Killing for Culture
In the early 1990s the public’s interest in serial killers and their heinous crimes peaked with the film based on Thomas Harris’s best selling novel ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. The filmmakers themselves would make many statements claiming the film adaptation was not a horror film but a thriller. This claim made the film even more terrifying in the public’s eyes as there had never been a film like it before. The late 1970s to mid 1980s saw the detection and arrest of the vast majority of the A-list serial killers. Their apprehension, trial in a court of law and punishment for their crimes was played out to millions in the various news medias around the world. Names such as: David Berkowitz, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Kenneth Bianchi, Richard Ramirez, Edmond Kemper, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole were common place in news stories and were set to haunt the world evermore, just like their predecessors from decades earlier had done such as: Charles Manson, The Zodiac Killer and Jack the Ripper.
There were continual breaking news stories on serial killers in the western world. It seemed that California especially had an unholy amount of predators seeking their next victims. Many killers’ paths have unwittingly crossed in California as these killers drove up and down the long freeways and searched communities looking for their next victims. Many killers ended up dumping their victims’ bodies mere yards away from each other. Every day the news would report another poor victim found dumped at the side of a freeway or somewhere off the beaten track.
The public were constantly fed information on killers with such incriminating nicknames such as ‘The Night Stalker’, ‘The Sunset Strip Slayer’ and the ‘Hillside Strangler’. All these names were carefully crafted by the media to add a sense of fear and sensationalism to the ongoing plague of serial homicide that was sweeping the nation. The United Kingdom had its share of killers too who dominated the news media at this time. As scared as the public became, their fascination grew too and the lust for knowledge and details about the crimes that these serial killers had committed was in demand. Each new killer on the scene had their own unique signature that made them stand out from the other killers. Serial killers sell papers, books, magazines and films. No other film about serial killers has had such an impact on society as Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’.
The dramatic orchestrated music and misty opening scenes of the film captures the attention of the viewer from the very beginning. The feeling of isolation and vulnerability instantly consumes the viewer and draws them in. Even when the scene progresses and Agent Clarice Starling is amongst her peers, her vulnerability is still apparent as all eyes of her colleagues are transfixed on her. She’s been picked out and noticed, much in the same way a serial killer may walk through a crowd of people and something about someone may spark their attention towards them.
The most frightening character in the film is not necessarily Hannibal the ‘Cannibal’ Lectre, but Buffalo Bill. Serial homicide is rare; despite the constant media bombardment that may make us think it’s more common but there are different types of serial killers. Some may kill due to voices in their head such as British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, who claimed God had told him to rid the world of prostitutes. This is a common claim. Some crimes are opportunistic such as Ted Bundy who had a schematic of what he was looking for, pretty young, dark haired women with partings in the middle. In some instances he would simply wait at a public area and approach the first woman he thought he could convince to go away with him. Some killers kill out of rage and sexual motivations where the murder is a means to an end. Thomas Harris used many different serial killers as his inspiration to create the character of Buffalo Bill which comes across in the film version of his story.
The scene where Bill is hunkered down in the bushes in the dark watching his intended victim with night vision goggles, shows that he is a careful person, in that he has selected a victim, probably watched her and studied her comings and goings. The victim fills the criteria for him. She’s the right size and shape that he needs to fulfil his fantasy (although her cat is a bit of a cliché). She lives alone and arrives home to a dark, quiet, lonely secluded location where she is vulnerable. Bill gains her confidence and prays on her good nature by appearing more vulnerable then her. Here Bill adopts the Ted Bundy school of serial murder. Just like Bundy, he puts a cast onto his arm and makes himself look injured, needy and non-threatening. The good nature of the would be victim means that they can’t help but notice the struggling man. What would you do in that situation? Walk away or stop and help an injured man who is struggling? The victim does what the vast majority of us would do. This tact was something that Bundy would use to get victims to go with him and lift items into his car. While half in the car, stooped down and looking in the wrong direction, Bundy would pounce and hit the victim, ending the charade and the life of the victim.
Locked up in a Basement
In the case of the victim in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, she is taken to a location and put into a well in a basement. The prisoner has no idea why she is there but soon learns that she’s not the first and what her fate may be. Here we have echoes of Gary Heidnik. Heidnik was born in Ohio in 1943 and became a wealthy man, with a high IQ, however he had a history of mental health problems. Gary played the stock markets and made a great deal of money. He was a sexual sadist and harboured fantasies about keeping women locked up in a basement where he could condition them to be submissive sexual toys that he’d take out and abuse when he felt like it. Like a great deal of serial killers, Gary chose prostitutes as his victims. His crimes were sexually motivated. He decided to start taking women one at a time. He would eventually have multiple women chained up that he’d torture and rape. He’d get the women to torture and abuse each other for his enjoyment too. The women did this to gain favour with him. When one of the women died Heidnik would remove her body and butcher it, cutting it up and grinding it down before feeding it to the other women. Heidnik was eventually caught and executed by lethal injection in 1999.
Buffalo Bill’s squalid home is reflective of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer from the 1950s. Crime scene photos of the Gein homestead dating from his arrest in 1950s America showed boxes and crates of junk and waste material strewn around the home. This is just like Bill’s stolen house in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. Ed Gein was known about the town of Plainfield as a strange man, quiet and unassuming. He was a bit of a recluse, spending the vast majority of his time at his old farm. After his mother died Gein was all alone and lost without his overbearing mother who he loved and missed dearly. Alfred Hitchcock based the relationship of Norman Bates and his mother on Gein’s relationship with his mother. Gein made money by carrying out odd jobs around town including babysitting. The town of Plainfield has an old cemetery and Ed loved nothing more than to go up to newly buried graves and dig them up. He’d inspect the bodies of dead women and in many cases remove body parts, mostly sexual organs, and take them home where he would store them in jars. Gein was finding it difficult to live without his mother so he tried to become her. Like Buffalo Bill, he embarked upon making a ‘women suit’. He concluded this task and made a full woman suit that he’d wear around the house whilst pretending to be his own mother. This is also chronicled in Toby Hooper’s 1974 film ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, where Leather Face, played by Gunner Hansen, wears a macabre mask made out of the flayed skin of one of his victims.
When Gein was eventually caught and arrested for the murder of shopkeeper Bernice Worden he had items such as soup bowls made from human skulls, lamp shades fashioned from human skin and chairs upholstered with human flesh too. His woman suit and masks, which were made from random dead bodies as well as the body parts of some of his female victims, baffled psychologists and doctors alike. Gein died in hospital in 1984. Staff said he was a model patient: kind, attentive and well-behaved.