The True Stories That Inspired Buffalo Bill Will Change The Way You See 'The Silence of the Lambs'
The Silence of the Lambs broke the mold for Hollywood's expectations of psychological horror thrillers with explicit depictions of heinous acts. Not only did the 1991 film make enough money to cement its place as the fifth highest-grossing movie that year, but it also garnered Oscar wins for Jodie Foster, Sir Anthony Hopkins, director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally, and Best Picture.
Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter has a relatively small part in the film but garnered more attention than main antagonist Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Many fans know Lecter found part of his genesis in real-life monster Robert Maudsley, but do people know who and what informed the creation of Gumb?
Several high-profile criminals, including serial offender Ed Gein, supposedly inspired Thomas Harris - author of the novel The Silence of the Lambs - in his characterization of Gumb. Levine furthered the shaping of Gumb with his own take on the personality and motives of Clarice Starling's elusive adversary with a deep dive into the mind of another serial predator. Additionally, a detective's interactions with Ted Bundy spurred the character into existence.
Ted Bundy's Role In Tracking The Green River Killer Inspired Thomas Harris's BookPhoto: Wikimedia Commons / MGM
The Green River Killer’s (GRK) first victim appeared in July 1982 on the banks of the Green River in Kent, WA. At the time, Robert D. Keppel was the Chief Criminal Investigator for Washington State Attorney General’s Office - a former detective assigned to the Ted Bundy task force.
Two years after the start of GRK activity, another task force formed to track down the perpetrator. Keppel served on this committee and eventually brought in Bundy to assist him in entering the mind of GRK.
In 1984, Keppel sent a written overview of their interactions with Bundy to the Behavioral Science Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Expecting nothing more than feedback, Keppel instead heard author Thomas Harris had read his work and wanted to use it as the basis for his 1988 novel, The Silence of the Lambs.
Gumb's Obsession With Making A 'Woman Suit' Came From The Notorious Ed Gein
According to multiple sources, but never author Thomas Harris himself, the notorious Buffalo Bill’s (Ted Levine) modus operandi formed from the habits of several serial offenders. In the film’s bonus footage, FBI profiler John Douglas - the inspiration for Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) - states three specific influences on the Gumb character: Ted Bundy, Gary Heidnik, and Ed Gein.
Gein also served as a model for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and Psycho's Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Gein collected skin and body parts from the fresh corpses he created, as well as those from grave robbing. They became furniture and items of clothing, and he used their faces as masks. Buffalo Bill also “skins his humps” and sews the pieces together to create a woman suit for himself.
The Capture Of Catherine Martin Is Modeled After Ted Bundy’s Tactics
Ted Bundy kept young women in fear during his vicious spree that claimed at least 23 victims over the course of four years during the mid-to-late 1970s. Described by many as handsome and charming, Bundy used those characteristics to his advantage when approaching possible prey.
Bundy also regularly employed a fake cast on his arm to entice women closer to his vehicle, just as Gumb does when he lures Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) into his van. After the victim drifts close enough, the couch she helps load traps her in the van and Gumb bludgeons her so he can more easily transport her to his basement.
Gumb's Background In The Novel Mirrors Those Of Ed Kemper And Jerry BrudosPhoto: Wikimedia / MGM / Lane County PD
Coming in at over 300 pages, Thomas Harris’s novel delves deeply into the history of Gumb. His childhood includes abandonment by his mother, painful time spent in the foster care system, and eventual adoption by his grandparents - Gumb’s first victims.
Ed Kemper had a similar childhood to Gumb’s. His mother drank too much and mistreated him physically and mentally, spurring him to run away at age 14. Kemper’s grandparents took him in, and he later claimed his grandmother mistreated him as well.
In 1964, at age 15, Kemper put an end to his grandparents before embarking on a six-person spree beginning in 1972. In 1973, he dispatched his mother and her best friend, ending his career by confessing to police.
Jerome Brudos had a similarly dark relationship with his mother, and he took out his anger on other women. His tactics included disguising himself as a woman to get close to his victims, possibly mirroring Gumb’s confused self-hatred.
Actor Ted Levine Visited LGBTQ+ Friendly Bars To Flesh Out Gumb's CharacterPhoto: Steve Granitz / Getty Images/WireImage / Getty
Actor Ted Levine and director Jonathan Demme wanted to fully flesh out Buffalo Bill, separating his true intentions and psychology from what he projects in his actions and misdeeds. To explore Gumb’s mistaken belief that he was homosexual and transgender, Levine spent time with female impersonators and trans individuals in bars.
While watching and speaking with regulars in the bars, Levine realized Gumb didn’t fit in with the people he met. According to the 2003 documentary Inside the Labyrinth: The Making of Silence of the Lambs, Levine concluded, "If the guy was gay, he’d be [targeting] boys and men and he was [focused on] women."
Levine specifically points to an interaction with a female impersonator who spoke of feeling empowered by dressing as a woman. This cemented the idea that Gumb was neither the homosexual man he pretends to be with Benjamin Raspail or the transgender person he believes he needs to become. According to Rolling Stone:
He was a pathetic excuse for a man on all kinds of levels. But by trying to become a woman, he gains power… the same impetus as a female impersonator, but it became psychotic. It was donning the cloak of feminine power.
The Infamous Dancing Scene Was Improvised
In Thomas Harris’s novel, Gumb exits the shower before he tucks his genitals between his legs and admires himself. He speaks to his reflection in a high-pitched voice while he requests an invisible stranger to “do something for me, honey.”
Screenwriter Ted Tally omitted this scene from the script, but had a scene where Gumb performs a choreographed dance to Bob Seger’s “Her Strut.” Director Jonathan Demme wanted to use the song “Goodbye Horse” by Q Lazzarus, and Ted Levine (who plays Gumb) agreed, seeing it as “more feminine.”
Drawing on androgynous glitter rockers and the book’s original scene, Levine improvised his dance and added the infamous tucking while enrobed in a billowy frock and wig.