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Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

I need to make one thing abundantly clear from the outset: I don’t like scary movies. It’s not so much that I fear watching some hapless victim being randomly eviscerated by a rampaging sociopath. It’s not that seeing some previously innocent kid puke up his soul will keep me up all night waiting for the spectral shoe to drop. I simply find no entertainment in being scared. Simple as that, although I will admit that even just thinking about Hostel, as it had been described to me, does make me a little queasy. So, being a sucker for a self deprecating angle, I volunteered to take on The Silence of the Lambs for the first time, after avoiding it for 20 years.

Bad idea.

Did I mention that there is a serial killer who has not been captured yet roaming Long Island?

So that’s how it came to be that on a recent Friday night that my wife and I put the kids down and settled on the couch to watch a movie that has a reputation as being one of the most psychologically chilling flicks made in recent memory. Aimee, having seen it previously offered up this little pearl before it started: “It’s not so bad, it’s just the fact that something like this could really happen that makes it scary.” This did nothing to calm my nerves. I resisted the temptation to turn on the flood lights in front of the house, even though it crossed my mind. You know, just because it would be comforting to see the front walkway in case the neighborhood axe murderer happened to be coming by during the movie.

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It’s worth noting at this point that, prior to the viewing I was not completely ignorant of The Silence of the Lambs. My senior year of college, a real harmless girl named Clarice had the unfortunate luck of living next door to me during what I liked to call my “deranged” period. We did not have too much to do with each other but once one of her friends started dating a roommate of mine, I never let her into the townhouse without saying, in a passable Hannibal Lecter voice, “Well hello, Clarice.” She eventually found this obnoxious which only encouraged me. I also vaguely recall flipping on the campus movie station once, very late at night, and seeing Ray Liotta, sans the upper half of his skull, talking to Anthony Hopkins, in what I guess was one of the sequels to Silence.

For the first three quarters of the movie, I thought I would be writing a piece about how this horror thing isn’t so bad. There were great moments of unintentional comedy. When Lecter snapped, “A census bureau worker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti,” I laughed out loud. I found myself wondering whether Anthony Heald, who played the smarmy Dr. Frederick Chilton, suffers from low self-esteem because he always seems to play a slime ball. Even the kidnapping scene, when Buffalo Bill throws the Senator’s daughter into the pedophile van wasn’t so bad; you could see it coming from miles away.

I should have known better. There were subtle clues, eerie parallels to completely random and not at all personal events that I’d like to think have more importance to my life than they really do, that should have served to warn me that this would not end comfortably for me.

Take the scene when Jodie Foster goes into the ancient storage facility in Baltimore and finds the head of an old patient of Hannibal’s in a jar. Three days before the screening I had the occasion to visit a very old, abandoned barn on the east end of Long Island. The first half of the barn was 75 yards of dusty concrete floors and not much else, occupied by only moldy air and a random grade crossing set up for the Long Island Rail Road at one end of the barn. When I opened the door to go into the second half of the barn this is what greeted me:

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What you can’t see is the hundreds of clam sized, bald, plastic doll heads that surrounded me on the floor. You also cannot see the old TVs, dust-coated beer bottles, the raccoon shit or thousands of reams of paper that littered the floor. I could only describe this later as the den of a serial rapist. The scene in that storage facility was unfortunate and way too familiar.

Did I mention that just last week I took a ferry ride past Plum Island, the government-owned former animal disease research center that was promised as a vacation retreat to Lecter in the middle of the movie? No? Well I did and, noticing that these sorts of parallels were starting to accumulate, I scribbled a string of expletives in my notes when Starling offered him the chance to vacation off the tip of the north fork of Long Island.

A little later on when we find the Senator’s daughter alive, at the bottom of a stone rimmed well/dungeon, I was reminded of my early teens when Katie Beers was abducted about four miles from where I lived. It turned out some creep show neighbor of hers was a construction worker who built an elaborate, hidden dungeon in his house. Two weeks later she was found alive; he was arrested and put away. So yay, happy ending. Nevertheless, the words “this could happen” kept ringing in my ears and, despite my best efforts, I fell apart during the final stanza.

The flood lights came on in the front, I paced around the living room when I wasn’t sitting on the edge of the edge of the couch, and I had to fight the urge to scream, “When the fuck is this going to end?” at the TV, lest I wake up the kids and expose them to a lifetime of horror movie anxiety. When Jame Gumb killed the lights, grabbed his night vision goggles and went stalking after a stunned Agent Starling during the brilliantly filmed last scene, I’m pretty sure I blurted out, “Just shoot him already,” although my brain was so anxiety ridden and flooded with unwanted adrenaline that I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that statement.

I found no relief when she finally ended it for the deranged Buffalo Bill. I was amused by the fact that Lecter set off to dine on Dr. Chilton at the very end of the movie, but that didn’t help me get to sleep either. My bed time routine, usually set in stone, was so thrown off that I could not even tell you what time I finally fell asleep. What I can say with 100% accuracy though is that I am reinstating my moratorium on scary movies once again.

by Tom Volk

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