Fava beans, Chianti … and human flesh. That was Hannibal Lecter's idea of a tasty snack a decade ago, and this past weekend movie audiences just couldn't wait to see the evil doctor serve up his next meal.
The reviews for Hannibal certainly weren't as strong as they were for Lecter's last outing, The Silence of the Lambs, and everyone has been warned of a certain stomach-turning final scene. Nevertheless, Hannibal is now the most successful R-rated release and the third strongest weekend opener in movie history.
In its first three days, Hannibal grossed $58 million in the United States and Canada.
Even the film's producer Dino De Laurentiis seemed amazed by audiences' persistent fascination with the macabre.
"I must confess I expected it to be big, but not this big," he told Reuters news service from Berlin, where the film premiered.
So what draws millions of people to voluntarily witness scenes of gratuitous violence, gore, and terror?
'Fascinated by the Bogeyman'
Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays Hannibal Lecter — the serial killer who makes gourmet meals out of his victims — attributes people's interest in his character to a fascination with our own potential for evil.
"We are fascinated by the darkness in ourselves. We are fascinated by the shadow. We are fascinated by the bogeyman," Hopkins, wearing the black dinner jacket from Hannibal's final scene, said at a news conference. "You live through someone else's nightmare for a few minutes while you're safely in the theater eating popcorn."
At one time, public hangings and executions routinely drew bloodthirsty crowds. A similar impulse regularly slows traffic to a crawl as motorists gawk at car accidents across the road.
Even the most unlikely people show a morbid curiosity in the horror genre, says Michael Kronick, president of Startifacts, a popular Hollywood memorabilia store in Las Vegas.
"Some people might find a bloody T-shirt on the wall to be disgusting, but some people really like that kind of thing. I know quiet little ladies that collect those heads from Hellraiser and put them in their living room."
Movies, he says, are a way to escape.
"People like to live vicariously through the movies. I think everybody has a little psycho side to them."
Keeping Their Distance
But just because people like a scary movie doesn't mean they want a fright in real life, says Carl Bell, vice chairman of the Taskforce on Psychiatric Aspects of Violence and a professor of psychiatry a the University of Illinois.
"It's not real, it's safe. It's like a rush, it's a thrill. Like rock-climbing or hang-gliding … Movies are a step away."
But is a fascination with Hannibal Lecter something to be concerned about?
"The U.S. surgeon general's report on TV violence and violence in films says that children who witness that stuff are aggressive for about five minutes or a half an hour," says Bell. "There's no evidence that they become criminally violent."
However, children who are predisposed to violence might be affected differently. So far no research exists on whether violent films might adversely affect adults, says Bell.
Again, Hopkins stressed that his character and the R-rated film were not for everyone.
"If people are repulsed and terrified, so be it. I understand that as well. It is not everyone's taste, if you forgive the pun," he said. "I don't think the people that see this film need to see a psychiatrist."
More Hannibal the Cannibal to Come?
The film, which cost $80 million, has been a test of whether top-notch stars and directing could boost a B-movie horror script to blockbuster status.
For moviegoers still hungry for clues to Lecter's character, Hopkins, who earned $10 million plus from Hannibal, says he is ready to appear in another follow-up titled Red Dragon.
"I would like to do one more, a sequel, which is being discussed," he said. "Hopefully that will be fairly soon, I don't know, maybe next year."
ABCNEWS.com's Willow Lawson and Claire Moore contributed to this report.