Bryan Fuller explained its genesis. Amina will soon explore the mythological significance of its animal components. But multiple rewatches later, I still puzzle over the meaning of the Ravenstag. What is its narrative function, and what does it convey to and about Will?
The Ravenstag makes an appearance in five of the first six episodes. In “Aperitif,” the creature enters “the misty forest” of Will’s mind before Hannibal awakens him with a knock on the door (Final Shooting Script, 18). In “Amuse-Bouche,” Will dreams of the Ravenstag trotting down the corridor outside Abigail’s hospital room. As he wakes, the sound of its hooves turn into the clicks of Alana’s footsteps. In “Potage,” the Ravenstag becomes a focal point in Will’s nightmare. He “stares at the beast” before slitting Abigail’s throat (Final Shooting Script, 30A). In “Coquilles,” it follows Will as he sleepwalks down the road. When Will pauses, the Ravenstag nudges his elbow—either a directive to keep moving or a display of tenderness. Awakened by police sirens, Will turns to discover Winston covering his six. And in “Entree,” the Ravenstag approaches Will as he sits behind his desk in his FBI classroom. Startled out of his reverie, he finds Alana and Jack to be his visitors instead.
At this point, the Ravenstag only pops up in Will’s dreams. In terms of storytelling, it informs the audience that we have left objective reality and entered his subconscious mind. If that were the beast’s sole purpose, then presumably it would star in all of Will’s dreams—but it does not. Interestingly, thus far the Ravenstag most often visits Will during a hypnagogic or hypnopompic state. Or, in layman’s terms, it primarily appears during the transition between wakefulness and sleep, and vice versa.
What do we make of this? To try to answer that question, I would like to introduce the concept of liminality. Derived from the Latin word for “threshold,” liminality denotes “a transitory, in-between state or space, which is characterized by indeterminacy, ambiguity, hybridity, potential for subversion and change.” Anthropologists such as Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner popularized theories of liminality to describe coming-of-age rituals like marriage. Literary and cultural studies then adapted the concept to examine the state of being in between fixed spheres, identities, or discourses. What makes this space uncanny, and how does it create the potential for both disruption and transformation?
Manuel Aguirre further connected the concept to Gothicism. In “Liminal Terror: The Poetics of Gothic Space,” he identifies liminality as the genre’s defining feature and source of horror. Gothic texts upset the boundary separating rationality and the Other, enlightenment and the supernatural, civilization and the wilderness. Europe has its haunted castles. America its untamed frontiers. But existing on that threshold does not necessarily result in productive subversion or change. “First, the threshold is characterized by a potential for disorder,” Aguirre explains; “second by asymmetry; third by instability” (31). In other words, the liminal space becomes unhomely, even menacing, prompting a need for escape. A triumph of reason and order. Fail, and suffer insanity or death.
Will is no stranger to liminality. His empathy disorder acts as a threshold between his own consciousness and the consciousness of others. We are led to believe that, before the events of “Aperitif,” Will is more or less capable of keeping the two separate—of shielding himself from potential subversion. Or, as Jack phrases it, getting “too close.” But the intensity of his empathy toward Garret Jacob Hobbs, combined with his worsening encephalitis and psychic driving from Hannibal, make maintaining that fragile divide increasingly difficult. The border weakens and the liminal space expands.
The Ravenstag signals the progress of that incursion for Will. First, it breaches his dreams. Shadows of his empath visions—the gruesome sight of ravens picking at Cassie Boyle’s impaled corpse, the act of cutting Abigail’s throat—cross the threshold and take root in his subconscious mind. No longer can Will sufficiently protect himself from their horrors. “It’s getting harder and harder to make myself look,” he tells Jack in “Coquilles.” “This is bad for me.” By “Entree,” the escalating emotional toll of his empath visions drives Will to tears.
But the Ravenstag does not just designate the growing liminal space between Will and those with whom he empathizes. It also indicates the encroachment of his nightmares upon reality itself—and his increasing struggle to tell the difference. Three of the first five dreams featuring the Ravenstag take place in the same location where Will resides in the physical world: the hospital, the street, the classroom. The beast is all that differentiates fantasy from reality in his mind. By appearing to Will on the threshold between dreaming and waking, however, the Ravenstag proves an unreliable indicator as to whether he is asleep. The sights and sounds of his nightmares bleed into reality, and the fixed border dividing the two states of consciousness becomes harder for Will to determine.
That is certainly the case in “Entree.” Will believes himself awake—exhausted, but awake—which explains why he looks so spooked to see the Ravenstag walk into the imagined reality of his classroom.
Visual and auditory hallucinations during a hypnagogic or hypnopompic state are common symptoms of sleep paralysis. Zeller says as much in the scene preceding the Ravenstag’s appearance. Did Jack really receive a late-night phone call from the Chesapeake Ripper? Or did he imagine it? “You’re in a deep sleep, you’re roused, you’re disoriented,” he tells Jack. “You might not even know you’re still asleep.” “I know when I’m awake,” Jack retorts. He might, but Will? Less and less so.
We might conclude, therefore, that the Ravenstag functions as a liminal marker. Its appearances identify those moments when Will journeys into the in-between spaces that divide his mind from another’s, and dreams from reality. Similar to Gothic texts, Will finds these encounters with the liminal space increasingly disturbing. Perhaps because the indeterminacy of being on the threshold exposes his growing psychological instability. His loss of control. Or, at least, that is what Hannibal would probably like him to believe. Is the Ravenstag then a warning? A creature conjured by Will’s subconscious to alert him to the consequences of being “Jack Crawford’s crime gimp”? Danger, Will Robinson! I keep coming back to how gently the Ravenstag touches Will in “Coquilles.” Is it just because his dreaming mind substitutes the beast for Winston, or because the Ravenstag itself feels protective?
As liminal marker and possible harbinger of doom, the Ravenstag then also portends Will’s ultimate becoming. Liminal spaces are characterized by the potential for subversion and change after all. As Will spends more and more time in states of in-between—voluntarily and involuntarily—he forges a new identity.
Aguirre, Manuel. “Liminal Terror: The Poetics of Gothic Space.” The Dynamics of the Threshold: Essays on Liminal Negotiations, 13-38. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, 2006.