Understanding Silence of the Lambs’ complicated cultural legacy

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Jodi Foster’s Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. | Orion Pictures

30 years after its debut, the classic horror film’s influence is so much bigger than Hannibal Lecter.

The movie version of The Silence of the Lambs just turned 30 years old, and even setting aside all the fava beans and chianti jokes, it’s not a stretch to call the 1991 horror movie about an epicurean cannibal and the young FBI agent he mentors in the hunt for a serial killer one of the most important films ever made.

On one level, Silence of the Lambs’ critical accolades speak for themselves. It remains the only horror movie in history to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It is one of the few films ever to deliver lead acting Oscars to both of its leads: Jodie Foster as the troubled agent Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as psychopath-cum-psychologist Hannibal Lecter — though Hopkins appeared in the movie for less than half an hour. And it’s one of only three films in history to sweep the “big five” Oscar awards — a full house of the two lead acting Oscars, Best Adapted Screenplay (to writer Ted Tally), Best Picture, and Best Direction to Jonathan Demme.

Then there’s the cultural staying power of Silence of the Lambs and its characters, as well as the entire series of novels by Thomas Harris on which they’re based. A previous attempt to bring the Harris novels to the screen, Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter, which featured Succession’s Brian Cox as Lecter, was a box office flop. But the success of Silence of the Lambs in 1991 eventually spawned a sequel (2001’s Hannibal), two prequels (2002’s Red Dragon and 2007’s Hannibal Rising), the critically acclaimed NBC series Hannibal (2013-2015), and the CBS crime procedural Clarice, which debuted this month.

It also engendered decades of parodies, references, and homages throughout every corner of pop culture, from Billy Crystal’s famous entrance to the Oscars in 1992 to comedy sketches, Lego reenactments, and countless riffs in movies and on TV. The sheer cultural dominance of Silence of the Lambs over the years is hard to quantify; at this point, it’s likely that every major scene from the film is recognizable to many Americans, even if they’ve never seen it, just from the overwhelming number of references that have permeated pop culture — from the fava beans to the lotion in the basket to Precious the dog.

There are few other films in existence that we can make similar claims about — especially R-rated horror movies whose graphic, gory, and/or terrifying content would typically prevent them from reaching cultural saturation. And yet today, one has only to mimic Hannibal Lecter’s unforgettable “fffffffff hiss-slurp” to invoke the entire film and our collective impressions of it, both overwrought and chilling.

Even at 30, Silence of the Lambs — for all it’s been endlessly parodied — remains a well-acted, superbly directed, and deeply disturbing film. Outside of giving us decades of bad Hannibal impressions, it’s had a profound impact on just about every aspect of pop culture: the media’s portrayal of women in the workplace; a collective fascination with serial killers as well as a collective interest in true crime and crime procedurals; the roles that women in Hollywood are “allowed” to play; and the cultural reception not only of horror movies but of genre movies in general. It has also profoundly impacted the trans community, though decidedly not for the better.

That’s a hell of a legacy for one film to have, so let’s break down some of Silence of the Lambs’ biggest cultural impacts.

Silence of the Lambs elevated mainstream horror after a decade of schlocky teen camp — and proved genre films could also have prestige

From the beginning, Silence of the Lambs was a cultural event. I was too young to see the movie when it first came out, but its opening weekend still made a vivid impression on me: I remember my mother’s reaction after attending a packed showing, as she excitedly described the experience of being in the dark with Jodi Foster at the film’s climax.

Foster’s agent Starling was terrified as she navigated a pitch-black room, unaware that the film’s villain, Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine), was watching her through night-vision goggles. Thanks to director Jonathan Demme’s skillful manipulation of the audience’s point of view, viewers were watching Clarice through the same lenses — and to my preteen ears, listening to my mom recall the ending and the gasps of the audience, few things had ever been more harrowing. That immediate audience buzz made Silence of the Lambs a sleeper hit, propelling it to unexpected box office success.

The film eventually grossed $130 million at the domestic box office — more than any other horror film at that point except Jaws and The Exorcist. In the 15 years after those films, horror had become the realm of schlocky teen slashers, with the focus shifting away from the psychological horror of the ’70s to a more overwrought, teen-friendly aesthetic, in keeping with the ’80s as a whole. The genre became a landscape of elaborate practical effects and gore, punctuated by animatronic creatures (think Gremlins or any ’80s werewolf movie), with campy slashers like Nightmare on Elm Street or Sleepaway Camp prevailing.

Today, there’s a lot about Silence of the Lambs that feels like caricature. Taken out of the context of the movie and its restrained tone, nearly every famous performance in it can come across as hammy and comical, from Hopkins’s leering Lecter to Foster’s deep Southern drawl to the creepy exaggerated sexism of her FBI colleagues. As a film, however, Silence of the Lambs is methodical, suspenseful, and eerie, with flashes of nightmarish details that hint at a much larger world of horror — and it felt that way to contemporary viewers. “‘The Silence of the Lambs’ is delicious with foreboding, a masterly suspense thriller that toys with our anticipation like a well-fed cat,” Rita Kempley wrote in the Washington Post’s review of the film. “Adroitly directed by Jonathan Demme, it lurks about the exquisite edge of horror, before finally leaping into an unholy maw of bloody bones and self-awareness.”

While Silence of the Lambs did owe something to the idea that horror movies are just for teen date nights — it premiered on Valentine’s Day, after all — it also took a drastic tonal shift from most mainstream horror of the era. The film reverted to the much more sophisticated and atmospheric moods of previous decades of horror, announcing ’90s horror as a class that would mix the genre’s most overwrought elements with a thorough grounding in reality, thus paving the way for most of the decade’s important horror work, from The Sixth Sense to The X-Files.

It also proved that genre films and box office blockbusters could be taken seriously by critics and Academy voters — a subject that remains a sticking point for cinephiles and genre buffs. To date, while Silence of the Lambs is still the only horror film that has won Best Picture, its success and cultural dominance have helped make space for other genre films in the main Oscar categories — like Get Out’s Best Picture nomination in 2017, and fantasy The Shape of Water’s Best Picture win that same year.

But if Silence of the Lambs felt grounded in reality, despite its many overblown performances and tropes, that was largely thanks to one character — Clarice Starling — and her struggle to navigate a ruthlessly sexist workplace.

Clarice Starling influenced a generation of women detectives and “strong female characters”

“I felt the twinge that Clarice had the potential for joining the ranks of the great all-time movie heroines,” Demme told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016, in response to a survey ranking agent Starling as one of Hollywood’s most loved female heroines. “Jodie led the charge on bringing the film’s theme — one young woman fighting her way through a male-dominated ecosystem to save the life of another young woman — into vivid cinematic focus.”

Foster’s performance — and the seriousness with which she and Demme took Starling as a character — elevated Silence of the Lambs and made Starling a film icon, a now-routine addition to every “strong female character” list. Her mix of fragility, determination, and independence gave her complexity at a time when women’s workplace struggles were usually depicted as comedic, and broke ground for an entire generation of female characters. Without her, we arguably wouldn’t have had The X-Files’ agent Scully; Silence of the Lambs reportedly inspired series creator Chris Carter’s concept of the show as well as Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Scully herself.

Silence of the Lambs also kicked off a decade that saw a huge boom in television crime procedurals, many featuring dogged women ferreting their way through cases while battling institutional sexism. One can trace a direct line from Clarice Starling to characters like Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson or Helen Mirren’s brusque Jane Tennison in the long-running British classic Prime Suspect. Even the string of late ’90s and early 2000s thrillers about broken women surviving trauma seem to have a relationship to Starling or to Silence of the Lambs’ kidnap victim Catherine (Brooke Smith) — think, like, every Ashley Judd thriller of the era, from Kiss the Girls (1997) to Double Jeopardy (1999). At opposite ends of a spectrum of women in uniform, Frances McDormand’s deceptively laconic police chief in Fargo (1996) and Demi Moore’s determined G.I. Jane (1997) also feel like characters who couldn’t exist without Starling.

Through Clarice Starling, Foster and Demme created a template for women battling organizational sexism outside of the corporate arena of ’80s films, while retaining their rugged individualism. When all efforts to navigate and work within the system have failed, these strong female characters usually find themselves being forced to work on their own, relying on their intuition, training, and judgment with little or no backup. Decades later, agent Starling is still one of the most immediately familiar examples of this trope in action — and one of its best.

Silence of the Lambs revealed a cultural fascination with serial killers and gave us decades of media devoted to criminal profiling

Sterling’s methodical approach to profiling and catching serial killer Buffalo Bill is something that resonates in countless works today. One of the most obvious recent examples is Netflix’s Mindhunter, which fits right into the litany of television procedurals and true crime documentaries that have attempted to chronicle similar hunts to profile and catch criminals.

In 1991, audiences were primed to fear serial killers and abductions after a decade of mass hysteria, warnings of “stranger danger,” and Satanic Panic. The improbable elements of the plot, like Buffalo Bill’s motive for killing (to make and wear skin suits) or his placement of live moths inside the bodies of his victims, weren’t that outlandish after years of false media claims about nonexistent satanic rituals.

Additionally, the 1980s were a peak time for serial killers. The movie capitalized on their prevalence in headlines, and in fact, real-life serial killers like Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy, as well as serial abductor Gary Heidnik, all became famous — or at least more famous — after its release because different elements of the Buffalo Bill character were based on them. This was a time rife with depictions of such criminals in true crime writing and tabloid media, so if anything, viewers were likely to expect their serial killers to be garish and horrifically over-the-top.

Because Silence of the Lambs’ plot validated so many of the dominant ’80s narratives about crime, the movie became the main reference point many people had for understanding such crimes at all. That’s not entirely a good thing: Hannibal Lecter’s popularity far overshadows that of Clarice, in a way that closely mirrors pop culture’s long-established tendency to glamorize and fixate on the criminals at the expense of their victims and the people working to catch them. (This tendency has increasingly been criticized and reversed in recent years in favor of reframing these narratives, but the cultural fascination with serial killers hasn’t gone away.) If anything, Silence of the Lambs’ popularity validated that approach to true crime for decades.

Unfortunately, we now know that criminal profiling doesn’t work — a harsh truth that invalidates not only some of the realism of Silence of the Lambs but also the many crime shows that have followed in its wake. It also undermines many of the reasons we attempt to study serial killers to begin with.

It’s arguable that the movie’s impact on real-world crime narratives has lessened greatly due to the current true crime boom, which has arguably shifted the focus away from glorifying and profiling killers and expanded several related conversations about the justice system. But there’s another real-world community that’s still feeling the film’s repercussions — and not in a good way.

The film profoundly — if unintentionally — impacted transgender people for the worse

A huge amount of discourse has occurred over the past three decades surrounding Silence of the Lambs’ transphobia. From the moment of the film’s release, the movie drew sustained criticism from LGBTQ+ people and advocacy groups for its depiction of Buffalo Bill, including an Oscar-night protest that resulted in the arrests of 10 people.

Recall that Buffalo Bill, the film’s villain, is a queer-coded serial killer obsessed with wearing the skins of his victims, keeping their clothes and often dressing like them. This aspect of his character was based on 1950s serial killer Ed Gein, who also served as the basis for Norman Bates’s cross-dressing serial killer in 1960’s Psycho.

For years, director Jonathan Demme found himself both justifying and apologizing for the film’s portrayal of the character, acknowledging that while the serial killer wasn’t intended to be trans, Demme had failed to get that point across to audiences.

In Demme’s defense, Silence of the Lambs explicitly tries to distance Buffalo Bill’s behavior from transgender identity. Lecter observes that Bill isn’t transgender, and Starling reminds the audience that there’s no link between transgender identity and violence. The film overtly tries to separate its villain from the trans community — in stark contrast to many of its predecessors in the horror genre.

When Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, it followed many other horror films that had problematically portrayed transgender and cross-dressing characters — films like Psycho, The House With the Laughing Windows (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Sleepaway Camp (1983). Almost universally, those films depict queer and genderqueer identity as either synonymous with evil or as the reason for the villainous character’s deviance. (The LGBTQ horror community has since reclaimed some of these films, reinterpreting them through trans-positive lenses while still acknowledging their problematic aspects, though transphobia continues to be a pernicious horror film trope, as in 2013’s Insidious: Chapter 2.)

So Silence of the Lambs does notably distance itself from that legacy by insisting that’s not the case with this villain; he just, apparently, happens to cross-dress.

When most people think of Buffalo Bill, however, they don’t remember Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter clinically discussing how he’s not transgender; they remember, as Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff recently pointed out on Twitter, “a weirdo serial killer dancing around in women’s clothes.” So its textual denial can only do so much.

In fact, the film’s intentions seem to have amounted to little for many trans people; at Shudder, Harmony Colangelo recently wrote about “every experience I’ve had where people compare me to Buffalo Bill, snicker as they’ve asked me if ‘I’d fuck me so hard,’ or generally see me as some sort of threat directly because of this film.”

“There is no film that leaves me feeling worse than Silence of the Lambs,” she concluded, “and it is elevated because of how I have been treated as a result of it.”

Not everyone in the LGBTQ community views Silence of the Lambs as purely transphobic. Some have argued for a redemptive view of the film’s queer aesthetic, while others have reframed its perceived depiction of villainous trans identity as “empowered monstrosity.” But it’s difficult to deny that the film has disseminated a transphobic worldview that many viewers readily accepted, regardless of either its intent or the other positive aspects of its legacy. As VanDerWerff noted, “It is one of the most influential movies ever made. Its influence includes transphobia.”

In other words, the cultural legacy of The Silence of the Lambs is a mixed bag, full of positives and pejoratives alike, all of which are impossible to ignore.

We might even say it’s a bit like its main character, Clarice: It’s damaged and imperfect, but it’s unquestionably persistent — and its impact is here to stay.

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