Warning: SPOILERS for Clarice Season 1, Episode 3 – “Are You Okay?”
In Clarice, Buffalo Bill’s moths still haunt Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) and this has a greater significance that ties her future to her experiences in The Silence of the Lambs. One year after the events of the Oscar-winning film, Special Agent Starling is on the hunt for new serial killers as part of ViCAP, the FBI’s Violent Criminals Apprehension Program. But Clarice is finding her lingering trauma is causing her problems in the field, and they are manifesting with Starling hallucinating the moths she encountered in Buffalo Bill’s house.
With the help of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), Clarice (Jodie Foster) was able to locate the true whereabouts of the serial killer Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) in The Silence of the Lambs. Gumb was dubbed Buffalo Bill by the press because of how he kidnapped and skinned women. Starling was able to rescue Bill’s final victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), but to do so, she had to enter Gumb’s house of horrors in order to kill the killer. Inside the house, Clarice saw, among myriad ghastly sights, Bill’s nests of moths; the murderer made a habit of placing moths in the throats of his victims when he dumped their bodies in various rivers in the Appalachia region of the United States. Clarice took one of the moth samples to experts who determined that the moths were Acherontia styx, or the death’s head moth, which Gumb imported from Asia and cultivated as a twisted hobby.
The moths still torment Starling in Clarice, and during her therapy session in episode 3, “Are You Alright?”, she hallucinated one landing on her hand before mutating into a human arm creeping out of the insect. Clarice’s therapist tried to equate her trauma with the lingering grief she feels about the violent death of her father when she was 10, which permanently damaged Clarice Starling’s entire family. But the answer to why Clarice is being haunted by Buffalo Bill’s moths isn’t dissimilar to what the moths meant to their owner in The Silence of the Lambs. It’s about growth and metamorphosis.
In a scene that hasn’t necessarily aged well, Hannibal Lecter succinctly summed up how Buffalo Bill’s moths tie into his twisted psychosis: “The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis, or pupa, from thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change too.” Dr. Lecter went onto explain that Bill was a failed transvestite who wanted to create a suit from the women he skinned, which would transform him into the beauty ideal in his mind.
For Clarice, the moths carry a similar meaning: Agent Starling wants to change, too. Clarice is in conflict with her desire to move onto the next phase of her career in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit but she’s now being defined and even pigeonholed into hunting more serial killers. Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson) even labeled Starling as someone with “a very public reputation for hunting monsters” when she assigned Clarice to ViCap against Starling’s wishes. Clarice doesn’t feel she’s in control of her career and her life, with the media hounding her for being “the face of the FBI,” her superior officer Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz) doubting her, and the other agents at ViCAP wary of her.
Forging a path forward is the only way for Clarice to heal her wounds, both from Buffalo Bill and from the unresolved ghosts from her past she has yet to face. And yet, for Clarice, the moths also represent its own ties to The Silence of the Lambs that the series needs to eventually break from. With Hannibal Lecter not legally allowed to appear in the CBS series, Clarice has made Buffalo Bill the driving torment in Starling’s recent past. The moths symbolize Clarice the woman and Clarice the series’ need to face and overcome whatever new horrors await Agent Starling so she can finally break out of her Silence of the Lambs shell and become a newer and stronger version of Clarice Starling.