Halloween Horror Month: ‘The Silence of the Lambs’



Graphic by Mae Bruce

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) creates a unique horror experience.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991), based on the book by Thomas Harris, is a cult classic horror film. Directed by Jonathan Demme, this psychological thriller is a timeless piece of art, the type that gives you chills down your spine instead of jumpscares. The eerie calmness and unpredictability of the movie are what name it a classic horror film. Revoltingly, it is also based on a true story and multiple real murderers.

The movie was inspired by the real life serial killers Ed Gein, Gary Heidnik, and several others. These murderers are widely considered psychopaths, and are known for making ‘human skin suits,’ kidnapping, assaulting, and slaughtering women. One reason this movie is a classic is because of the actor’s abilities to create such enigmatic characters. They display how troubling it can be for psychopaths so show their real emotions. This leads us to read in between their words and listen to their feelings instead. After watching the movie, the audience is left with even more questions about the minds of these killers and why they take such extreme actions.

The Silence of the Lambs focuses on two deranged killers, ex-psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter and the elusive Buffalo Bill. Headstrong detective-in-training Clarice Starling is assigned to interview Lecter in prison. Starling’s goal was to obtain information or a new view into the mind of a murderer, but she gathered a much more meaningful understanding of Lecter and perhaps even an unwanted acquaintance. With warning from her chief, Starling speaks to Lecter alone, and they end up meeting multiple times throughout the film.

By definition, a psychopath is someone who does not feel empathy, mimics emotions for selfish benefits, and is egotistical, among other things. Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, utters sophistication and intelligence through his words, facial expressions, and apparent emotions. Flawless posture, a boundless vocabulary, and a strong moral code; not the type of man one would place as an unhinged serial killer. However, Lecter is just transparent enough that his selfishness shines through the mask. He has a need to feel in control, even when behind bars, and makes incredibly impulsive decisions for selfish reasons.

Buffalo Bill, played by Ted Levine, has quite an alternative personality. He is socially awkward, draws victims by pretending to be crippled, and is said to hate his own identity. However, I would argue that Bill is a psychopath as well due to his complete lack of remorse toward his victims and their families. Psychopaths and sociopaths are also said to be very charming and instantly likable. Bill’s method of snagging his victims is playing on their emotions, making them feel bad for him. This can only be achieved through the inviting personality and openness that he displays to strangers.

Played by Jodie Foster, Clarice Starling is a trainee of the Behavioral Sciences FBI unit. She is a mysterious, determined woman with a troubled past responsible for her professional, stoic attitude. Though emotionally hidden, Starling is extremely dedicated to her assignment, revealing her unyielding work ethic. Not to mention, every time a man disrespected her for being a woman, she proved herself the bigger person. This is someone who has strong, educated morals and a firm desire to do the right thing. Along with being a strong-willed detective, Starling’s habit of hiding her emotions makes her the perfect acquaintance for Hannibal Lecter. Dr. Lecter’s most powerful asset is his ability to decipher people’s feelings and influence them through that medium. Starling, however, is like a brick wall and quickly becomes wary of Lecter’s mind games. This grants her the opportunity to communicate with Lecter on more of a natural, human level.

Much of the movies genius comes from the details; anagrams, repeated phrases, intensified interactions between characters. Many of these ‘puzzle pieces’ may not even be recognized until after the movie, when it all falls into place. One of Lecter’s big interests is anagrams, which he demonstrates for Starling a few times. One translates to “miss the rest of me,” and another means “Fool’s Gold.” These codes are especially interesting because although meant to trip up the FBI, they all lead to further clues about Buffalo Bill’s identity. This is a depiction of Lecter’s desire to help and even stronger need to feel in control.

One major theme mentioned by Lecter is view. On Starling’s first trip to meet Lecter, he confides in her that “memory…is what I have instead of a view.” Later in the movie, he mentions how he longs for a view from a window with water, and maybe even a tree. This ‘view’ can be interpreted as an attitude towards his own life. While in prison, his view is very limited so his emotions are confined to anger and violence However, in theory, if he were free from prison, his view would expand to include happiness and love.

Furthermore, much of the suspense and horror comes from very dramatic, drawn-out buildups leading to very quick but intense scenes. One example is when Bill kidnaps his main victim, there is a quiet yet powerful introduction of the character, allowing the audience to develop empathy for the innocent young girl. However, when Bill actually does kidnap her, the scene is quite surprising and abrupt, a sort of cliffhanger, to keep the story rolling.

All in all, The Silence of the Lambs is a classically disturbing and realistic horror film with incredibly convincing actors, exhilarating plot twists, and a disturbed background. The movie plays on the audience’s sense of safety and emotions, reminding us that few can be trusted and we are surrounded by real life horror stories every day. However, I think it’s also important to mention that the movie turns away from shaming those with mental illnesses. It teaches the audience that there is a reason these killers are so disturbed and adds a bit of empathy towards them because it is clear how much they struggle with their emotions. This film is educational and enigmatic at the same time, as well as completely thrilling and intriguing. The Silence of the Lambs is rated R and has a few gory scenes, as well discrimination towards women. However, this cryptic thriller is sure to enthrall you as well as slightly open your eyes to the world of emotional behavior.