Welcome to Behind the Screams! In this article, we will be taking a look at the true stories that inspired some of our favorite horror films. Each month, we will dive into the stories behind these films and see that, sometimes, the truth is far more horrifying than fiction.
The windows were open, but not for the breeze. Instead, it was to let the hypnotic sound of the katydids wash over us like waves. The soft flicker of the television was the only light on for a mile in any direction. My grandma, an angel, sat on the couch while I laid myself down on the thick brown-and-orange shag carpet of our living room. We were alone, and we were watching The Silence of the Lambs.
For a horror fan like myself, this is the equivalent of watching a basketball game or the news. There’re more shocks and frights in an episode of Matlock than there is in this edited-for-television version of the Jonathan Demme classic. It was almost background noise for me, something to fill the time while the katydids sang their songs in my ear. Near the end of the film, I look over to my grandma, expecting her to be asleep and softly snoring. She wasn’t. Her eyes were wide, her skin pale. The small blanket she used to cover her arms was pulled tightly to her chin. She was absolutely terrified.
I felt bad at the time, but I learned years later that that experience of watching The Silence of the Lambs with me (something she did solely to spend some time with me, I reckon) kept her up for nights afterward. I didn’t understand at all. How could this, a pretty tame film by today’s standards, have that kind of effect on a person? The answer, it turns out, is not because of night-vision aided hunts in labyrinthine basements or flayed angels displayed above empty prison cells. It’s because of how grounded in reality it is.
Starting in the late-60’s, and running until the 1990’s, something horrific was happening in America. You can blame this on either lead-poisoning in our atmosphere, the return of violence and sex to our cinemas, or the CIA’s abandonment of its MKUltra participants. Wherever you place the blame, it cannot be denied that something was causing the men in our country to become monstrous serial killers.
“Wherever you place the blame, it cannot be denied that something was causing the men in our country to become monstrous serial killers.”
This three-decade span saw hundreds (seriously, I tried to count. I stopped at fifty and I was only in the “C’s”) of serial murderers stalk the streets of America. Names like Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Richard Speck, Dennis Rader, Richard Ramirez, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and David Parker Ray combined to kill thousands of men, women, and children during this time. Those are just the ones that we know of; the ones who were caught.
My grandmother lived through these times. So, when she saw Buffalo Bill don his suit and dance to Q Lazzarus, something deep in her subconscious recognized the true horrors that he represented. Something from the lizard part of her brain ran from the dark corner and screamed out. Let’s shed a light into this corner and take a look at these real-life monsters that Thomas Harris and Jonathan Demme fused together to create Jame Gumb.
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There are several aspects of Jame Gumb that are clearly ripped from the reality of American serial killers. First of all, the way he apprehends poor Catherine is directly inspired by Ted Bundy during his time in Seattle. In the film, the Senator’s daughter walks by a panting Gumb as he struggles to load a piece of furniture into a van. Seeing that he is wearing a cast on his arm, Catherine asks him if he needs help. After having her hop into the van to drag it forward, Jame strikes her over the head with his cast.
On July 14th, 1974, thousands of people jammed the beaches at Lake Sammamish, just east of Seattle. Vacationers and townies alike noticed a young, attractive man talking to several different groups of girls. He had his arm in a sling. He would approach young ladies and ask them for help unloading his boat from his car. The majority of the women said “No” or “I’m sorry, I can’t”. Janice Ott did not.
“Just like Gumb, [Ed] Gein had also fashioned a “suit” out of the skins of the women he exhumed. Police found a corset and leggings made out of their flesh.”
A few hours later, the young man was back again asking for the same help he was looking for earlier. People that spoke to him remember him saying that his name was “Ted”. While on the way to the packed women’s restroom, Denise Naslund ran into this “Ted” and agreed to help him with his boat. Years later, after his arrest, Bundy confessed that he brutally beat and raped Ott, leaving her tied up in his home. He then brought Naslund back to the same room and forced Ott to watch as he raped and strangled her to death. Their skeletal remains were found four months later.
Gumb is dubbed “Buffalo Bill” by some members of the FBI because he likes to “skin his humps”. This is also the next obvious connection that he has with true crime. In the mid-1950’s, Ed Gein and his “House of Horror” in Plainfield, Wisconsin took the nation by storm. A terribly sick man, Gein was arrested after a receipt for antifreeze connected him to the disappearance of Bernice Worden, the owner of the local hardware store. When police arrived at his home, they found Worden hanging upsidedown in his barn, with a crossbar run through the fleshy area between her Achilles tendon and ankle. Her head was missing.
When police entered his home, they stumbled upon the most gruesome menagerie in history. They found lampshades, bedposts, wastebaskets, soup bowls, seat cushions, belts, and window blind drawstrings were made from human remains. He gathered the majority of his materials from some forty trips to the cemetery where he desecrated nine different graves. Just like Gumb, Gein had also fashioned a “suit” out of the skins of the women he exhumed. Police found a corset and leggings made out of their flesh. He later admitted to them that he killed one other woman, Mary Hogan, three years earlier. He used her face as a mask.
In Gumb’s case, he made his suit because he believed that he was transsexual. The doctors at Johns Hopkins did not agree and refused to offer him the surgery he needed to transition. Since they wouldn’t help him, he decided to make himself a woman in the only way he knew how: by sewing himself inside of one. For Gein, the death of his beloved mother pushed him over the edge. He wanted to become his mother, to literally crawl inside of her skin and never leave.
“In Gumb’s case, he made his suit because he believed that he was transsexual […. Ed Gein] wanted to become his mother, to literally crawl inside of her skin and never leave.”
Aside from Bundy and Gein, there are two other American serial killers that inspired the creation of Buffalo Bill. The first of these only appears in Harris’ novel, but it plays a major factor in shining a light on the monstrosity that Gumb eventually becomes. Edmund Kemper was a serial killer that stalked the campus of the University of California in the late 1960’s. Standing at 6’9” and weighing in at well over 300 pounds, Kemper used his brute strength and “oh gosh mister” demeanor to kill six young women, a family friend, and his mother. Many years before this, however, while living with his grandparents in North Folk, California, Kemper displayed the monstrous tendencies that would cost so many their lives.
When he was 15, Kemper walked into the kitchen and shot his grandmother in the head with a hunting rifle. He shot her twice more in the back, then walked to the front of the house to wait for his grandfather to get home from the grocery store. When he heard the familiar sound of the family car, Ed walked out and shot him dead in the driveway. Not knowing what to do, he called the local police and waited in the kitchen for them to arrive.
In Harris’ novel, Jame Gumb kills his grandparents at the age of 13. The reason he gives for the brutal act is the same one Kemper gave to police when they arrived. He just “wanted to see what it felt like to kill Grandma”. Both the fictional Gumb and the very real Kemper were unable to empathize at all with other living beings. They were more object than human. “It puts the lotion in the basket, or it gets the hose again” is Jame’s attempt at the cold façade that Kemper carried with him his whole life. When asked by police why he decapitated his victims, Kemper said,
You know, the head is where everything is at, the brain, eyes, mouth. That’s the person. I remember being told as a kid, you cut off the head and the body dies. The body is nothing after the head is cut off … well, that’s not quite true, there’s a lot left in the girl’s body without the head.
The final killer that Harris took inspiration from is also the one most unlike Gumb. This is because, as of the writing of the book and the making of the film, the Green River Killer had not yet been caught. Over the span of fifteen years, Gary Ridgway killed at least 50 women in the Pacific Northwest. He claims that there are another 31 bodies out there, but police have not been able to successfully connect him to the crimes.
Ridgway, a stupid man obsessed with his Christian faith, was a “Missionary” killer who would pick up sex workers in Seattle, have sex with them, then strangle them to death. He told police that he hated “hookers” and that he felt like he was doing them a favor by “cleaning up the streets”. Like I mentioned before, he is nothing like Gumb. While we don’t know much about Jame’s mental capacity, we do know that he was not a man of faith. He did not frequent the streets and sex workers in his area, although his former lover Benjamin Raspail commented that Jame was absolutely not a gay man. Unlike Ridgway, Gumb was a “Product” killer, focused on what he would end up with after the murder (skin for his suit). The kill was merely the way he could obtain it. He took no real joy in the act, as you can see in his face as Catherine cries in his pit.
The one thing that Gumb and Ridgway have in common was their mode of disposal. For several months, Ridgway would dump the bodies of his victims into the Green River (hence the name). Gumb also used the rushing waters of rivers to obscure any trace evidence he might have left on the body. He would use different bodies of water, much like Ridgway did after the police stupidly christened him the “Green River Killer”.
“…what scares me still about The Silence of the Lambs, is the knowledge that for every serial killer locked away for their crimes, there is another out there who was never caught.”
In another interesting connection to the film, the FBI spent many hours interviewing Ted Bundy from jail asking for his help in catching the Green River Killer. Much like Hannibal Lecter, Bundy poured over crime scene photos and profiles to lend his… expertise… on the subject. It was Bundy who correctly predicted that the Green River Killer would move from river to river, even crossing state lines to confuse police. He also correctly stated that the killer would often return to his victims to have sex with the bodies.
These men, like Jame Gumb, were captured and are paying the price for their crimes by either execution (Bundy), being locked away in a mental asylum (Gein) or rotting in prison (Ridgway and Kemper). What scared my grandma that night in our living room, and what scares me still about The Silence of the Lambs, is the knowledge that for every serial killer locked away for their crimes, there is another out there who was never caught. There are despicable men like Jame Gumb in almost every city in America. They may never give into their perverse desires like Buffalo Bill, but they are there. Oh, yes, they are there. The next time you are out walking your dog, or taking your kids to the park, make sure you pay special attention to the man that offers a friendly wave. Sure, he might be just thinking about being a good neighbor, but he could be thinking about something else entirely.
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