This is the house where Starling had the terrifying end-of-movie showdown with Buffalo Bill, who was holding his latest victim captive in a pit in the basement. In a climactic scene that I couldn’t resist playfully reenacting, Starling comes to realize she’s talking to the killer. She whips out her gun, shouts “freeze!” and chases him into the dark basement for one of moviedom’s most nerve-racking games of cat and mouse.
Rowan, who hosts the New York City Horror Film Festival, officially opened the house as a vacation rental on Labor Day weekend. With a ghoulish eye for detail, he has filled the house with “The Silence of the Lambs” paraphernalia, including the life-size, animatronic Hannibal Lecter figure that greets visitors in the entryway with Hannibalisms such as, “I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Images of the sinister death’s-head hawkmoths that Buffalo Bill stuffed into his victims’ throats are ubiquitous in the house, and they appear in unlikely places, including the bedding in the four second-floor bedrooms.
Not surprisingly, a copy of the hardcover cookbook “Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur’s Cookbook” is on display in the dining room, next to the hutch whose drawer Buffalo Bill fumbled through in search of a business card. Rowan has jokingly put his own business cards in the same drawer. There is even a plush version of Buffalo Bill’s little white dog, Precious.
“The goal was to create a Victorian home that maintains its gothic Victorian presence, but includes the macabre aspects of ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ ” says Rowan, a New York City native who immediately snapped up the home for $290,000 when it went on the market in October.
The house — located in Perryopolis, Pa., and built in 1910 — looks much as it did in the movie that swept the Academy Awards in 1992, only nicer. The 2,400-square-foot home sits on about two grassy acres, which also include a swimming pool and a rose garden. Neither can be seen in the movie, because the producers surrounded the house with shrubbery to give it an unkempt look fitting for Buffalo Bill, who was not much of a housekeeper, Rowan says.
Across the train tracks between the river and the house, visitors will see the weathered bus that appears in the movie. It’s still there after three decades; Rowan says its current owner uses the dilapidated vehicle as storage for fishing gear. The house is on the banks of the Youghiogheny River, and guests can walk along the banks to reach outfitters that rent canoes and kayaks when they’re not saturating themselves in pop culture history.
According to Rowan, “Lambs” director Jonathan Demme picked southwestern Pennsylvania — where most of the movie was filmed — because of its layout and topography: the rolling hills, the long and winding roads, the railroads and rivers. Most of the movie’s filming sites are within a 50-mile radius of the city of Pittsburgh, and the curious will find the addresses for these locations — including several houses that appear in the movie, along with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum — in a book kept at the Buffalo Bill house.
Production scouts exploring the area spotted what became Buffalo Bill’s House and liked its riverfront location near the tracks, Rowan says. They also liked the interior layout, with its central corridor and windows at both ends, which had the feel of a spider luring prey into its web, he says. The then-owners agreed to let the producers use it, and an otherwise unremarkable residence became legendary.
What about the famous basement from the movie? It’s there — sort of. The scenes featuring the pit in which Buffalo Bill had imprisoned his victim were filmed elsewhere, but Rowan plans to install a reproduction in the house’s coal cellar. For now, he has re-created the basement room where Buffalo Bill dressed up and danced. When visitors enter the basement, a disco ball lights up and the Q Lazzarus soundtrack song “Goodbye Horses” begins to play. Rowan filled the room with props such as mannequins, sewing machines and a robe that guests can put on.
“The goal of this was to be a creative, immersive experience,” he says.
Renters can choose from four bedrooms, including the main Buffalo Bill Suite, the Clarice Room, the Hannibal Room and the kid-friendly Precious Room, which has two twin beds. And yes, they can of course watch DVDs of “The Silence of the Lambs” and its sequel, “Hannibal,” just feet from where the action took place in the house. For off-topic entertainment, guests can hang out in the newly finished attic Rowan calls Buffalo Bill’s Playhouse, which is outfitted with a giant TV, movies, a pool table and old-fashioned video games such as Pac-Man.
The house has been updated with new furniture and wallpaper, but a few framed scraps of wallpaper from the filming days hang on its walls. The separate three-car garage briefly seen in the movie is still there, and Rowan wants to convert it to either a space where people can watch movies or a gift shop; meanwhile, visitors can buy products such as Buffalo Bill skin lotion, lip balm and refrigerator magnets online. Rowan says the couple who built the house in 1910 first lived in this huge garage, which they also operated as a dry goods store and the town post office.
In the future, Rowan hopes to host special events featuring cast members such as Ted Levine, who gave a chilling performance as Buffalo Bill. He will also stage “Hannibal-inspired” dinner parties that will be open to the public and guided tours of the property. All those extras will start in 2022; at the moment, Rowan is focused on overnight rentals.
After my tour, I took a detour to the apartment complex where the scene in which Buffalo Bill abducts Catherine Martin was filmed. (It’s not far from my suburban Pittsburgh house.) Then I went home and watched the movie for the umpteenth time, and I had that giddy “I just stood there!” feeling.
But I was glad my house doesn’t have a basement.
Gormly is a writer based in Pittsburgh. Her website is kelliebgormly.com.