Hannibal and Will shape the series, refracted across characters and therefore surpassing a 1:1 comparison. As Morimoto observes about Hannibal, lines get extracted from their original context and repurposed between the two television shows. One example is the irreverence cultivated in each show: in one of Will’s therapy sessions with Hannibal, they discuss the nature of God, and Hannibal notes that “Good and evil has nothing to do with God,” going on to talk about how he “collect[s] church collapses” to demonstrate God’s unjust behavior (“Shiizakana”). When Jonathan explains that he sought shelter in the convent because it is a house of God, Agatha displays a similar irreverence, with an identical example: “two years ago, a church in this town collapse. The roof fell on the congregation—killed all of them, as they prayed. [The surviving priest] said to me afterwards, that even in moments like these, he was able to maintain his faith. I told him he should have maintained his roof” (“The Rules of the Beast”). In another echo of Hannibal, Agatha analyzes Jonathan’s feelings for his fiancé, Mina, by saying “you ache for her” (“The Rules of the Beast”). The concept of desire as an ache builds on a Hannibal scene often quoted by fans. In it, Will meets with Hannibal’s therapist, Bedelia, and directly asks her “is Hannibal in love with me?” and as part of her answer, Bedelia turns a question towards Will: “do you ache for him?” (“The Number of the Beast is 666”). Will’s responding silence is an affirmation, making concrete the love story that has been developing over the preceding seasons. After Agatha brings up “ache,” Jonathan’s desire for Mina is queered visually as well as through the textual connection when he recalls a sexual dream. In his dream, he is initially having sex with Mina, but as the dream intercuts his interview with Agatha, the person astride him becomes Dracula (“The Rules of the Beast”). The power of the aching desire between Hannibal and Will is invoked just before a queer possibility is depicted on screen, speaking to the ways Hannibal surfaces within Dracula. Will and Hannibal’s presence within Dracula both repeats Clarice’s presence in Hannibal and urges a queer reading of the show that is not limited to a single relationship. Dracula’s relationships with both Agatha and Jonathan have aspects of Will and Hannibal’s relationship in them, shaping the show’s approach to the potential that exists between humans and monsters.

Complicating the Predator/Prey Binary

Rather than portraying the humans in relationship with their respective monsters as hapless victims or straightforward enemies, both Dracula and Hannibal grant them agency and empowerment. Crucially to their relationship and to the dynamic between human and monstrous in Fuller’s adaptation, Hannibal perceives Will as an equal. He is intrigued by Will’s impressive empathic abilities and his approach to Will intentionally frames him as powerful. Hannibal goes so far as to critique the way Will is treated by his employer: “I think Uncle Jack sees you as a fragile little teacup. The finest china, used only for special guests” (“Aperitif”). In contrast, Hannibal’s conceptualization of Will emphasizes his agency: he says he sees Will as “the mongoose [he] want[s] under the house when the snakes slither by” (“Aperitif”). Through Hannibal’s perspective, Will is afforded an agency he lacks within the constraints of the FBI. Further, Hannibal intentionally conceptualizes the two of them as sharing an outsider status that precedes their relationship. In season one’s “Fromage,” after a bloody showdown with a rival serial killer, Will admits to Hannibal “I feel like I dragged you into my world.” Hannibal responds quickly, correcting Will’s perception and clarifying the way he perceives their relationship: “I got here on my own, but I appreciate the company” (“Fromage”). Hannibal’s respect for Will’s agency reflects his perception of Will as an equal and represents a significant diversion from Harris’s texts because it replaces the dubious consent of Hannibal’s relationship with Clarice, which in the novels is established with the influence of drugs and hypnosis.3

As with Will Graham, the character of Agatha van Helsing is radically altered from her source text. Moffat and Gatiss create Agatha as a blend of two textual figures in Stoker’s Dracula: eccentric professor/monster hunter Abraham van Helsing and a briefly mentioned nurse who cares for Jonathan as he is recovering after escaping Dracula’s castle (Stoker 134). Like Will, Agatha is adrift within the community where she lives and works. Although her relationships with the other nuns at her convent seem amiable enough, they downplay the significance of her scientific work, as when the Mother Superior turns to Agatha shortly after Dracula’s arrival to ask incredulously “have you been up to one of your secret projects again?” (“The Rules of the Beast”). In contrast, Dracula’s treatment of Agatha, even when destructive, always acknowledges his respect for her skill and knowledge. His positioning of them as equals is symbolically reflected when he creates a vision in episode two, “Blood Vessel,” for himself and Agatha while he feeds on her. In Dracula’s vision, he and Agatha are playing chess as opponents. Although Agatha chooses “the losing side,” the positioning still signifies her as a worthy opponent: not prey, like the nuns he threatened to slaughter, but someone on his level (“Blood Vessel”). Even at the end of the episode, when Agatha has failed to kill Dracula, he distinguishes her from all the other humans he’s met in his 400 years of existence with the compliment: “If it’s any comfort, Agatha, you got closer than anyone” (“Blood Vessel”). Like Will Graham, Agatha is uniquely qualified to complement the monster she seeks. Her combination of research and confidence position her as an expert on vampirism generally and Dracula specifically throughout the series, and Dracula himself recognizes her unique capacity.

With the agency afforded to them by perspectives of their monstrous companions, Will and Agatha choose to maintain connections with monsters. Throughout the series, Will experiences multiple moments of clarity that point him back towards Hannibal, despite the violence of their relationship. In season two, Will chooses to warn Hannibal that the FBI is closing in after a change of heart: he no longer wants to assist Jack in capturing and neutralizing Hannibal, because, as he later admits to Jack Crawford, “I wanted to run away with him” (“Aperitivo”). Will is aware that Hannibal has transformed his desires and that he, in turn, has changed Hannibal. During an emotional season two confrontation, Hannibal asks Will “Do you believe you could change me? The way I’ve changed you?” and Will replies, with confidence despite the devastating circumstances, “I already have” (“Mizumono”). Will has invested himself in his relationship with Hannibal; he is aware of the transformation taking place for both of them and chooses to retain their intimacy. In season three, in a literal decision to return to Hannibal, Will follows Hannibal across the ocean to Italy. He traces Hannibal’s past across Europe, seeking to know Hannibal more deeply. He explains “I wanted to understand [Hannibal] before I laid eyes on [him] again. I needed it to be clear… what I was seeing” (“Dolce”). Will’s pursuit culminates in a reunion where Hannibal remarks “If I saw you every day forever, Will, I would remember this time” (see Figure 3). Hannibal’s priorities have shifted; his memory is now irrevocably more focused on his connection with Will than on his murderous contemplations. Simultaneously, through his trip to Italy, Will marks Hannibal as worth returning to, asserting their equal power dynamic and challenging traditional notions of monster-human relationships.

Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Will and Hannibal reunite in “Dolce.”

Like Will, Agatha seeks not just to find or confront Dracula, but to understand him. At their first meeting, when he appears on the other side of the convent gate, she reveals just a few of her many questions about how Dracula functions: “what’s stopping you? A feeling? A force? Is it physical or mental? Why do you need an invitation?” (“The Rules of the Beast”). Agatha is willing to jeopardize her safety to test her hypotheses about Dracula, because her thirst for knowledge about him is so strong. Importantly, Agatha is the one who summoned Dracula to the convent, revealing that she knew Dracula would come to find Jonathan because “a trap always needs honey” (“The Rules of the Beast”).  Agatha exerts power over Dracula, but she also manages to use her power to return to his side. In Moffat and Gatiss’ adaptation, “blood is lives,” a logic that enables Agatha’s presence in the contemporary timeline in (“The Rules of the Beast”). When the count drinks someone’s blood, he can acquire their skills, memories, and thoughts, as demonstrated when he feeds from a crew member on the Demeter for the purposes of language acquisition (“Blood Vessel”). Because Dracula fed from Agatha in 1897, when her great, great niece, Dr. Zoë Helsing, drinks his blood in an attempt to cure her cancer, she finds Agatha’s consciousness comes to her as well (see Figure 4). Despite her death, which Dracula frames as a sign of his respect for her when he says “killing is healthy competition; mercy is disrespect,” Agatha is able to return to Dracula, declaring to Zoë that she is not “quite done yet” (“The Dark Compass”).” Although Agatha’s tumultuous relationship with Dracula involves rivalry and scientific curiosity rather than a straightforward love, she still uses supernatural pathways to return to Dracula through the motif of blood and her relationship with Zoë. Both Will and Agatha are empowered by their narratives with a freedom to choose, and each chooses to pursue intimate understanding with their respective monsters.

Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Sister Agatha Van Helsing appears in the hospital room of her descendant, Zoë.

The Violence of Intimacy

The association and interchangeability of violence, eroticism, and intimacy are embedded in Gothic and horror texts generally, as well as Dracula and Hannibal specifically. Notably, both Hannibal and Dracula draw not only on the sensual intimacy of consumption, but also on the intimacy of mental connection. Hannibal, according to scholars such as Rieger, operates as a serial killer (and a psychiatrist) by getting into the heads of his victims (102). Likewise, Dracula’s ability to shape the experiences of those he feeds on points towards a more-than-skin-deep level of connection and exchange. Hannibal relies on the exchange between closeted cannibalism and closeted desire, and violence is often the framework for intimacy. Dracula operates in the same way, a connection between violence and romance made clear by the parallels between the scene of Jonathan’s death in Dracula and the scene in season two of Hannibal where Hannibal stabs Will.

When viewed intertextually with Hannibal, Jonathan’s death scene draws a direct line between Dracula and Hannibal as villains, recalling a similar scene at the end of season two’s “Mizumono.” Both texts use violence as a signifier of erotic or romantic closeness. In “Mizumono,” Hannibal, believing himself betrayed by Will, confronts him. Will, visibly distraught, tells Hannibal “You were supposed to leave,” referencing the warning he provided that the FBI were closing in on Hannibal (“Mizumono”). Hannibal replies with vulnerability: “we couldn’t leave without you” (“Mizumono”), reaching out a hand to cup Will’s face and closing the distance between them (see Figure 5). Moments afterwards, Hannibal stabs Will in the abdomen, shifting the tone of the scene from the tenderness of two men whose positioning suggests a kiss to the invocation of brutal and passionate violence. Similarly, when Dracula and Jonathan stand at the top of Dracula’s castle, the Count tries to coax Jonathan into swearing not to interfere in the violence he hopes to wreak in England in exchange for his life. When he encourages Jonathan to truly make an oath to him, Jonathan crawls up his body, shifting from a camera angle of him on his knees and Dracula standing.

Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Hannibal cups Will’s face moments before stabbing him in “Mizumono.”

In the shots that accentuate a kneeling Jonathan before a standing Dracula, the vampire’s facial expressions are ambiguous: at one point, he directs his gaze upward in what could be read as exasperation or pleasure (“The Rules of the Beast”). The intercutting of these camera angles plays an intertextual homage to another homoerotic scene of vampirism; it is reminiscent of the links made through camera angles between oral sex and vampiric transformation in Interview with a Vampire (1994). In Interview, when the vampire Lestat feeds his blood to Louis to instigate his vampiric transformation, the camera alternately points up, at Lestat’s face contorted in pleasure or pain, and down, towards Louis tightly clutching the other man’s arm as he drinks from his wrist (Jordan). The kneeling connection to oral sex elapses when Jonathan manages to stand, and once again, their framing recalls a homoerotic moment of violence: in this case, returning to Hannibal.  When Jonathan has made it to his feet, the men are close together, recalling the potential for a kiss that Will and Hannibal share in “Mizumono.” Dracula cups Jonathan’s head in his hands, his positioning very similar to Hannibal with Will (see Figure 6). Further, Dracula expresses romantically coded affection in response to Jonathan’s resistance, calling Jonathan by a pet name associated with his fiancée, Mina: “That’s my Jonny” (“The Rules of the Beast”). Dracula follows up the tender embrace by breaking Jonathan’s neck, connecting violence and romance, and drawing a clear parallel between the end of Hannibal’s second season and the end of Dracula’s first episode.  

Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Dracula cups Jonathan’s face in his hands before killing him in “The Rules of the Beast.”

Conclusion: Consummating the Monster-Human Bond and The Role of Reciprocity

Both Hannibal and Dracula end with a symbolic consummation that uses the link between violence and intimacy to reinforce the potential of mutual transformation between humans and the monstrous. Scholars have made much of the sexual overtones in Hannibal and Will’s final battle with the Great Red Dragon (serial killer Francis Dolarhyde). The soundtrack of the scene is markedly erotic, full of heavy breathing, grunting, and what Messimer demurely describes as “sounds of insertion” (189). Together, Hannibal and Will subdue Dolarhyde in a climactic moment of violence, where simultaneously Will stabs him and Hannibal tears his throat out with his teeth. The scene ends with Will affirming his transformation, which recalls the ways Will has changed Hannibal. Hannibal tells Will “This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For the both of us” and Will replies acknowledging the ways he has changed and been changed in turn by saying “it’s beautiful” (“The Wrath of the Lamb”). Before the credits roll, Hannibal and Will plunge from the cliffside together into the ocean. Though a post credit scene suggests their survival, the closure provided by the recognition of their mutual transformation remains.

The final scene of BBC’s Dracula anchors the series’ intertexts with Hannibal, providing a consummation to Agatha and Dracula’s relationship that results in a state of mutual transformation. Although embodied by Zoë during this scene, Agatha’s presence is clear because of her accent as she and Dracula speak; while Agatha was Dutch in life, Zoë is English. Further, Dracula himself recognizes Agatha’s presence, as evidenced by his calling her name (“The Dark Compass”). In the finale, Agatha has finally reached the understanding she has sought of Dracula, and she confronts him with what she’s learned: “you seek to conquer death. But you cannot” (“The Dark Compass”). Agatha shares her newfound knowledge with Dracula, who, with the understanding and acceptance of his own mortality that Agatha has imparted in him, steps into the light and utters an amazed “it’s beautiful” of his own (“The Dark Compass”). Despite the differences—Will is referring to seeing blood in the moonlight after he and Hannibal kill Dolarhyde, Dracula to stepping into the sunlight for the first time in centuries—each character is illuminated in a way that allows him to be seen (see Figures 7 and 8). After his moment in the sun and in a bold departure from Stoker’s text and other adaptations, Moffat and Gatiss’s Dracula chooses to die. Building on the link between sex, romance, intimacy, and death, Dracula feeds on Zoë’s cancerous blood, and creates a vision for Agatha where the two of them are having sex, reaffirming the intimacy of their relationship and of this most unique (and fatal) feeding. In the show’s final line, Dracula’s cruelty is utterly absent, transfigured by his connection with a human into genuine care: “After all this time, did you think I’d let it hurt?” (“The Dark Compass”). Like Will and Hannibal’s transformation, solemnized by a shared jump into the ocean that functions as a symbolic baptism, Agatha and Dracula’s shared death carries the transformative impact they’ve had on one another into whatever comes next.

Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 7: Will declares the aftermath of his and Hannibal’s battle with Francis Dolarhyde “beautiful” in “The Wrath of the Lamb.”
Transforming Monster-Human Relationships in BBC’s Dracula and NBC’s Hannibal
Drumlin Crape (Queen’s University), Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 8: Moved by Agatha’s speech about death, Dracula steps into the sun and declares his first glimpse of sunlight in hundreds of years “beautiful” in “The Dark Compass.”

In his seminal work “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s seventh, culminating thesis considers the formative aspect of the monster-human relationship. Cohen argues that “monsters are our children,” because humanity created them (20). Because of their intimate relationship with humanity, monsters carry “human knowledge” and their mirroring spurs human confrontation, goading us to consider “how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place” (20). Monsters, Cohen insists, have a crucial question for humanity: “They ask us why we have created them” (20). In monster-human relationships consummated reciprocally, I propose that this question, like the source texts, is fragmented and reformed. Our monstrous creations are our children grown up, and the self-knowledge they possess leads to another question, not about their origins, but about their ever-evolving entanglement with humanity. In acknowledging the reciprocity of monster-human bonds, the question becomes: why have we created each other?

The realm of television adaptations presents new possibilities for a long-recognized pattern: no matter what, the culturally monstrous will come back. Writing on the trope of the monster’s “eternal return,” Cohen articulates the demands of the monster towards the culture who created it: “The monster commands, ‘Remember me’: restore my fragmented body, piece me back together, allow the past its eternal return” (ix). Thus, the Gothic trope of the return rears its head in neogothic media, producing sequels, remakes, and texts that drink their fill from one another and come away changed. The form and content of these adaptations work together to enact the return: “the seriality of television horror is […] intimately linked with the way the shows adapt, revise, and remake horror narratives that both precede them and are being created simultaneously” (Belau 5-6). Accordingly, some contemporary Gothic and horror adaptations draw not just on their source materials but on prior adaptations, indulging in intertextuality that increases meaning for genre-savvy viewers. For the overlapping audiences of Hannibal and Dracula, the reappearance of relationship dynamics and even direct lines from Hannibal signal the connection between the two television shows, each working to change the perspective through which monsters are usually viewed without erasing their monstrosity. From the intimacy of consumption to the reciprocal desire to know and be known, monster-human bonds in Hannibal and Dracula attest not just to the cultural desire for monstrous protagonists, but to an emerging mode of connection between monstrosity and humanity. Fuller, Moffat, and Gatiss create, expand, and echo a form of the monstrous-human relationship that respects the agency of all involved. Indeed, considering Hannibal and Dracula together reveals a compelling mode of monster-human relationships stepping into the sunlight of popular culture horror: one where the relationship between a human and a monster is neither predatory nor domesticating, but utterly metamorphic.


1    Messimer’s use of haptic visuality to discuss streaming horror television is, in my reading, a productive extension of Linda Williams’s foundational work on body genres. Williams identifies the commonality across genres of the “spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion” (4) and discusses how genres that depict such bodily excesses (such as horror or melodramas) interact with the medium of film to produce bodily reactions in audiences. Messimer’s engagement with haptic visuality provides a similar framework of embodied sensation for the viewer of streaming television, and so speaks to the usefulness of this medium for horror viewing.

2  While Hannibal’s general approach to cannibalism prioritizes consumption as an act of superiority, one notable exception is his sister, Mischa, who he was forced to consume by soldiers during a time of brutal starvation and military occupation. Hannibal is painfully aware of the intensity of his feeling for her, agreeing with Bedelia’s assessment that “what [his] sister made [him] feel was beyond [his] conscious ability to control or predict” and adding “or negotiate” (“Secondo”).  The love he feels for her is so transformative it is only equaled by the feelings he has for Will. It is Bedelia’s suggestive reminder of how consuming Mischa enabled Hannibal to “forgive” her for the intensity of his love towards her that leads Hannibal to the conclusion: “I have to eat him” (“Secondo”). Hannibal’s attempt to kill Will with Jack as a dinner guest occurs in the aftermath of this parallel.

3  For more on coercion in the Hannibal-Clarice relationship, and the significance of replacing that dynamic with a consensual one, see Messimer.

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I would like to acknowledge the ways in which this paper is a product of academic community by expressing gratitude to Dr. S. Brooke Cameron, who introduced me to the BBC adaptation of Dracula, and to Dr. Leslie Ritchie and my colleagues in her winter 2023 publishing practicum, who helped this paper blossom from its initial draft.