I’ve decided that for our next full movie breakdown I’m going to do The Silence of the Lambs.
Because oddly, I’ve never actually done it, here or in one of the workbooks. I reference it so often you would think I had, and I’ve actually taught the movie in my film classes - but that’s not the same as powering down and doing a full on-paper story breakdown.
And I’m in the mood to do it because I just started and almost instantly abandoned another one of those serial killer novels. I don’t usually read serial killer novels, even though I am sort of writing a serial killer series. But really the Huntress series is more like an anti-serial killer series.
However, The Silence of the Lambs is one of my all-time favorite books and movies.. It and Red Dragon are the platinum standard of serial killer novels and probably the reason that I ever pick up any other serial killer novel to begin with. And those books are also the reason that I almost always abandon any serial killer novel almost as soon as I start it – often in disgust and horror.
So over the next month or so (we’ll see how long it actually takes!) I’m going to explore what makes this particular story so great. And I’ll start today with some background.
It was Thomas Harris who mythologized the serial killer to classic monster status, although Stevenson’s Jekyll/Hyde, Stoker’s Dracula (supposedly based on the real-life Vlad the Impaler), and various depictions of Jack the Ripper were strong precursors. We are fascinated by the idea of pure evil in a human being. And because of Harris, the serial killer has become an iconic modern monster, like a vampire or werewolf or zombie (maybe replacing the pretty much defunct mummy!).
Because with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Harris did a completely brilliant thing. In the 1970’s Special Agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit) began a series of interviews with incarcerated serial killers to see what made these men tick and hopefully develop strategies for catching them. The agents, along with Professor Ann W. Burgess, compiled their findings into a textbook and started to train agents as profilers. This new department got a lot of press and media attention and a large number of authors jumped all over that research. But judging by the books that resulted, very, very few of those authors seem to have actually read those interviews.
Thomas Harris, though, took the same research that was available to everyone, and used a combination of absolutely precise fact and police procedure and a haunting mythological symbolism to create those first two books, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs (and then Hannibal sort of went off the rails, if you ask me…). The result was two of the best horror/police procedural blend novels ever written. The killers Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) and Francis Dolarhyde were both more and less than human. And Lecter, of course, is a mythic archetype of the evil genius.
And then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and there are now hundreds of Lecters-lite, if you will.
I love Harris’s first two books for their mythic resonance. But I have a real problem with the way most authors portray serial killers because it’s so incredibly dishonest. They romanticize and poeticize serial killers – portraying them as evil geniuses that play elaborate cat and mouse games with detectives and law enforcement agencies. Yeah, right. These men are not geniuses. They don’t leave poems at crime scenes or arrange their victim’s bodies in tableaux corresponding to scenes of great art or literature. They are vicious rapists who brutalize their victims because the agony of those victims gets the killer off, and a large number of them continue to have sex with the corpses of their victims because they are that addicted to absolute control and possession.
That’s evil. But the serial killer subgenre as a whole has perpetrated a very unrealistic view of what these monsters really are. Most authors who write about serial killers don’t show the sexual correlation. They skirt around the issue of rape.
The very worst ones write torture porn - sexualizing the violence, fetishizing women’s bodies, sexualizing the torture of women (conveniently ignoring the fact that many of these killers rape and torture and kill men and children as well) and basically avoid portraying the pure horror of what these men actually do.
I’m sure some authors (not the last group) have an honest desire to create an exploration of mythic evil to rival Harris’s books. I get that. But the fact is, most authors (and screenwriters and filmmakers) who write about serial killers are dishonestly romanticizing them and leaving out the unmitigated, repellent malevolence of these men.
Thomas Harris managed to do everything those other authors/books do not: he portrayed mythic evil without sexualizing violence, and mythologized his killers without leaving out their malevolence. Let’s dig in to how he managed it.
As I talked about here, I will not be posting full story breakdowns on the blog anymore – I’m asking that you join my free Story Structure Extras list to get the story breakdowns.
If you haven’t joined the list, you can do it here, and get a full breakdown of The Wizard of Oz. Then I'll mail the Silence breakdown in segments as I work through it.