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In 1981, Thomas Harris published his second novel (and the first to feature his best-known character, Hannibal Lecter). Red Dragon introduced us to Lecter as well as Will Graham, former FBI forensic profiler, who is called out of retirement to help apprehend a demented serial killer. Lecter is among my top three favorite literary creations (along with Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying Judge in Blood Meridian and Arturo the Aqua-Boy from Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love). Red Dragon spawned three sequels over the next quarter century: The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising, all of which have their unique merits, and all of which are written in Harris’ trademark erudite prose, which rings like a silver bell, every page a pure pleasure.
Harris’ Hannibal books have been adapted for the big screen, as well, beginning with the oft-forgotten Manhunter in 1986, but it was Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in 1988’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs that put Harris – and Hannibal Lector – on the cultural map. Hannibal the Cannibal became a household name, and the forensic profiling performed by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit something a veritable trope, one borrowed by too many television shows and films to list here. It’s worth noting that when Harris published Red Dragon, forensic profiling was very much a new political technology, having been established in its modern sense when the FBI BAU was founded in 1972.
From Criminal Minds to Se7en to the innumerable true crime podcasts that have popped up in the last decade like toadstools after a rainstorm, the figure of the forensic profiler – the savant who can look upon the grisly scene of a murder and, through a semi-mystical interpretation of the evidence, come to some quite remarkable conclusions about the psychology (and identity) of the culprit. Horror as a genre has a particular fascination with the serial killer, the dark antihero/antagonist who haunts more than their fair share of horror tales. This is completely understandable – serial killers stand at the far border of human psychology, the very limit where light bleeds into utter darkness and our pedestrian psychologies (and psychologists) cannot follow.
Enter the figure of the forensic psychologist: more Merlin than Sherlock, a figure whose talents have more in common with those of a sorcerer and necromancer like John Dee than scientists Francis Crick and James Watson, the discoverers of DNA. I bring up DNA advisedly, because it is a comparatively foolproof method of determining criminal guilt as well as criminal innocence. DNA evidence, in fact, has exonerated more than 375 people wrongfully convicted of a crime, including 21 who had been originally slated for execution. And DNA – unlike much of forensic psychology and forensic profiling – is based on hard, quantifiable science.
The forensic profiler is not alone in the speciousness of her scientific “proofs” for the prosecution. Popular crime fiction would have us believe that forensics is a dazzlingly exact science, one carried out in gleaming labs by brilliant, wise-cracking professionals. Some forensics are, no doubt, rooted in good science – but an astonishing amount of forensic science that is accepted as perfectly legitimate in pop culture (and, horrifyingly, the court system as well) is complete nonsense.
Bite mark analysis? Total nonsense. Blood spatter analysis, the stuff of Dexter, another show about the psychology of serial killers? Also total nonsense. Forensic profiling is arguably not the most sinister misapplication of psychological witchcraft and woo-woo nonsense ever to grace our court system – that honor undoubtedly goes to “recovered memories” of “Satanic Ritual Abuse,” all of which were also debunked – but it’s high on the list. The idea that gifted, special geniuses have the ability to look at a crime scene and read the thoughts of the perpetrator is a charming trope, and one that has led to some excellent art (more about that in a moment), but the reality of the practice is more like calling in psychics to solve crimes than analyzing DNA evidence or ballistics.
The bifurcation between fantasy and reality can be neatly summarized in the contrast between two shows, both of which are quite excellent and both of which are currently available on Netflix: Hannibal and Mindhunter.
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