Series 2010 - The Silence Of The Lambs

The Silence Of The Lambs

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While researching the novel that would later become a hit movie, Thomas Harris spent time with the FBI’s then fledgling Behavioural Science Unit. The cases he explored, the pioneering techniques he observed and the killers he encountered inspired one of the most shocking thrillers ever made.

When it was released in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs became an instant hit and won a string of awards. But what few people realised at the time was that the film’s sensational story had its roots in reality, while its terrifying characters were based on real people.

In 1980, Thomas Harris gained access to the FBI’s brand new Behavioural Science Unit (BSU) in Virginia, where pioneering agents were exploring revolutionary new tactics to pursue prolific killers. Going beyond traditional forensics, the BSU probed the minds of murderers to build psychological profiles that would help identify criminals.

Harris was fascinated by what he saw. "He wanted to know the psychological makeup of these killers," recalls former special agent John Douglas. Police detectives were initially sceptical of the BSU, but that all changed when the unit made its first breakthrough. Police investigating the brutal murder of New Yorker Francine Elveson in 1979 had reached a stalemate after a six-month manhunt for a black male yielded no suspects. However, when profilers suggested that the killer was a white man with a history of psychiatric problems, the cops quickly made an arrest. The result won over the NYPD. “They were astounded by the accuracy of the analysis," says Douglas.

The use of profiling to catch killers became the central focus of Harris's novel, but he was keen to add a twist – his protagonist was to be a woman. At the time, there were no female profilers in the BSU, but Harris was put in touch with an ambitious young field agent called Pat Kirby, who advised the author about the feasibility of a female lead. Kirby was sure that a woman’s ability to listen would be useful in interviewing serial killers. Three years later, Kirby became the first female to join the BSU, and her success would become the inspiration for Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster on the big screen.

With his heroine in place, Harris now required a terrifying killer. Once again, a real case would be his inspiration – this time in creating legendary antihero Dr Hannibal Lecter. When Ted Bundy stood trial for sadistic rape, murder and necrophilia in 1979, many Americans refused to believe that this articulate, charming man could be a killer. "We were all fascinated with Bundy," recalls Hazelwood.

Following a chance encounter in Salt Lake City, Bundy was arrested and subsequently charged with several counts of murder. But, much like Harris's Lecter, Bundy was intelligent and manipulative, and managed to escape custody. Two months and three more murders later, Bundy was recaptured and eventually sentenced to death. His case proved invaluable for the BSU profilers, and changed the public’s perception of a serial killer forever. "People want to think that these individuals look like monsters, but many of them look like Ted Bundy," says former special agent Dr Mary Ellen O'Toole.

While Harris combined the traits of many killers for Hannibal Lecter, the case that inspired his final character required little embellishment. Buffalo Bill, the fictional psychopath who killed women for their skin, was based on Ed Gein, a 51-year-old bachelor from Wisconsin whose crimes shocked the world in the late 1950s. Among the horrors discovered in his house by local cops were a number of human skulls turned into food bowls for pets, and a woman’s face that had been fashioned into a mask.

In the years that followed the release of the movie, the work of the BSU became known worldwide, and the number of women applying to be profilers increased exponentially. "The Silence Of The Lambs paved the way for us like John the Baptist did for Jesus," says Hazelwood.

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