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Critique Essay History Humanities Nonfiction Social Sciences

The Transvestite as Monster: Gender Horror in The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho

By Julie Tharp, 1997

The close relationship of sex and gender problematics to the flourishing genre of horror films can perhaps best be traced to the groundbreaking Psycho, in which Norman Bates struggles with his horror of the feminine by alternately performing it and destroying it. At the end of the film, a psychiatrist hastens to assure everyone that Norman is not a transvestite, that Norman thinks he is his mother. The use of the word “transvestite” in pre-Donohue 1960 and Anthony Perkins’ performance of Norman as a less than masculine “Mama’s boy” who occasionally wears his mother’s clothes, however, suggest that the subject of gender cannot be so easily dismissed. Although most serial killer films since Psycho have focused largely on masculine killers and their feminine victims,2 Jonathan Demme’s film, The Silence of the Lambs, features a transvestite dressmaker, who has been rejected for transsexual surgery, serially killing large women for their skin. He wants to make a “girl suit.” Many of the elements that made Psycho a horrific experience for its original audience have been magnified and in some cases collapsed into one another in The Silence of the Lambs in order to similarly horrify the more sophisticated (or jaded) audience of 1991. The film’s popularity (it surpassed the $100 million mark by the twelfth week), the expected Academy nominations for two of its actors — Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins — and its filmic quality suggest that it marks a new point on the trajectory leading off from Psycho.

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