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It puts the lotion on the skin, or else it gets the hose again.
~ Buffalo Bill menacing one of his victims

Buffalo Bill (real name Jame Gumb) is the secondary antagonist of the novel and film The Silence of the Lambs. He is a serial killer who murders and skins overweight women in order to create a "woman suit" for himself.

In the film, he is portrayed by Ted Levine.

Early life

Gumb is a sociopath who hates his own identity, which he mistakenly believes makes him transgender. He also thinks of people as things to be used, often referring to his victims as "it". The only living creature he feels affection for is his dog, a toy poodle he named Precious.

He was abandoned as an infant by his mother, an alcoholic prostitute who misspelled "James" on his birth certificate, and raised by his grandparents, who were implied to have been abusive. He murdered them as a teenager simply because he wanted to see how it felt to kill someone; he discovered that he enjoyed it immensely. He was arrested and put in a juvenile detection facility, where he learned how to sew.

After being released, he served in the Navy. He had several male and female lovers, including Benjamin Raspail, the patient and eventual victim of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who briefly met Gumb in 1980 while treating Raspail. At about this time, Gumb murdered a fellow sailor named Klaus and "did things" with his skin.

Gumb applied several times for gender reassignment surgery, but was rejected every time after failing the psychological exam. He then decided to solve his gender dysphoria by creating a "woman suit" for himself out of human skin. He began stalking overweight women and kidnapping them by pretending to be injured and asking for their help moving a heavy object, and then knocking them out. He would then imprison them fior three days, starving them until their skin hung loose, before killing and skinning them. He puts Deaths head moths, which he orders from Suriname, in their throats because he is fascinated by their metamorphosis, a process he wants to undergo by becoming a woman.

He was nicknamed "Buffalo Bill" by the press after homicide detectives in Kansas City, Missouri, said of him, "This one likes to skin his humps."

In Silence of the Lambs

Gumb attracts the attention of the FBI after murdering five women. FBI Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford sends trainee Clarice Starling to interview Lecter, who is institutionalized after committing a series of cannibalistic murders, about his thoughts on the killer. Lecter is fascinated by Starling, and offers to profile Buffalo Bill in return for a transfer to another facility, intending to give her vague, riddling information designed to help her figure out the killer's identity for herself.

Meanwhile, Gumb kidnaps another woman, Catherine Martin, the daughter of a U.S. senator. He chains her up in a deep well in the basement of his house, which he stole from his landlady, Mrs. Lippman, whom he murdered. He taunts and psychologically abuses her as he prepares to kill her, all while dancing in the mirror dressed in his incomplete "woman suit".

With Lecter's help, Starling figures out that Buffalo Bill knew his first victim, Frederica Bimmel, as hers was the only corpse he attempted to hide. Crawford, meanwhile, finds records of Gumb ordering deaths head moths and goes to arrest him, while sending Starling to interview Bimmel's family and friends to solidify a connection between her and Gumb.

Crawford finds only a business address, however, while Starling unknowingly goes to Gumb's real home, where he is living under the alias "Jack Gordon". Only moments before, Catherine had trapped Precious in the well with her and demanded to be let out, sending Gumb into a rage, but he had become distracted when Starling rang his doorbell. She asks for Mrs. Lippman, Bimmel's former employer, but becomes suspicious of Gumb when he refers to Bimmel as "a great big fat person" and asks several questions about the investigation. She realizes who she is talking to when she sees a deaths head moth fly by, and tries to arrest him; he flees into the cellar, however.

As she pursues Gumb, he shuts the lights off, and stalks her in the dark while wearing night-vision goggles. Just as he is about to shoot her, however, Starling hears him cock his pistol and instinctively fires at the sound, shooting Gumb twice in the chest. Gumb's final words, uttered just before he drowns in his own blood, are addressed to Starling: "How does it feel to be so beautiful?"

Trivia

  • Harris based Gumb on six real-life serial killers:
    • Ed Gein, who murdered and skinned two women in order to create a "woman suit" for himself
    • Ted Bundy, who ensnared his victims by pretending to be injured and then incapacitating them
    • Gary Heidnik, who kept female "sex slaves" imprisoned in his basement and tortured, raped and murdered them
    • Edmund Kemper, who murdered his grandparents as a teenager
    • The then-unidentified Green River Killer (later identified as Gary Ridgway and arrested), who dumped his victims in or nearby a river and inserted foreign objects in their corpses
    • Jerry Brudos, who dressed in women's clothes and kept body parts as trophies
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