Unconventional Conventionists (not quite a Fannibal Fest recap)

*warning for show-typical gore/violence

At the first entirely fan-run convention for NBC’s Hannibal (2013-2015), Fannibal Fest Toronto, guest Vladmir Cubrt (who played serial killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs in the series) observed that he had originally expected Hannibal fans to be like other horror genre fans, only to find that we have more similarities to the participatory fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975). He didn’t elaborate much on what specifically RPHS fans and fannibals have in common (and I’m not entirely sure what distinguishes horror fans) but the comparison has lingered on a back burner in my mind for the two weeks since Fannibal Fest ended. It feels like a particularly apt comparison, but I’ve been struggling to articulate the reasons why.

At the textual level alone, both RPHS and Hannibal take the social niceties

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and turn them to their own tastelessly irreverent ends.

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(tasteless – GET IT? Hahahahaha. Ha.)

Both RHPS and Hannibal share an audaciousness that builds exponentially, beginning somewhere in a kind of performance of refinement (complete with French “enchanté” and “bon appétit”),

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and ending somewhere far more frank, explicit, and carnal.

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(favorite scene is favorite; more than anything else in Hannibal, this is one of the two I really can’t believe they got away with)

There are beasts beneath the façade of propriety

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but they’re honest about who they are, and in a way they just want everyone else to be as comfortable with the parts of themselves they can’t even acknowledge.

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Ultimately, however, both RPHS and Hannibal have an affective power that goes beyond audacity, embodied in clear call-outs to the very real threats posed by patriarchal heteronormativity. In RPHS, this is most explicitly signified in the film’s “unconventional conventionists,” a carnival of difference

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(for an admittedly mid-70s Hollywood definition of ‘difference’) that contrasts starkly with its normative mirror image.

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Hannibal, for its part, is arguably at its most damning when it takes on the palpable monstrosity of Mason Verger. There actually is someone who’s worse than serial killer-cannibal Dr. Lecter; Verger is a pedophile who literally drinks the tears of frightened children and his own sister, Margot, whom he terrorizes to the point of having her uterus removed and using her eggs and (presumably) his sperm to create an embryo, which he then implants in the womb of a sow.

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Which makes Mason’s death by deep throat singularly satisfying, visiting his every  misogynistic outrage on his own body in a visceral condemnation of toxic masculinity.

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(this is the other scene)

But I digress.

If RPHS and Hannibal have at least some textual similarities, how do their fandoms overlap? How is the one reflected in the other? At the surface level, one might point to cosplay, an echo of that enacted by RPHS fans (both those who perform the show and audience-participants), but cosplay is fairly standard fare across Anglo-American fandoms, including fetishistic costuming (which makes me wonder if the corseted costume so common at conventions in the US has any ties at all with RPHS fandom…). The same might be said for transformation and performance more generally; fannibals are not the only media fans who reenact favorite scenes, or rework the characters into entirely new, and not infrequently sexually explicit, scenarios.

Where I think Hannibal fandom is different, and where it reflects at least something of an RPHS sensibility, is in its enthusiastic, irreverent, and utterly joyful embrace of the macabre. Again, I know next to nothing about horror fandom, so there may be similarities or areas of overlap that I’m missing; but I can’t help but think that playing around with a crispy Hannibal corpse

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Photo by @yes2mongoose on Twitter

or enthusiastically sitting down to a multi-course dinner planned around the theme of “Eat the Rude” by the most wonderfully macabre food designer and fannibal abetter, Janice Poon,

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or creating fanfiction, fan art, fan crafts and so on that positively – and beautifully – swim in blood and destruction, all the while wearing our happy little (bloody) flower crowns,

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maybe says something not just about fandom, but about difference and fandom. While it’s true, more or less, of many Anglo-American (mostly) women’s fandoms, I’ve never felt more comfortable being fat, middle-aged, and socially anxious than I do at a Hannibal convention. Mine is one of those bodies that all of society’s messages say shouldn’t be seen – fat in ways that threaten to draw negative attention from people ostensibly concerned for my ‘health’, old in ways that render me almost invisible in a society that prizes youth (even as it throws that youth under the bus, see also: every article about Millennials OMG). But at a Hannibal convention, there are a lot of us who look very different from our supposed peers – we come in all shapes, colors, genders, sexualities, abilities… (for the moment, I’ll set aside the economics of con attendance; just, nothing is ever quite as utopian as one might want it to be). While I’ve seen this difference, to varying degrees, at other fan conventions, to my mind it’s seldom as embraced as an intrinsic part of a specific fan identity as it seems to be among fannibals, and it’s here that I find the most overlap with RPHS fandom – as I experienced it, if nothing else.

*an aside, for context: I became an RPHS fan in Hong Kong, in the early 1980s. The movie was distributed there for a short time, before VHS really took off, so this was my big chance to see something I’d only ever really gotten a taste of through a 20th Century Fox TV show called That’s Hollywood. And even though every person around me (and my brother, who tells me he was there even though I have no memory of this) was Chinese and middle-aged, and even though we all just watched the film in silence, I was so hooked that I learned the songs by heart and started experimenting with my hair and makeup to look just like Frank because I wanted to be him. If you look at the above picture of me and crown, you might not easily reconcile it with a young teenager trying out her (not very) wild side, but there you go. It spoke to me in a way that most media didn’t, for never having a place for someone like me. Anyway.

At this point, though, I think we begin to drift a bit from RPHS and into more overtly Hannibal territory. Hannibal is a show about nothing so much as people trying to connect with others. I mean,

It’s about connection, set against a backdrop of gore, violence, copious amounts of blood, and a singularly dark sense of humor that cumulatively, I think, invite those among us who are “not like the others” to stop and play awhile. This is where I run out of steam a bit, because I still feel like there’s stuff I’m not articulating well that’s going to take more percolating… stuff that I can’t help but feel like has a lot to do with this*

and this

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and this

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But in the meantime, for an all-too-brief few days at Fannibal Fest 2017, fannibals were the Unconventional Conventionists, and we had a pretty great time.

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gif by hannibalmorelikecannibal

*yes, it’s queer, so, so wonderfully queer – I just don’t know yet how to lay it out so it’s more a sum than a lump, so to speak