The Philadelphia Serial Killer That Inspired Silence Of The Lambs' Torture Pit

Warning: this post contains mention of sexual assault.

Besides Hannibal Lecter's sneering line, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti," the sight of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (aka Jame Gumb) leaning over a giant well and commanding his terrified captive, "It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again," is one of the most memorable moments from Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs." Jame Gumb's beautiful Victorian style home, complete with a secret well in the basement, is the perfectly sinister place to torture his victims. Conveniently, he was able to weasel his way into occupying the home from his first victims' employer, Mrs. Lippman.

Many of Buffalo Bill's disturbing behaviors are taken from other real-life serial killers. Ted Bundy would fake injuries or disability to lure unsuspecting women into his car, similar to how Jame Gumb struggles to move a couch into his van and Catherine takes pity on him and helps. Much like Ed Gein, Buffalo Bill enjoys making a skin suit out of his victims and dressing as a woman. Although "The Silence of the Lambs" generated controversy for framing transgender identity as pathological, there have been many male serial killers who enjoyed dressing in feminine clothes, including Dennis Lynn Rader (also known as BTK), and Jerry Brudos. But there is another serial killer, perhaps not as well-known, that inspired Buffalo Bill's house of horrors.

Gary Heidnik kept women in a basement dungeon

Gary Heidnik kidnapped six women and murdered two of them inside his Philadelphia rowhouse. His basement did not have an elaborate well like Buffalo Bill, but he dug holes and covered them with plywood and heavy bags. This created a terrifyingly claustrophobic environment where the women were unable to see anything. "The hole wasn't big enough so I was all bent up. I couldn't even stand up," survivor Josefina Rivera recalls. Beneath the ground, these chambers were the sites of unimaginable cruelty involving electrocution, sexual assault, and starvation. For more details on what occurred and how the women were freed, read Ken Englade's "Cellar of Horror." 

Like many serial killers, Gary Heidnik grew up in an abusive household and had a complex relationship with women — especially after his mother left him in the care of his strict father. He committed sexual assault against many women, including his mail-order bride and the sister of one of the three mothers of his children. His mental health challenges led to honorable discharge from the military and thirteen suicide attempts (per Nigel Blundell's book "Serial Killers: The World's Most Evil'). 

While Catherine Martin's well scenes are less physically violent, they are still harrowing — especially the way she desperately cries for her mommy, or sees the nails and blood embedded in walls from past victims. Since Buffalo Bill does not cover the top, she is able to lure his beloved dog, Precious, into it. The impact of Heidnik's case on "The Silence of the Lambs" is profoundly unsettling, reminding us of the horrors that can lurk beneath the most banal of suburban life. You truly never know what is going on behind the four walls of your neighbor's homes — or even down below.