Going into the umpteenth viewing of The Silence of the Lambs I couldn’t help but feel as though I’d be bored. I mean, I’ve seen the movie countless times, read the novel, love the story, love the characters, and know the controversies surrounding the film. But this was the first time in several years, and certainly my first time as a formal student of writing, for me to view the film again. I viewed it anew and fell in love once more. Further, there’s a hidden occult angle to the story that a lot of people might miss. (It agrees with this sentiment. It does this every time it’s told to or else it gets the hose.)
When Silence was being filmed, it drew fire from the LGBT community for its depiction of a depraved, transgender serial killer. But in truth, Buffalo Bill isn’t transgendered–he’s trans-species or, rather, he hopes he’s trans-species. Buffalo Bill doesn’t kill women because he hates them, or even because he wants to be them, but because (as Lecter notes) he hates the humanity within himself. He’s stitching together a woman-suit (shades of Ed Gein) not because he’s truly transgender, but because he wants to be free of his humanity which he identifies with his masculinity. The symbolism of the Death’s-Head Hawkmoth in chrysalis serves as part of a ritual, a token of transformation, an obvious symbol but one which must be obvious given Buffalo Bill’s belief in magic.
Like Francis Dolarhyde, Buffalo Bill is making an effort to undergo a transformation. But unlike Dolarhyde, there’s no clear goal as to what Buffalo Bill will become. While the obvious answer is, “He wants to become a woman” we’re told that that isn’t sufficient; Bill isn’t suffering gender dysphoria, he’s a psychopath who hates both himself and his humanity. Yet his actions speak to ritual which suggests magical thinking.
Consider that he first kidnaps his victims. He keeps them alive at the bottom of an old well in his basement for three days before shooting them to take their skin for his “woman suit.” He takes different swatches of skin from different victims, suggesting he’s only taking the choicest portions. In one victim’s mouth he places the cocoon of one of his beloved imported pet moths.
The three-day period after kidnapping his victim suggests Christ in the tomb. The old well, aside from being a decent baffle, is a source of life run dry, a symbol of sterility. The selection of different patches of skin may also reflect an occult understanding of the body, as both ancient Egyptian priests and medieval medical philosophers assigned different spirits, deities, angels, and zodiac signs to different parts of the body. The cocoon suggests anonymity, an undifferentiated cloak of invisibility, during the process of transformation.
In one scene, one that might be overlooked if the viewer blinks, Bill puts on part of his “suit.” In doing this, he dons a pair of necklaces: one a gold, trapezoidal pendant, the other a silver, Willendorf Venus figurine. This gesture further compels us to consider that what Bill is doing has some occult undertone.
First, the gold necklace suggests by its material the sun, which is seen in the West as a symbol of the masculine. Its shape suggests a keystone. Yet within the body of the pendant is a mosaic of small brown stones, suggesting fracture within unity. This image also suggests the pieced-together woman-suit Buffalo Bill is making. This pendant symbolizes his goal, his desire, his transformation–a yearning for his own psychological integration.
Second, the silver figurine suggests a belief in the goddess cults of antiquity and today. The image makes us think of two things: fecundity and antiquity. Life, ancient and self-perpetuating, is what Buffalo Bill hopes to become. He hopes to become self-begotten, no more a mortal scale in the coils of existence. He seeks an independent existence apart from the Children of the Old Mother, a transformation into something inhuman. (And let’s be honest, pregnant or not, she’s sort of “a great, big fat person.”)
In putting on the gold and silver necklaces as part of his ritual garb, Bill has given us a clue into his ritual thinking. He must take the life of full-figured women in order to complete his woman-suit, the keystone to his integration. But not only does he need their skin, he needs them to undergo an initiation of their own, a period of entombment which will loosen their flesh and imbue it with the force of fecundity, the power of the divine feminine, in order to consecrate the patches he takes. He deposits the bodies in water, a symbol of life and purity, as if to return the unused portion to the maternal element.
Now normally integration would mean a making whole of fractured parts. Here, Bill’s concept of integration is differentiation, the setting apart of himself from humanity. He’s going to do this by becoming an androgyne, Baphomet-like: inwardly male, outwardly female, inwardly alive, outwardly dead. This species of existential crisis can be found in fantasy literature when wizards (Saruman, Voldemort, Palpatine, Raistlin, etc.) set their wills toward apotheosis and end up suffering a fate worse than death.
One modern villain who comes to mind that seems to have nothing in common with Buffalo Bill is the humanoid Cylon “Brother Cavil” from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. This model (number one in a series of eight) resented his creators (synthetic people in their own right) for the limits the form imposed on him. He hates his humanity, and so the motive for the genocide which compels the series is ontologically the same as Buffalo Bill’s motive.
So there’s this wonderful use of symbolism to suggest magic in The Silence of the Lambs. I don’t know if that was Thomas Harris’ intention or not, but it’s present and it seems to be present in the trilogy.