Psychology in Screenwriting: A Thoughtful Analysis of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

By February 22, 2018Screenwriting 101

They may be two very different subjects, but a closer look reveals how the underpinnings of psychology can be observed in good screenwriting and how key concepts in the psychology field can be magnified on the silver screen. Let’s grab our metaphorical looking glass and peer underneath the surface of a classic film, The Silence of the Lambs, written by Ted Tally.

The Silence of the Lambs tells the story of a young FBI agent named Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who must gain the trust of an incarcerated serial killer named Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), infamously known for his penchant for eating his victims. She needs Lecter’s help to nail another serial killer on the loose, nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Buffalo Bill has abducted Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) and is keeping her in a deep hole in his basement. The film puts Clarice, a naïve and inexperienced female, in a male-dominated world, forcing her to navigate her way out using her femininity and charm to combat the chauvinism that threatens to stop her from achieving her goal. Let’s discuss how this relates to psychology. First, a brief overview on the subject.

In his writings, the preeminent psychoanalyst Carl Jung introduced two archetypes to his readers – the anima and the animus. An archetype is a universal, persistent pattern or image that stems from the collective unconscious. It is an invaluable tool for use by screenwriters to deepen the meaning of their work and give depth to their characters. The anima is an expression of the feminine inner personality while the animus is the expression of the masculine inner personality. Jung theorized that all human beings are born with both personalities buried deep within their consciousness.

Screenwriters can leverage this tool to create meaningful stories that reflect the universal human condition. This should be the goal of all screenwriters. We go to the cinema to discover truth. We sit in a dark room and gaze up at the big screen. The pictures that fill that giant canvas help us to understand more about the world we inhabit. In the world of The Silence of the Lambs, the animus is an overwhelming force, and Clarice feels it every day.

Clarice receives strong rebukes from her male superiors as she stumbles through her training. She receives unwanted advances from Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) when she goes to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to see Hannibal. She endures each meeting with Hannibal, a psychotic madman bent on toying with her mind. Clarice gets semen thrown on her by one of Hannibal’s cell block mates. She suffers quietly through an autopsy as she examines a female’s dead body, a victim of cold male rage. What psychological conclusion can we draw from these scenes depicting Clarice as a victim? If the anima represents feminine energy and the animus male energy, what is Tally showing us here?

This is a world with excess animus. Conversely, the anima is suppressed. It is buried and personified brilliantly by Tally in the character of Catherine Martin, who languishes in Buffalo Bill’s dungeon while she waits for someone to rescue her. When Clarice finally confronts Buffalo Bill, he escapes. Clarice follows him down to his basement. There, she comes face to face not only with poor Catherine but also with her own repressed self. As Clarice gazes into Catherine’s terrified eyes, she sees the anima that exists in all of us, the essential quality combined with the animus that shapes the human soul. The wretchedness in The Silence of the Lambs exists because the anima is not there to serve as a moderating influence.

When Clarice tracks down and kills Buffalo Bill and rescues Catherine, their world that has tilted so disproportionally towards the animus has been psychologically balanced. Clarice has not just saved one life. She has given the world hope by allowing the anima to show its strength and correct a world so bent out of shape.

Screenwriters can elevate their writing to new heights by communicating complex concepts in their screenplays. Dramatic cinema like this is subtle, but it works. Audiences are much more sophisticated these days and will flock to films that carry profound truths. The Silence of the Lambs is an excellent example.


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