The first time I saw “Silence of the Lambs,” I was 12 or so, and it was late at night in a cramped hotel room. The lights were off, and the TV cast its metallic, ghostly shadows onto the walls. I sprawled on the ground, using my hands to cover my face and stifle the occasional scream.
“Are you scared?” my older cousins asked, as they lounged on the bed.
Scared wasn’t the right word, of course. Terrified didn’t cover it. Therapists probably had special words for the type of fear gripping my chest, and even at a tender age I had a feeling I would spend my later years reclined on a couch trying to find them. Instead, I unglued the fingers from my eyes and mumbled, “Who? Me? I saw this a million times already.”
Our parents were still gathered downstairs in the hotel restaurant for the family reunion, and someone must have agreed it was a good idea for the older cousins to babysit the younger cousins back in the room, with instructions to watch a movie. I could imagine our parents in the dim light of the restaurant, chatting happily and sipping hotel wine, believing — or at least wanting to believe — that their lovely brood was parked in front of a television somewhere, watching a pleasant farce, a cartoon maybe — certainly not a thriller featuring a cannibal serial killer providing professional advice to pre-op tranny serial killer who enjoyed wearing his victim’s skin as clothes.
To be honest, I never saw that coming either. Who lets a child watch this? I remember thinking.
Years later, I still get chills when I descend a dark staircase. I still wonder what lurks around the corner, who might be watching silently in the darkness, waiting to pounce. I had never enjoyed scary movies before that night in the hotel room, but it was as if some psychological switch had been thrown in the deep recesses of my brain as the movie came to a sudden end, informing the rest of my body that it would forever find no solace, no respite from the ghouls and goblins that haunt the imagination. I remember sprawling on the hotel carpet, wishing an adult was in the room to protect us all. It didn’t occur to me that the adult would probably be just as terrified.
So it was with more than a little trepidation that Emmeline and I approached a life-sized depiction of Hannibal Lector in the Halloween Super Discount Store the other day. We were there to find Emme a bee costume and were striking out. It is incredibly difficult to find a costume for a 3 and a half year old, because the plush infant and toddler outfits are too small and the child-sized girl costumes with their short skirts and flimsy tops call to mind streetwalkers instead of mildly menacing worker insects. We scoured the aisles for an outfit and found ourselves wandering toward the spookier adult section. It was then that Emme gripped my hand, suddenly stopping our search.
“Who’s that?” she whispered, her eyes wide.
The Hannibal Lector mannequin was incredibly life-like and, thankfully, inert. The plastic statue was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and resting on a hand-truck, the kind used in the movie to transport him out of prison. That familiar, haunting brown mask covered his mouth so that just the buggy eyes were visible. I explained that it was just a mannequin and Emme and I shared a nervous chuckle, as if neither of us were really afraid.
As we hurried past the penal implant, our movement must have triggered some sensor within the mannequin, because it suddenly starting speaking. I have no memory of what it said, and I’m still not sure what scared my daughter more: the creepy tone of the faux movie villain or the high-pitched, frozen scream of the man who is supposed to protect her. Or maybe, I wondered later, it was the unpleasant feeling of being pushed aside so the same man could find a clearer route to the exit.
When I later found Emme, she was huddled under a bin of skeleton fingers, her body still shaking. I hugged her and offered words of apology, telling her it was just a mannequin and that there was really nothing to be afraid of.
“It’s OK,” I whispered, “It’s OK.”
But it was a lie and I sensed we both knew it, because the truth was she’d never be OK. A switch had been thrown. Ghouls and goblins would always hide just around the corner, waiting to pounce. And if she’s anything like her father, she’ll be running and screaming for her life for the rest of it.