Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1994 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(4) (1994) 61-80

The Horror of Everyday Life: Taxidermy, Aesthetics, and Consumption in Horror Films

Jeffrey Niesel
University of California, San Diego
Department of Literature

     He covets. That is his nature. How do we begin to covet?
     Do we seek out things to covet? Make an advertisement out
     of it? No.  We begin by coveting the things we see every

            - Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

When Norman Bates tells an unsuspecting Marion that taxidermy is a "hobby" of his in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, he uses an appropriate term to describe an activity which he considers commonplace. Hobbies are usually regarded as innocent activities of casual interest, designed to help pass the time. And indeed, "stuffing things," as Norman refers to taxidermy, has been a dominant part of American culture since the turn-of-the-century when world exhibitions and the construction of museums necessitated the need for dioramas and displays. The trophies on the wall behind Norman are really not so horrific. They can be found in the room of any American "sportsman" or in the display windows of any department store. Why then does taxidermy become such a specious activity not only in Psycho but also in horror films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 and The Silence of Lambs?

The Horror of Taxidermy

The Oxford English Dictionary defines taxidermy as "the act of preparing and preserving the skins of animals, and stuffing and mounting them so as to present the appearance, attitude, etc. of the living animal." I would like to expand this definition of taxidermy to include not only any fetish for the skin of an animal or human but also any representation which attempts to blur the distinctions between the living and the dead. The anxiety between life and death often becomes a pivotal concern in horror films. Because they are dead creatures that mysteriously come to life, zombies, vampires, [End page 61] and other forms of the "living dead" often found in horror films invoke fear and generally require heroic efforts in order to be suppressed. But what is so frightening about the dead coming back to life? Why should this trigger responses of fright and the need for containment? The cultural logic at work in a practice such as taxidermy illustrates what Seltzer (1992: 21) in Bodies, identifies as "a miscegenation of the natural and the cultural: the erosion of the boundaries that divide persons and things, labor and nature, what counts as an agent and what doesn't." Taxidermy represents that feature of modernity that Halberstam (1991: 37), in an essay on Silence, argues "has eliminated the comfort of monsters because we have seen, in Nazi Germany and elsewhere, that evil works often as a system, it works through institutions and it works as a banal (meaning 'common to all') mechanism." In short, taxidermy is a more explicit version of the way we incorporate the world around us through commodification and the use of systems. It is the most systematic of systems, and it uses violence to make life itself into a system and make sense out of patterns that are, as Hannibal Lecter describes the murders in Silence, "desperately random."

In these three horror films, women are often the sought-after trophies for the killer-taxidermist. Norman has stuffed his mother, the Sawyer family in Chainsaw has preserved its grandmother, and Buffalo Bill in Silence stuffs women's bodies with his own as he strips their skins and makes clothing he can wear. The rupture between inside and outside exploited in the act of taxidermy is a trope often used in horror films, which consistently try to jolt audiences by showing insides coming out. With taxidermy, however, the insides are disposed of. Emphasis is on the skin and on the presentation of an inanimate object as if it were alive. Taxidermy, because it takes the fetish to its logical end (murder), exposes connections between consumerism, aesthetics, and patriarchy and shows how these systems contribute to creating relationships of violence particularly in the effort to render feminine subjectivity silent. I agree here with Caputi (1987: 3) who, in her book The Age of Sex Crime, argues that serial sexual murders are not the work of "deviants" but of masculine subjects living in a patriarchal world: "Serial sexual murder is not some inexplicable explosion/epidemic of an extrinsic evil or the domain only of the mysterious psychopath. On the contrary, such murder is an eminently logical step in the procession of patriarchal values, needs, and rule of force." Caputi links the emergence of serial sexual murders (she dates the start of such phenomena to Jack the Ripper's murders in 1888) with "the rise of the popular press and mass media, the invention of the camera, the mass production and distribution of pornography, the medical inventions of gynecology and psychoanalysis, and the technologizing of weaponry" (p. 12). All these changes [End page 62] Caputi mentions have developed rapidly as Western culture has become organized around consumption, which I interpret as one of the driving forces behind serial killings.

My analysis of capitalism and consumer culture is limited here to the exchange rather than the production of commodities and services that takes place within a broad cultural framework. I don't limit commodity exchange to the actual buying and selling of goods since the pervasive influence of video culture and mass media has resulted in the spread of symbolic forms of consumption (watching television, listening to music, etc.). I would like to avoid the tendency by many critics, from Theodor Adorno to Fredric Jameson, to see capitalism as a sort of "fall" from production to consumption that results in homogeneity and standardization. Rather, I would like to see consumer culture as a system in which goods, ideas, and human beings are assigned symbolic values and exchanged. Consumer culture is not intrinsically patriarchal, but patriarchal values often dominate consumer societies. Since the turn-of-the-century, feminine subjects have been construed as uncontrollable consumers, but this ideology merely masks the fact that women often do not have economic power that equals that of masculine subjects.

Recent Scholarly Work on Serial Killers, Horror Films, and Violence

In Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Clover (1992: 22) argues that the horror film presents a barometer of sexual attitudes: "Unmediated by otherworldly fantasy, cover plot, bestial transformations, or civilized routine, slasher films present us in startling direct terms with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds but in which, at the same time, masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body." Her description of horror's "unmediated" examination of sexual relations describes the function of taxidermy in these films. Taxidermy is a representation of the world in "startling direct terms" because it shows that the way killers treat human bodies is tantamount to the way masculine subjects think of feminine ones and consumers think of commodities in their daily lives. The films often make this connection by comparing the objectification of women in the "professional" world with their more unmediated objectification by the killer. Although taxidermy sometimes appears in critical essays about science, [1] its significance in horror films has not been thoroughly discussed. Near the end of his recent essay "Serial Killers," Seltzer (1992: 117) briefly considers the significance of [End page 63] taxidermy and Jack London's fascination with flesh in Sea-Wolf. Seltzer writes that for London, "taxidermy is the naturalist form of representation par excellence. The taking and wearing of skins at once localizes a female 'nature' - biological rather than sociological - and connects the work of that localization with exhibitions of anti-female violence." The passages Seltzer quotes from London reveal an almost desperate anxiety about sexual identity that is not clearly resolved with the display of "anti-female violence." In short, London wants to maintain that there is a gendered identity underneath the skin, when in fact gender has been stripped away as the skin is stripped from one body and put onto another. This point seems to elude Seltzer who makes claims about how the skinning of bodies represents the "unnaturalness of nature" (p. 118). The "unnaturalness" involved here and its relation to Seltzer's larger claim about machine culture is significant, yet it does not fully explain the relationship between skinning women, aesthetics, and capital. Seltzer's ultimate point is to say "There is something like a resemblance between the taking and wearing of skins in London's stories of repetitive male violence and in other cases of serial violence, at least from the turn of the century on" (p. 118). I would like to argue that there is more than "something like a resemblance."

Rather, taxidermy represents the most literal expression of male violence, and reveals both the violence and the ultimate instability located at the core of a patriarchal system that relies on validation from passive feminine subjects. I agree with Kaja Silverman (1992: 4) who argues in Male Subjectivity at the Margins that "the implicit starting point for virtually every formulation this book will propose is the assumption that lack of being is the irreducible condition of subjectivity." For Silverman, this lack results in fetishism, projection, and anxiety as masculine subjects try to cover the gaping holes at their center. She cites films made in the wake of World War II which tried to find ways of reasserting a physically domineering masculinity that had literally been wounded in the war. This crisis of masculinity is not resolved by the time Psycho is released in 1960. As Corber (1993) has argued, issues of gender formation, national identity, and legal power continued to be uncertain in the '50s and '60s. For Corber, Psycho represents "the inability of the American government to suture individual and collective identities through the invocation of the nation's security interests" (p. 217). It may be a stretch to connect the film to issues of national security, but I think Corber is right to suggest that the question of human identity (and specifically, the nature of gender) is at stake in Psycho. Because Norman identifies so strongly with his mother (or, his feminine side), his identity as a male is questioned, and the film shows that "subjectivity is an ongoing construction" (Corber, [End page 64] 1993: 217). Chainsaw and Silence also show the continuation of the crisis of masculinity. But because Stretch in Chainsaw and Clarice in Silence survive (and even triumph), the films represent revisionary views of gender as they assert that feminine identities no longer need to be the mirrors for masculinity. Stretch and Clarice both refuse to be delegated to supporting roles. Taxidermy, then, becomes an extreme response to the lack at the center of masculine subjectivity. The taxidermist/killer resolves instability and uncertainty only through the act of murder. Like Olympia the automaton in E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman" [2] a stuffed woman is the perfect woman because her male companion can make her say whatever he wants. She becomes a mirror that will always validate a subjectivity in constant need of validation because of its essential lack.

Ed Gein: A Historical Atrocity Exhibition

Taxidermist/killers such as Norman Bates mirror the violence that occurs in everyday life. One example which illustrates the connection between everyday experience and violent murder is Edward Gein, the murderer whose life is the historical basis for Psycho. [3] Even though the jacket cover to Judge Robert H. Gollmar's book on Gein labels him "America's Most Bizarre Murderer," the author and various investigators struggle to make him appear both as a psychotic and as an average citizen who went bad. One example is the report, related in Gollmar's volume, by Mr. Colwell who investigated Gein's social history. Colwell writes that Gein and his brother "were treated equally well by the parents and adjusted well to each other" (62), yet Colwell also reports that Gein's father was an abusive alcoholic and his mother was a moralistic preacher who warned Gein against sex before marriage (Gein's mother is often blamed for his problems). According to this logic, it's not clear what would constitute a "normal" childhood. Was Gein's "normal" because his parents treated him and his brother "equally well" or does his father's alcoholism constitute abnormality? It is clear that Gein felt alienated in his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin. In an interview, he says, "'People would come to visit me, but I would soon find that they only came to borrow things or to ask for my help'" (63). Gein found the exchanges that take place in consumer culture distasteful. He felt others only wanted him for their own use-value and did not recognize his value as a human being. With his murders, Gein took the logic of consumption, which sees others in terms of use-value, to its logical extreme, literally (instead of symbolically) turning them into commodities. The descriptions of Gein's collection of skins, heads, and other body parts show that [End page 65] Gein treated the body as a commodity. Officer Schoephoerster filed the following report:

I had a feeling I never had before in my life because I had never seen anything like this. It was so horrible. We found skulls and masks; that is the skin portion of the head that had been stripped from the skull and preserved and put in plastic bags. There were several of those skulls. We found a box that had women's organs in it and I noticed one small one was gilded a gold color with a ribbon tied on it; I believe a red ribbon. We found leg bones and discovered the chair seats were made out of human skin. They were crudely made. The outside portion would be smooth and if you looked underneath you could see strips of fat. It wasn't a good job (19-20).
This passage shows that Gein's methods of commodifying the human body are very methodical. He has skins in plastic bags and a box with women's organs in it. The collection of women's organs is particularly interesting because of the way in which Gein treats the genitals. He often cuts them off and paints them. The one referred to in this passage was painted gold and had a ribbon tied around it. This is again an extension of the way women are viewed in society. Their reproductive organs are valued the most because of the pleasure they provide and because they represent the ability to reproduce human life. Gein has taken the social construction of female sexuality in heterosexist culture to its logical extreme. This passage also reveals the officer's participation in the crime. When discussing the chair made of skin, the officer reports "it wasn't a good job," and he applies aesthetic values to Gein's work, showing that he has internalized concepts of good and bad workmanship. It's not clear why the officer thinks it is not a good job, but the mention of seeing strips of fat seems to indicate that the officer thinks the skin has not been properly stripped of its waste. The ideology that sees fat as waste is important (not just for understanding anorexia, but for understanding capitalism). [4] The presence of waste in a capitalist system indicates a lack of efficiency. For a capitalist system to run well, everything should be utilized. Gein used human bodies as if he were running a business. He found a use for each body part so he could minimize waste, and this mentality is mirrored in the officer's criticism of the "waste" visible on the chair. The officer's report notes that Gein had a coffee can he used for putting chewed wads of gum, noting "Gein would never throw anything away" (22). Gein has merely extended the logic of maximizing resources to human bodies.

The police reports, which include detailed descriptions of Gein's home and the "decorations" he made, are significant because they mirror the devotion to detail that Gein exhibits [End page 66] in his treatment of the bodies. At one point, Deputy Fritz says that "We also found Mary Hogan's mask that night. That was found behind the kitchen door. I picked it up. I don't know what possessed me to do it" (20). This scene resembles the scene in Chainsaw in which Leatherface picks up a mask he has recently cut off a body and looks through it. The fascination with human skins is not limited to psychopaths. The complicity of law enforcement officials is perhaps best revealed in the way they try to piece together the facts to create a logical scenario. In this way, investigators make people into objects which they manipulate to create a scenario which explains the crime. [5] Their methods, which combine art, capitalism, and taxidermy to further patriarchal control, sound suspiciously like those of the killers they are trying to contain.

Psycho: Taxidermy and the Instability of Patriarchy

Although Modleski (1989) doesn't devote much space to Psycho in The Women Who Knew Too Much, she performs a complex task in her analysis of Hitchcock's films and feminist theory. She not only accounts for the apparent misogyny of Hitchcock's films but also constructs feminist readings which counteract Hitchcock's apparent patriarchal ideology. Because she argues that violence in Hitchcock's films is the result of masculine subjects' refusal to face their bisexuality, Modleski's argument is similar to my own, which sees taxidermy as an act of violence resulting from a patriarchal society which represses sexual ambiguities and a consumer society which objectifies the living and animates objects. Modleski sees her work as a continuation of the effort by feminists to consider "Hitchcock's work as the expression of cultural attitudes and practices existing to some extent outside the artist's control" (p. 3). Rather than trying to preserve or contradict the notion that Hitchcock was a great director, Modleski places his work in its cultural context, seeing, in the case of Norman Bates and others, "images of ambiguous sexuality that threaten to destabilize the gender identity of protagonists and viewers alike" (p. 5). For Modleski, female bisexuality, which Hitchcock often portrays in the form of a daughter who "overidentifies" with her mother, poses a threat to patriarchy. Female bisexuality "reminds man of his own bisexuality (and thus his resemblance to Norman Bates)" and is "a bisexuality that threatens to subvert his 'proper' identity, which depends upon his ability to distance woman and make her his proper-ty" (p. 8). Modleski's argument that the instability of male subjectivity leads to violence against women in Hitchcock's films is important for the argument I make about taxidermy. Norman turns to taxidermy to deal with [End page 67] his bisexuality. He either eradicates the feminine through the act of murder (Marion Crane) or he represses the feminine through rendering it silent (his "stuffed" mother). When women try to become legitimate subjects by seizing economic power, they represent a threat to masculinity, which relies on their passive acknowledgment for its sustenance. The fact that Marion has trouble seeing as she drives to the hotel indicates the danger involved in driving on her own. She is not supposed to look, and when she does, she has difficulty keeping her eyes open and seeing the road in the rain. When she first arrives at the hotel register, her image is reflected for the viewer in a mirror next to the cash register. This is the "proper" position for women - they are meant to be seen and not meant to see. Any sign of desire or appetite is considered threatening because it serves as a sign that women are not objects but have desires of their own.

Marion's very presence in the hotel and the sexual desire she arouses in Norman makes him nervous precisely because he is not sure what side of his personality (his masculine or feminine) he should follow. It's interesting here that the violence is projected onto Norman's feminine side. Marion does not really threaten Norman's mother; the fear that she will corrupt Norman is a male fear of female sexuality. But, perhaps because Gein's mother was supposedly overprotective, Hitchcock portrays Norman's mother as someone who is jealous and suspicious of Marion. When Norman tells his mother that he has invited Marion for dinner, she responds:

No I won't have you bringing some strange young girl in for supper. By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds. And then what? After dinner - music? As if men don't desire strangers. I refuse to speak of disgusting things because they disgust me. Go tell her she won't be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food and my son.
According to Norman's mother (and Western culture), women are cheap and bring out the "cheapness" in men as they tempt men to invest in trivial things and distract them from their austere, rational understanding of the world. [6] The woman's appetite is also a sign of the wastefulness that capitalism tries to eliminate with its emphasis on efficiency. Marion's appetite then is not just a sign of inefficiency; it is also not aesthetically pleasing. Norman's mother reveals the aesthetics of eating when she refers to Marion's "ugly appetite." Marion actually denies that she is hungry, saying "I really don't have that much of an appetite." When she does eat, Norman says "You eat like a bird," yet throughout the film, he is the one who is always nibbling on things (perhaps a reference to Gein who was constantly chewing gum) and when he peers over the register with the private investigator, his [End page 68] posture of craning of his neck is very bird-like. His bird-like qualities are a sign of his "feminine" side coming out.

When Norman explains the basis for his interest in taxidermy, he shows taxidermy is a more extreme representation of the way women are viewed in daily life. He tells Marion:

I hear the expression [eating like a bird] is really a falsity because birds really eat a lot. But I don't really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know - taxidermy. I guess I'd just rather stuff birds because I hate the look of beasts when they're stuffed. You know, foxes and chimps; some people even stuff dogs and cats, but I can't do that. I think only birds look well stuffed because they're kind of passive to begin with.
Norman says that he stuffs birds because he can't stand to see aggressive animals stuffed. He relies on a notion of nature that arbitrarily divides animals into those that are passive and those that are active. When Norman says that birds are "kind of passive to begin with," he makes a distinction about nature that really has no basis. Birds are not really any more or less active or passive than other creatures, but his statement resonates throughout the film because it describes the way women are treated. Women are expected to be stuffed birds, and there is a constant tension involved in trying to enforce their "passivity." Women pose a threat in the film because they might do something like steal $40,000 (as Marion does) or murder an unfaithful lover (as Norman's mother did).

Norman has found a solution to the problem that women might do something unexpected - he kills them. The connection between women and "stuffed birds" is clear in the film. Norman describes his mother as being "as harmless as one of those stuffed birds." When he has finished stabbing Marion in the shower, she slumps out of the shower and we see one of her unblinking eyes which makes her look like a bird. Norman has taken the relationships between men and women in everyday life to their logical extreme. Women are constructed as "stuffed," passive creatures in social life, and Norman has made that construction obvious. Tom sounds suspiciously like Norman when he tells Mr. Lowery, "Well, I ain't about to kiss off $40,000, and if any of it's missing, I'll replace it with her soft flesh. I'll track her and never you doubt it." The concept of replacing his money with human flesh shows the cannibalistic structure of capitalism. His statement also echoes the bargain Shylock makes for a pound of flesh in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, a play about the emergence of mercantile capitalism. Tom's threat to track her down shows that she is prey, and when a private detective is hired to find her, his [End page 69] threat comes true.

In some ways Lilian presents an alternative to the construction of passive women. She hunts Sam down in his hardware store and begins the search for Marion. While in the mansion, Lilian embarks on a search that will become a standard scene in horror films. She goes into the basement of the house - the very locus of all that is frightening and mysterious. But Lilian is scared at the sight of her own reflection. She jumps at the sight of herself in the mirror in the mother's room. When she confronts the stuffed mother, this is equivalent to confronting herself. She is forced to see that women are denied agency and treated as corpses. Her response is to scream, and Sam comes in to save her. Her expression of helplessness serves to show her limits as a heroine. She might be able to go into the house and even explore the basement, but when faced with the sight of a stuffed body, she shrinks back in terror. Stretch in Chainsaw and Clarice in Silence face similar situations, yet they don't look away and thus refuse to accept their roles as mirrors of masculine subjects.

Flesh for Sale

The question of taste and aesthetics is foregrounded in Tobe Hooper's sequel Chainsaw. Sawyer sees his chili business as an artistic endeavor, and women threaten to contaminate the process. In one scene when Stretch is running through the house, she runs through a hallway of preserved bodies. The bodies are assembled in various poses and surrounded by lights. In one diorama, a couple rests at the beach, in another a family sits at a dinner table. These scenes resemble window-displays in which mannequin bodies display various commodities. Here, the bodies are explicit commodities. The countless chandeliers are a mark of high culture and taste in a building which combines the features of factory, museum, and home under one roof.

When Stretch enters the house, she disrupts the aesthetics because the Sawyers consider her femininity a threat to their business. Sawyer expresses the family's standards of taste when he says, "dirty meat don't cut it. Family standards only require the best meat in town. I never, never get a break. Work, work night and day presenting myself to the people, selling, selling. You [Leatherface and Chop-Top] doodle around here listening to the radio all day." Here the father insists that the meat must be the "best" and repeats the work ethic to describe his duties. He also disparages Chop-Top and Leatherface in much the same way that [End page 70] working husbands talk down to housewives who work at home all day. For Sawyer, the ideal product doesn't reveal the exploitation and bloodshed of its production. The Sawyers' chili is a perfect example of the way consumer culture covers the violence of commodity production. The chili is made from human flesh, yet it wins awards because of its aesthetic appeal. Sexual desire, which is coded as feminine, presents a threat (here in the form of distraction, as Leatherface falls in love) to the supposed sterility of the product and becomes an impediment to the Sawyers' work ethic.

When Sawyer sees Stretch, he calls her "that dirty thing," in terms similar to those he uses to describe the rejected meat. He applies a standard of taste that exists in Psycho and Silence as well. He tells Leatherface, "Sex - you had to find out about it. You wanna know about it. It's a swindle. Don't get mixed up in it. You got one choice - sex or the saw. Sex is nobody knows, but the saw is family." Sex is really no more of a swindle than Sawyer's business or the football game, yet because it involves desire (which is figured as feminine), it takes on a "dirty" and duplicitous feature. Sex is also not rational - it is what "nobody knows," and this uncertainty makes it threatening. The solution for the Sawyers is to either preserve their women like they have done with their grandmother) or to destroy them. As Chop-Top says "she's in the garbage now." This provides a vivid picture of the violence of patriarchy which paradoxically denies women their sexuality on the basis of morality but relies on female sexuality in order to propagate itself. When a woman doesn't acknowledge patriarchal power, this disrupts the whole system which exists only when women passively acquiesce.

Stretch rejects her role in patriarchy as a passive supporter of masculine ventures when she faces Leatherface at the radio station. When Leatherface attacks her, he does so with all the spectacle of a male in heat. He revs his chainsaw, waves his arms, and grunts. At first, Stretch acknowledges his power by screaming. Lefty tells Stretch, "they live on fear," and once Stretch realizes this, she undoes the potency of Leatherface's ability to make his victims frightened. "How good are you?" Stretch asks Leatherface. The question of how well one can perform is a constant concern in consumer society which thrives on competition and in a patriarchal society in which men are constantly proving their masculinity. In Chainsaw, the quality of the chili, the athletic ability of the football players, and Lefty's ability to wield a chainsaw are all actions which ask to be analyzed in terms of the quality of the performance. Feminine subjects are often asked to attest to the quality of male performance. Stretch realizes this is the game she is asked to play, and at first she responds sarcastically, saying "Are you really, really good? You're really good. You're the [End page 71] best." But when Leatherface finishes too early and runs out of gas, she realizes the limits of his abilities. She responds "no good." This statement shows that she rejects her role as a passive, "stuffed" woman, and realizes how much control she has over masculinity.

By saying he is "no good," Stretch refuses to comply with the patriarchal system which relies on women for validation. After being told he is "no good," Leatherface destroys the office and slaps five with Chop-Top (another sports reference), but the celebration has no basis. Leatherface merely creates the spectacle of power because the dynamics have actually shifted so that Stretch is in control. This is not to say that men can no longer hurt Stretch. In the final scene, her back is sliced by Chop-Top, [7] but the mere threat of violence no longer phases Stretch. When Chop-Top cuts his throat in the final scene, he expects her to shrink back in terror. In the original Chainsaw, the Hitchhiker slits his arm to the shrieks of the kids in the van who turn away. To turn away is to recognize the power of horror. In this scene, Stretch is unfazed by Chop-Top's actions. She looks directly at him. In Williams' terms, she is the woman who looks, [8] and her final triumph, which takes place in the vicinity of the stuffed grandmother, is a refusal of the taxidermic logic and aesthetics of consumer culture. She doesn't engage in the same random violence that Lefty does. While Lefty randomly chops down beams of the house and makes a moralistic, religious condemnation of the house, Stretch sinks her chainsaw into Chop-Top's stomach without the same spectacle or rhetoric that accompanies male violence. Her confrontation of the terror that women face in patriarchy is not unlike what Clarice experiences in Silence, a film which presents a similar logic of human consumption and aesthetics.

The Aesthetics of Violence in Silence

The moment in Silence when Lecter gives Clarice the final clues she needs to find Buffalo Bill provides an insight into the film's main point. Jonathan Demme's picture shows that consumer culture promotes an aesthetics (on the level of both "low" and "high" culture) which is the equivalence of taxidermy and cannibalism. When Lecter asks Clarice why Buffalo Bill kills women, she responds with the usual ways of understanding psychotic killers: "anger, social acceptance, sexual frustration." But rather than being pathological, Buffalo Bill's problem is really the problem of living in consumer culture which uses the aesthetics of display to market objects and humans. Lecter tells Clarice, [End page 72]
He covets. That is his nature. How do we begin to covet? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an advertisement out of it? No, we begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body? Don't your eyes seek out the things you want?
This statement typifies the meta-analysis of desire at work in Silence. Lecter's comment describes the fascination Buffalo Bill has with human flesh. Bill makes the violence of the male gaze explicit by stripping women's bodies of their flesh. When men look at women as sexual objects (as they often do in the film), they are coveting them. When Lecter asks Clarice "Don't you feel eyes moving over your body?" his comments resonate with what we see of Clarice's life in the film. The psychiatrist Dr. Chilton, the prison inmate Miggs, the entomologist, and her boss Jack Crawford all look at Clarice as someone who has value because of her sexuality. As Elizabeth Young (1991: 11) writes, "Miggs and Chilton are linked on a continuum of violence against women, their actions differ in degree but not in kind." Buffalo Bill's violence is a more direct manifestation of the violence Clarice experiences as a woman trying to establish herself in a male profession, and the film is quite critical of the male-identified FBI.

Silence is a critique of using sight to establish systems of meaning. Relying on vision does not solve crimes (except on a superficial level) or present an alternative to the violence done to the human body. The apparatus of law enforcement also fetishizes the body in its attempt to solve crimes. The FBI assembles all the images of Buffalo Bill's killings, but doesn't "see" what motivates the killer. Instead, the FBI treats the human body as an object to be examined in much the same way that Bill does. Crawford keeps the clippings about Bill on his wall as Bill keeps photos of his victims on his wall. When a body is dragged up from the river, Crawford and Clarice come equipped with fax machines, cameras, and tape recorders. They record all the information about the death and feed the details into a computer to seek out a pattern to the killings. They engage in their own method of serialization as they track the serial killer. As Halberstam (1991: 43) writes, "the camera has framed the victim in much the same way as Buffalo Bill does as he prepares his lambs for the slaughter. Keeping his victim naked in an old well shaft, he addresses her as 'it' when he must talk to her." The association with photography and the skin or surface of things dates back to its inception. Oliver Wendall Holmes in 1859 wrote that with photography "every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth" (quoted in Stuart Ewen, p. [End page 73] 25). Hunting for skins is the main theme of Silence, which shows art and taxidermy to be complicit: both fetishize the skin. Bill and the FBI utilize this aesthetics of objectification that involves privileging the surface of the body. The photos that are taken throughout the film show the way art is a form of taxidermy, treating the surface (or skin) as the source of beauty. From Clarice's first meeting with Lecter, it is clear he has a sense of aesthetics that corresponds to high culture. In his cell, he has a painting of Bellvedere, an Italian villa he admires because it offers a "view," which he does not have in his enclosed cell. Bellvedere, which is now a museum, is just one of many references made to classical culture, which Lecter locates in Italy. He also refers to Marcus Aurelius and his affinity for Chianti (an Italian wine he serves with the liver of a census-taker). [9] His sense of refined "taste" becomes the basis for the way he attacks Clarice during their initial meeting. When Clarice gives him a survey he responds "You think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool. You know what you look like to me with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube, a wild scrub, with a little taste. You're not more than one generation away from poor white trash." Lecter refuses to take a standardized test because he doesn't think he is standard. He thinks his aesthetics separate him from killers like Buffalo Bill and Multiple Miggs. In order to separate himself from the masses, Lecter tells Clarice that she doesn't measure up with her "good bag and her cheap shoes." By telling her that she doesn't live up the standards of high art, Lecter tries to demoralize Clarice. She has the good bag, but her cheap shoes belie her lower class upbringing.

For Lecter to call Clarice cheap is especially demoralizing because women in Western culture are associated with cheapness on account of their sexuality. As Norman's mother tells him in Psycho, she won't have him seducing Marion in the "cheap erotic fashion." Women keep men from attaining the aesthetics of high culture with their "cheapness." By calling her a "rube" Lecter also aligns her with nature, which creates an artificial binary opposition between masculine culture and feminine nature. Lecter reminds her "how quickly the boys found you. All those tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out all the way to the FBI." By telling her that her sexuality will keep her from attaining a position of power, Lecter tries to deprive her of her authority in the FBI. He uses a similar strategy with Senator Crawford, telling her that amputees supposedly still feel their legs after they are removed and asking her "Tell me, mom, when your little girl is on the slab, where will it tickle you?" Lecter tries to reduce her to a mother, which is what he thinks is her natural function. As a final jab, he says "love your suit," [End page 74] indicating that her appearance can't hide the fact that she is a woman and consequently aligned with nature, motherhood, and sexuality.

The scene in which the aesthetics of cannibalism are revealed most clearly is the one in which Lecter kills the two police officers. Lecter who is behind a curtain as if preparing for dinner greets the officers with all the rhetoric of cordiality, saying "Good evening, gentleman." He has made a special request for lambchops, a pun on the story Clarice has told him about the screaming lambs. Lecter's preparation for and concern with what he eats shows that he assigns aesthetic importance to his meals. The copy of a poetry journal and Bon Appetit on his table are signs of his exquisite taste. [10] The aesthetics of eating are paralleled in the reception for Clarice's graduation where a cake decorated in the shape of the FBI insignia is eaten by people wearing suits and dresses. Although eating is sanitized in this scene, "even the most apparently benign acts of eating involve aggression, even cannibalism" (Kilgour, 1990: 7). The act of eating can't be separated from the violence of incorporation. Lecter listens to classical music both before and after he kills the police men. High culture doesn't just cover the savagery of human relations, it also contributes to making human relations violent. An example of this is the act of reading.

It is clear that Lecter is well read (his name is derived from the Latin "lector" which means reader and at one point he tells Clarice to read Marcus Aurelius). Reading is perhaps cannibalism par excellence. Through reading, one dissects and consumes with the intent of making the object one's own. As Kilgour (1990: 9) writes, "Reading is therefore eating, an act of consumption. For homo sapiens, to think is to taste, as in the act of knowledge we imagine that we draw the outer world into our minds and possess it." Again, this is the way we relate to each other in consumer culture, coveting and being coveted, reading and being read. The separation of the serial killer into two persons (Lecter and Buffalo Bill) allows us to see that violence occurs at both the level of "high" culture and "low" culture and on the level of the intellect and the body. Lecter represents the violence of "high" culture and Buffalo Bill signifies the violence of the body and of "low" culture.

Rather than entertain a debate about whether or not Buffalo Bill is a homosexual, I would like to suggest he represents a figure who surrounds himself with "low" culture. This contributes to the violence he wreaks on women. I think Halberstam is right when she says that "he is indeed a man at odds with gender identity or sexual identity" and "he resembles a heavy metal rocker as much as a drag queen" (p. [End page 75] 41). Buffalo Bill could be Aerosmith's Steven Tyler or Guns 'N' Roses Axl Rose with his body rings and make-up. What is significant is that Buffalo Bill surrounds himself with the visceral products of "low" culture. He listens to loud rock music and lives in the lower middle class town of Bellvedere, Ohio. This mirrors Lecter's Bellvedere which is associated with classical Italy. Buffalo Bill is on the other side of the cultural spectrum, and his violence is directed against the skin while Lecter's is against what is underneath the skin. Buffalo Bill is essentially a taxidermist, sewing together the skins of women to create an identity for himself, a narrative that will explain his life like the dioramic displays at the American Museum of Natural History explain the development of civilization. As Halberstam writes, Buffalo Bill "is a seamstress, a collector of textiles and fabrics and an artist who fashions death into new life" (p. 41). Although his "art" may not be as sophisticated as Lecter's, it serves the same purpose. Lecter fetishizes the mind and Buffalo Bill fetishizes the body and each is trying to incorporate the other into himself in a manner which is not unlike the way we read, shop, and talk to others in our daily lives.


If, as Silence, Psycho, and Chainsaw show, the violence of incorporation takes place on all levels (mind and body, upper and lower class, "high" and "low" art), then is there any way out of this system? Where is the "exit" sign that conveniently appears in Chainsaw to let us and Stretch know that what we're seeing is only a representation of horror? For Frankfurt School critics like Adorno and Horkheimer, there was no escape from culture, commodification, and conformity. And, as if bearing their theory out, when Clarice tries to free the lambs, they don't leave - when she tries to comfort Catherine, Catherine calls her a bitch. Perhaps Clarice symbolizes the role of the academic in popular culture. She points to its problems, but is quickly dismissed for not providing immediate solutions. If we look to Clarice and Stretch as proto-types of a new, post-gender consumer, however, we see that there are ways of working within consumer culture to construct identities that locate the violence of incorporation and attempt to minimize it, realizing that aesthetics don't transcend consumption. The desire to call that which represents our darkest fears "monstrous" is not a solution because it is not so easy to separate ourselves from "social deviants." Although Holmes and De Burger (1988: 155) in Serial Murder assert that "everyone, regardless of sex or age, is a possible victim of the serial killer," it is equally true that everyone is a possible serial killer. Recent films [End page 76] on serial killers (Serial Mom, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, and Natural Born Killers) place the blame for serial killers on the mass media, but pointing fingers at others ignores the way consumer culture propagates violence. The metaphor of taxidermy in Psycho, Chainsaw, and Silence shows that killers are born out of the circumstances of everyday life. It will probably be some time before the lambs stop screaming, but with films like Chainsaw and Silence, we can see that the paradigms of gender, patriarchy, and aesthetics are beginning to change.


1. See Donna Haraway's excellent "Teddy Bear Patriarchy" for a critical, feminist history of the American Museum of Natural History and sculptor/taxidermist Carl Akeley. Haraway makes points about capital production, taxidermy and aesthetics that are similar to what I argue here.

2. Freud cites this Hoffman story in his famous essay on "The 'Uncanny'" and argues that what is "uncanny" in "The Sandman" is not Olympia, the doll who is mistaken for a human being, but the figure of the Sandman himself. Oddly enough, Freud goes out of his way to avoid discussing Olympia. Perhaps her depiction of the Nathaniel's love for Olympia, which is founded upon the fact that she is an automaton and does whatever he wishes, presents a picture of masculinity much too horrific for Freud to acknowledge.

3. For an account of the Gein connection, see Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock. It was actually Robert Bloch who included references to the Gein case in his novel Psycho, upon which the film is based. Rebellos does not say how much Hitchcock himself actually knew about Gein.

4. Buffalo Bill in Silence employs similar methods of recycling. He takes women who wear size 14, starves them to reduce the fat, and skins them. Again, even though the women produce valuable skins, their fat is not aesthetically pleasing. It is first reduced and then eliminated altogether.

5. The complicity of the methods of law enforcement officials and those of the killer is most evident in Silence. As Judith Halberstam writes, "But, in The Silence of the Lambs, the monster is everywhere and everyone and the monster's story is not distinguishable from other textual productions validated within the film" (p. 38).

6. Freud writes in Civilization, "Furthermore, women soon [End page 77] come into opposition to civilization and display their retarding and restraining influence - those very women who, in the beginning, laid the foundations of civilization by the claims of their love. Women represent the interests of the family and of sexual life. The work of civilization has become increasingly the business of men, it confronts them with ever more difficult tasks and compels them to carry out instinctual sublimations of which women are little capable" (p. 59). For Freud, women have laid the foundations of civilization which then need to be taken over by men. The preserved grandmothers of Psycho and Chainsaw are evidence of the way women's roles in civilization are considered nominal. The opposition which Stretch and Clarice encounter (both are taken advantage of by male figures of authority) indicates the way women are still thought to be a threat to masculine "sublimation."

7. It is significant that Stretch doesn't scream and become a helpless victim at this point. Her reaction serves as a commentary on other films in which women are slashed by razors or knives. Marion in Psycho throws her arms up and is slashed repeatedly. Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill also becomes helpless after the first slash of a razor. Rather than fainting at the mere specter of violence, Stretch continues to try to start the chainsaw.

8. At the end of her essay, Williams argues that the new breed of horror film (which includes Chainsaw) is a genre " which permits the expression of women's sexual potency and desire, and which associates this desire with the autonomous act of looking, but it does so in these more recent examples only to punish her for this very act, only to demonstrate how monstrous female desire can be" (p. 97). I think Williams misreads the trend in horror films, and Stretch in Chainsaw is an example of a woman who looks and is triumphant and not punished.

9. It's significant that Lecter kills the census-taker. He takes great offense at being serialized. We often see him in a prison shirt with a number on it, and the printed figure clashes with his aesthetics of refined taste.

10. I differ here with Young who writes that "It [homosexuality] travels, as well, to Hannibal Lecter, who with his mannered aesthetics, his copies of Bon Appetit, and his near-camp delivery, resonates with the image of the homosexual as decadent aristocrat" (p. 19). His aesthetics are typical of well-educated, upper-class males and are not invested with homosexual overtones. [End page 78]


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