Hannibal: What Will Graham’s Nightmare Stag Symbolizes

The figure of the Nightmare Stag, or Ravenstag, is an ever-present entity in Will Graham’s psyche that appears throughout the first three seasons of NBC’s Hannibal. Debuting back in 2013, the Bryan Fuller created Hannibal offered a bold, classy reimaging of author Thomas Harris’ title character. The show’s blend of gruesome imagery, black humor and great characters saw it gain a cult following, though it was never a big ratings winner. Although it was initially canceled in 2015 after a gut-wrenching season 3 finale, talks of reviving Hannibal for a fourth season have been re-ignited as of late due to the show’s arrival on Netflix.

Will’s visions and nightmares formed an important part of Hannibal, with The Stag making its first appearance in season 1, episode 1, “Apéritif.” The birth of the Nightmare Stag came about after Hannibal “presented” Will with the sliced, lungless corpse of Cassie Boyle, who was perched atop a decapitated stag’s head. Cassie’s body provided FBI profiler Will with additional insight into the criminal psychology of the Minnesota Shrike serial killer, though her murder was committed by a copycat – Hannibal himself. Will started to see The Stag in his dreams soon after and it tended to evolve based on his own psychological state.

In its most intrinsic form, Hannibal’s Nightmare Stag represents an almost preternatural form of intuition, which is what guides Will into the darkest recesses of the human mind while also symbolizing his complex, fraught connection to Hannibal. Throughout the show, the stag lurks amid the shadows, hovering over Will like a God in its own right, offering no protection or respite from unadulterated evil. While Will had always been troubled due to his innate ability to empathize with a killer’s deepest desires, this is deliberately pushed to its limits by Hannibal, who later leads Will to kill Garret Jacob Hobbs, the Minnesota Shrike. Hobbs’ death proved particularly traumatizing for Will and the stag’s connection to Hannibal became clearer in “Entree” when Will notices a near-identical deer sculpture in his psychiatrist’s office – which the latter later used to bludgeon killer Tobias Budge to death.

The Nightmare Stag reaches a critical evolutionary juncture when Will dreams about hunting the entity, only to wake up and vomit a severed ear belonging to Abigail Hobbs, after which, it assumes the form of a wendigo. It is interesting to note the wendigo also appears standing behind Hannibal while Will mentally catalogs the copycat murders, cementing his hunch the two identities are one and the same. Will’s inexplicable bond with Hannibal defies conventional comprehension, and the two seem to be engaged in a dizzying, mad dance, antlers locked at all times. Hence, this connection manifests in the stag’s next evolution when Will commissions Hannibal’s murder in “Mukōzuke,” after which he feels antlers bursting forth from his own back, completing his transformation.

The Stag undergoes rebirth after Will experiences near-death in the season 2 finale, manifesting in a headless, semi-human entity with black hooves and antlers sprouting from its neck in “Primavera.” This menacing entity replaces the former guiding presence of the being, symbolizing the death of Hannibal’s gift to Will, severing the psychic connection between them. This explains why Hannibal season 3 does not feature the Ravenstag in particular, due to Will being unable to exercise his connection to a killer’s mind to its fullest capacity without Hannibal – he feels incomplete without him. A terrible realization for both, the pair end up fighting the Tooth Fairy – AKA Francis Dolarhyde – in the season 3 finale, embracing each other and falling off a cliff in a final act of love and mutual acceptance.

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