Study Guide

The Silence of the Lambs Analysis

  • The Death's Head Moth

    What's Buggin' Ya?

    One of the biggest clues in deciphering the identity of Buffalo Bill is also the smallest one: a bug cocoon found inside a corpse's throat and extracted in an extremely disturbing scene. Clarice takes the cocoon to a museum, where it is identified as Acherontia sty, the Death's Head Moth from Asia. One of the scientists observes, "Somebody grew this guy, fed him honey and nightshade, kept him warm. Somebody loved him." Who knew Buffalo Bill was capable of love, even if it is just for an insect?

    Hannibal Lecter analyzes the significance of the insect just as we would, saying, "The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis, or pupa, from thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change, too." But the death's-head moth isn't beautiful. It's creepy, making it the perfect pet for the even-more-creepy killer.

    Because of the rarity of the moth, the FBI is able to find customs papers leading them to Buffalo Bill. They lead them to the wrong house, but still… When Clarice ends up at the right house, it's the rare moth flitting around that confirms her suspicion that the man is Buffalo Bill. If serial killers didn't have such odd quirks, like killing people according to seven deadly sins or keeping strange moths, maybe they'd get away with it.

    Mad About the Moth

    The moth is an iconic symbol from Silence of the Lambs. It's featured on the poster and was parodied in Mad Magazine's "The Violence of the Hams" as a moth with Roseanne's head.

    The actual moth survives by sneaking in bee hives for an all-you-can-eat honey buffet. Scientists believe the mark on its back isn't a skull, but a mark to disguise it as a bee. Funny enough, this analogy still works as a symbol for Silence, as Buffalo Bill wants to disguise himself as something else.

  • The Mask

    Somebody Stop Him

    There should be a sign on Hannibal Lecter's cage: do not feed the cannibal.

    When Lecter is taken from his cage, he's forced into a mask to keep him from getting too…snappy. The mask isn't a symbol for anything. It doesn't stand in for oppression or Lecter's imprisonment (the straightjacket restraining him does a good enough job of that on its own); it just looks creepy, especially in the film's numerous ghastly close-ups.

    Paired with Anthony Hopkins's scary unblinking eyes, this mask worms its way into your nightmares. Lecter is intimidating and dangerous even when he's completely helpless, and that's terrifying.

  • The Drawings

    Sketchy Motivations

    The view from Lecter's cell isn't good. Bricks. Other serial killers. Mold.

    To spruce things up, he hangs drawings, like one of the Duomo in Florence, Italy. "Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view," Lecter tells Clarice.

    These are the views Lecter loves. There's another view he loves: seeing Clarice. Like Buffalo Bill, Lecter covets. "We covet what we see every day," Lecter says, and the more he sees Clarice, the more he covets her. So what's a man to do when he knows he won't see her again? Why, draw a picture of her of course. Lecter draws an image of Clarice, in present day, saving a lamb like she did in her childhood.

    The drawing is very Virgin Mary and Lamb Jesus, an interesting reversal since Jesus is usually the shepherd, not the lamb. But in this drawing, Clarice is the holy savior, and the lamb represents her desire to save people, a desire Lecter strangely admires, even though he's more apt to eat a lamb— or a person— than save one.

    Because Lecter sees Clarice as a sort of sacred figure, that partially explains why he won't ever hurt her. As Clarice says, "I can't explain it. He would consider that rude." It would be almost blasphemous if he were to harm her.

  • Watching

    Everyone's watching Clarice closely—Lecter, Miggs, Chilton, the bug guys, cops, woman-skinners. She's the object of curiosity and desire, often unwanted, from all kinds of men; even some of her male colleagues look at her with thinly-veiled disdain. The camera work throughout the film emphasizes all this. As film guru Roger Ebert noted, "The point-of-view camera takes the place of the scrutinizing men in her life, and when she enters dangerous spaces, it is there waiting for her instead of following her in." (Source)

    There are lots of close-ups of Clarice, looking uncomfortable and nervous, reacting to what men are saying to her, most memorably when Lecter is staring down at her from his cell in their first meeting. Scariest of all might be the night-vision-goggles POV, when Buffalo Bill traps Clarice in the basement and is ready to pull the trigger as she helplessly gropes around in the dark. But Clarice is paying close attention, too. She hears the click of the gun and fires in his direction. This "I was blind but now I see" moment completes Clarice's evolution from powerless, scrutinized trainee to capable player.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ordinary World

    Clarice Starling is training for a new job. We've all been there. Except instead of learning how to upgrade a cell phone plan, make book recommendations, or sell a scarf to match a shirt, Clarice is running through an obstacle course. Her job is slightly less stressful and dangerous than working retail: she's training for the FBI.

    Call To Adventure

    Who wouldn't jump at the opportunity to descend into a grimy basement filled with psychotics and interview Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, one of the most frightening serial killers of all time? Clarice eagerly accepts when Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Services, gives her this assignment.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Even with Lecter on the other side of a thick pane of glass, he is still dangerous. Clarice is frightened, but she never considers not doing it. If she didn't interview Lecter, she could kiss her FBI career goodbye. There's no room for cowards in the bureau, especially cowardly women. As a woman, Clarice must go above and beyond to be recognized for her success.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Clarice gets guidance from a strange place—a cannibalistic serial killer. Hannibal Lecter can read Clarice like an open book. He knows she is ambitious and desperate to climb the ranks of the FBI. That's one of the main reasons he helps her; he wants her to succeed. And he probably has good recipes to share too. (Ugh. We shouldn't have gone there, sorry.)

    Crossing The Threshold

    The threshold of the Baltimore State Forensic hospital literally leads Clarice down, down, down a bunch of dark stairs into a creepy basement that resembles a dungeon, which houses Baltimore's criminally insane. There is one literal threshold she cannot cross, however: the barrier between herself and Lecter's cell. She must try to understand the man from a distance.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Clarice is interviewing Lecter because another psycho named Buffalo Bill is kidnapping and killing women. Tension is raised when the daughter of the Tennessee governor is abducted, and Clarice as to race against the clock to get her back. To discover Bill's true identity (his driver's license doesn't say "Buffalo" on it, after all), she must walk a fine line between getting close to Lecter and keeping him at a safe distance.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Clarice's innermost cave is an emotional one, and the meaning of the movie's title is revealed. Clarice was orphaned at a young age and raised on a farm. The screaming of the lambs haunted her. Now, she has two choices to silence them—eat a ton of lamb chops, or save the abducted innocent girl.

    Ordeal

    Clarice ends up at Buffalo Bill's lair by accident. Crawford sends her somewhere else (being a woman in the FBI is an ordeal on its own) that turns out to be where Buffalo Bill is keeping Catherine Martin. Clarice must track Bill through his darkened basement while he follows her with night vision goggles. Thankfully, her superior FBI training gives her the upper hand, and she triumphs.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Clarice rescues Catherine Martin—and the dog, Precious—giving her two rewards for the price of one! Clarice has three rewards if you count the recognition and respect she receives from her colleagues and superiors at the FBI for closing such a complicated case.

    The Road Back

    Clarice returns to the FBI academy for her graduation. Jack Crawford congratulates her for a job well done. She has proven her worth to the Bureau, and exceeded Crawford's expectations.

    Resurrection

    But aren't we forgetting a certain someone she descended into the deep dark basement to meet? You know the one.  

    Hannibal Lecter escapes, but he gives Clarice a happy little phone call. He lets her know that he's on the loose, but he assures her that she's safe. However, Clarice knows that her life will never be the same with Hannibal the Cannibal walking around a free man.

    Return With The Elixir

    Lecter asks Clarice if the lambs have stopped screaming. We have a feeling they have, giving her a bit of much-needed peace at night. Also, she gets a cake for graduation. Everyone loves cake.

  • Setting

    Quantico, Baltimore, Memphis, and Ohio, early 1990s

    On the Road

    Silence of the Lambs beings in the woods near Quantico, VA. We know this because the screen says "Woods near Quantico, VA." This is where the FBI training academy is located, complete with signs tacked to a tree that say "Hurt, Agony, Pain, Love-it," and "Pride." No, these aren't the 7 Deadly Sins, but ideals the FBI wants to instill in its trainees.

    From there, Clarice Starling bounces around the country on the trail of a killer. The cities she finds herself in aren't particularly interesting or relevant, but the places within these cities are fascinating, and usually horrifying.

    The Cells

    The rooms our favorite serial killers inhabit masterfully reflect their mental states. Lecter's cell in the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital is the last one the left. It's in a deep dark basement behind numerous gates and bars. It takes Clarice a lot of effort just to get to Lecter's cell, and that's just the beginning of her journey.

    Lecter takes pride in his appearance and his surroundings. His cell is clean and tidy. But it's not a home by any means. Dr. Chilton uses Lecter's cell to punish him. There's no window and, after Lecter kills Miggs, Chilton takes away Lecter's drawings, removing even his imaginary view. It's Chilton's way of psychologically torturing Lecter, because actual torture isn't allowed.

    This is a mental hospital, not a United States military prison.

    House Hunter

    Buffalo Bill's house wasn't always his. He killed the previous home owner and keeps her decomposing body in a bathtub in the basement. Scrubbing Bubbles won't clean up that mess. We doubt when sweet old Mrs. Lippman lived there that she kept a giant pit in the basement filled with screaming victims. Maybe she kept her cross-stitch supplies there or something. Just as Buffalo Bill is transforming himself into an evil killer, he's transformed this house into an evil killer's lair.

    His evil lair betrays him in the end. Also in the basement, down the hall from the pit of despair, he raises the death's head moths. When Clarice comes to the door, expecting Mrs. Lippman, Buffalo Bill lets her in, saying he'll give her the phone number of Mrs. Lippman's son. One of the moths flutters by, and Buffalo Bill's identity is revealed to her.

    Fun Fact: At press time, the house formerly known as Buffalo Bill's stolen home is on the market outside of Pittsburgh, PA, for $300,000, which includes a copy of the novel signed by Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme. The real estate agent's not saying if there's really a pit in the basemen, but the listing invites you to "put on some lotion and come see this home.

    Interested? 

  • Point of View

    They're Ready for Their Close Up

    The characters in The Silence of the Lambs basically go from point A to point B, with a few skinned corpses, creepy moths, and transvestite solo dance numbers along the way. Occasionally, the film uses a flashback method to show us Clarice Starling's youth—greeting her dad when he comes home, or her dad's funeral— but the power is in the close-up. In Clarice's big speech about the screaming of the lambs, Demme initially wanted another visual flashback, but decided that Foster's performance carried the story better than any picture of a lamb could. (Source)

    Besides all the horror and funky face masks, The Silence of the Lambs is ultimately a film about control. Like any serial killer, it's a cat-and-mouse chase. Except Silence of the Lambs makes it cat, mouse, and cannibal, throwing Hannibal Lecter into the mix. The person in charge seems to change minute-by-minute. This is reflected in the controlled way the film was shot, featuring many close-ups of not just Foster but all the actors, and many scenes of actors speaking directly into the camera as if they are speaking directly to the viewer and drawing you into the action. (Source)

    If you ever find yourself ready for your close-up with Hannibal Lecter, make sure to not get too close.

  • Genre

    Drama, Psychological Thriller, Monster Movie

    To Catch a Predator

    Despite being a sophisticated crime drama, The Silence of the Lambs takes its primary nugget of wisdom from a retort commonly heard on school playgrounds: takes one to know one.

    Clarice Starling is tasked with interviewing captured serial killer Hannibal Lecter to get into the mind of another serial killer, Buffalo Bill. The FBI believes that the best way to probe the psychology of a serial killer on the loose is to consult another killer, a smarter, infinitely more dangerous one. In other words, it takes a man who's eaten someone's skin to know a man who makes clothes out of someone's skin.

    This puts Clarice on a classic dramatic quest. She has to save the day and find the girl. The girl in this case being Buffalo Bill's latest victim, Catherine Martin. The film ratchets up the suspense when Martin is kidnapped, because Bill's known to kill his victims after three days. The clock is ticking.

    Lecter really changes the detective-chasing-killer formula. In a way, he's a classic movie monster. When you think of classic monster movies, like Frankenstein, the Wolfman, or the Mummy, do you remember the people in them? No, you remember, and sometimes root for, the monster. Fans definitely root for Hannibal Lecter, this film's version of the movie monster. Roger Ebert even notes the Frankenstein imagery present in a few of Lecter's scenes, like when he's strapped down in the mask contraption. Lecter's an anti-hero, and even though he's much more dangerous than Buffalo Bill, it's thrilling to see him escape in the end.

    Thomas Harris, Lecter's creator, definitely realized this, making him into a full blown hero in the sequel novel, Hannibal.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    As much as you've wanted to silence Lamb Chop after ten hours of singing "The Song That Doesn't End", that isn't what this movie is about. There isn't a single lamb in this film, neither real, cartoon, nor puppet. So just what lambs are being silenced?

    The key to the title lies in one of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling's little quid pro quos. (Or is it quids pro quo?) This monologue, one that surely clinched the Academy Award for Jodie Foster, is shot mostly in close-up with an eerie wind effect subtly in the background, so you know it's important.

    Lecter wants to know why Clarice ran away from her relative's ranch in Montana. The short answer: It was the screaming of the lambs. Young Clarice heard lambs being slaughtered. She tried to save one, but it was too heavy and she didn't get very far. Lecter presses her further. He asks,

    LECTER: You still wake up sometimes, don't you? Wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.

    Then, because he's Hannibal Lecter and he's always right, he says,

    LECTER: And you think if you save poor Catherine, you can make them stop, don't you? You think if Catherine lives, you won't wake up in the dark ever again, to that awful screaming of the lambs.

    Catherine Martin is the one lamb that Clarice thinks she can save. This time, she does. She rescues Catherine before Bill kills her. She is celebrated and she graduates the FBI Academy. Lecter calls her with congratulations and a question, "Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?"

    We think he helped silence them for her.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Clarice Starling saves Catherine Martin, kills Buffalo Bill, and graduates from the FBI Academy with flying colors. Yay!

    But the ending to The Silence of the Lambs isn't all one big party, even if there is an amazing looking cake with the FBI logo frosted on top of it. There's an unintentional trade-off for capturing and killing Buffalo Bill: Hannibal Lecter escapes. Clarice and the FBI have basically freed one dangerous psychopath in order to catch another.

    Lecter is fascinated with Clarice, and he calls her with congratulations. He also promises never to go after her (i.e. sneak up behind her and eat her), and he asks her to do the same. "You know I can't make that promise," Clarice, ever the honest professional, says to the not-so-good doctor.

    However, she doesn't know where he is. Lecter quickly gets off the phone, ending with a deliciously devious pun: "I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner. Good bye." Turns out the sadistic hospital director, Dr. Chilton, is nearby. Lecter isn't planning on serving him a roast, of course. Lecter is planning on serving him as roast, and he stalks Chilton through the crowd as the credits roll. The anti-hero Hannibal Lecter lives to eat again another day, and he does in the sequel, Hannibal.

    And let's be honest: there's something of a visceral thrill in knowing that Lecter is going to eat Dr. Chilton. Chilton's a creep and the general audience consensus is that he gets what's coming to him.

    #sorrynotsorry

  • Shock Rating

    R

    While it's nowhere near the gory heights of its brain-eating sequel, Hannibal, The Silence of the Lambs is one bloody appetizer. It was so violent for its time, many actors turned down roles in the movie because of the violence, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, and Geena Davis. (Source)

    The camera lingers on graphic photographs of skinned corpses. Hannibal Lecter bites a chunk out of one guard's face and cuts off another guard's face to use as a mask, and Buffalo Bill sews together a suit women's skins, complete with locally sourced merkin, which we get a gruesome glimpse of as Clarice searches his lair.

    What makes this film especially repulsive is the way it engages all the senses in one memorable scene. When a girl is fished up from the river, Clarice is brought in to analyze the body. But first, she and the other professionals in the room put a Vicks Vapo-Rub type substance under their nose. No, they haven't got a cold. It's to mask the stench of the decomposing body.

    Clarice has to look at every detail of the body, from the broken fingernails to the diamond-shaped patches of skin removed from the victim's back. But the ultimate discovery is found in the victim's throat. A bug cocoon. And when it is removed with a pair of tweezers, the body seems to sigh, an eerie noise that sticks with you long after the body is wrapped back up and taken away.