Psychological Profiles of Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill from the movie The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal Lecter is a recurring central character in many of Thomas Harris’ novels. Starting from the novel Red Dragon, the character appears in all four sequels including The Silence of the Lambs. In the author’s own words, Lecter is a masterful psychiatrist and a cannibalistic serial killer. Given that Lecter is a fictional character, the author had constructed a unique psychological profile that did not exactly fit with conventional categories. In other words, there is hardly any reference in mainstream press and medical history for a person with such a psychological profile. Nevertheless, based on first hand information gathered by the author’s biographer David Sexton, it is learnt that the character of Hannibal Lecter was based on that of William Coyne, a notorious serial killer who terrorized American society in the 1930s. In this context, one can claim that Lecter’s profile belongs to the Psychopath category. This assessment also makes sense when one considers the childhood history of Lecter. It should be noted that the novel The Silence of the Lambs does not delve into his childhood history. It is the fourth and fifth books of the sequel, namely Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, that provide greater detail about his early life. Nevertheless, since the underlying theme and the authorship of all these books are the same, one can arrive at the approximate profile of Lecter by cross referencing material from these novels and films. Although the brilliance of his mind was evident from the beginning and something that he was born with, his anti-social tendencies developed as a result of severely traumatic experiences in the past. In his early years in Lithuania, he witnessed the traumatic death and consumption of his sister Mischa, whom he had loved very much. This incident had left profound would on his psyche, which would turn him into a remorseless, cannibalistic psychopath.

The adage “take the help of a thief to catch a thief” fits so aptly in the case of psychopaths as well. In the movie The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling, a rookie FBI trainee, takes the help of Hannibal Lecter, who is in police custody, to identify and track down another serial killer with the name “Buffalo Bill”. While both Lecter and Buffalo Bill are psychopathic serial killers, the latter seems to be more indiscriminate and brutal in performing his crimes. The other distinction between the two is that Buffalo Bill is not shown to be cannibalistic, but Lecter clearly is. Buffalo Bill, whose real name is Jame Gumb, particularly targets young women for victims. He is trans-gendered and had tried unsuccessfully in the past to have sex-change operation. The culmination of his frustration and confusion regarding his own gender identity makes his behave like a psychopath. Moreover, similar to Lecter, Gumb has also had a traumatic childhood. His chronically alcoholic mother abandoned him when he was only two years old. After living his childhood in various foster homes, he was adopted by his grandparents, who become his first victims. After killing his victim, he usually places a Death’s Head moth in the victim’s throat (the Death’s Head moth is famous for its remarkable metamorphosis). Buffalo Bill’s failed attempts at changing his gender are somehow compensated for by the association of the moth with a young female victim. This comprises the psycho-pathological explanation for his behaviour. It is noted that these details pertaining to Lecter’s and Buffalo Bill’s psychological profile are not presented in the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs, but are gathered from the original novel.