This Is The Scariest Horror Film For Atheists

Silence Of The Lambs

If there’s no higher power, no soul, what’s the scariest horror film? According to most scariest film lists, the top 3 aren’t that scary if you don’t pray. The Exorcist only works if you believe in a higher power. Everyone who properly sheltered in place during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic lived their version of The Shining. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t frighten city folk.

So what is it? What film is actually scary to non-believers? How about a film also set in the DMV like The Exorcist, features isolation like The Shining, and is also based on real-life serial killers like how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre utilized real-life serial killer Ed Gein? 

The Silence of the Lambs, a film beloved by both audiences and critics with a quite complicated legacy, is the scariest horror film for atheists.

Near the climax of the film, a cop asks almost FBI Agent Clarice Starling about Hannibal Lecter. “Is it true what they’re sayin’, he’s some kinda vampire?” 

Starling responds, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”

That’s correct. In a nutshell, that’s why The Silence of the Lambs is the scariest horror film for atheists. 

Also Read: Twenty Years Later, ‘Monster’ Remains a Superb Serial Killer Biopic

The Silence of the Lambs is scary to both teenagers and full-grown adults, something almost every slasher or monster movie can’t claim. I can’t speak for every non-believer but I tend to think vampires are more cool people and good dressers that tend to enjoy music I like than scary monsters. Ditto for every other type of monster. Lecter is no classic movie monster. 

Hannibal Lecter is just a human being. He’s in no way paranormal so a belief in that stuff isn’t required. 

The Jonathan Demme film is so popular it grossed $272 million and won Academy Awards in all the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay). This mainstream acceptability gives the story the veil of respectability. It’s not off-putting like a Faces of Death-type gore fest. This is great if you’re a producer, but not so great if you personally don’t fit into boxes deemed appropriate by some of society. More on that later. 

The film itself is expertly cast. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying Clarice Starling than Jodie Foster. Her take on the young, intelligent, in-shape almost-agent at the top of her class appears more capable of solving a mystery than Agents Cooper, Mulder, or Scully. 

Starling faces sexism in the first ten minutes of the film. Ten minutes later an inmate successfully throws ejaculate in her face. Twenty minutes later she’s staring down an all-white, all-male hostile West Virginia police force. We’re in the real world and Foster puts us there. The real world is scarier than anything not of this world. The suburbs of DC are scary. Baltimore can be scary. West Virginia can be scary. The setting lends to the scare.

Also Read: ‘Stigmata’: A Criminally Underrated Religious Horror Film

Anthony Hopkins’ first portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is the best horror villain captured on film. Yes, he’s a serial killer and eats people. But he’s also really fucking mean and uses his perception to make it hurt, as it clearly does is his first meeting with Starling. This intelligence is not infallible. More on that later. 

But there are two killers in The Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill, based on the aforementioned Gein and fellow serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Heidnick, is also quite believable as a real-life monster. Based on three actual real-life monsters, his murders are brutal and believable. 

The camera work is really what sets The Silence of the Lambs apart. Framing the speaker tightly, occasionally direct to the camera, makes you feel like Lecter and Starling, and much later Buffalo Bill, are talking to you. If you give the movie the appropriate attention, you are in the film, not just viewing the celluloid. 

Plus, there’s the soundtrack. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” amps up the realism and Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” is quite possibly the biggest earworm of any song made famous by a film in all of the 1990s. Horror films made by folks like Roger Corman and George A. Romero never shelled out cash for inescapable songs like “American Girl” or under-the-radar genre-less epics like “Goodbye Horses.”*

Also Read: ‘Maeve Fly’ Author C.J. Leede On Her New Serial Killer Novel 

The FBI cooperated with the production of the film. It worked. There was an increase in female agents following the film’s release. What Top Gun did for the Air Force, The Silence of the Lambs did for the FBI. To lots of people, this is also scary. 

The mixture of the sacred and profane, the smartest guy in the room being the most brutal, makes all resistance feel futile. Coupled with a government agency that can’t do its job well enough to simultaneously keep him in custody and capture another serial killer makes a cycle of murder and fear inevitable. If the FBI can’t walk and chew gum, we’re all doomed. 

Time for the elephant in the room to be addressed. The Silence of the Lambs does not have a great portrayal of a potentially transgender character, Buffalo Bill. It’s quite a negative (almost?) representation. It’s addressed in the film by our hero (“No correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence,” says Starling) but contradicted by our big bad (“Billy is not a real transsexual, but he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect,” says Lecter later in the film). This is part of the cultural legacy of the film. This is why it’s even scarier. When the assumption of transgender people is so off and so accepted, it must be reckoned with or the film’s reality and our reality remain stuck with incorrect assumptions. 

Also Read: Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes is Every Creator’s Worst Nightmare [Fatal Femmes]

This issue has been addressed by the film’s director, spin-off series, in multiple essays, and by Against Me! on the cover of 2013’s True Trans EP. Regardless of intention, the character of Buffalo Bill is terrifying as a killer and depressing as some of the only (possible) trans representation on film. 

You’ve just read over a thousand words on why The Silence of the Lambs is the scariest film for atheists and there’s been no mention of decaying corpses, homemade skin suits, childhood trauma, face eating, wearing another person’s face over your face to escape capture or putting the lotion in the basket. Even without god or monsters or supernatural forces, the under two-hour film has more frights than any of its peers. 

Gene Siskel hated the film because there was no redemption for its lead. That’s what makes it believable. That’s what makes it scary. 

*Side note: Roger Corman and George Romero are actors in The Silence of the Lambs. Flight’s 2011 cover of “Goodbye Horses” will be stuck in your head for days. **

**Side-side note: Chris Isaac is in the film, too, positing that this may be the connective tissue between Twin Peaks, The Silence of the Lambs, and Fire Walk With Me.



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