When Anthony Hopkins met with Jonathan Demme for his casting as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the actor had to ask, “Why me?”

The director, who had seen him as the doctor in “The Elephant Man,” admired Hopkins’ humanity in the part. “I think Hannibal Lecter has that same humanity,'” the actor recalls Demme saying. “I believe there’s a great capacity for love in Lecter.'”

Love might be the last emotion one would expect in a cannibalistic serial killer, but audiences and critics clearly responded to something in the film. Not only did “Silence of the Lambs” gross more than $130 million, but it swept the Oscars and bolstered Hopkins’ flagging film career as well.

The movie also gave audiences nightmarish visions and a waking fascination with the serial murderer. Just as Thomas Harris’ novel spawned a literary subgenre, the film sired a brood of cinematic copycat killers, most recently “The Bone Collector” and “The Cell.”

Now, nearly a decade later, “Hannibal” returns under Ridley Scott’s helm. Although the book has met with a largely negative response it certainly repulsed Demme, Jodie Foster and screenwriter Ted Tally it continues to dominate the New York Times best-seller list, which bodes well for its theatrical premiere. Hopkins has reportedly been offered $20 million to $30 million to star in a prequel based on Harris’ “Red Dragon.”

In the last 10 years, serial killers have gone beyond the obsession of a true-crime buff to become leading men in mainstream popular culture. Their biographies run on A&E, Court TV and the Discovery Channel. Criminals were traded like baseball players on short-lived True Crime trading cards. John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings sold for $20,000, while Guns N’ Roses recorded a song written by Charles Manson. The profiteering has become so rampant that California passed a law to prevent prisoners from profiting from their crimes.

Literary names such as Harris and Patricia Cornwell are joined by the likes of novelist Joyce Carol Oates. A name like Lionel Dahmer (the father who wrote an anguished memoir about his son, Jeffrey) guarantees a book deal. Young adults can go to a library and borrow “Serial Murder” (Chelsea House Publishers, $19.95), part of a series of crime, justice and punishment series.

Although uplifted by the occasional Alfred Hitchcock or Ida Lupino, serial-killer flicks before “Silence of the Lambs” were generally low-budget, cheapie productions.

Now the marquee features A-list names such as Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Keanu Reeves and Kevin Spacey. The horrific fantasy life of a serial killer, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, became an electric canvas of lustrous visual imagery in “The Cell.” Spike Lee found in David Berkowitz’s rampage the anxieties of the ’70s in “Summer of Sam,” and John Waters found camp in “Serial Mom.”

“Death is unfortunately a spectator sport,” says Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, a former homicide investigator, profiler and author of “The New Predator: Women Who Kill.” “We as a society enjoy being frightened.” If slasher flicks and amusement parks are engineered to titillate our fears, she points out, “what better way to be afraid than a real live bogeyman?”

The slasher films including “Halloween,” “Scream” and the just-released “Valentine” are more like modern-day morality plays, hiding their murderers behind masks and covering narrower killing grounds. Yet despite their regenerative properties, the slashers are low-rent petty criminals: Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers act more like the irritating, uninvited guests who won’t take their deaths the ultimate no for an answer. Lecter and his brethren have transcended a dark subgenre to become an archetype in American popular culture.

“He would be the archetypal antihero,” says Michael Newton, author of “The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers” (Facts on File, $19.95). “He’s a total psychotic, he eats people, and you root for him to escape.” Newton also describes Lecter as a rebel, the “social bandit” of the Old West who defies a self-serving law and order.

The serial murderer embodies the fears of modern society: rootlessness, uncontrolled individualism; the killing machine of a postindustrial age. His mask is that of an ordinary man, who emerges in terrible, vengeful clarity and then sinks back into the faceless crowd. Through him, people can probe the limits of their own humanity, the boundaries of good and evil, from a safe distance.

It isn’t necessarily a contradiction that fiction often depicts serial killers as more charming, cunning and charismatic than their real-life inspirations. .

“The reason we need to almost like them is because we all have a dark side, and we all have a little twist, a little bit left of center,” says Jennifer Furio, author of “The Serial Killer Letters” (The Charles Press, $19.95). “They allow us vicariously to tap into our own selves.”

At the same time that people clamor to understand the face of evil, they create a monster out of this Frankenstein so they can disown him from the rest of humanity. Despite the thin line that separates good and evil, “we don’t want to believe we’re like those people,” Schurman-Kauflin says.

The serial killer has been called a uniquely American phenomenon, an observation made so frequently, it seems to be a point of pride. Such murderers, though, have probably existed since time immemorial. History keeps alive the infamy of Vlad (Tepes) the Impaler or Countess Bathory, who bathed in the blood of young female virgins. Old-timer Jack the Ripper can still command attention (and yet another companion volume). America’s world leadership in serial murder (about 79 percent) is indisputable, but in Russia, one Andrei Chikatilo, branded in the 1995 cable docudrama of the same name as “Citizen X,” was convicted of 52 murders and executed.

Folk-devils, as some academics fondly call them, probably began in real life as mass murderers before legend turned them into vampires and werewolves. Vlad the Impaler, for example, inspired Bram Stoker to create Dracula. What Americans did do was give these people a name, a psychology and a permanent place in the public imagination.

FBI profiler Robert Ressler has been acknowledged for coining the term serial murderer in the 1970s. Loosely defined, says Schurman-Kauflin, “serial murder is the killing of two or more people with an emotional cooling-off period between the homicides.” Female murderers exist, but are far outnumbered by men. The victims are not necessarily strangers, although the acquaintance may be short, and they can be children and adults of both sexes. It’s estimated that there may be anywhere from 40 to 500 serial killers today.

The serial killer in the popular imagination is far out of proportion to actual numbers, but his mythic status isn’t just due to movies and books. Philip Jenkins, in his book “Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide,” asserts that the Department of Justice exaggerated serial homicide to expand its programs and influence. This coincided with the rise of the New Right, for whom the serial killer was the ideal depraved, homosexual, godless punching boy for all that was wrong in America. Other groups women’s, children’s, blacks’ and many more also seized upon this outlaw figure for their various political agendas.

Meanwhile, Hollywood found the serial killer had repulsively attractive dramatic qualities: No one would know who the next victim would be, thereby guaranteeing suspense. He would be a white male, just at a time when the list of villains was growing smaller because of diminishing political enemies (no more Communists or South Africans) and society was enforcing sensitivity (hands off Native Americans and gays). Most of all, he would link sex and violence. “Serial murder often combines sex and death, and when it comes to sex in this country, we want to know who’s doing what with whom,” says Schurman-Kauflin.

Bloodless murderers, like killer physicians and homosexual and child killers, belong on television docudramas. Serial killers who prey on women qualify for the big moviehouse. That women make easy victims is a byproduct of a sexist system and a sexist society, according to many observers. An occasional Jodie Foster or Jennifer Lopez as the female investigator attempts to address that imbalance but not very often.

Even in true-crime books, documentaries and docudramas, victims are often characterized in terms of the body count. Photos, lined up like an old yearbook page, highlight the similarity, not the individuality, of the dead. Since crimes are told after the fact, the victim’s death is chronicled with fatalistic inevitability, and in turn exaggerates the murderer’s cunning or luck.

“The fascination has been with the killer,” agrees Rikki Klieman, a former prosecutor and an anchor at Court TV. “The killer himself has become the central character in a way that the victims have fallen by the wayside.” She points out that documentaries attempt to resist this by creating a narrative balance between killer, investigator and victim, often represented by the family, the “survivors.”

“Court TV is particularly interested in the victim, the most important part of that triangle, because we’re looking at how society looks at it,” Klieman says. “While people are interested in serial killers, they obviously don’t want to be victims.”

Yet a fictional victim’s successful escape may emphasize less his or her ingenuity and more the killer’s lack of vigilance. The movie version of Jeffrey Deaver’s tale “The Bone Collector” transforms one victim from a smart, dauntless woman who escapes being eaten alive by rats to a young man who does not. Establishing the victim’s humanity, however briefly, might detract from the “star” and push audiences into that uncomfortable position of feeling outrage rather than adrenaline.

“Because we continue to feel sustained and excited on some level, and the producers and filmmakers know this, they can’t cross that line,” Furio says. “We can’t become emotionally involved in the victim’s life, so we pull back from the involvement with the victim.”

As an equal-opportunity killer, Lecter is even more respectable. “If Lecter had been portrayed as knocking off college girls, he wouldn’t be the hero,” Newton says dryly. Indeed, the doctor recognizes Clarice Starling’s worthiness, and his admirable restraint in sparing her makes him the gallant knight.

As it is, his heroic name, highly refined sensibilities and deadly charm already elevate him above the average man, much less the serial murderer of our dark fantasies. Lecter’s killings are a form of justice (the sexual primitive Miggs, the sadistic Dr. Chilton, the guards) no worse, really, than Starling’s shooting of Buffalo Bill. The taboo of cannibalism, instead of reaffirming his insanity, exalts him to a minor vengeful deity: After all, in Greek mythology, Cronus ate his Olympian offspring.

Lecter also embodies one of the irresistible ironies as the killer and the profiler. Psychology, the 20th-century talisman against darkness and evil, collides with a horror of its own making: the self-aware murderer. He dares audiences to follow him on a psychological journey and exposes their limited means of understanding, “these modern -ologies that attempt to explain to us the mysteries of the human mind but at the same time trivialize them,” Simpson explains.

Hopkins once said of “Silence of the Lambs” that “the story’s about Clarice, it’s not about me.” Now with “Hannibal,” it’s all about him, and audiences, at once repelled and adoring, once again follow the monster of their own making.