• Cole McMullen

Utopia and the Butterfly: Rupture in the 'The Silence of the Lambs'

The Silence of the Lambs is (maybe debatably) a horror movie, but its narrative is never scared of anything. There are no anxieties about society at large, about the direction the world is headed in. There are only aberrations; there is only Lecter, there is only Buffalo Bill, there are only deformities in the social fabric to be tied down or eliminated as necessary. In this regard, The Silence of the Lambs is set in a utopia. [1] The film is a procedural in which the unflinching hand of the United States Government works, like clockwork, to cut through the lies and deceptions of its opponents and return order to the Rust Belt. There's none of the chaos or mismanagement of a film like Die Hard, no heartless Fed stooges fucking it all up. Things work the way they're supposed to, the way the audience needs them to. And of course they do: nothing is wrong in the America of 1991.

This is why 1991 marks the beginning of a dark age for American horror cinema. The Red Menace has been defeated, and there's nobody else to hold up a mirror and ask us if this is how we want to live. From 1991 until the release of The Blair Witch Project, the box office and horror culture at large were dominated by slasher sequels (often jokes at their own expense) and disaster flicks (the use of SFX to demonstrate mastery over fear and nature both). This is an America that has no inner demons or external enemies. And if somebody doesn't fit, if somebody like Lecter wants more than civil society can give, it's because they're diseased. The conflict of the film is psychological precisely because an America that has triumphed in the Cold War considers psychology to be the last frontier; tragedy is a failure of science, not ideology, of methods, not intentions. [2] The story that The Silence of the Lambs tells us is of the closing of the gates to paradise, and of those we leave scrabbling at the outer walls.

This was, self-evidently, not an accurate portrait of reality. We do not--and did not--live at the end of history, and more is wrong with America than was ever wrong with Lecter. Last year, critic Ian Danskin argued that, in the 90s, “the neoliberal dream did come true once, and we weren’t happy.” I think we knew this even then, if only subconsciously. The 90s did suck. We wanted more, but we knew that to want more was to risk it all coming down. It was Hannibal, after all, who became iconic. Hannibal Lecter, locked in his glass cell, is the one we identify with over Clarice; Hannibal's escape is a scene that towers over Bill's capture; Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal (2013). The vast majority of the tension in The Silence of the Lambs is drawn from the question of how long Bill can evade capture. We know that she [3] will be captured, we know the girl will be saved, we know that Clarice will solve the mystery; these things are inevitable. But once they occur, the excitement will be gone and everything interesting about the movie will be drained away. This has a powerful psychological impact on us: we want Bill to succeed. Every piece of the film's structure drives us toward this reaction like rats in a skinner box. Bill is too repulsive to identify with, however, and is constructed (through speech, dress, action) in such a way as to make this identification impossible for a mainstream American audience. Enter: Hannibal. Effete but never queer, violent but never barbaric, voyeuristic but never invasive, Hannibal Lecter is a point at which the audience can latch onto their identification with the villain in the movie, a mediator between the structural and narrative needs of the film. Every time Hannibal confounds the investigators or insists that Clarice play his game, Bill gets closer to success and the audience receives another dose of tension. These moves are victories. We need Lecter to escape because we know that Bill cannot, because we need the possibility of alternatives to continue to exist even as Buffalo Bill's alternatives, like America's, are snuffed out before our eyes.

The aforementioned escape scene is emblematic of this. The sequence of events leading to it are told from Lecter's perspective, acting as a prison break film in miniature: we see the acquisition of the lockpick, the arranging of Lecter's transport, and the orchestration of his diversion all through his eyes (and what eyes they are! Hopkins stares out from shallow focus, his face filling the frame, and his eyes seem more like windows into our soul than his). We see the pieces click into place and are hanging on every frame, desperate for the plan's execution to satisfy our pattern-seeking drives. So, when Hannibal snaps open his handcuffs, we've been happily, straightforwardly on his side for upwards of twenty minutes. When he steals a guard's truncheon, there's no reason for us to examine that sensation. As he murders two men to escape, we might feel a twinge of discomfort--but no more than a twinge. By the time it's revealed that Lecter has sawed off a man's face, we're far too invested in the mechanics to let ethics get in our way.


The film helps us perform this legerdemain, obscuring the seams where we might empathize with Lecter's victims. Famous for his empathy, director Jonathan Demme included two characters much like Lecter's guards in his prior film, Married to the Mob. These characters are introduced, characterized with simply, comically human dialogue, and then unceremoniously killed as part of another character's plot. Lt. Boyle and Sgt. Tate do not receive this empathy. They are given no humanizing touches--even the lingering shot of Lt. Boyle's personal effects strewn across the bottom of Lecter's cage only instrumentalizes him, introducing the knife Lecter will use to remove his face.

While there are dozens of bodies present in this scene, Hannibal is the only person among them. This dynamic recurs throughout the film. While so many men use subtle sexual harassment to put Clarice down, Lecter only ever manipulates her like a gentleman. When he's first introduced, he stands ramrod straight, looking at Clarice just as she looks at him: the two of them are matched equals; they have equal potential as audience surrogates. And, as they trade the position of audience and protagonist back and forth between one another, it's Lecter's respectful and honest relationship with Clarice that leads to her solving the case, and no one else. When contrasted with how the rest of the world treats him--Chilton's "most prized asset," kept caged like an animal on display--we can't help but put ourselves in Lecter's laceless shoes.


And then there's Buffalo Bill (or, more respectfully, Jame Gumb; the epithet is never one she uses for herself). Gumb is the seamy underbelly of post-Reagan America brought to life. She is cowardly, impotent, and self-obsessed; she sticks out, large and loud and refusing to submit to civil society; she literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks. Her overt sexuality is her strongest link to deviance in the language of the film, connecting her to Miggs's semen and Crawford's unsettling overtures and to the prejudiced workplace that hinders Clarice far more than it helps. "I'd fuck me," she tells herself, in a moment that is at once humanizing and deeply discomfiting. She does not speak like the others do, using stilted grammar and halting rhythms: where the film goes out of its way to show Lecter's humanity in spite of society's view of him, Gumb is shown as an animal from the start. Even the most liberal audience member is reassured that she shouldn't be sympathized with, that she isn't truly a transvestite, but something darker and lesser. Her symbol is the butterfly. She is the change that might come to America if it's not stamped out first.

And yet: even at her most deviant, Gumb gets the same shallow focus, the same humanizing touches that were denied to Lt. Boyle. And yet: the film's entire structure demands that we take pride in her competence, her ability to evade capture and the danger she poses to Clarice. And yet: without those of us who see what we need, and take it, and do whatever it takes to keep it, what stories would there be to tell?


[1] The Greek for “no place.”

[2] The closest the film comes to presenting a genuine social disorder is its relentless depiction of the misogyny experienced by Clarice--and even this is the product of the individual, close-minded prejudices of Jack Crawford and the small-town police chiefs that hamper her investigation, not of structural issues with policing.

[3] I use feminine pronouns for Gumb, following the preferred usage of multiple trans writers.