An Inspiration for Murder? The Blakean Images in Popular Culture

September 6, 2016 | Amadeus Chen

So what particular propensities in Blake’s poetry and art inspire fictional murders of the most gruesome kind? Or inspire the author to deem Blake a suitable spokesman for serial killers’ psyche? We can first take a look at Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, the painting Dolarhyde is so obsessed with that he has a full-scale tattoo of its image on his body. The gigantic and muscular figure of the Dragon unfolding its wings is imbued with sexual energy and daunting radiance, in contrast to the fragile woman lying at its feet. Such a depiction of the avatar of Satan from the Book of Revelation might remind us of one of Blake’s key texts The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which he argues that Devil stands for the “true Poet” because of its exuberant passion while God is trapped in the fetters of reason and morality.

Blake’s argument for sexual liberation against Christian and rationalist repression is somewhat reflected in his illustration of the Red Dragon, which is interpreted by Dolarhyde as an aesthetic actualization of power and sexual violence. Dolarhyde, a victim of family abuse and self-perceived inferiority due to his cleft lip, believes that through murder and molestation he can undergo his “great Becoming”— to transcend his inborn limitations and achieve wholeness and greatness as the Red Dragon. This can be seen as an alternative reading of Blake’s idea of going beyond the confinement of common perception through artistic creation and sexual ecstasy (as in mystery novels, a sophisticatedly designed murder is often elevated to the level of art).

Apart from the Red Dragon, the tiger is also a significant Blakean image in Red Dragon. When his Dragon-persona lies dormant, Dolarhyde falls in love with Reba, his blind colleague. In one scene he arranges a session in a zoo where Reba caresses a tiger under sedation. The harmless tiger lying asleep presents a different aspect of the dangerous beast, analogous to a portion of Dolarhyde’s self as a gentle man longing for love. This is a reflection of Blake’s God in “The Tyger” who made both the tiger and the lamb, suggesting that every human being created in God’s image has manifold personalities that conflict with each other. Dolarhyde is both a timid boy and the powerful Red Dragon. Similarly, with the ability to empathize with murderers, the novel’s protagonist FBI inspector Will Graham has to evoke the dark side of his nature to put himself in the position of serial killers in order to catch them. Blake’s belief that good and evil co-existing in human nature seems to inspire Harris’s molding of both the villain and the hero in Red Dragon.

In the scene where Dolarhyde devours the real Red Dragon painting in the Brooklyn Museum, Blake’s presence shifts from an influential subject to a victimized object. This scene echoes the controlling motif of the entire Hannibal Lecter franchise: cannibalism, which, as Maggie Kilgour proposes, is in essence a metaphor of incorporation in cultural and philosophical contexts. Cannibalism, a practice of extreme barbarity, is the utter antithesis of civilization. But these two are incorporated in Dr. Lecter, who not only eats human flesh but also handles it with exquisite culinary skills, accompanied by the music of Bach, Chopin, and Debussy. Such is the boundary-dissolving integration of high and low cultures. Dolarhyde eating the Blake painting epitomizes Harris’s appropriation of Blake in his novels, which is another form of cannibalism that assimilates the so-called canonized (higher) literature into (lower) popular culture.

In his Hannibal Lecter novels, Harris successfully grasps some of the essential ideas in Blake’s works and employs them effectually to present his serial killers as compelling and dramatic characters. Besides Red Dragon, there are still numerous novels, graphic books, films, and TV series that are influenced by Blake’s works. Perhaps the poet’s strong presence in popular culture suggests a reverse critical route for Blake scholars to revisit the often-overlooked dark and violent images in his poetry and art.

About Amadeus

I am a first-year PhD student in English literature. My proposed project examines the sexual and religious images in the works of William Blake, Matthew Lewis, and Percy Shelley. Aside from that, my research interests include Christian archetypes in literature, seventeenth-century libertinism, and theories on eroticism and pornography (especially Georges Bataille). My major non-academic interest lies in classical music, especially Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Mahler.

Article edited by Robyn Pritzker and Matthew Tibble.

Works Cited

Kilgour, Maggie. “From Communion to Cannibalism. An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation.” New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Williams, Nicholas M. “Eating Blake, or an Essay on Taste: The Case of Thomas Harris’s ‘Red Dragon.’ ” Cultural Critique, 42 (1999): 147-162. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

Image Credit (in order)

1. The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. 1805. Brooklyn Museum, New York. The Blake Archive. Web.

2. “The Red Dragon tattoo on Francis Dolarhyde (played by Ralph Fiennes)” in the 2002 film Red Dragon directed by Brett Ratner.

3. Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. New York: Bantam Dell, 1990.

3 responses to “An Inspiration for Murder? The Blakean Images in Popular Culture

  1. I have to thank you for something: as big a fan I am of the Thomas Harris novels I never clued in to the significance of the appearance of the tiger in Red Dragon. I have no excuse for this. I began reading Blake obsessively in my second semester in college, and can honestly say that he helped form the psyche I live with today. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Some years later I was still in college full-time, studying a degree in psychology and neuroscience. I was also working part time as a uniform patrol deputy for my local sheriff’s office, headed for a career in law enforcement. I discovered Harris’s novels at a time when I was studying the human psyche while at the same time I was doing the usual desultory dangerous stuff endemic to police work. To say that I was blown away by–especially–Red Dragon (the novel) would not be saying it strongly enough. While I would not call Harris a scholar of the mind, without doubt he made the right words come out of Lecter’s mouth, words that did not at all sound out of place to me, a senior-level student in a neuroscientific degree program. Given all that, consider this: I’ve been an ailourophile since childhood, and have been nothing short of obsessed with the pantherines for most of that time. The two most profound lines of poetry I can think of are “Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” And yet, and yet, I managed to read Red Dragon several times, see both Red Dragon and (especially) Manhunter (an excellent adaptation) several times each but never clued in to the significance of the tiger in the story. Oh well, I guess even the biggest geeks can have blind spots. In my case one could almost call it intellectual incompetence, but whatever. Better late, I say, and thanks for pointing out what should have been somewhat obvious to me. It only makes the story(ies) that much richer. This week I’m reading Red Dragon again for the first time in years, then I will follow up with a screening of both Manhunter and Red Dragon, the films. I do very much expect to enjoy myself.



  2. In addition to the works mentioned, the film ‘I Am Not a Serial Killer’ features a scene where a serial killer recites the poem ‘The Tyger’.


  3. Harris loosely based Francis Dolarhyde on the then-unidentified serial killer known as “BTK”. Like Dolarhyde, BTK engaged in necrophiliac acts with his victims’ bodies; he also wrote letters to the police alluding to an abusive childhood and being under the control of an outside influence, which he referred to as “Factor X”. Other things Harris had right was the animal abuse, B&E, photography with a Polaroid, and Dolarhyde’s fixation with the woman clothed in the sun from the Blake painting vs BTK’s Annette Funicello fixation.

    Roy Hazelwood did the profile on the BTK Killer not Douglas but I guess John Douglas endorsed it. The final profile of BTK is hard to find with only major points posted online. The poems sent to the media and the police don’t seem to figure in the profile. Maybe Douglas told Thomas Harris about the poems as I don’t think any of them were released to the public.

    Either way, it was a good guess to put an obsession with William Blake in Red Dragon if the Tooth Fairy is based on his idea of what the BTK would be like. He ended up making an accurate profile of BTK without even trying, maybe even better than the mindhunters, maybe even pointing out new “indicators” or reintroducing a lost one dealing with the somewhat problematic discussion of the relationship between creativity and destruction, or serial killers and art.


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