After watching The Silence of the Lambs for the countless time, I had to ask myself: “Why is this film still scary?” I know what will happen. I know that the only on screen murder is committed by Hannibal Lecter, a psychopath that I’m actually rooting for. But against all reason it still keeps me on the edge of my seat. So… why?
Clarice Starling is the answer to everything. She is attacked on three fronts in this story: the professional through Jack Crawford, the physical through Jame Gumb, and the psychological through Lecter, a holy trinity of horror.
Crawford, her supervisor at the FBI, represents the first and most important aspect of her struggle. We want her to prove herself so that her identity won’t be shattered. Failure would be worse than death for her. That’s why she goes down into the basement instead of out the back door. She is ready to commit the ultimate sacrifice for her career. If we look at this objectively, it is a reckless decision. But because the other characters have set her up as an underdog we all want her to go into the darkness to prove that she has what it takes to be an FBI agent. Even if she had died we wouldn’t have blamed her. She had to go down there because without career success there wouldn’t be a character.
Gumb, the killer, is the second and briefest aspect. His line of struggle melds with the other two and provides the forward movement of the story. We get all of the fun snippets of crazy, but not much else. That’s not a bad thing though. We don’t need anything else from him. We only need to know that he’s the killer and the lynchpin for Starling’s success.
The last, and the crowd favorite, is of course Lecter. He delves into Starling’s psyche and makes the connection between her success and her past trauma. That’s why he asks her if the lambs are silent at the end. He knows how driven she is, and he knows that she needs to have it all or nothing. It’s strange because Lecter is arguably much more dangerous than Gumb, but we actually want him to escape at the end. Why is this? Lecter’s charm certainly plays a part, but ultimately it’s because his escape isn’t Starling’s fault. It will not affect her career. This proves the point that we care about Starling’s success more than human life.
This trinity also reflects the three levels of conflict touted by Robert McKee in his book Story, a definite recommend for any aspiring author. In short, he agues that for a satisfying conflict the audience needs struggle from these three sources: world, interpersonal, and psychological. Jame Gumb is the world, Crawford is the interpersonal, and Lecter is the psychological. I think this is why the story still resonates with audiences. And why it has me on the edge of my seat after all these years.