THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Director Jonathan Demme, 1991).

Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is one of the best-known films in all of American cinema. It was one of the most acclaimed films of the 1990s, winning all five of the most prestigious Academy Awards for the year of its release, thus becoming only the third film to execute such an Oscar sweep. It is also still the only horror film (though not everyone agrees that it is a horror film) ever to have won the Oscar for Best Picture. The Silence of the Lambs is a tense thriller that addresses a number of important social issues. But the success of the film is surely due most directly to the astonishing performance of Anthony Hopkins as genius serial killer/cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a performance rivaled in horror cinema probably only by that of Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960). Lecter had been appearing in Thomas Harris’s crime novels since 1981, and had previously appeared on film (portrayed by Brian Cox) in the 1986 film Manhunter. But Hopkins makes the character his own (as well as one of the most iconic characters in American cinema) and totally dominates The Silence of the Lambs, which is not easy given that it also features a superb performance by Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a promising and talented young FBI trainee. Starling is certainly an effective and sympathetic protagonist, but the real secret to the success of the film is the depth and complexity of Lecter, who is both monster and hero, both a highly cultured genius psychiatrist and a deeply disturbed psychotic killer[1].

Much of the complexity of Lecter’s character is furthered by Hopkins’ portrayal of him, but much of it is enabled by the structure of the film itself, which sets Lecter against both the likeable and virtuous Starling on the one side and the heinous serial killer named “Jame Gumb,” but more often referred to as “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), on the other. Bill, after all, is virtually a fairy tale monster, a version of the wicked witch from the tale of Hansel and Gretel, with a strong element of sexual perversion added into the mix. In comparison, Lecter seems almost normal and healthy. In addition, Lecter is also set against Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), the smarmy chief psychiatrist at the high-security mental institution where Lecter has long been incarcerated. The preening and sadistic Chilton is a figure of authority and a literal enforcer of the normal, so that his negative figuration in the film makes Lecter’s subversions of authority seem almost admirable. We see few details, but there are many suggestions in The Silence of the Lambs that Lecter has been treated abusively by Chilton, who seems envious of the fact that Lecter is a far more brilliant psychiatrist than he himself could ever be.

Starling is also clearly no match for Lecter in intellect (apparently no one is), though the two of them develop a weird chemistry that is a key to the fascination that this film has held for audiences for nearly thirty years now. Indeed, Lecter and Starling are each clearly made better as characters by the presence of the other: Lecter’s sophistication and perversion are strongly set off by Starling’s innocence and basic virtue—and vice versa. Of course, Starling is a compelling character in her own right: tough, strong, smart, and courageous. As such, she is a very effective feminist role model, despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that she does not overtly espouse feminist views. It is for good reason that Starling was a model for FBI agent Dana Scully of The X-Files, which debuted in 1993.

In terms of gender issues in The Silence of the Lambs, the representation of the gender-confused Buffalo Bill is a bit more problematic. For one thing, some feminists complained about the fact that Bill’s crimes involved grisly and violent attacks on women, though it is certainly the case that the film makes it pretty much impossible to sympathize with Bill or to derive pleasure from the suffering of his victims. Bill’s gruesome mode of operation is to kidnap overweight women, then starve them so that they rapidly lose weight, loosening their skin so that it will be easier to remove after he murders them. A skilled tailor, he then uses the patches of removed skin to piece together a “woman suit” that he eventually plans to wear to help him feel as if he has become a woman.

On the other hand, the entirely unsympathetic portrayal of Buffalo Bill is itself a problem in terms of gender issues, and the film has received considerable criticism for portraying such a repulsive character as being what seemed to many as being bisexual or transsexual, even at the time it was originally released, when the general population was perhaps less well informed about such issues. From the point of view of today’s knowledge about the multiplicity and fluidity of human gender, the representation of Buffalo Bill is even more problematic. Looking back at the film from the perspective of 2019, Annaliese Griffin acknowledges that Starling is a positive feminist character, but complains that The Silence of the Lambs represents LGBTQ culture with “tawdry cheapness.” She then goes on to claim that the film “fails gay culture, though, which is depicted as a seedy, horrific underworld, stalked by literal monsters. You couldn’t design a more transphobic bad guy than the serial killer Starling spends the movie in search of.”

Buffalo Bill tucks it in.

Critics such as Griffin have a point, of course, and Demme’s defense that Bill wasn’t gay or transsexual but was merely a tormented individual who hated himself and wanted to be a woman simply in order to be different from what he truly was is not entirely convincing. Whatever the details of Bill’s pathology, it is clear that he is pathological and that his problematic gender identity is part of that pathology. As a result, it is clearly possible to derive from this film the message that individuals with nonconforming gender identities are mentally ill and potentially dangerous. After reading the FBI case file on Buffalo Bill, Lecter displays his Sherlockian powers of deduction by performing a quick diagnosis, which the film never challenges and which audiences are presumably meant to accept: “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” This diagnosis, though, is both inaccurate and troubling. For one thing, Lecter claims to know Bill’s identity better than does Bill himself, when in fact it is now generally accepted that the very definition of being a transsexual is to believe that you are one. It is literally impossible, as Lecter claims of Bill, to believe you are a transsexual but to be wrong in that belief. In addition, Lecter’s suggestion that Bill is something “more savage and more terrifying” than a transsexual clearly implies that transsexuals are, nevertheless, something savage and terrifying. Finally, Lecter also concludes that Bill was not born a criminal but was made one by years of abuse, a suggestion that implies that transsexuality is not a natural condition but a pathological response to trauma.

One could, of course, defend the film by saying that it is constrained by its source material in Harris’s 1988 novel of the same title, which includes some of the same misinformation about transsexuality and represents Bill’s sexuality in much the same way as does the film. Still, films go beyond their source material all of the time and in all sorts of ways. The Silence of the Lambs itself goes well beyond the novel in its characterization of Lecter, largely because of the power of Hopkins’ performance. That it made no attempt to counter the representation of Bill (perhaps by making Bill clearly cisgender, or perhaps by including one or more positive characters who were gender nonconforming) is a clear shortcoming of the film.

It might also be noted that The Silence of the Lambs skirts the issue of Lecter’s sexuality. He does seem drawn to Starling, but there is no indication of anything erotic in his attraction to her—though the strength of his reaction to the overtly sexual insults hurled at Starling by Miggs (who acts as still another foil to Lecter in the film) might be taken as a suggestion that there is an erotic charge in Lecter’s feelings for Starling. In addition, Lecter at one point suggests, of his relationship with Starling, that (as the song goes) “people will say we’re in love.” It might be noted, along these lines, that the Harris novel Hannibal (1999) ends with Lecter and Starling actually becoming lovers and running away to Argentina together, though this development was omitted from Ridley Scott’s 2001 film adaptation of the novel. In any case, the insistence in The Silence of the Lambs that Buffalo Bill is a far worse monster than is Lecter seems to cast Bill’s sexuality in an even more negative light.

Such problems aside, The Silence of the Lambs is highly respected as a work of cinematic art. In 2007, it was named the 65th best film of all time in a poll conducted by the American Film Institute (AFI). In 2001, moreover, it was named the fifth “most exciting” American film of all time in the AFI’s “100 Years … 100 Thrills” poll. The strange dynamic that arises between Lecter and Starling is no doubt the central reason why the film is so highly rated. Meanwhile, though Starling is the film’s protagonist and most important point-of-view character, the most important thing that makes this film special is the character of Lecter, together with Hopkins’ performance of that character. The suave and charming (but depraved and monstrous) Lecter is one of the most complex characters in all of American culture. We get an important background story about Starling, but we know very little of Lecter’s background from this film, other than that he had been a psychiatrist in Baltimore for some time[2]. Though Starling is clearly the primary point-of-view character in the film, the film is equally clearly designed to make us root for Lecter at least a bit here and there, even as his prodigious intellect separates him from us and is identified in the film as the source of his monstrosity.

In addition, Lecter is the bearer of a number of allegorical meanings, which is another thing that makes his character so memorable. He is not just a highly cultured intellectual, he is also a highly trained professional, so that his monstrosity can be taken as an indication of the anxiety with which many Americans have traditionally tended to view anyone who has specialized knowledge and skills that are beyond their province. In addition, each of the meanings of Lecter is complex and double-sided. For example, while he clearly evokes the negative stereotyping of intellectuals in America, Lecter is also a virtual superhero, and many viewers surely take pleasure in observing his impressive intellectual feats, though it should also be said that Starling herself does excellent work in decoding the cryptic messages through which Lecter transmits his most important deductions, allowing her to track Buffalo Bill down in his lair. Yet her deductions do not seem beyond what a normal, smart human being might be able to perform. It is Lecter who draws the attention, both positive and negative, as an intellectual in the film, largely because he goes so far beyond the normal in every way. Part of the secret to the fact that Lecter strangely appeals to many viewers no doubt has to do with the fact that he can be so charming, but the film works so hard to make audiences feel that he is not like them, that his charm seems inadequate to explain his attraction for audiences.

I would argue, though, that the fact that Lecter seems so different, is precisely the reason why audiences can be fascinated with him, even if they are horrified by him.Lecter might be hard to identify with, but that is because he is unique. In this sense, he is the quintessential American hero, the outstanding individual who stands apart from the rules that govern the masses. Indeed, in this age of capitalist globalism and globalized culture, Lecter is not just an American individualist hero, but he is really a movie hero, an embodiment, in many ways, of the individualist ideology that has dominated Hollywood since the beginning and that has now gone global, given that the films that portray such characters are now seen all over the world on a regular basis. (Silence of the Lambs itself, which seems so American in so many ways, grossed more outside the U.S. than inside.) Lecter, of course, is himself both a victim and a product of this ideology, literalizing the metaphors of capitalist competition and consumption and perhaps made into a monster because he is smart enough to see through all the subterfuge and obfuscation offered by bourgeois ideology in order to realize that violence and cannibalism lie at the heart of capitalism and to take that realization to its logical, horrifying end. It should come as no surprise, then, that Lecter seems especially scary and makes so many viewers so uncomfortable—he reveals the dark heart of the ideology that underlies the materialist comforts of our day-to-day lives. And yet the very fact that he is the embodiment of many aspects of the very ideology that has called us all into being[3] also accounts for the odd attraction that he has exerted on audiences over the years. In many ways, Lecter is precisely the sort of individualist figure American audiences (and, more recently, world audiences) have come to root for in movies throughout the decades. He does what he wants and he does things his own way. His way just happens to involve killing and eating certain people, preferably with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Along these lines, it should be noted that The Silence of the Films is filled with images of American iconography, perhaps most strikingly in the scene in which Starling discovers the body of Benjamin Raspail, a Lecter patient who was the lover (and an early victim) of Buffalo Bill. After struggling to get inside the self-storage facility where Lecter stashed the body, she discovers it inside a 1931 Packard limousine that is draped with an American flag. Then, later, we will discover that Bill’s cluttered home includes a large American flag in its tawdry décor—not to mention a quilt emblazoned with swastikas. It seems clear from such emblems what Buffalo Bill’s politics might be like—and one suspects that Lecter, knowing these politics, placed the flag on the limo as a potential clue that would point to Bill. In any case, the film’s American flag imagery clearly suggests that the dark and violent impulses that lie at the heart of this film might very well lie at the heart of American culture and society as well—a connection that director Demme has acknowledged on the film’s DVD commentary track (cited in Sanders 53).

Clarice Starling discovers a flag-draped limousine–with a body inside.
Buffalo Bill sports an American flag as wall decor.
Buffalo Bill’s Nazi flag.

In noting Lecter’s status as an individualist hero, though, I should note that he is obviously not sympathetic enough to carry the film on his own—which is where Starling comes in. Lecter succeeds as a character partly because so much audience attention is focused on Starling, perhaps defusing our reaction to more the disturbing dimensions of Lecter’s inclinations. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of The Silence of the Lambs is the way in which we are invited to share and sympathize with Starling’s perspective through the work of the camera itself. In fact, she has so much more screen time than Lecter that it is only through the striking impact of Hopkins’ performance that Lecter even seems a lead character at all. But Starling is the film’s point-of-view character in a very specific way. It is not so much that we see things as she sees them. Rather we constantly see her, as the camera follows her from one place to another throughout the film. In fact, whenever she enters a new place (even the seedy self-storage unit where she finds the remains of the body of Raspail already has a camera inside waiting for her).

The way in which the camera follows Starling is, of course, a special case of what the eminent film critic Laura Mulvey famously calls the “male gaze,” referring to the way in which the camera typically adopts a male perspective, looking at the film (and especially at the women in the film) in the way that a man might. But, in this case, the film is actually critical of its own visual perspective, making it clear that the camera is looking at Starling in much the same (somewhat leering) way that her colleagues in the FBI might be looking at her. Moreover, this phenomenon is one of which Starling is well aware. She is very accustomed to being looked at, in a way that is perhaps both leering and disapproving: her fellow agents subtly suggest through their words and body language that they are not exactly comfortable having this woman in their midst. We should recall that it was only in 1972 (shortly after the death of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had long resisted the incorporation of women as agents of the bureau) that the first woman special agents joined the FBI.

The film begins with an extended sequence in which a determined Starling fights her way through a cross-country obstacle course at the FBI Academy on the grounds of the giant marine base in Quantico, Virginia. There are closeups of her face, which is pretty, but sweaty and unglamorous. Most of the focus is on her body, which is presented not as a sexual object, but as an athletic one. In nature, with no men around, she need not worried about being sexualized. Then she is called back from the course for a meeting with Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), an official with the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, which had—since its founding in 1972—become America’s central locus of expertise on the pathology of serial killers. As she jogs back toward headquarters, the camera focuses on the face of male agent who has come to deliver Crawford’s message; he is watching Starling closely with a look that carries a vague hint of leering sexual examination, together with a certain resentment at this female presence in the once all-male preserve of the FBI Academy. Crawford wants Starling to interview Lecter in the hope of gaining insights that might be helpful in the FBI’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill, and it will eventually be clear that he is sending her into this difficult assignment almost for use as bait, neglecting, among other things, to inform Starling that there is a connection between Lecter and Bill.

There are other female agents back at headquarters, but the personnel there are still overwhelmingly male. To emphasize this fact, there is one quick scene in which Starling enters an elevator that is already packed with male trainees, who seem to regard her with disdain. Not only is the diminutive Starling the only woman in the elevator, towered over by the nine men, but all of the other people on the elevator are dressed in exactly the same red-shirted uniform, set off against Starling’s workout sweats and highlighting her status as an outsider. We will learn in the course of the film that she is an outsider in ways other than just gender. An orphan from West Virginia (Lecter tells her she looks like an ambitious rube to him, “not more than one generation from poor white trash”), she has clearly had to work her way through cultural and class prejudices to get to where she is. She and Lecter are both outsiders, of course, which is no doubt one of the reasons for the chemistry that arises between them. A brief moment later, the elevator doors are again shown opening, and Starling steps off the elevator—which is now, oddly, empty. Then she runs a virtual gauntlet of male leers before finally making her way to Crawford’s office.

Starling enters an elevator.

After receiving her assignment, Starling heads straight to the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital, where she confers with Chilton, who immediately starts to make remarks about her appearance, then overtly (though ineptly) starts to hit on her, much to her discomfort. She has apparently encountered such moments before in her career. She brushes Chilton off by suggesting that she has been instructed to interview Lecter, then immediately return to FBI headquarters. Disappointed, Chilton leads her down several flights of stairs into what is apparently a maximum-security basement area in which Lecter is being held. The distinguished popular film critic Roger Ebert noted in a retrospective review of the film published in 2001, upon the appearance of Hannibal,the film’s sequel that Starling also goes down stairs into a basement in search of Buffalo Bill. For Ebert, these moments suggest that Lecter and Bill “live in underworlds,” suggesting the hellish, or even Satanic, nature of their activities.

When Starling enters Lecter’s dungeon-like cellblock, she must walk the full length of the block to reach Lecter’s cell, passing by a rogues gallery of the other patients that look like they might be very much at home in a horror film. And, of course, they all look at her. Just after Miggs hurls a gross sexual insult at her, she suddenly reaches the dignified Lecter, who stands in such sharp contrast to the other prisoners. But then it will quickly become clear that Lecter is a horror-film character as well, as is Bill. In fact, Kim Newman, in his sweeping study of the horror film, has called The Silence of the Lambs “the defining horror film of the decade” (298)[4]. Both Lecter and Bill are extreme enough as characters to push this film into the realm of horror, and it is worth noting that The Silence of the Lambs appeared at the end of a decade-plus in which American horror film had been dominated by slasher films in which various deranged killers stalked legions of innocent victims, often employing particularly depraved and disturbing methods. Lecter’s intellect and sophistication might set him apart from most of the slashers of the 1980s, though the film makes clear that he can be quite savage and brutal, while slashers such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees also have seemingly superhuman capabilities. Meanwhile, a number of slashers are driven by psychopathology, such as Frank Zito (Joe Spinell), the slasher in William Lustig’s Madman (1980), who is a clear predecessor to Buffalo Bill in the way he tends to murder women, then scalp his victims and nail their scalps onto the heads of mannequins in an attempt, in his confused mind, to somehow resurrect his dead mother.

In any case, it is clearly significant that Starling must descend stairs in order to encounter both men, something that provides another of the many links between them. In fact, there are many such interlinked scenes in the film, as when the elevator scene at FBI headquarters is paired with the later elevator scene that is central to Lecter’s escape. And, of course, the scenes in which Starling is clearly presented as being on display to the men in FBI headquarters and to the prisoners in Lecter’s cellblock help to set up the final moment when Starling is put on view by Buffalo Bill, who cuts the lights to his basement, then watches Starling through night-vision goggles, so that she can be seen without seeing him in return. Her final shot-in-the-dark that kills Bill not only saves her own life; it also serves as a sort of symbolic revenge against all of those others watchers who have leered at her throughout the film.

One allegorical aspect of the much-acclaimed The Silence of the Lambs that has perhaps been under-appreciated is its title motif, which is related to the deduction by Lecter within the film that Starling has been motivated to become an FBI agent in order to save potential victims due to a traumatic experience in childhood when she became aware of the brutal slaughter of the spring lambs on the Montana farm where she had been sent to live with relatives after the deaths of her parents. This motif seems relatively minor in the film, where it is apparently meant to serve as an example of Lecter’s diagnostic skills as a psychiatrist, though it also seems dangerously closed to the kind of hokey pop psychology that might be practiced by amateurs. A closer look, however, suggests that this motif actually carries a far deeper significance. By serving as a reminder of the monstrous cruelties that are visited upon animals on a daily basis by the meat industry, the evocation of these lambs, screaming as they go to their deaths so humans can have the pleasure of enjoying tasty dishes made from the lambs’ tender flesh, suggests an element of obscene violence that underlies fundamental elements of our culture. The film thus makes a powerful statement against the widespread human practice of eating the dead bodies of animals, a practice that is subtly paralleled in the film by Lecter’s cannibalism and, more indirectly, by Buffalo Bill’s skinning of his victims. All of these practices, viewed from an appropriate distance, would seem to fall in the same category of abject violence visited upon the bodies of living creatures that have done nothing to deserve such treatment. As a result, The Silence of the Lambs also makes a powerful statement about the hypocrisy of the entire practice of eating meat or of killing animals for their skins in order to make fur coats[5]. Lecter’s murderous cannibalism and Buffalo Bill’s macabre serial killings and making of a “woman suit” are acknowledged to be sick and twisted (and criminal) activities. On the other hand, the routine killing of millions of innocent animals, who have often been forced to live their entire lives in horrific conditions, in order to provide product for the meat industry, is endorsed as a logical, ordinary, and acceptable part of modern life. Perhaps, the film seems to be telling us, we should all hear those screaming lambs whenever we think of eating meat or wearing fur.

Lecter, of course, sees an immediate connection between Starling’s lambs and Buffalo Bill’s victims, though it is not clear that he sees his own victims in the same way, and he is certainly no proponent of vegetarianism. However, the film implies that Lecter himself has a sort of code and that he chooses his victims according to this code, believing either that they (like the vile Miggs) deserve to die or that they (like the police officers killed by Lecter in the course of the film) must be killed in what Lecter sees as his own self-defense. Starling seems at least partly to understand this code, which is why she is confident that she will never become one of Lecter’s victims, something of which he himself assures her late in the film as well. As the film ends, viewers are drawn into complicity with Lecter and his code when he announces that he is about to “have a friend for dinner.” Then, on the Caribbean island to which he has just escaped, we see Lecter stalking the newly-arrived Chilton, who is clearly the “friend” Lecter has in mind. It is clear, I think, that the film at this point expects many of its viewers to feel a little thrill of anticipation at the idea of Lecter acting as an avenging angel to see to it that Chilton gets what he deserves—though it is, of course, debatable that even he deserves to be killed and eaten.

Of course, many viewers might also get a bit queasy at the fact that Lecter plans to make a meal of Chilton, which simply emphasizes the very odd status of Lecter as a movie character. The film leaves no ambiguity that Lecter is a cold-blooded killer who gets a special thrill from cannibalizing his victims. It also gives us at least one glimpse of him performing a particularly extreme violent act when he is shown brutally beating a helpless policeman to death with a nightstick, striking the man over and over as blood splashes up onto Lecter’s face and all-white clothing. The film does not show the nightstick striking the policeman, nor does it show Lecter subsequently removing the skin from the man’s face so that he can cover his own face with that skin, Leatherface-style. It does, however, later show Lecter removing the bloody skin-mask from his face, making clear what has happened.

There is also no doubt that there is a certain anti-intellectualism in the way the film (like the 1988 novel on which it is based) suggests that Lecter’s ability to kill without hesitation or regret is linked to his high levels of education and intelligence. And this aspect of the film is certainly disturbing, especially as it connects to a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American culture[6]. At the same time, however, the film clearly invites a certain fascination with the ways in which Lecter, who is not physically imposing, is still able to perform amazing feats through the sheer force of his intellect, as when he easily escapes from police custody in one of the film’s key sequences, even though the police have taken what seem to be extreme and insurmountable precautions to ensure that he cannot possibly escape. He is even able to kill Miggs through the sheer power of suggestion and psychological manipulation (as revenge for Miggs’ grossly offensive treatment of Starling). As Bob Batchelor puts it, “Like the dashing antiheroes that have littered television, books, and film since Silence, Hopkins portrays Lecter as almost superhuman in intellect and talent, but also simmering with the overt evil and violence that being a serial killer necessitates” (20).

The Silence of the Lambs is an interesting film in a number of ways. For example, it employs interesting camera placements, while its mixture of different genres (such as police procedural, psychological horror, and the slasher film) adds richness as well. First and foremost, though, it is a strongly character driven film, both because of the strength of the characters themselves (buoyed by the performances of the actors who portray them) and because of the relationships among the characters. Indeed, without the triangular dynamic among Lecter, Starling, and Buffalo Bill, the film would be a rather run-of-the-mill thriller. Audience engagement with this film surely depends, not on the plot or cinematography or other aspects, but on the way audiences (of any gender) can identify with and root for the competent, virtuous, and dedicated underdog Starling, while most viewers will have a more complex reaction to the brilliant, but psychopathic Lecter. Buffalo Bill is clearly meant to be a repugnant character whom audiences are repelled by and root against easily, though it is clear that the makers of the film did not really think through how persons of nonconforming gender identity might react to this character. Awareness of this fact does problematize the reception of this film to a considerable extent, which probably explains why so many discussions of this film center on Lecter and Starling, paying less attention to the uncomfortable matter of Buffalo Bill.


Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Batchelor, Bob. “Chasing Demons: The Silence of the Lambs as Popular Culture Iconography.” The Silence of the Lambs: Critical Essays on a Cannibal, Clarice, and a Nice Chianti, ed. Cynthia J. Miller, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017, pp. 17–28.

Ebert, Roger. “The Silence of the Lambs.” (February 18, 2001),, accessed May 19, 2020.

Griffin, Annaliese. “Before We Knew Better: Silence of the Lambs Is a Win for Women—but Fails LGBTQ Culture.” Quartz (April 9, 2019),, accessed May 19, 2020.

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Vintage-Random House, 1963.

Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. Rev. And updated ed. Vintage-Random House, 2009.

Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Sanders, “Hannibal Lecter, Preying on the Last Man at the End of History: A Critical Historiography of The Silence of the Lambs.” The Silence of the Lambs: Critical Essays on a Cannibal, Clarice, and a Nice Chianti, ed. Cynthia J. Miller, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017, pp. 49–62.


[1] In a 2003 poll conducted by the American Film Institute, Lecter was named the greatest movie villain of all time. In the same poll, Starling was named the sixth greatest movie hero of all time.

[2] We do get an extended look at Lecter’s background in the film Hannibal Rising (2007), based on Harris’s 2006 novel of the same title.

[3] I refer here to the process referred to by the French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, who argues that ideology does not merely exert an effect on individuals. Rather, through the process he calls “interpellation,” the ideology in which each individual is immersed beginning even before birth literally creates those individuals in its image, so that the precepts of that ideology seem the natural and logical consequences of common sense.

[4] The film even includes cameo appearances by two big names in the horror film world: Roger Corman and George A. Romero.

[5] Others have certainly seen this connection. For example, when the Layton, Pennsylvania, house used in the film as the house of Buffalo Bill went up for sale in 2016, the animal rights group PETA explored the possibility of purchasing the house to turn it into a museum devoted to exposing the cruelties to which animals are often exposed. The house, however, sold to a private buyer. See

[6] In what is perhaps the best-known single discussion of the anti-intellectual tradition in American history, Richard Hofstadter notes that this tradition was, in fact, already a long one (however undistinguished) when he was writing in the early 1960s. On the other hand, he emphasizes that there was a particular flareup of American anti-intellectualism in the 1950s, when distrust of intellectuals played a key role in the anti-communist hysteria of the decade. Indeed, in much of the rhetoric of the Cold War, there was a virtual equation of intellectualism with communism (though communists—and Russians in general—were also often depicted as naïve bumpkins too stupid and/or ignorant to see through communism’s presumably obvious flaws). Cold War propaganda did not observe the rules of Aristotelian logic. For a more recent study of American anti-intellectualism that explicitly identifies itself as a sort of successor to Hofstadter’s classic work, see Susan Jacoby’s best-selling The Age of American Unreason (2008).