The true story behind the inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs‘ most infamous character, Hannibal Lecter, has its roots in a Mexican prison in 1963. Almost twenty years later, in 1981, Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon was published, and Hannibal Lecter was introduced to the world. However, it was only when The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988 that Lecter began his trajectory into the spotlight. With the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Lecter was skyrocketed to infamy, thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ stunning performance. Lecter was first portrayed by Brian Cox in Manhunter (1986), the first movie adaptation of Red Dragon, and after Hopkins’ award-winning portrayal, has since been portrayed by Gaspard Ulliel in Hannibal Rising (2007) and in TV’s Hannibal (2013-2015) by Mads Mikkelsen.
Harris drew inspiration for Hannibal Lecter from his own life. Before becoming a novelist, Harris was a journalist covering a police beat in Texas, which led him to interview Dykes Askew Simmons, an American murder convict on death row in the Nuevo León State Prison in Monterrey, Mexico, less than two hours from Texas. There, Harris met the doctor who served as the initial inspiration for Hannibal Lecter. Naturally, Hannibal Lecter is not a historically accurate depiction of any single person, but rather a conglomerate of people, personalities, and peculiarities. Harris has been relatively silent on his inspiration for Lecter, but in the 25th-anniversary edition of The Silence of the Lambs, he finally shared the random encounter with the doctor who inspired the character whom the American Film Institute voted as America’s number one villain in 2003.
In the 25th-anniversary edition’s author’s note, Harris respectfully tried to anonymize the doctor’s name with the pseudonym Dr. Salazar. However, he was ultimately identified as being Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Treviño was sentenced to death in 1961 for the gruesome murder of his lover, who he later dismembered. Known as the “Wolfman of Nuevo León,” it seems that Treviño was also suspected, but never convicted, of several other gruesome murders. According to a story published in Latin American Vice in 2013, Harris contacted journalist Diego Enrique Osorno in 2012 inquiring about the doctor he had met all those years ago in Monterrey. After diligent research, Osorno found the name that Harris was looking for, one he ultimately chose not to divulge: Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño, who died of cancer in 2010 a free man practicing medicine in one of the area’s poorest sections.
Harris’ Hannibal Lecter is a disgraced Lithuanian-American surgeon and psychiatrist, a cannibal willing to commit other crimes to conceal his nature. Dr. Treviño doesn’t share any of these traits with Lecter, and while Lecter is an unrepentant killer, Treviño, on the other hand, reportedly wanted to keep his dark past behind him, telling Britain’s The Sunday Times that he didn’t want to talk about his past crimes so as not to “wake up his ghosts.” Then what was it about Treviño that inspired Harris to invent one of the world’s most iconic fictional serial killers? Judging from his description of the doctor in The Silence of the Lambs‘ 25th-anniversary edition, Harris modeled Lecter’s physicality after Treviño’s elegant demeanor, his small yet athletic stature, and his maroon eyes. Harris describes Treviño as inquisitive and as possessing an intimate knowledge of the criminal mind, traits that he clearly shares with Lecter.
Harris met Dr. Treviño in the Monterrey prison after hearing a story that he saved Dykes Simmons’ life from a gunshot wound. He originally thought that Treviño was an employee at the prison, but learned that same day that he was actually a convict. As Harris questioned Treviño, Treviño questioned him in return regarding Simmons’ psychological complex about his facial disfigurement, a deformed lip which no doubt inspired Harris’ other Red Dragon villain, Francis Dolarhyde. Despite Treviño being the inspiration for America’s number one evildoer, Harris described him with a respect that conveys an understanding that humans are unfathomably complex and that even the evilest people can have a good side, which is ultimately the biggest trait that Treviño shares with The Silence of the Lambs‘ Hannibal Lecter.