How I became involved in The Silence of the Lambs

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In response to a request from Barb Taub, I am reposting this article from 2015.

I raised the insects for the Silence of the Lambs. How that happened is sort of interesting…     Silence of the lambs

I got a phone call one day in my lab from a colleague at the USDA in Maryland, where there was an active entomology group. The first thing I heard was “How would you like to get involved in a movie?”

Being the attention hog that I am, I replied, “Tell me more.”

“Well, it’s a horror movie.”

“A horror movie? I don’t think so. They’re so shlocky.”     Jodie Foster

“Even one with Jodie Foster starring?”     Hopkins

“Well…”

“How about Anthony Hopkins?”

“Okay, sign me up. What do I have to do?”

Manduca sexta

Manduca sexta

He explained to me that they needed Death’s Head Moths for the movie.

Deaths Head Moth

Deaths Head Moth

I wasn’t raising these moths, and besides, they were indigenous to Europe and Asia, and there was no question of the government allowing me to import them. However, the adult of moth I did work with, Manduca sexta (otherwise known as the tobacco hornworm), did look a great deal like the adult Death’s Head.

Soon after that, I received a call from the “insect wrangler” for the movie, who told me roughly how many of each stage they would need (larva, pupa and adult) and when. He also asked me a lot about how to get them to “act” – move around, be still, fly.

Here are my moths

Here are my moths

So I got to work. We bought a trunk to transport them in and separated it into three compartments for the three stages, equipped with lights and a self-contained fan. I beefed up my colony to fit their time line, and bit actors from the movie came twice to collect the trunk and the insects. The trunk flew back to Pittsburg first class. I don’t know about the actor.

The second time an actor visited, I pumped him about the movie. He told me the scene in which the policemen come into the room where Dr. Hannibal Lector is caged, only to find him gone but a dead detective mounted on the cage, was not

Lt. Boyle (Charles Napier) ends up as Hannibal's homage to surrealist painter Francis Bacon

Lt. Boyle (Charles Napier) ends up as Hannibal’s homage to surrealist painter Francis Bacon

rehearsed. In order to get a real reaction from the actors, they did one take. He said it was indeed horrifying. I also learned the pupa extracted from the young woman’s throat in the morgue scene was actually a Tootsie Roll.

The scene in the basement with all of my lovely Manduca flying or crawling around was wonderful , at least to my eye. The adults were made to look like a Death’s Head moths with the addition of clear false fingernails, painted with the skull, glued to their thoraces.

I didn’t see the picture when it was first released. As I said, I am not a fan of horror and dislike being scared to death. I did see it when it was released as a video. From the comfort of my living room, I realized it was a darned good movie.

One thing I should have done, though, is visit the set. I could have, although I would have had to pay my way. Opportunity missed…

29 thoughts on “How I became involved in The Silence of the Lambs

  1. I’ve never actually seen Silence of the Lambs. I don’t think I was old enough when it first came out (I was born in 1980) and I’ve just never gone back and watched it. I do like scary movies though and I know it’s one of the best so I’ll have to go back and watch it. And now I can say I know the person responsible for the moths! What a great story and it’s one of those details that as a regular watcher you know nothing about!
    PS – I got your email just didn’t have time to respond. I’ve moved my post with excerpts to February 27 and do the review March 2 unless I hear otherwise!

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  2. It’s fascinating they called you. Are you big in the bug world? And having to breed them to order can’t have been easy (though you make it sound a cinch). When we bred the death’s head here (in the New Forest in south of England) getting the food stuff was tricky because we found the caterpillar out of the potato season and there wasn’t a lot of deadly nightshade around (and the little buggers wouldn’t eat woody nightshade which was pretty much it so far as foodstuff was concerned).

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    • Great information from you, Tangental! We raised both Manduca and wax moths on artificial diets we made in the lab. The wax moth diet was very tasty – the Manduca diet would have been rather poisonous. I was more or less large in the bug world until the early 2000s – studying the neuroendocine control of juvenile hormone, calcium channels and second messengers in the corpora allata. All things pass! Bet the Death’s Head would eat the Manduca food.

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      • Thanks Noelle – it’s Geoff btw! And I expect Manduca would have been difficult to source in the back ends of the New Forest in the 1970s! My brother would be fascinated to talk to you – he’s the FRES in the family.

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  3. Loved the movie and loved your detailed account of your part in it! Such a pity you didn’t make it to the set… maybe next time you’ll be approached for help on another movie 🙂

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  4. Alex Hurst

    That’s so cool!!! What a neat thing to be involved in. 😀 Since I missed the previous post, may I ask how you started having an interest in raising moths at all?

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    • Hi Alex! I was studying the neurohormones that governed larval development. I had to have adults to generate the eggs I needed for the larval colony. That was my research for nearly 40 years – biochemistry, molecular biology, endocrinology and cell biology were all a part. And it all started when my husband did a post-doc in Prague in an insect endocrinology lab and the head of the lab pulled me into their research!

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  5. Wow, this is such a great story, Noelle. And I agree with the woman-of-mystery comment above. Wish I had your talents. 🙂 Loved that movie, by the way. Couldn’t watch certain segments (covered my eyes), but still, darn intriguing.

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    • Thank you – I was so busy with kids and career at the time, I didn’t take time to fully explore what was going on with the movie! And thank you so much for following my blog!

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