Over the break I watched the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” which follows the story of a woman FBI agent on her mission to stop a serial killer, being aided by a convicted cannibal along the way. This movie raised many interesting questions about the symbolism of human flesh in the public consciousness.
*SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T ACTUALLY SEEN SILENCE OF THE LAMBS*
(but really why haven’t you seen Silence of the Lambs?)
For those of you ignoring the spoiler warning, the main issue I found with the movie was the sacredness of human flesh, particularly of the skin. Part of what makes the movie so disturbing is that the serial killer uses the skin of his victims to form a sort of skin suit so that he can become a woman. I found this defilement of human flesh to be particularly disturbing, so I wanted to think about why I experienced such a strong reaction to this abuse of flesh.
Possibly part of the reason the tampering of skin is so disturbing is because skin is what constitutes a person’s unique physicality. A person’s facial features are integrated into their skin, and after having seen a body without skin, the person is basically unrecognizable without their skin. Thus, when a person loses their skin, they lose an important part of their identity. To add onto this, the serial killer dons the skin of his victims, in a sense robbing and adopting part of their identity.
Compounding this disrespect for flesh is the character of Hannibal, who is a cannibal. Cannibalism occupies a particularly heinous place in public consciousness by being almost beyond comprehension. Why is this? One of the most violent scenes in the movie occurs during a scene in which Hannibal eats part of a man’s face. Building off of the idea of the skin as an important part of a person’s identity, imbibing skin could be seen as both a flagrant disregard for someone’s identity and as a disregard for the sacredness of the human body as a whole. Even when dead, the human body retains part of its status as a person through the imposition of moral limits on treatment of the dead body. Eating human flesh will always be disturbing, regardless of if the body is dead or still alive.