Psychology often interests people who are not scholars or students of the corresponding faculty. As such, movie directors and screenwriters find phenomena that this scientific field describes as inspirational. Obviously, mental disorders receive special attention from film creators due to the fact that people like to observe the unusual manifestations of the human mind and become thrilled about the news and representations of deviant behavior. Some might want to explore the conditions of people whom they never could understand. Hence, movies about serial killers or cannibals, for example, are pretty popular among the laity. One such film is one that includes a narrative about both a cannibal and a serial killer in one person, namely The Silence of the Lambs. The movie presents a character with antisocial personality disorder, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, an intelligent and charismatic person, the treatment of whom deserves an analysis regarding his mental illness as depicted in the film.
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So, The Silence of the Lambs’s storyline is concentrated on an investigation conducted by an FBI agent who receives help from Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The reason for the cooperation between Lecter, who resides in the psychiatric criminal unit, and Starling, the FBI employee, lies in the usefulness of the prisoner’s knowledge of the psychology of serial killers. Not only can the character provide a personal perspective and convey the possible motives, but discuss the case from the view of a professional psychiatrist, whom he became before the incarceration (Demme, 1991). During the events of the movie, Lecter constantly adjusts his actions and the information given to Starling so that to exploit the situation for his benefit, namely to gain approval for transfer to another facility. For example, he delivers the false name of the murderer whom the FBI attempts to find and arrest to prevent the slaughter of another victim (Demme, 1991). Moreover, he changes his behavior from being empathetic and collaborative to violent and provocative at his will. In the end, he escapes the hospital and indirectly informs Starling about the continuation of his cannibalistic activity.
One of the seven psychological approaches can be attributed to being present in The Silence of the Lambs, namely psychodynamic. This perspective is associated primarily with the works of Sigmund Freud since he is its founder. Still, for the given case, the views of Karen Horney and Erik Erikson are more relevant. First, Horney’s focus on childhood traumas that shape personality reveals was probably estimated by the director of the movie (Rathus, 2019). Specifically, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in the movie’s plot, has observed the murdering of his parents and the dismembering and cannibalizing of his sister (Demme, 1991). These events could be considered to have left a severe impact on the character’s personality and developed into the disorder that he demonstrates throughout the film. Second, Erikson emphasized psychosocial development, which occurs in a cold or warm environment (Rathus, 2019). After the loss of his family, Lecter was raised in an orphanage; such conditions are not welcoming for a child with difficult early life and could have led to his antisocial behavior. Thus, the movie speculates on a psychodynamic psychological approach when depicting the main character’s motifs.
As was mentioned earlier, the film portrays the antisocial personality disorder present in Dr. Hannibal Lecter. This personality disorder manifests symptoms such as failure to adhere to the rules, difficulty in retaining steady employment, dishonesty, deceit, manipulation for personal benefit, and inability to create solid relationships (Fisher & Hany, 2021). In the movie, Lecter murders several officers; one policeman is brutalized by him (Demme, 1991). He also uses the skin to conceal his appearance after he has removed it from another person’s face (Demme, 1991). One officer is beaten to death, and another is bitten in the face when Lecter wants to escape prison (Demme, 1991). This behavior alone already signifies of tendencies of mentally ill people who do not try to conform to the law.
Moreover, after these crimes, the character does not seem to feel remorse and employs the disgust and fear of others for the opportunity to achieve his goals. Hannibal lacks the capacity to mitigate the consequences of his actions throughout the film. On the other hand, he frequently magnifies the results with even more violent behavior. He does not, for example, abandon a police officer’s body after murdering him; he dismembers and hangs it up against the wall (Demme, 1991). Lack of regret, indifference to, or justification for hurting, mistreating, or stealing from another person is the most apparent symptom of the mentioned disorder (Rathus, 2019). Thus, it can be safely stated that these acts correspond to the medical description of antisocial personality disorder since they bear disruptive nature characterized by the absence of empathy.
It is also apparent that the antisocial actions of the antagonist affect the other characters in the film. First of all, Starling is demonstrated to be under the influence of Lecter due to his presentable intelligence and charm. However, his spontaneous changes in behavior make the FBI agent scared and disgusted (Demme, 1991). Furthermore, one can observe the emotional tenseness that occurs every time the character has to cooperate with the psychopath. From interest in Lecter’s personality, Starling changes to avoidance of all possible contact with the murdered; moreover, she becomes more cautious after these interactions. The other result of the manifestations of the antagonist’s mental illness is the death of multiple people who have happened to be in places where he would attack them (Demme, 1991). Therefore, the violent and rampageous acts of Lecter make all the other characters feel unsafe and put their lives in danger, which can be expected for a person with such a condition.
There are few notions on the treatment of Lecter in the film, yet it could be discerned through the first occurrence of this character. Namely, the initial scene with the antagonists demonstrates that he receives little care in his facility, which makes him propose to the FBI to transfer him to the other prison (Demme, 1991). Most of the time, he seems like a sane person to people who surround him so that they do not haste to provide psychiatric therapy for him. However, there are safety precautions, such as bordering space between Lecter and his visitors (Demme, 1991). Thus, the treatment is not presented clearly in the film, and it might be that it does not even exist in such a setting.
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I guess I would have felt and acted the same way as the characters in the movie, based on the fact that this is how any sane person would behave under similar circumstances. When a person encounters madness embodied in deeds, words, or people, they experience horror, awe, fear, and despair. I do not understand the film’s antagonists, as most people cannot because it is impossible to be empathetic towards a psychopath. Lecter can be called a psychopath because this man is a murderer and a manipulator, an antisocial and dangerous person who does not feel sympathy or empathy as such. Looking into the eyes of such a person, all the rest of our species will face the inner horror of realizing that the person in front of them sees them as objects. Like the film’s protagonist, the viewer feels threatened by the beautifully played character of the psychopathic cannibal, which appears as Lecter. The emotions that I sensed when watching communicated to me that if I faced this, being in the place of one of the protagonists, I would, despite all my will, feel anxious, tense, and uncomfortable.
I consider the representation of antisocial personality disorder in The Silence of the Lambs accurate. I have already mentioned that it regards the medical descriptions of this illness, which makes it more realistic. However, I cannot say that Lecter portrays all the people with this condition since there is always variation, namely different levels of complexity, in such cases. It is also depicted that Lecter’s life is quite successful for him due to his illness and despite the stereotypes. However, the protagonists’ lives are deemed with fear, and the traumatic experiences might not leave them until their end.
To conclude, The Silence of the Lambs is a movie that depicts a person with an antisocial personality disorder quite accurately. Lecter, the main character and antagonist, might seem charming and non-dangerous to people who meet him for the first time, such as Starling, an FBI agent. However, the narrative clearly demonstrates the manipulative nature of Lecter’s behavior, typical of people with the same condition.
Demme, J. (1991). The Silence of the Lambs [Film]. Orion Pictures.
Fisher, K. A., Hany. M. (2021). Antisocial Personality Disorder. Europe PMC.
Rathus, S. A. (2019). PSYCH (6th ed.). Cengage Learning.