Psycho’s Norman Bates, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, and Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill stalk the dark corners of popular culture like the sort of flesh-suit wearing, chainsaw wielding nightmares which would give Satan shivers. Here’s the thing. They were all based on one man.
And the man who inspired the creation of these larger than life movie villains was eccentric Wisconsin bachelor Ed Gein.
Before his crimes shook America, local families often took pity on the unassuming loner who lived a quite life on his farm.
Yet behind the doors of his dilapidated Wisconsin farmhouse, the Butcher of Plainfield was busy committing crimes every inch as atrocious and gruesome as the cinematic villains he would one day become the bloody blueprint for.
Before the authorities caught up with the murderous monster there were rumors, mostly from teenagers, of how Gein’s house was haunted and how the odious oddball kept a grizzly collection of shrunken heads.
People mostly scoffed at such tall tales. They would later found out such local gossip was just the tip of a particularly vile iceberg in a house of horrors which contained such ghoulish items as a box of human noses, a shade pull made out of a pair of lips, a belt made from female nipples, a collection of skulls, a number of death masks mounted on the walls, and perhaps most hideous of all, a ‘flesh-suit’ which Gein had made by skinning one of his victims.
The Daily Mail reports that a new book by crime writer Robert Keller, entitled Unhinged: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, reveals that the serial-killer to be was raised by a bible-bashing mother who was forever warning Ed and his older brother Henry about the lures of lasciviousness women and the eternal hellfire which patiently awaits the sinful.
Augusta Wilhelmine Gein was the domineering head of the house who ruled the roost and bullied her alcoholic husband George.
Living on a isolated farmhouse in the town of Plainfield, Ed worshipped his mother like a goddess, but even so, the small boy with the ‘peculiar lop-sided grin’ which would become his trademark, possessed a secret he knew his holier than thou mom would find abhorrent – his love of the morbid and macabre.
As an avid reader, the young Gein devoured anything he could get his hands on that contained torrid tales of cannibals, headhunters, and Nazi atrocities. Tales of murderous monsters delighted the young Gein.
Keller writes, “Had Augusta discovered his taste in reading material and forbade him from it, his life might well have taken a different trajectory.”
But alas she didn’t. Instead she encouraged her youngest son to isolate himself from the world by discouraging him from having friends and warning him to be constantly vigilant when it came to other people.
Less than ten years after his father died in 1937, Ed lost his brother in a runaway brush fire. The only witness to the incident was Ed, who also led the Sheriff’s search party to his brother’s corpse.
The circumstances surrounding the death were suspicious, as Keller reveals.
“The patch of ground on which he lay was scorched black and yet Henry appeared unharmed by the flames. The only marks on him appeared to be an array of peculiar bruises that may or may not have been inflicted by someone wielding a shovel.”
The cause of death was ruled as accidental. Not long after it was another death which was to be the tipping point in Gein’s life.
When his mother died of a second stroke on December 29, 1945, Gein was beside himself with grief. Keller writes how the killer to be was destroyed and consumed by the loss.
“To say that Ed was distraught at the death of his mother would be a massive understatement At the sparsely attended funeral he wailed so loudly that he drowned out the vicar. Later, at the cemetery, he stood with tears and snot running down his face as the casket was lowered into the ground. Then he said a tearful goodbye to the few family members who had bothered to show up and retreated back to the sanctuary of his farmhouse.”
Not long after Gein’s killing spree began.
Mary Hogan was a cheerful, middle-aged woman who run a nearby tavern in Pine Grove. Unfortunately, Ed took a shine to Mary namely because she reminded him of his dead mom. When she vanished without a trace on December 8, 1954, no-one even contemplated Ed could be possible, despite the budding butcher joking, “‘I loaded her into my pickup and drove her home.”
Locals thought Ed was nothing more than an awkward and socially retarded mother’s boy who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
When Bernice Worden went missing from her general store, all paths led directly to Gein.
Ed had been lurking around the store for some time and pestering poor Bernice to accompany him on a date. Wisely she refused. Taking matters into his own hand Ed opted to take her by force. Bernice’s son arrived on the scene soon after and was alarmed that the shop was unattended and someone’s blood was pooling on the floor. He checked the receipts. The last one had been for a purchase made by Ed Gein.
Police sought out Gein who immediately stated he had nothing to do with Bernice’s death. The police replied that no-one had yet informed him that the poor woman had died.
They had the killer bang to rights. A warrant was issued to search Gein’s filthy farmhouse. The horror and hell which awaited the police officers inside would haunt them forever.
It wasn’t the stomach-churning stench of rotting human waste or the accumulated filth swimming with rats and roaches that curdled the lawman’s sensibilities and outraged their sense of decency.
No! This house of horrors contained things far worse. Things that would soon make harrowing headlines across the country.
Keller writes that Sheriff Arthur Schley had been in the job for less than a month when he glanced at a “decapitated and gutted carcass, suspended by its legs from the ceiling.”
“For the briefest of moments Schley’s brain registered an automatic response … ‘deer!’ But then the reality of what he’d seen hit him and he turned and ran, blundering into the dark. He barely made it outside before he dropped to his knees and ejected the contents of his stomach into the snow. Bernice Worden had been found.”
As the search deepened so too did the descent into the bowels of an almost unimaginable hell.
“One of the officers picked up a crudely shaped soup bowl, still bearing the congealed remnants of Ed’s last meal, then rapidly put it down when he realized what it was – the top half of a human skull. There were other skulls, too, including some that were hung from the posts of Gein’s bed as decoration.”
“In the kitchen, one officer found a chair with oddly colored strips of leather forming the seat. Closer inspection proved that the ‘leather’ was in fact made from strips of human skin, the underside still lumpy with chunks of fat.”
“Four such chairs were found in the house. So too, were other artifacts made from skin – a waste basket, lampshades, a drum, the sheath of a hunting knife, a belt made from female nipples, a shade pull made out of a pair of lips. Even these paled in comparison with Gein’s most horrific creation – a ‘skin suit’ consisting of a pair of leggings and a top piece that included a woman’s sagging breasts. It appeared that Gein had skinned one of his victims, tanned the hide and then constructed this hideous ensemble.”
Yet sealed off from the putrefaction and monstrous repugnance which surrounded the officers there was a blocked-off area in the house. It was Augusta’s bedroom. Ed had turned his mother’s sleeping place into a virtual shrine which lay untouched by the raging and polluted sea of madness and murder which had seeped into every other inch of the house.
Gein admitted to murdering both Worden and Hogan. Yet claimed all the other human trophies in the house had come from robbing graves where women of a similar age and build to his dead mother were buried.
The cops were skeptical but on investigating the graves they found them to be either empty or containing a corpse savaged by Gein’s handiwork.
The monster with a mother fixation would go onto become a household name. He was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane. The ‘butcher of Plainfield’ died aged 78 on July 26, 1984, of reparatory failure.
His final resting place was an unmarked grave but it would have made him happy. He was buried in Plainfield next to his mother.
Gein’s reign of blood and butchery was over, but in ways he would have never guessed, his legacy would live on. He would continue to terrify subsequent generations but in different guises.
And he would do it on the silver screen. Sometimes as the simple but brutal butcher Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sometimes as the confused and hideous flesh-suit wearing Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, but more often than not he would creep like a night-stalker into a moviegoer’s consciousness as the cross-dressing, mother obsessed Norman Bates whose peculiar personality still chills like an ill-wind.
As Kelly states, “Each of these characters draws on Ed Gein. And yet the atrocities committed by Gein were far more bizarre, far more extreme than those of his fictional counterparts.”
[Featured Image By Harold Amos/AP Images]