Is Silence of the Lambs the Perfect Horror-Crime Book Crossover?
One of the best debates you can have with a book buff is to take a novel that’s difficult to categorize and parse out which genre it belongs in. No, we are not talking about the eternal debate of whether Die Hard is a Christmas Movie (it is), but more subtle examples. For instance, you can make a solid argument that ‘The Shining Girls’ by Lauren Beukes is a horror novel more so than it is a sci-fi or crime novel. Laird Barron’s Man with No Name? While there are horrifying elements, it’s most definitely an action novel. Of course, you can always exit the debate by saying they are hybrids or crossovers, but where’s the fun in that?
Still, when it comes to hybrid genres, one of the most common crossovers is between crime and horror. Books like William Hjortsberg’s ‘Fallen Angel‘ are good examples, and you might make a case for American Psycho, although that one is a bit tonally off the mark as a horror as it doesn’t build suspense. If you’re looking for the biggest bang for your buck, the Ellen Datlow edited anthology ‘Supernatural Noir’ is full of shining examples. But the best example? It must be The Silence of the Lambs.
Crime-to-horror crossovers are common in entertainment
The Silence of the Lambs is not unique as a crime-horror crossover. The two genres are among the easiest to combine as, after all, there’s usually a gruesome murder or two in a crime novel or film. Gamers often see this, too, with video games like Far Cry and Resident Evil incorporating both genres. We can even point to crime-themed slot titles like Four Femmes Fatales and Murder Mystery that have incorporated horror elements. But our argument about The Silence of the Lambs, both movie and book, is that it does the best job of balancing both genres. The equilibrium is perfect.
The Silence of the Lambs novel pacing mostly follows the crime formula, but it is interrupted by horror. In a crime story, the action races towards a certain point, i.e., catching the criminal, or rescuing the hostage. In a horror novel or film, it’s the opposite – the main characters are usually trying to run away from something or escape. But it is punctuated with slower pacing and claustrophobic elements – think of Clarice Starling meeting Hannibal Lecter for the first time, and the long walk to his cell – that deliver a different kind of tension.
It’s often remarked how the horror in The Silence of the Lambs mostly takes place in your head, i.e., it is a psychological horror. But this, too, is among the strengths of the balancing act between crime and horror. Later adaptations of the works of Thomas Mann were more overt in their horror presentations, whereas TSotL was much more subtle. Yes, there are moments of horror, but the real action takes place in your head.
Seven showed more overt horror traits
Perhaps the best way to compare it is with a similar horror-crime crossover – Seven. The 1995 movie staring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt aims for a similar hybrid of the genres, but it was much more overt in its depictions of horror, including the – spoiler alert – infamous head in a box. Now, Seven is a brilliant movie, for a variety of reasons, but it is a little more clumsy in its attempts to provide horror shocks than TSotL. And here’s the rub: the subtly of TSotL makes it more of a rewatchable movie than Seven, as with the latter, the impact is lessened when you know those horror shocks and twists are coming.
For balance, we might say that TSotL is not perfect. It might seem almost like movie sacrilege to say it, but the celebrated “fava beans and a nice chianti” moment from Anthony Hopkins feels a little bit over the top, and it can seem tonally out of sync with the character and overall movie. But for 99% of the time, the movie and novel gets it right, balancing its horror and crime elements perfectly. The story is just over 30 years old now, and it should be celebrated as one of the best-ever crossovers for many more years in the future.
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The Horror Tree is a resource for horror authors which was created in 2011. The main goal when starting the site was to include all of the latest horror anthologies and publishers that are taking paying submissions. A resource useful for both new and experienced publishers alike looking for an outlet for their written material!