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Gothic Tropes in NBC Hannibal: Forbidding Landscapes and Structures

Happy Friday, Persephoneers! Do you remember watching those old and goofily scary movies around Halloween, old reruns of Scooby Doo, or reading Nancy Drew when you were younger? What did a lot of those have in common? Think really hard.

Maybe these stories share some old, rickety, castle-like houses with hidden passages and trap doors, located in the middle of some really deep, dark, spooky woods? Or how about the isolated, ancient manor house on the moors of England, like in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase? Does the house hold a terrible secret or curse, like Bertha Rochester being kept a prisoner in the attics of Thornfield like in Bronte’s Jane Eyre or the spectral hound in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles? Did you know that these are tropes from the gothic novel, too, and that NBC’s Hannibal has made use of the forbidding structures and landscapes to help set an underlying sense of dread and fear?

While deserted castles and English manor houses might not necessarily exist in the U.S., the showrunners of Hannibal have found several buildings that resemble them and yet also bring the feel of the eighteenth-century gothic novel to the twenty-first century. Hannibal’s office, for example, looks much like an isolated English manor house. While the rest of the buildings around it are quite modern, and the house is quite lovely, it’s very different from the other structures around it. Much like Thornfield Hall, it has its secrets, secrets which its owner would no doubt like to remain within the building’s walls. In some shots, the house looks almost menacing and malevolent. Even though the viewer knows what goes on there, the characters in the series don’t, and the unknown possibilities of what might befall them in this house only add to the viewer’s sense of dread.

Hannibal's house at night. Screen shot from NBC Hannibal.
Hannibal’s house at night. Screen shot from NBC Hannibal. Image via

The Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane probably looks the most like a castle out of all the structures that figure prominently into the series. The state hospital is a prison, so captives are kept there, and that lends a claustrophobic aura to the building. It’s rather reminiscent of the convent in Matthew Lewis’s gothic novel The Monk: there were secret passages and dungeons within the convent where errant young novices who had incurred the wrath of the mother superior were held indefinitely. And this might be a stretch, but Dr. Frederick Chilton, the ambitious head psychiatrist at the hospital, is almost comparable to that mother superior, in that he must watch over his patients as the mother superior watched over the nuns in her convent.

Baltimore State Hospital

The landscapes used in many of the scenes are stark and bleak, lending to the atmosphere of the series. Will’s farmhouse, for example, is located on a rather isolated plot of land and is the only house for some miles. This only adds to the character’s sense of isolation as the series progresses. The land surrounding his house is barren, dark, and cold, since most of the series occurs in the winter. It adds to the brooding sense of death that pervades the show; not only is the plot driven by death, particularly violent death, but death is starting to become part of every aspect of Will’s life, and it is only adding to his slow descent into madness.

Interior of Will's farmhouse

Barren, gray landscapes also add to the sense of fear and dread at some of the crime scenes, particularly the one in Episode 9, True Normand. The rather gory crime scene is beside the ocean in the middle of winter. Nearly everything is gray and gloomy, from the sky to the ocean to the sand itself. Everything looks eerie and almost surreal, just as the tower made out of corpses on the beach is. And the sense of death is ever present.

Corpse tower image from NBC's Hannibal.

Have any of you ever noticed and of this throughout the series, particularly something not mentioned here? Please share!

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