I’m a Netflix junkie. I admit it. This comes in handy when you have a morbid sense of curiosity. I’ve always wondered how books like The Silence of the Lambs, which spawned the 1991 movie that grossed almost $300 million, won 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, and shows like Criminal Minds and Hannibal were created. Of course imagination is involved, but how was the author able to depict a character like Buffalo Bill so vividly? What goes on in the mind of someone like Hannibal Lector? How does it feel to speak to someone you know has killed for fun? This is the subject of the documentary The Real Story: The Silence of the Lambs, which focuses on the special unit in the FBI called the Behavioral Science Unit or BSU.
In the 1970s murder rates doubled and the term “serial killer” emerged. The FBI was interested in not only the forensic evidence to catch serial killers, but also the psychological makeup and motivation behind their crimes. The BSU was created to give a criminal profile (a killer’s unique signature) to the local precincts, but it was a science that had not been proved yet.
The first success they had was in the case of Francine Elverson, who was killed October 1979 in the Bronx, NY. She was strangled, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and spread out like a moth. The police had conducted a 6-month investigation, but had no leads. The FBI believed that the killer was either familiar with the victim or the apartment complex, and because the killer spent so much time with her, he had to have some sort of psychotic disorder (likely to have been institutionalized), and they believed he was white.
The NYPD thought he had to be a black man because there was a pubic hair from African descent on the body and had only focused their investigation on someone who would fit that description. They had a suspect whose father lived in the immediate area and he had been institutionalized, but dismissed him because he was white. Because of the profile from the FBI the NYPD compared the bite mark left on the victim with the suspect and it was a match. Turns out the suspect walked out of the mental hospital, went to his father’s house, committed the crime and then walked right back into the institution. The black male pubic hair was transferred from a contaminated body bag. From this success with the NYPD, the FBI was able to expand the BSU and begin to work around the country.
Soon after that profilers went into the jails to speak to serial killers face-to-face. The purpose was to gain insight on future crimes. What they learned was not surprising. These people were interested in gaining power and control. They have huge egos, which is why they were eager to tell their story. They also enjoy keeping souvenirs as a reminder of their conquests and victories. Risk is what they thrive on and they have the ability to stay calm, cool, and collected during moments where the average person would likely lose their shit. Because it was much more common for serial killers to be men rather than women, the BSU began to have women profilers go into jails to speak with these killers to get a different perspective.
Enter Thomas Harris, author of the Silence of the Lambs who began to consult with the FBI. While his story is fiction, his research is based on the serial killers the BSU researched and the profilers in that unit. The premise of the book is a rookie profiler named Clarise Starling, who is hunting a serial killer named Buffalo Bill based on the information she receives from a jailed serial killer named Hannibal Lector.
Clarise is based on a former criminal profiler named Dr. Patricia Kirby, a field agent at the time and who was tenacious and driven. She believed a woman would be able to figure out motives of a killer because she knows how to listen to them without judgment.
Buffalo Bill was based on a serial killer named Ed Gein. His crimes were committed in the 1950s and his motives were to kill to get the skin of women. He was caught after a local store owner went missing and when the cops went to search his home they found the missing store owner decapitated and hung upside down to be dried out like a deer. He had fashioned clothing to wear out of skin (leggings, belts, corset) of corpses he had dug up and used other body parts to make bowls for his pet to eat out of. He would use motor oil to keep his face supple under the masks he created and lipstick for his lips. He also enjoyed dancing in multiple mirrors when he donned the skin of his victims.
Hannibal Lector was based on several serial killers, but most importantly Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy was a good looking man with a degree in psychology and was studying law when he also murdered multiple women by charming them into his car, hitting them over the head, and killing them for sport. Because no one could believe that he was a monster, based on his looks and likability, Ted Bundy was able to escape jail and break into a sorority house to kill 2 women in their sleep as well as kill a 12-year-old girl.
This documentary was filled with detailed and interesting insight. It gave background on one of my favorite movies of all time – all the research that had been done on serial killers and how spot on Thomas Harris’s depiction was. It is on the older side, but don’t let that stop you from watching. There are also episodes based on the movies The Exorcist and The Hunt for Red October.