Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Movies

Hannibal Returns

The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant but psychotic psychopath of The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter and its remake, Red Dragon, not to mention Hannibal, will return to show us his background in Hannibal Rising.  All of these films are based on novels by Thomas Harris.

It's commonly supposed that the Buffalo Bill character in The Silence of the Lambs is a composite of the acts of three infamous serial killers: Ted Bundy's MO in luring victims, Gary Heidnik's basement dungeon for sex slaves, and Ed Gein's habit of skinning victims of the right size to create a type of pieced-together vest.  Supposedly, it will transform him into a female).

Harris had attended meetings at the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit, learning as much as he could about how the elite crew of profilers worked.  At that time, renowned profilers such as John Douglas and Robert Ressler were members of the BSU (now BAU), and both consulted on the filming of The Silence of the Lambs, released in 1991.  It went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor and Actress, and to become an international sensation.  Despite the villain's gruesome actions, audiences cheered him on. 

Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, with Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter
Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, with
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter

In the story, agent-in-training Clarice Starling is sent to imprisoned serial killer and cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to learn about the mind of "Buffalo Bill," a killer who is holding a woman hostage in a high profile case.  Lecter plays mind games with her, in part to keep his superior edge and in part because he likes her and wants to keep her coming back.  While this scenario would never occur in real life, the novel and film had a sense of authenticity because of the FBI's participation and approval.  Jack Crawford, the unit's head, was based on either Ressler or Douglas, or both.  The implication is that killers know best how other killers operate, and Lecter does in fact supply key information.  In Red Dragon, the idea that the agent is but a slight psychological step away from the killer's mindframe is emphasized.

William Peterson
William Peterson

William Peterson, who now plays Gil Grissom on C.S.I., took the role of Special Agent Will Graham in Manhunter, a 1986 Michael Mann film derived from Harris's novel, Red Dragon.  Lecter first shows up in this tale, which involves Francis Dolarhyde, a bizarre killer who is also a self-conscious and somewhat sympathetic victim.  Simpson writes in Psychopaths that it's a film about destabilizing forces in relationships, and the continual flow of the roles of killer and victim into each other.  It's also about alienation, failure, misunderstanding, and the violence that rides on the inability to fully connect.  There's no refuge anywhere, and psychological necessity becomes a driving force.  "The Gothic territory into which the detective must venture," Simpson points out, "contains its own subversions that are inseparable from its affirmations."


In Hannibal Rising, Lecter's early life is chronicled in Eastern Europe, from the ages of 6 to 20, including the death of every member of his family during World War II.  Given Harris's penchant for psychoanalytic theory, he will probably draw deep-seated causal inferences about exposure to death and development into a killer.

While it's unlikely that someone with the flamboyant psychosis that Lecter reveals, especially in Hannibal when he opens the skull of a living man, would ever become as controlled and refined as that character is, there have nevertheless been killers in history who come close: they have pulled off massive deceptions of normalcy while also carrying on with detailed torture murders.  Notable among them are H.H. Holmes and "B.T.K," Dennis Rader.

Let's look at Holmes, since a movie is in the works about him. 

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