From Shakespeare’s Macbeth to modern serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer (1960 – 1994), history and literature has been filled with stories of savage and inhuman evil. Those acts of evil that have most captured our imaginations have been those committed out of resentment, sexual frustration, ideology, or religious belief.
Carl Panzram’s (1891 – 1930) murderous rampage was fuelled by the resentment he felt over the poor treatment he had experienced as a child. The Neo-Nazi and Marquis De Sade devotee, Ian Brady (1938 – 2017) murdered five people with his girlfriend, Myra Hindley (1942 – 2002). Ted Bundy (1946 – 1989) expressed his dark fantasies by raping and murdering dozens of young women. And Richard Ramirez (1960 – 2013) presided over a sixteen-month reign of terror, was dubbed “the Night Stalker”, and claimed to worship Satan.
The 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs explores the dark corners of the human psyche from which such evil emerges. Its two principle antagonists, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), are motivated to commit their crimes for purely psychological reasons. They are not motivated by money or power or sex.
Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill are able to rationalise their behaviour because they do not see their victims as human beings. Since they are both materialists (that pernicious philosophy that supposes all phenomena is composed of material elements and material interacts), they fail to see the spirit infused within the flesh and bone of a human being. It never occurs to them that there may be more to their victims than just their corporeal form.
Buffalo Bill mistakenly believes himself to be transgender. In reality, years of systematic abuse has made him hate his own identity. And because he is a materialist, he has come to believe that he can change his identity by fashioning the skin of his female victims. He believes that he can possess the power he perceives women to have because, in his mind, all there is to being a woman is having breasts and long hair.
Hannibal Lecter doesn’t believer in the human spirit, either. As a psychiatrist and an intellectual, he is driven by an incessant need to consume people on an intellectual level. Once he has finished consuming them intellectually, he kills them so he can consume them physically.
Lecter is the modern intellectual par excellence. However, his appreciation of the intellectual and the aesthetic are rendered insufficient by his lack of warmth and humanity. As the crime novelist, Andrew Klavan (1954 – ) wrote in City Journal:
“The name Hannibal Lecter implies – as the fictional killer’s behaviour illustrates – that the modern intellectual (lector means “reader” in Latin) has become, like Hannibal of old, a threat to Western civilisation.”
Stories of evil have captivated the human imagination ever since our ancestors began telling stories. The Silence of the Lambs reveals the limitations of the materialist philosophy and highlights the evil that it can create. As a consequence, it has joined a great pantheon of stories by standing as a testament of what happens we reduce mankind down to mere flesh and bone.