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.
We’ve heard it a thousand times from a thousand different critics. “The Silence of the Lambs isn’t a horror film, it’s a psychological serial murder thriller with notes of subversive family drama,” they say as they choke on their gold flavored caviar, “horror is below such a film as this.” Well, sorry to rain on your annual “Fight to Deregulate the Banks” fundraiser, but The Silence of the Lambs is a horror film, and it’s one of the finest that has ever been made. Let me tell you a story, and you’ll see why.
Several years ago, I was back home from school and decided to watch The Silence of the Lambs in our living room. It was one of those “late night cable finds” that you stumble upon when there’s nothing else on. It was already a quarter of the way in, and edited for television, but there are still worse things out there to watch. My grandma, who is an Angel on this Earth, decided to spend some time with me that night and sat down to watch it. As the final credits rolled over the image of Hannibal stalking Dr. Chilton down a busy street, I look over at my grandma, and she looked like Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. She was terrified, and later told me that she couldn’t sleep for a few nights after watching that movie with me. It’s a full decade later and she still brings it up as one of the most traumatizing moments of her life. and I couldn’t understand why for the longest time.
Now, I think I’m beginning to see where she’s coming from. You see, The Silence of the Lambs is a horrifying film because none of it is implausible. It’s terrifying because it could happen. It’s dreadful because we have seen it actually happen in the real world. While the adventures of Dr. Lecter and Buffalo Bill are works of fiction, they are inspired by the lives and crimes of several real people. Thomas Harris, the author of the book and creator of these characters, took five or six different serial killers and stitched them together like a woman-skin-suit to create two of the scariest and most iconic characters in horror film history. Let’s take a step back and look at a few of these men and see how Harris was able to borrow from their psychology and their deeds to give my Grandma nightmares for the rest of her life.
Mr. Bundy is all the rage right now thanks to the Netflix documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, was released a few weeks back. People online (including myself) have been debating each other about his charm, or his true nature, ever since it dropped. Combine that with the release of a shockingly-jovial trailer for the new film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,and you have something smacking the zeitgeist right in the face.
While his attractiveness and intellect will always be under question, what never will – is his brutality. This is evidenced in the way Ted Bundy used trickery to get close to his victims. In The Silence of the Lambs, we only see Buffalo Bill attack and capture one victim, young miss Catherine Martin. We watch as Bill uses his night-vision goggles to surveil the Senator’s daughter and plan his move. As she gets out of her car, Bill gets her attention by loudly failing at loading a couch into his van. She looks at him and can see that he is wearing a cast and goes to help. Once she is in the van, Bill strikes her over the head multiple times with the cast, leaving her unconscious and helpless.
We all know the scene and how it plays out, but what many people might not know is that is one of the many tactics Ted Bundy used to get his victims close to his vehicle. On July 14th, 1974, Bundy abducted and killed two women from the Sammamish State Park using this very method. He approached seven different women that day, asking for their help in getting his sailboat off the roof of his car. Five of those women refused to help him, but Janice Ott and Denise Naslund did not. He took both young ladies to the same secluded woods and made one watch as he raped and murdered the other. Bundy was also known to wear leg casts or to wrap his wrist in Plaster of Paris to feign an injury. Of the thirty or more women he killed, it’s thought that at least half of them fell for the exact ruse Catherine did in The Silence of the Lambs.
Bundy’s method for attack isn’t the only thing that influenced Thomas Harris and the makers of the film. There is a lesser known part of Bundy’s life where, after his conviction, he partnered with the FBI and helped them with psychological testing and profiling of ongoing serial murder investigations. In the film, Jack Crawford sends Clarice to meet Dr. Lecter to see if she can convince the brilliant doctor to help them with the Buffalo Bill case. In 1984, the real FBI approached Ted Bundy and asked for his help in the Green River Killer case. Much like Hannibal was able to lend important information to Clarice in return for lurid details about her life, Bundy was able to determine that the Green River Killer would often return to his grave sites to have sex with the corpses. He even went so far as to suggest that they stake out any fresh graves they find. Even though it took another twenty years (and likely 50 more victims) to catch the Green River Killer, Bundy was as right as Lecter in his profile.
Speaking of the Green River Killer, Buffalo Bill displays a few traits that you can directly trace back to Gary Ridgway, the aforementioned killer. Ridgway was a missionary killer and a sadomasochist, which couldn’t be farther from Bill’s motivations, but his method of disposal and his extra-curricular decoration can be seen in Bill’s actions.
Gary Ridgway was a maniacal Evangelical Christian who, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, raped, strangled and desecrated the corpses of over seventy sex workers and underage runaways. He was eventually convicted of killing 49, making him the most prolific serial killer in American history, but he confessed to over seventy of these crimes. He was called the Green River Killer because that’s where he disposed of the first five of his victims (after seeing this in the newspapers, he decided to change his dumping ground). Much like Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, Gary left the bodies of his victims in the water of a fast-flowing river, helping to destroy any forensic evidence there might have been on the body.
That’s not the only thing that Gary and our boy Bill have in common. Much like our Precious-loving murderer in the film, Gary would sometimes insert objects in his victims. Bill would leave the pupae of the Death’s Head Moth behind the soft palate of his victims, signifying their role in helping his transform into his final form. Gary Rigeway, not as smart or thoughtful as Bill, would insert triangular rocks into the vaginal cavities of some of his victims. We don’t know why he did this, and he has never volunteered that information, but Harris wrote the book before Ridgway was apprehended. At the time of the story’s writing, this looked like it was an important part of the Green River Killer’s ritualistic motivations. It was only after he had been arrested that we learned that he could barely think that we figured out that it was just something fun that a monster decided to do to further desecrate his victim.
If you ask five people what the scariest thing about the Silence of the Lambs was, you will most likely get five different answers. The one that has stuck with me the longest, however, is the shot where Clarice stumbles upon Jame’s fashion studio and looks at what he has hanging on the mannequin. You can’t talk about Buffalo Bill and not mention Wisconsin’s very own Ed Gein. This man, while he was convicted of killing two women in 1957, is best known for what he did with bodies that he borrowed from the local cemetery in his hometown of Plainfield.
On the evening of November 16th, 1957, police arrested Ed Gein on suspicion of killing the owner of the local hardware store, Bernice Worden. When they arrived at the Gein farm to search for evidence of the murder, this is a small sampling of what they found:
- The body if Bernice Worden, decapitated, hung upside down and “dressed like a deer” in a shed.
- A wastebasket made of human skin.
- Several chair seats made of human skin.
- Skulls on his bedposts.
- Bowls in the cupboard made from human skulls.
- A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist.
- Masks made from the skin of female heads.
- Nine vulvae in a shoe box.
- A belt made from female human nipples.
- A lampshade made from the skin of a human face.
I could keep going, but you get the picture. Harris drew a direct inspiration for Buffalo Bill’s skin-suit from the crimes and psychosis of Ed Gein. We aren’t sure if Ed ever tucked-himself and danced to “Goodbye Horses”, but I’m sure he would have loved to if he had the chance.
Gary Heidnik and H.H. Holmes
This is where we start to get into inspiration controversy. Many websites and authors that I read to prepare for this article stated that the pit in Bill’s basement is based on of the murder spree of Gary Heidnik. This very well may be the case, because a lot of the facts line up, but there’s something gnawing at me that says it isn’t the whole truth.
Heidnik was arrested for the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of six black women in the spring of 1987. He had a pit in his basement where he would keep these women, sometimes for weeks before either letting them die of starvation or by electrocuting them to death. He would use a hose on the women, filling the bottom of the pit with water, then drop a frayed extension cord down onto the bottom. If this didn’t work (it only successfully killed one of his victims, the rest of the time he just did it for fun), he would finish the deeds by placing duct tape over his victim’s mouths and stabbing them through the ear with a screwdriver.
Now, obviously, this sounds a lot like Buffalo Bill, even down to him using the hose on the women as a torture device, but there’s a problem. Harris’ book was published in 1987, the same year that Heidnik was arrested and convicted of his crimes. I seriously doubt that this had any influence on Harris as he wrote the book in the years before its publication. Instead, I think that Bill’s basement was heavily influenced by H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer and owner of the Chicago Murder Hotel.
When Clarice is stalking Bill through the labyrinthine basement, I couldn’t help but think about Holmes and his murder castle. Much like Bill, Holmes had rooms dedicated to specific sections of his psyche. He had a room where he kept the elderly previous owner of the home, he had a room for his moths, he had his sewing room, and a room where his pit was located. Holmes had rooms in his basement for gassing, dismembering and cremating his victims. When you look at the two men, and their places of preferred hunting, it’s hard not to see the influence Holmes has on Harris and his creation, Buffalo Bill.
As you can clearly see, The Silence of the Lambs is terrifying because every single aspect of the film can be traced back to a very real serial killer or a very real crime. It shows us that the very real people next to us can be just as monstrous as any demon or creature horror can throw our way. Even so, these are just a few of the true killers that Thomas Harris used to form his ideas for both Buffalo Bill and Dr. Hannibal Lecter. For an even deeper analysis on his inspiration for the good doctor, check out this article from Uproxx or his introduction for the 25thAnniversary edition of The Silence of the Lambs.
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