In the days before Halloween 2021, Snopes came across a web page that included numerous claims about hidden images or messages in scenes of popular movie thrillers. One of them supposedly exposed the truth behind the moth in the 1991 poster for "Silence of the Lambs," reading:
The movie poster that depicts Jodie Foster’s face with a skull hawkmoth covering her mouth is a dead giveaway. The only thing is … that’s not actually Buffalo Bill’s moth.
If you look close enough, you can see that the skull is actually not a skull at all, rather it is a compilation of three bare women configured in such a way to make it look that way. It is an extremely fitting analogy for the context of the film, which is actually based on a famous photo by Salvador Dali. A pretty creepy analogy if you ask me.
In other words, the web page (which was published by Nature World Today) alleged the moth was not just a symbol for the film's fictional "Buffalo Bill" character (the serial killer who put the creature inside the mouths of his victims and wore their human skin). It was also an optical illusion with multiple naked women that paid homage to the project (displayed below) called "In Voluptas Mors," by Dalí and American photographer Philippe Halsman.
To determine its legitimacy, we first obtained the official movie poster via IMDb's entry for the film and gave the illustration a close examination.
From our view, the moth's head resembled the above-displayed project by Dalí and Halsman — which, according to Spanish Literature Professor Rebecca Bender of Kansas State University, was created over three hours in 1951 by arranging seven nude women in the shape of a skull.
In that 2014 blog post analyzing artistic compilations of the female form and skull, Bender said the "nude-skull" venture by Dalí and Halsman inspired magazine covers, tattoos, and — yes — movie covers. However, the professor did not explicitly mention the "Silence of the Lambs" reference in the post, so we reached out to her to see if she had any expertise related to the claim. We were awaiting a response, at the original time of publication.
Snopes also reached out to Amazon, the overseer of the film's liscensing rights after MGM Studios sold them (and the rest of its catalog) to the retail giant in May 2021. An Amazon spokesperson referred to us Universal Studios, to which we emailed the same inquiry. We have not heard back.
[See also from Snopes: Scientists Believe ‘Dragon Man’ Skull Could Be Another Branch of Humans]
In the meantime, however, we considered this writing by the Butterfly Conservation, a U.K.-based nonprofit dedicated to researching and preserving butterflies and moths:
The species featured on the film’s famous poster appears on first glance to be a Death’s Head Hawk-moth Acherontia atropos - the main identification clue being the white discal spot. In Archerontia styx, (one of three species of Death’s Head), which it is widely accepted is the featured species in the film, the discal spot is orange. The skull-like marking is also darker in A. styx; but, this feature is obscured by superimposing a copy of a photograph entitled In Voluptas Mors by Philippe Halsman; the original photo features surrealist artist Salvador Dalí with seven women posing to make a skull, itself inspired by a Dalí drawing - Human Skull Consisting of Seven Naked Women's Bodies.
Below is a photograph of the referenced animal, a Deaths-head Hawk moth, courtesy of the Butterfly Conservation.
Put another way, the illustration seemingly combined an image of a genuine animal (Death's-head Hawk-moth) with the above-mentioned photograph of naked women in the shape of a skull, according to the research organization. Considering that analysis, as well as our own visual examination of the movie poster, we rate this claim "True."
“The Silence of the Lambs | Plot, Cast, Awards, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Silence-of-the-Lambs. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
Demme, Jonathan. The Silence of the Lambs. Strong Heart/Demme Production, Orion Pictures, 1991.
18 Facts. About The Silence of the Lambs. On Its 30th Anniversary. 14 Feb. 2016, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/61604/18-facts-about-silence-lambs.
“The Skull on ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ Movie Poster Is Actually Made of Naked Women – Salvador Dali’s ‘In Voluptas Mors.’” Verbicide, https://www.verbicidemagazine.com/2013/11/10/silence-of-the-lambs-skull-film-dali-photo/. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
Just What Is Hannibal Lecter’s Link With Moths? https://butterfly-conservation.org/news-and-blog/just-what-is-hannibal-lecters-link-with-moths. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
Bender, Dr Rebecca. “The Morphing Body: Salvador Dalí’s Skulls and the Female Form.” Rebecca M. Bender, PhD, 6 May 2014, https://rebeccambender.com/2014/05/06/body-skulls-salvador-dali/.
Ray, Siladitya. “Amazon Buys MGM For $8.45 Billion As Streaming War Heats Up.” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/siladityaray/2021/05/26/amazon-buys-mgm-for-845-billion-as-streaming-war-heats-up/. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.