One of the most successful horror films of all time, Silence of the Lambs has always been something of an enigma. I sat down again recently and watched the movie with some concerted effort. What I have learned, I think, transforms some of the unseen, psychological horror sensed by the viewer into something much more tangible but no less frightening. Themes of government sponsored brainwashing in the creation of serial killers are so expertly hidden in plain sight as to mimic the very processes they dare to expose. It is for this reason that Silence of the Lambs may be considered one of the most subversive, thrilling and thematically synergistic movies ever made.
The idea of a hidden narrative contained in an artwork is not new. Michelangelo and Leonardo, for example, were the masters of their day at burying controversial social commentary within their paintings. When producing a large artwork like a painting (or a film) an artist often needs to satisfy the vanity of wealthy patrons, hence the need to hide subversive messages in symbols and allegory. Like the great artists of history, the great filmmakers of today are very skilled in this practice.
Part 1 – Getting the butterflies
Perhaps the first image people came in contact with, when the movie premiered in 1991, was the poster. It shows Jodie Foster’s face with a moth covering her mouth. Her eyes, usually blue, are red. Close examination of the faux skull markings on the moth’s head, reveals the skull to be made up of 7 naked women in apparent homage to the master of illusion and the unconscious, Salvador Dali. The moth and its cousin the butterfly are probably the most important thematic symbols of Silence of the Lambs and visual prominence on the poster underscores this for the viewer before the picture even starts.
The metamorphosis from grub into flying creature sees the moth or butterfly as a traditional symbol of transformation. Indeed, there are many references to butterflies and moths, death and transformation, especially when it comes to Buffalo Bill. Clarice discovers a chrysalis in the throat of Bill’s first victim Frederica Bimmel. In Bimmel’s mother’s bedroom, just before she learns the truth about Bill, Clarice is surrounded by butterfly wallpaper. Inside Bill’s house, we see where he’s been breeding the Death’s Head moth and other, prettier butterflies. Once he tucks his private parts away and spreads his colourful dressing-gown wings, Bill takes on the symbolic form of a butterfly. Moments after Clarice kills Bill, we see a wind chime with painted pictures of butterflies spinning slowly.
(At this point, I’d like to say that this presentation will delve into areas that some people may find politically sensitive. If you are the kind of person who is easily upset by notions that challenge the dumbed-down left vs right, communism vs capitalism, good vs evil version of history, you may wish to stop reading/viewing now.)
Beyond the well established and endlessly discussed ideas about transformation, there is another compelling interpretation of the moth/butterfly symbol and it has to do with mind control experiments. These mind control experiments are not science fiction. The US MK Ultra program really existed – here’s what Wikipedia has to say –
In the summer of 1975, congressional Church Committee reports and the presidential Rockefeller Commission report revealed to the public for the first time that the CIA and the Department of Defense had conducted experiments on both unwitting and cognizant human subjects as part of an extensive program to influence and control human behavior through the use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD and mescaline and other chemical, biological, and psychological means. They also revealed that at least one subject had died after administration of LSD. Much of what the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission learned about Mk Ultra was contained in a report, prepared by the Inspector General’s office in 1963, that had survived the destruction of records ordered in 1973. However, it contained little detail. Sidney Gottlieb, who had retired from the CIA two years previously, was interviewed by the committee but claimed to have very little recollection of the activities of Mk Ultra.
So the American government has, in the past, illegally conducted mind control experiments on unwitting civilians.
The conspiracy wikia on Monarch Mind Control lists the following –
“The Monarch Mind Control designation was originally applied by the US Department of Defense to a sub-program under the CIA’s MK-Ultra Program. However, the techniques employed in the Monarch programming system extend back further under various names, such as the Nazi marionette programming. (refer to operation Paperclip)
Monarch Mind Control is a form of mind control which creates a mind control slave by utilizing the human brain’s trauma response of dissociation to create a form of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) wherein various triggers can cause the slave personality to surface and respond to commands given by the master (“Handler” in Monarch parlance).
Despite the intuitive connection between the Handler and a King or Monarch, the Monarch in this context refers to Monarch Butterflies, not to a Monarchical form of government.”
Mind control experiments are, almost by definition, not something you would go telling everyone about. In fact, there are very few proven cases of MK Ultra mind control and the very existence of the Monarch program can be largely attributed to alleged survivor Cathy O’Brien. In her book Trance Formation of America (1995), she describes horrific, systematic trauma based mind control on a wide scale including women and children programmed to be sex slaves.
The idea that a totalitarian state could control people like Pavlov’s dogs had appeared in 1940s novels, notably Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ and George Orwell’s ‘1984.’ But it took Mao’s China and the forced ‘confessions’ of American prisoners of war during the Korean conflict to make brainwashing an everyday concept.
It is thought that MK Ultra and its purported sub program called Monarch (after the butterfly) were devised in the 1950’s in response to some very disturbing film, seen by the world, of US POWs seemingly ‘Brainwashed’ into renouncing their country, shortly after their capture.
Whether or not you believe something like MK Ultra and Monarch could possibly happen today, it’s fair to assume that astute novelists and filmmakers like Harris and Demme would have been aware of these concepts and/or events, in the late 1980s.
Of course, Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t be the only film to deal with themes of ‘Brainwashing to create the perfect killer’. There are many others – The Manchurian Candidate (Jonathan Demme went on to direct the remake in 2001) , The Bourne franchise, The IPCRESS file, Iron Man 3 and Universal Soldier to name a few. Silence of the Lambs differs from these other films, only in that it presents this frightening scenario in a much more subtle and therefore unnerving manner. Much like brainwashing itself.
“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison, and yet not free – to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national state, or of some private interest within the nation, wants him to think, feel and act.
“The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. That he is not free is apparent only to other people. His servitude is strictly objective.”
Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley, 1958
The notion of trauma-based mind control, as represented by the transformation from grub into chrysalis and butterfly, is central to the understanding of the deeper themes of the Silence of the Lambs. This uncomfortable yet strongly implied counter-narrative asserts that; rather than catching them, the FBI and CIA used trauma-based mind control programs to, in fact, create serial killers like Hannibal the Cannibal, Multiple (Personality Disorder) Miggs, Bufallo Bill and the others as cold, programmable assassins to use for their own unstated purposes.
The MK Ultra program officially halted in 1973.
Part 2 – It’s only a drill
In many ways the entire film can be viewed in terms of a staged event, drill or training run. The notion of film itself is of course an abstraction of life – All the world’s a stage, said Shakespeare. Here we have many levels to the drama. We start with Clarice’s initial FBI training and the various drills and simulations she sees or takes part in, and progress through her ‘other’ training at the hands of Jack and Hannibal as the story of her transformation unfolds. History tells us that staged events and agents provocateurs are often employed by intelligence services like the FBI. The FBIs COINTELPRO program saw agents pose as political radicals to disrupt the activities of political groups in the US, such as the Black Panthers, Ku Klux Klan, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Training is, of course, part of becoming an FBI agent and the ‘training montage’ is a common time-saving device, particularly in action movies. But this doesn’t feel like an action movie. The repeated references to training and staging (verging on over-use) appear to be pointing at something much deeper. It may be argued that they reflect the Director’s views on training the mind or brainwashing. There is a certain Kafkaesque horror in not knowing what is real and what is not. The shock for us, the savvy viewer, is that Clarice will be traumatised/trained, via an extremely elaborate series of horrific but staged events, to be the FBIs next programmable killer. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost everybody missed that bit. Frankly, part of us would probably rather not know.
The subtle counter-narrative starts early – we see Clarice running through the forest on an obstacle course. You could call it a training run. Presently, she’s caught by an FBI agent who tells her that Crawford wants her in his office. She quits her training run, leaves the obstacle course and, on some level, leaves her regular FBI course behind altogether. As she nears FBI headquarters, she passes some signs nailed to a tree – HURT, AGONY, PAIN, LOVE-IT. These mottoes are presumably there to motivate the trainees on their way around the circuit. Below these, washed out and barely visible is another sign that says PRIDE, or does it say PR DIE? This could refer to the pride that the FBI once took in their work that is now just a faded memory. It may imply that Clarice will need to swallow her pride before Crawford if she wants to advance in the FBI. But it’s also possible that ‘washed out’ PRIDE and PR DIE both refer to the public relations nightmare experienced by US intelligence agencies in the 1980s as the result of botched covert operations, such as the Iran Contra affair, where top military brass went rogue.
As Clarice approaches the Quantico building, she first passes a group of special forces guys in what look like ninja outfits and then more agents in black who look like they might be breaking into the building with ropes. For a second or two, you could be forgiven for thinking the building was under attack. Of course, it’s only a drill.
Here are some interesting observances of staged events –
* Despite his rhetoric about ‘The rules – No pens, pencils, staples or paperclips’ – Chilton manages to somehow lose his own pen in Lecter’s cell, even though Lecter is in a full-body cage.
* Clarice has to pass many security doors to enter the cell-block area but there is a bizarre set of stairs, seemingly completely clear and unobstructed, right next to Hannibal’s cell. We get the impression that he has the run of the place when she’s not around.
* The burly guards view Lecter on B&W TVs in their grubby office. We later learn that Lecter watches a colour TV and his cell is spotless. So just who are the prisoners and who are the guards?
* We cut from Clarice being yanked out of combat training to see cars screeching to a halt outside a building (presumably with Clarice inside one of them.) But we quickly realise it’s yet another training exercise and Clarice just happens to be walking past.
*We’re given the exact same view of the Polaroid as Clarice and there’s absolutely nothing visible lodged deep in Frederica Bimmel’s throat. The photograph clearly shows that we can’t see anything past her tongue and teeth. How on earth does Clarice divine this information?
* As evidenced by Lecter’s frankly impossible knowledge of the cut on Clarice’s leg – the tableau in the storage shed seems to have been set up exclusively for her benefit. We can only infer that the shifty shed’s owner got the bloody information back to Hannibal by some nefarious means.
* The lab geeks play a game of live bug chess, a very suitable analogy for Clarice’s situation. One of them says ‘No fair, you lured him with produce’ in reference to the beetle. Catherine lures Precious to the well with produce. Jack lures Clarice to killing with the promise of advancement.
* We’re given clues that the police and SWAT are unwitting bit-players in a much larger production – notice the uniformed mannequins in glass cases behind them in the elevator lobby appearing to silently mirror or mock their actions.
* The local police, ambulance and even the SWAT are easily fooled by a little bit of purely symbolic horror (the ‘crucified’ and ‘injured’ officers) – and this allows Hannibal’s escape.
* According to Frederica Bimmel’s father, police had been back ‘so many times’ to search her bedroom, yet Clarice instantly finds new photo evidence hidden in her music box, the first place any detective worth their salt would look.
* The FBI raid in Calumet (the original Sin City) is full of Keystone-cops style action and clues that it’s ‘not real’. Note the over-the-top flower van and flower man, the comical door-busting entries and melodramatic close-ups.
* Obvious parallels are drawn between Jack’s farcical drill-like search in Calumet City and Clarice’s entry into Bill’s real house.
* Clarice’s search of Bill’s dungeon closely resembles the hostage drill where she ‘forgot to check the corner’. In the dungeon, she makes a laboured point of checking the corner.
* Jack appears to have arranged the final phone-call between Clarice and Hannibal.
With artful use of camera techniques, symbolic associations and (sometimes glaring) plot-line inconsistencies it would seem that the filmmakers are going to great lengths to pose the unconscious question – ‘What is real and what is not?’
So when does the real action start?
Part 3. Jack Crawford – Overseer
Now inside the building and on her way to Crawford’s office, Clarice encounters teams of agents grouped in distinctive blue and red shirts. This could be a sly reference to the redshirts, a white paramilitary group that was active in the Southern US in the late 19th century and the National Blue Shirt Minutemen, an American anti-fascist organization of New York from 1936. Wikipedia has this to say –
“The Red Shirts sometimes engaged in terrorism and they had one goal, the restoration of the Democrats to power by getting rid of Republicans, which usually meant repressing civil rights and voting by the freedmen.”
But it may simply be that these colours depict both sides of US politics and their equal stake in funding and maintaining the FBI, no matter what the actual costs.
Clarice passes a room containing two senior looking agents. It’s clear they’re on the Buffalo Bill case. On the chalkboard behind them we see the words Skins and Signature and also the phrase Blue eyed boy now. Bill has blue eyes, but why the word ‘now’? This could be interpreted on many levels – Is it a reference to the creating of an engineered master race as explored in ‘The Boys From Brazil’, a nod to Jane Elliott and her ‘Blue Eyed’ experiments in hierarchical social control or a simple question as to whether Bill is a patriot or a rogue operative? Note Bill’s proficiency with night-vision, the Nazi ephemera, US flag , maps and propaganda posters in his dungeon. Of course, the real-life Buffalo Bill was many things but notably his Wikipedia entry begins like this –
William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (February 26, 1846 – January 10, 1917) was an American soldier…
Clarice proceeds into Jack’s office where she gawps at his collection of VHS tapes, presumably of behavioral experiments, and his wall of Buffalo Bill evidence. After the headline ‘Bill Skins Fifth’, the sub headline on the National Inquisitor reads ‘How to escape the rat race and still keep your job’ – Is this what Clarice is about to do? Another newspaper clipping astonishingly, almost comically, reads ‘FBI Links “Skinning Murders” But Finds No Pattern.’ Hang on a second – the secret to Bufallo Bill’s identity is hanging right there in a newspaper on Jack Crawford’s wall at the start of the movie?!? This is a big hint that Jack knows a lot more about Bill than he’s letting on.
Putting aside these newspaper jokes or winks to the wise, which would likely be missed on a first viewing in any case, Crawford’s arrival sees him presented to us and Clarice as the benevolent, avuncular head of the FBIs Behavioral Sciences unit. He’s perfectly dressed and immaculately groomed. But almost immediately there are signs that Jack is less trustworthy than he appears. He calls Clarice – ‘Starling, Clarice, M.’ like he’s just been reading her file and apologises for ‘pulling her off the course’ – now does he mean the obstacle course or her regular FBI course? Jack’s words seem to carry double meanings. He goes on to compliment her, claiming to have given her an A on a paper. Clarice immediately reminds him that it was an A-, so Jack has either forgotten (even though he’s obviously just read her file), or he’s purposely lying to see how Clarice’s will respond when confronted with authoritative deceptions. Over the course of the film, we come to understand that it’s Jack’s Mission to train and test Clarice (via Hannibal and Bill), but in this early scene, we learn that his motives for doing so are usually covered by lies. We hear that Jack got a ‘grilling’ (suggesting his involvement) over the FBI’s civil rights record during the Hoover years. Hoover’s manipulative use of intelligence and ambivalence toward civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King are well documented.
Jack says he has a Job for Clarice, not a job, more of an ‘interesting errand.’ Already he’s talking about going outside the regular program, off the radar, so to speak and into a new part of her training. He establishes that she’d like to come and work for him and immediately launches into this rather stilted line –
Crawford: We’re interviewing all the serial killers currently in custody for a psychological profile –—- could be a real help in unsolved cases.
Is he interviewing them to find Buffalo Bill, or to find someone else? He might as well have said ‘and from what they’ve told us, YOU could be a real help in unsolved cases CLARICE’.
The innuendo continues –
Crawford: Do you spook easily Starling? – (NB. Spook is another word for a Secret Agent. In other words, Jack’s asking – Can we turn you into a Secret Agent easily Starling?)
Starling: Not yet sir.
Crawford: See, the one we want most refuses to co-operate.
Soon enough, she will.
Part 4. Cannibalism today
It would be very convenient to be able to attribute all the horrible things that Hannibal does to the fact that hes a sick psychopath with no redeeming features whatsoever. And for the most part, this is the picture painted by the surface narrative. One look through the bullet proof glass, however, reveals this to be another rather clever piece of staging.
At Crawford’s first mention of the word Hannibal, Clarice automatically recites, what is now one of the most recognisable catch-phrases of the film ‘Hannibal the Cannibal.’ We find out quite early on that Hannibal eats his victims or his ‘evidence’ so there’s an obvious explanation for his moniker. But could there be a symbolic meaning to Harris’ choice of name for his iconic character? Like the ‘alien hand’ of Dr Strangelove, is Hannibal’s Cannibalism a symbol of harm directed towards one’s own kind in the form of illegal military operations? (Note Lecter’s penchant for consuming ‘state employees’ – census taker, EMTs, Police etc.) It could be argued that Harris was indeed taking a metaphorical swipe at programs like MK Ultra that seek to use trauma to control a civilian person’s mind so they can be used to commit further atrocities in the name of the state.
The moment Clarice arrives at the Baltimore State Forensic hospital, she’s informed by Dr Chilton that Lecter is –
a. A Monster
b. Their most prized asset
During the descent into the cells, Chilton grills Starling on The Rules – ‘No pencils, pens, paperclips or staples… Yet ironically, Chilton later manages to lose his own pen to Lecter, despite the fact that Hannibal is in a whole-body cage. And Lecter then uses Chilton’s pen to escape the handcuffs and murder the police guards – oh the horror! How could such an unholy stuff-up happen? The clear implication of our alternate-narrative is that Chilton is Lecter’s ‘Handler’ in FBI/Monarch parlance. He’s therefore fully aware of Hannibal’s advanced skill-set (incredible perception, charm and brutal violence) and what triggers can be used to draw them out. When Chilton loses his pen, we choose to believe it was a ‘silly accident’, despite the fact that this contravenes his first rule in his own facility. The fact that we completely ignore the possibility that Chilton supplied it to Lecter on purpose is surely evidence of our own willful denial of the obvious. Hey, who’s being brainwashed here?
As a side note, I find it fascinating that we can so easily indulge in magical thinking when the facts don’t want to fit our picture of reality (Did someone say ‘Back and to the left’?) This is astonishingly clever directing or mis-directing of our attentions.
As we delve deeper, Chilton’s overtures become more sinister –
Chilton: When the nurse leaned over him, he did this to her… (shows Clarice the gory photograph)
Notice the sinister sound effects and symbolic opening of the red gates as Clarice is subjected to the horrific image, her first small piece of trauma in relation her new case – Hannibal.
Chilton: Save one eye…
Is it my imagination or does Chilton look to have make-up around his right eye like ‘Fascist mind control experiment gone wrong – Alex‘ from A Clockwork Orange, as he delivers this creepy line?
Following this harrowing trip toward the bowels, Clarice is let into the observation area. It’s fairly grotty. The burly guards view Lecter on B&W tvs – they probably see the world in terms of Black and White too. We later learn that Lecter watches a colour TV and his cell is spotless. So just who is watching who?
The camera pans past a group of photographs. Closer inspection reveals Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, both of whom were targets of assassins. These, along with the African idols pinned to the wall, could be passed off as merely the workplace trinkets of the two young, strangely similar looking, black guards (with oddly opposing personalities) but logic suggests the big old white guard with the medium-sized arsenal at his disposal isn’t going to be all cool about that. This is more probably where they keep some of the training tools and ‘primers’ for Hannibal and the other mind controlled assassins, known in polite company as ‘serial killers.’ These photos seem to suggest links between the assassinations of African and African/American leaders, programmed serial killers and covert FBI operations.
Fast forward to the end of the movie – When Clarice picks up the phone to unexpectedly find Lecter on the other end of the line, we assume he’s followed his ‘old friend’ Chilton to some exotic destination in order to eat him. In the literal narrative this holds true, but remember, we’ve long since established that Chilton is really Lecter’s FBI handler. And just look at where we are – a small African or Caribbean nation, just the kind of place a US intelligence agency might send their most accomplished killer (and his handler – note that Chilton accompanies a local dignitary) if they wanted to assassinate a leader and, say, foment political unrest… sound familiar? The CIA and FBI have long been implicated in this sort of activity, for example – The widely credited plans to assassinate Castro and, more recently, the successful operation to assassinate Bin Laden.
Let’s not forget, it’s the always-ambiguous Crawford who reminds Starling about the phone call to Hannibal. By now some viewers and readers will be all too aware that Jack is the ringmaster in this serial killer/covert assassin circus and that he’s teed up this call with Hannibal as one final piece of trauma to control Clarice’s mind and keep her under his thumb. Consider the seemingly incidental trauma that Clarice has endured in order to advance her career and arrive at this point – murder, unending sexualisation, semen, suicide, corpses, rotting corpses in bathtubs, kidnapping, human liver consumption, insect insertions, hospitalised psychopaths, escaped psychopaths, craniofacial removal, her first ‘kill’ etc. Now, whenever Jack needs Clarice to kill someone, all he need do is cast that person as another of Lecter’s evil offspring.
With the killing of Bill and her continuing acceptance of Crawford and Lecter’s lies, Clarice’s final transformation is complete. Trauma based mind control has induced and fed her metamorphosis from scared little girl into the FBI’s newest and sexiest covert assassin. On a conscious level, we probably don’t know this, but we’re not alone, Clarice doesn’t know it either. Whilst funny and hard to believe on some levels, this is very important. We’ve been subjected to the same trauma and manipulation as Clarice over the course of the film and, as a result, are in a fragile and suggestible state of mind ourselves. If we’re not careful we’ll come away, as millions of us did, safe in the knowledge that psychopaths are awful and the intelligence services do great work in catching and containing them. To do so is to completely miss the film’s subversive central theme. We missed it because we were victims of it – brainwashing. The surface narrative is there – yes. But the masterful use of symbols, staging and innuendo discussed in this presentation tell almost the opposite story, one of state-sponsored mind control and assassination. Only careful analysis can prevent our perception of events being hijacked.
Similarly, if you come away from this article skeptical about the film’s hidden narrative, I encourage you to watch it again for the examples mentioned here. I’m confident you’ll soon start to see many other instances of symbols, staging and innuendo that support this alternate take on events.
Seconds after Clarice shoots Bill dead, we see the famous wind-chime spinning – On one side, a brown butterfly, on the other we see it joined by a white butterfly.
Monarch has new baby and she is Silent Starling.
A programmable killer who cannot tell.
As we leave the theater we might see the poster and the moth covering Clarice’s mouth, maybe even in a new light.
Part 5. Silent Stirrings
But ‘where are the Lambs?’ I hear you ask. The Lambs, dear reader, are us. Childlike, kept in the dark, unaware of the malignant forces that seek to control our fate, silently screaming. A Starling may have tried to save us once but we were too scared to even run away. If we’re not slaughtered in the spring we’ll grow into sheep. It is our failure to comprehend the hidden agenda that lends its horror to the movie and to life itself.
Is there a positive outtake of any kind here? – maybe not.
Perhaps, if we’re smart enough and brave enough, we’ll lift the wool and unravel the knotted story-lines that wind up the city – they’re right there in front of us, just take a good look.
With thanks to Rob Ager for inspiration and the wording of the disclaimer.