The Real Monster in “The Silence of the Lambs”

Monstrous Silence

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector

Hannibal Lector.  The very name can send shivers up and down ones spine.  The haunting image of one of horror genre’s most memorable figures is what people remember the most after watching Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.   He may be unforgettable, but is he frightening?    Upon closer examination of the movie, one comes to ask who the real monster is.  Does a monster have to be frightening?  Is the monster what scares the audience or what threatens the film’s characters?  Or is the real monster, not a literal monster at all, but an outside force that creates the evilness in the villain?  After reading the work of three different theorists, Grant, Wood and Sharrett, one can begin to answer these questions.  The film is unusually interesting because there are numerous monsters, each one monstrous in its own right depending on how one defines the term.  According to Grant, the monster is any threat to the female character, or rather the men who victimize the women.  The three men in The Silence of the Lambs are the real threat to Clarice, endangering her life and her job, and are in general doing her more harm than good.  Her boss Crawford, Hannibal’s doctor Chilton, and the serial killer Buffalo Bill are the three men who threaten her.  It is not only the male who victimizes that female that is the monster but in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, the gender stereotypes are role reversed.  This results in a different kind of monstrosity: femininity that is revealed through repression and oppression; a theory expanded on by Robin Wood.  According to Wood, the movie contains two monsters.  The Other is divided into two monsters in the film, and they represent what the society has repressed and oppressed.  These two monsters are Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lector.  One society has oppressed, the other society has repressed, yet both return as a threat.  A slightly different take on the Other is in the essay by Sharrett, who prefers to pinpoint one “scapegoat”(Sharrett 257), which in this case would be Buffalo Bill.  Although Hannibal is obviously mentioned as the other main psychopath in the movie, Sharrett nicely points out that Lector was “obviously constructed as a monster” (Sharrett 257) and is twisted to create an even greater monster out of Buffalo Bill.  By examining each of these theorists more thoroughly, we can begin to understand the social tensions created by the monsters in The Silence of the Lambs.

After reading the introduction to the text “Dread of Difference” by Barry Keith Grant, one can identify numerous themes within the “Silence of the Lambs” that make it horrific.  Grant states that the “essential truth” about the horror genre is “preoccupied with issues of sexual difference and gender”(DD 1).  Both sexual difference and gender are exploited within the film. He points out that the predominate monster’s gender is male   and that even when a monster is gender-less, it sexually victimizes the female character giving it a monstrous masculinity (Intro 2).  This is true in The Silence of the Lambs.  The serial killer Buffalo Bill is a transsexual, or at least he “believes he is one” according to Dr. Lector.  His confusion over his sexuality leaves him gender-less.  According to Grant’s theory, the fact that Buffalo Bill victimizes woman gives him a monstrous masculinity.  However, this theory is given a spin when the FBI agent, Clarice Starling, discovers that Buffalo Bill is skinning these young woman to create a female suit.  It is not so much Buffalo Bill who is monstrous as femininity itself.  When Buffalo Bill is dancing for the camera, he is no longer monstrous because of who he victimizes.  The audience experiences a sense of horror watching this scene.  They are confronted with what Grant has discussed as the “visual representation of bodily difference”(DD 6).  It is Buffalo Bill’s femininity that is monstrous.  His glamorous makeup and flowing gown, combined with his dance that ends with his penis tucked between his legs, is an exploitation of femininity.  Buffalo Bill’s body has become what Grant calls the “sight/site” of horror (DD 8).

Grant continues to discuss gender and refers to Greenberg’s beast in the boudoir theory.  The common image of the “monster coded as male and the victim female” (DD 5) is an image also found in The Silence of the Lambs.  Clarice is constantly being threatened by the male figures that surround her.  Both Dr. Lector’s doctor Chilton and Starling’s boss Crawford are threats to both Starling’s career and life.  Chilton first creates problems for Clarice by hitting on her.  She is forced to swallow her pride and flatter him by saying she would have “missed the pleasure of his company”.  He then proceeds to complicate matters by revealing to Hannibal that the offer Clarice proposed to him was phony.  Chilton gloats in satisfaction when he tells Hannibal this, further revealing his monstrousness.  The other man who is a threat to Clarice is Crawford.  He exerts control over her by not revealing to her the real purpose behind her first visit with Lector and uses her to get information out of Lector.  Once Clarice finally establishes trust with Hannibal, Crawford threatens to break it by not informing her that the offer she is about to propose to Lector is fake.  As Clarice grows more confident with the case, the less her boss acknowledges her.  In the end when she discovers the truth about Buffalo Bill and eagerly tells Crawford the news, he dismissively tells her that they have already found him.  At this point he fails professionally and unknowingly puts Clarice in danger.  His swat team arrives at the wrong house and Clarice ends up face to face with Buffalo Bill.

In the end, Clarice is the hero, who saves Catherine.  She had to defeat the patriarchal figures around her in order for her to earn a place in the FBI.  Grant mentions Tarrat and McConnall and how the “monster (desire) must be defeated by the male hero in order for him to succeed in winning the hand of the attractive daughter….” (DD 4).  If the male gender is looked upon as monstrous, it is also that position of power that Clarice so desperately desires.  Therefore Clarice, our hero, must defeat the male monsters before she “succeeds in winning”.  This role reversal, having a female hero instead of a male, is another example of the flipped gender specific monsters.  While patriarchy threatens Clarice, her femininity is a threat to them and creates complications for herself.  Clarice dresses very plainly and professionally.  She doesn’t wear a “night gown” or a “wedding dress” as discussed in the beast in the boudoir theory; yet she is not treated as an equal.  When they are at the scene of a crime, Crawford tells the officer that he wants to speak to him “not in front of the lady”.  Furthermore, her femininity is a threat to Chilton and Crawford.  Starling rejects the sexual advances from Chilton and proves in the end to be smarter than Crawford.  She handles the situation by herself and doesn’t need to be rescued- snatching the “coveted” patriarchal position from under their noses.  Clarice must repress her femininity in order to fit into the male role.  Grant also mentions Robin Wood in the introduction who explains that what is repressed is what is monstrous.  Femininity once more is monstrous because Clarice must try to repress it due to the male monstrosities that threaten her.  While Clarice must repress her femininity, Buffalo Bill’s femininity has been oppressed.  According to Wood, the “true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses” (DD 4).  Therefore the Jekyll-Hyde paradigm (Grant 5) of Clarice repressing and Buffalo Bill being oppressed suggests that one of the monstrosities in The Silence of the Lambs is femininity itself.

Buffalo Bill is also considered a monster when one examines the theory by Robin Wood.  His theory is a basic formula for all horror films; that normality is threatened by the Monster (Wood 175).  He suggests that whatever society oppresses or represses will come back as the monster, and when normality is restored, society is once again put back into a state of repression.  He defines, in psychoanalytic terms, that repression is what is not accessible to the conscious mind, and that we are oppressed by “something out there” (Wood 166).  Wood continues to point out aspects that are repressed in our culture.  One of the key elements is bisexuality, or sexual energy in general, for it is the “most obvious threat to the norm” (Wood 167).  He links repression directly with the notion of the Other; that which the bourgeois idealism cannot accept and that threatens their existence.  They respond by either destroying it or assimilating it.  What is repressed is henceforth projected onto the Other.  Society represses what is different from the norm, and it is the relationship between normality and the Monster that is the essential subject of horror (Wood 176).  In The Silence of the Lambs, there are two monsters defined by this theory.  One is Dr. Hannibal Lector, who has been repressed from society.  Lector is a cannibalistic serial killer, an obvious threat to the bourgeois idealism.  Thus society repressed him, and locked him away.  However, what is repressed always “strive to return” (Wood 177) as a monster, and in Hannibal’s case they need him to come back.  One can look upon Hannibal as being repressed in the unconscious minds of society, and it becomes Clarice’s task to unlock him.  When she does, he reveals certain motifs that ensure him as a monster.

Hannibal is ambivalent and he extends our attitude to normality (Wood 177).  He “horrifies us with evil and delights us with his intellect, his art” (Wood 177).  Although we are not entirely sympathetic towards him, we do not fear him for he poses no threat to Clarice as she says so herself: “He wouldn’t come after me…..he would consider that rude”.  He is a repressed monster for he represents what we unconsciously wish for.  When he succeeds in escaping by killing both security guards and leaving in the ambulance, we silently cheer.  Our society appears so secure that when he breaks free we release our own repressed feelings, for unconsciously he has fulfilled our “nightmare wish to smash the norms that oppress us” (Wood 177).

Dr. Lector also displays certain motifs from the 1960’s horror films that intensify his relationship with normalcy (Wood 183).  One motif is cannibalism, functioning both in a literal and metaphorical way.  Hannibal was repressed from society because he literally ate the bourgeois (his patient).  Throughout the course of the film, he takes a bite out of a security guard (the law) and at the very end he eats “an old friend for dinner”.  This would be Chilton, who represents the media.  Similarly in Psycho, Norman Bates was created by his family, whereas Hannibal was created by the society around him; normality is the reason for the monster (Wood 175).  The cannibalism motif also works in a metaphorical way, in the sense that Clarice is “feeding” Lector.  She feeds him information about the case, and she feeds him information about herself.  Clarice is Lector’s link with normality, and their relationship is based on this bond between monstrosity and normality.

A final motif that is central to the monstrosity of Hannibal’s character is the sense of “grotesque comedy” similar to that in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Wood 191).  When Dr. Lector deliciously says, “A census taker once tried to test me.  I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”, the film’s “sense of fundamental horror is closely allied to a sense of the fundamentally absurd” (Wood 191).  By the end of the film, the audience feels that Lector is almost justified to eat people.

While Hannibal represents the “repressed”, Buffalo Bill represents the “oppressed”.  Buffalo Bill is the other monster in The Silence of the Lambs, according to Wood, because society has oppressed him.  Lector describes him as “a thousand times worse than the transsexual”, and this means a lot coming from the monster himself.  The oppression of Buffalo Bill also draws from motifs from the 1960’s.  He is the product of an abusive family, which not only results in his psychotic tendencies, but he also believes that he is a transsexual.  This is an obvious threat to the norm, and this is proven for he previously applied to sex change clinics, and was rejected; he was a rejection from society.  His female sexuality does not fit the social norms of femininity and masculinity (Wood 167).  His relationship with normality is tortured, and since he cannot fit into the predetermined roles of society, he must make a “suit” so that he is able to fit in.  He kills young woman for their skin, and is creating a feminine skin for himself.  This perverted, monstrous and excessive release of sexuality is the logical outcome of repression (Wood 189).  Thus, Buffalo Bill is oppressed product of a dysfunctional family and comes back as the other monster.

This opinion of Buffalo Bill as the monster in The Silence of the Lambs is also shared by the influential theorist Sharrett, who also draws on Wood’s concept of the Other.  He states that we must pay attention to the Other, for over the years the concept of what is radical has become desensitized due to the fact that society has become more cynical (Sharrett 257).  The Others that used to be implied off screen are now more liberal due to our neo-conservative culture and our need for “sacrificial excess” (Sharrett 257).  There are four aspects of this “sacrificial excess” that the horror film offers.  First there is the logic of the dominant order that is discredited then reaffirmed; the free sexual expression of the female figure; the diversity and culture that is subdued and the recognition of the Other that will either be destroyed or incorporated (Sharrett 257).  The Silence of the Lambs follows this formula, and according to this logic the Other is represented within the tension between Clarice Starling and Buffalo Bill, both rival and scapegoat.

The tension is created by the clash of feminism and gay culture.  Clarice “covets what she sees everyday”, which is a job in the FBI, a patriarchal position.  To do this she must destroy her rival Buffalo Bill who has an imitative desire to possess what Clarice wants, a role, a place in society.  Buffalo Bill has no real place in the society that created him.  His sexual ambiguity is called “monstrous” by Lector, who is obviously constructed as a monster in order to disturb the Other (Sharrett 258).  The dominant order is at first discredited, but reaffirmed at the end of the film when Clarice sacrificially kills Buffalo Bill and Lector is set free of his role.  She is then able to claim her coveted patriarchal position in a diverse triangle created by Lector, Crawford and her dead father.  Through her sessions with Lector, she is able to gain Crawford’s approval, find Buffalo Bill and silence the screaming of the lambs in her head.

Sharrett further qualifies Buffalo Bill as the monster by discussing the film Near Dark.  The vampires are the threat to normalcy, and thus always separate from the normal family.  The excessive violence and punk attitude is recognized as the neo-conservative liberalism that is associated with the Other.  Buffalo Bill, like the vampires, lives apart from society and his flamboyant transvestite dance is similar to the punk culture of the vampires.  Similarly, he views his own kind as “repugnant”(Sharrett 26) like the vampire May who is in love with the human Caleb.  Both Buffalo Bill and the vampires live in such an excessive, diverse universal that they must be repressed from the norm.

One can also compare the behaviour of Buffalo Bill to the Cenobites from Hellraiser that Sharrett also mentions.  There is a major emphasis on the sexuality of the female and the idealization of the female body (Sharrett 261). The Cenobites represent repression and desire, and as a result are sexually aggressive and associate erotic transgression with self-destruction (Sharett 262).  Sexuality is associated with evil, similarly to the extent Buffalo Bill goes to achieve the ideal female body, the excess of which is repulsive.  Likewise, the female Nightbreed’s sexuality in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, is further defined by their grotesquerie, further connecting female sexuality with evil.

Sharrett also discusses Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and how Dracula can only be humanized when he is “recouped fully into romantic love, monogamy, and Christianity” (Sharrett 266).  Dracula’s androgyny is also emphasized, intending to be unsettling.  If Dracula is compared with Buffalo Bill, then the results, again, are monstrous.  Buffalo Bill’s transsexuality is very unsettling, and the fact that he has no romantic love interests and no religion in his life dehumanize him to a monstrous state even more.

According to Sharrett, the monster in The Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill.  He threatens the dominant order of Clarice’s life; his diverse universe is separated from the norm such as the vampire culture in Near Dark; he is excessively sexual and can be compared to the monsters from Hellraiser and Nightbreed; and his lack of love and religion dehumanizes him like it does for Dracula.

The Silence of the Lambs is a unique horror film in the way that it bears many monsters.  The monster varies from each theorist depending on what exactly is being threatened.  In Grant’s article, the monster is determined based on what threatens gender.  Normally in a horror film the monster is typically of male gender, for it victimizes the female character.  In this film however, there are many role reversals.  The serial killer is transsexual and the hero is female.  When one observes the males who pose threats to Clarice and examine both Clarice and Buffalo Bill as part of Wood’s repressed/oppressed theory, one can conclude that what is monstrous is femininity.

In the opinion of Wood, the monster is what threatens normality.  What the society represses or oppresses comes back as a monster, as the Other.  In this case, there were two monsters; one was repressed in society and the other was oppressed in society.  Hannibal Lector is the monster that was repressed in society, and his relationship to normalcy is associated with such motifs as ambivalence, cannibalism and grotesque comedy.  Buffalo Bill is the other monster that was oppressed in society, and his relationship to normalcy can be explained by such motifs as the family and the inability to function in predetermined roles.

The last theorist determined that Buffalo Bill is the monster by examining how the concept of the Others is threatened.  In the neo-conservative culture of liberalism and excess, the original concept of the Others has become less radical.  By examining four aspects: the dominant order, sexual expression, diversity and culture and the destruction of the Other, one can observe how Buffalo Bill either destroys or exploits these aspects and reveals his monstrosity.


Grant, Barry Keith. Dread of Difference. Introduction. 1996: University of Texas Press; p. 1-11.

Sharrett, Christopher. Dread of Difference.“The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture” 1996: University of Texas Press; p. 253-272.

Wood, Robin. Planks of Reason. “American Horror Film” p. 164-199.

The Real Monster in "The Silence of the Lambs"
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The Real Monster in "The Silence of the Lambs"
The Real Monster in "The Silence of the Lambs"
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