“The structure of horror narratives are said to set out from a situation of order, [to] move through a period of disorder caused by the eruption of horrifying or monstrous forces, and finally reach a point of closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed and the original order is re-established. The audience’s pleasure is supposed to be based upon the expectation that the narrative will reach this particular type of conclusion, and the eventual fulfilment of this expectation.” (Mark Jancovich in Horror: The Film Reader, 1992)
From Mark Jancovich’s quote, it would be natural to assume that the very nature of the horror film hinges on the reassuring quashing of the villain. This article will explore how two seminal horror films deal with this genre convention and endeavour to question just what or who can be identified as ‘monstrous’.
Made eleven years apart, much of the broader narrative in Alien and The Silence of the Lambs is similar: grisly murders occur in both films, each one revealing more tantalising information to the audience, both highlight a key villain or villains, both have a central female character and both contain a plot device in which the conclusion rests with the extermination of the main threat. Commercially both films were successful at the box office and have spawned subsequent films and numerous imitations. The ‘monstrous’ in Alien is immediately easy to identify: an aggressive alien life-form which terrorises a spacecraft crew. The ‘monstrous’ in The Silence of the Lambs takes on a number of guises, including the loose serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill and the incarcerated Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Alien wears its threat ‘on its sleeve’ by granting the ‘monstrous’ as the titular character, and yet emblazoned on the promotional posters is what seems to be the most natural object associated with the life-cycle: the egg. This implies that the “monstrous” could come from even the most ‘natural’ of beings- one that we may all recognise.The Silence of the Lambs on the other hand portrays a highly-intelligent psychiatrist with a penchant for cannibalism and a rampant and impulsive serial killer who skins his victims and ‘refashions’ their skin, hopefully people we are unlikely to encounter. Likewise, the “horrifying” is exactly what these antagonists set in motion over the course of film. For example, in Alien the foetus-like alien attacks Kane and “attaches itself with a deathly grip on his face” (Barbara Creed, Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, 1993), breaches the quarantine of the ship Nostromo and begins to kill each crew member with brutal skill. Buffalo Bill, who at the start of The Silence of the Lambs has already kidnapped, abused and killed a number of women, invites the spectator to witness his M.O. in the capture of a senator’s daughter, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter lives up to his name and ingeniously escapes from confinement in a series of “horrifying” set-ups.
It is essential for the audience to understand and empathise with the correct characters in the story in order for these ‘monstrous’ beings and “horrifying” acts to be recognised. And as Roger Ebert notes, The Silence of the Lambs also works as it succeeds in genuinely frightening the audience without just being a throwaway “thrill show” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). In Barbara Creed’s article Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, Creed refers to the alien as a “monstrous creature” and yet also implies that the alien is born to a “mother”, possibly emphasising the natural and organic nature of a being which harbours a monstrous potential.
In regards to The Silence of the Lambs in particular, the film is a result of an eternal fascination with the guise of the serial killer. This interest runs through into horror genre and in The Kingdom of the Unimaginable: The Construction of Social Space and the Fantasy of Privacy in Serial Killer Narratives (1998), Stephen Hantke believes: “Since we have radically divorced ourselves from him, his person and his space become radically fictitious. The more we fantasise about him without acknowledging that we are separated by nothing but genre conventions, the more we close the gap on between him and ourselves”. Hantke understands that since we are appalled and disgusted at the serial killers vicious acts, we are easily drawn into the story by our ability to recognise the film as a piece of fiction and at the same time separate ourselves in order to desire swift retribution for the character of the serial killer.
The interesting aspect of Jonathan Demme’s classic which may counter the Jancovich ideal about the containment of evil, is the new and unsettling realisation that Dr. Hannibal Lecter is in fact likable: “He may be a cannibal,” Roger Ebert quips, “but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you)” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). We also begin to see the blossoming of a ‘friendly’ relationship between the Clarice Starling and Lecter, one which ought to make the audience uncomfortable, but instead through Starling’s instinct makes the audience go along with her faith that he will not harm her (“I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, The world’s more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy”). In interviews as transcribed by Laura Sydell’s article Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot (2008), Jodie Foster explains the legacy of Lecter and his impact on an audience: “He’s not just a cardboard villain. You see his vulnerabilities; you see that he cares for her in the way that he can. That he has a kindness toward her … and yes, we’re seduced by that humanity, by his light touch with her…” Perhaps then this explains how as an audience we can feel satisfied with the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs which sees Dr. Hannibal Lecter walking free in an anonymous crowd to “have an old friend for dinner”. Perhaps because we have already witnessed the ‘silencing’ (for want of a better phrase) of Buffalo Bill, we can begin to accept the idea of an escaped Lecter who is neither “destroyed” nor “confined”.
In contrast to The Silence of the Lambs, Alien takes a good half an hour before Kane played by John Hurt is attacked by a being from one of the eggs. In Roz Kaveney’s case study of Alien in From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science Film (2005), Kaveney explains: “we have been lulled by Scott’s leisurely pacing into a false sense of security and started to think of this as a film in which we get to observe the future in a realistic way and without much excitement.”. Therefore we can deduce that Scott deliberately paces the film to unleash the monster where it will make its most horrific effect on the audience. Once the famous ‘chest burster’ scene occurs after an apparently relieving and relaxed crew meal, there is no doubt that whatever Kane encountered outside the ship will continue to wreak fatal havoc inside too. The scene had its desired effect on audiences in the cinema on release. In an interview for Empire Magazine to celebrate the Blu-Ray release of the Alien Quadrilogy, Ron Shusett who wrote the original story with Dan O’Bannon claims, “After the chest burster it was just deafening, you couldn’t hear for several moments.” The associate producer Ivor Powell went on to embellish: “People jumped up, some actually ran, there was spewing in the loo!”. Moments of such prolonged gore are scarce in The Silence of the Lambs (a glimpse of the murdered security guard is momentarily revealed and Lecter’s attack on said security guard is shot at an angle so that we mainly see Anthony Hopkins’ blooded face). This could suggest that whereas we are directed to instinctively call for the alien’s termination after it’s savage murder of Kane, when Lecter escapes his cell and the police’s misdirection is revealed, we are left instead in shock and awe at the man’s genius as well as in disgust.
Other additions to the list of villains in these two films come in the form of Ash (played by Ian Holm) in Alien and Dr. Chilton (played by Anthony Heald) in The Silence of the Lambs. A perhaps coincidental parallel can be drawn between these two characters upon closer inspection. Ash, a calm yet stern and logical science officer/doctor at the beginning of the film is a person of suspicion to only Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). After an unsettling scene where he attempts to suffocate Ripley by ramming a pornographic magazine into her mouth, it is revealed that he is in fact an android, planted by the ‘Corporation’ whom the crew work for, to bring back the alien regardless of loss of life to the crew. A shocking revelation to the remaining crew (though perhaps not entirely for Ripley) and a twist in the plot for the viewer, Roz Kevaney in A Franchise Case Study: Alien (2005) proposes that in the end it is “no surprise”. Ash’s adherences to authority during several points in the film do reveal his allegiances and Kevaney does point out that it isn’t the first case of ‘robot gone bad’ in cinema, describing him as “counter-revisionist”. Dr. Frederick Chilton is introduced as a bureaucratic annoyance at the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs and his cringe-worthy attempts at flirting with Clarice Starling and her curt re-buff is the catalyst for the audience’s dislike of the character. We may also take offence at the unfeeling way Chilton shows Starling the photo of the injured nurse, moments before she is about to encounter Dr Hannibal Lecter herself. Even during the scenes in which Chilton and Lecter are in his cell, Chilton is still the more unlikeable character despite Lecter being the convicted killer who needs to be restrained. When Lecter spots Chilton’s pen (which he uses later to escape his handcuffs), Chilton’s idiocy is almost laughable as it is hazardous.
Both Ash and Dr. Chilton represent an authority which is unrealistic, restrictive and in some cases, dishonest. They provide an opportunity in the plot for the surrounding characters (including the protagonists, Starling and Ripley) to subvert the authority they uphold. In some ways, Ash and Chilton represent the “original order” that Mark Jancovich claims must be restored which is vital for a successful horror film. We could even label Ash and Chilton as the real ‘horrifying’ and ‘monstrous’ aspects of these films as they are protected by an establishment which is supposed to keep us away from harm. It is safe to say that most viewers probably experience relief when Ash is finally ‘killed’ via Parker and Lambert’s swift intervention, and there’s doubtfully many who do not feel a mischievous twinge of gratification at the sight of Hannibal Lecter appearing to ‘dish out’ his revenge on Chilton in the final scene of the film.
One cannot deny however, that for much of Alien is spent hunting down the alien and attempting to exterminate it or that the greatest relief is when Clarice Starling finally defeats Buffalo Bill in a nail-biting showdown in the basement filmed through the night-vision goggles in The Silence of the Lambs. Therefore to some extent, both films employ the classic horror trope of ‘The Final Girl’, meaning that the audience is directed to empathise and identify with a female character who usually survives at the end of the film (Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover, 1993). Ellen Ripley is the last human survivor of Nostromo, single-handedly defeating the alien and living to tell the tale in the following sequels of the franchise and though Clarice Starling is not the only one to survive Buffalo Bill, Starling survives the ordeal after their encounter and ends his reign of terror. As an audience of a horror film which understands its genre traits, ‘The Final Girl’ is identifiable within Alien and The Silence of the Lambs. The “narrative closure” which Mark Jancovich speaks of is provided in the assurance of their survival. However, to reduce both Ripley and Starling to a film character convention would be doing a disservice. ‘The Final Girl’ suggests vulnerability, virginity and a helplessness that neither Ripley nor Starling overwhelmingly exude. In fact, Mark Jancovich’s own chapter in Horror: The Film Reader (1992), Genre and the Audience: Genre Classifications and Cultural Distinctions in the Mediation of The Silence of the Lambs denounces Starling’s vulnerability, stating that Jodie Foster’s performance as being a “commentary upon victimisation, rather than simply (as could be argued) an instance of victimisation”. In fact he even highlights the trap of comparing Ripley and Starling and explains that Foster’s performance was a conscious effort to separate itself from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. In the case of Ripley, Clover’s definition of ‘The Final Girl’ in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (1993) also falls short :“The Final Girl is introduced at the beginning and is the only character to be developed in any psychological detail. We understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers is the main story line”whereas Ripley does not stand out as a main character for a good section of the film. In fact, Dallas the captain of the ship is the more suited character to ‘helm’ the story, but is killed early on in the film. Ripley however is “…watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore she takes in and turns over. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in extreme situations” having voiced concerns about Kane’s return to the ship after contamination in the first forty-five minutes of the film and her cool reception of Ash from the start.
Though both films offer a release of pleasure once the main antagonists are eradicated, neither offers complete narrative closure for their individual plotlines. In Alien Ellen Ripley’s final words are “The other members of the crew, Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed…This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off” but no concrete explanation of alien, its creation, its purpose of its aggression and whether danger has absolutely subsided is given. We aren’t even assured as an audience if Ripley will definitely live. We rely on the safety of the pod as we did in the opening scenes of the film, but our ideas about the safety of the ship/space environment have since changed due to the events of the film. For the finale of The Silence of the Lambs, evil still remains on the loose in the form of a free Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And though Clarice Starling qualifies as an FBI agent and celebrates with her peers, the phone call she receives from Lecter places her on edge once more at the mercy of their warped relationship. She may have ‘contained’ one criminal (Buffalo Bill) but the flight of Lecter leaves just enough unease in the viewer to feel duped out of a clear-cut ending and a pleasurable desire for more. We can conclude then, that though a level of “narrative closure” in a horror film can be achieved through the containment of some of their most “monstrous” and “horrifying” aspects, we can gather that the most successful of the horror genre leave some aspects of the film’s plot for the viewers to ponder over themselves. After all, the thrill of terror is in part its ability to embed itself in the conscience of those who experience it and in both Alien and The Silence of the Lambs, the terror is part of the pleasure.