An insane killer and necrophile has inspired the entire modern cycle of Hollywood horror movies, an American university professor says.
Ed Gein, an American grave robber and murderer, triggered a worldwide press frenzy after police arrested him on November 17, 1957 – 61 years ago today.
Hollywood film director Alfred Hitchcock produced America’s horror classic Psycho in 1960 – three years after Gein’s arrest in Plainfield, Wisconsin. Hitchcock’s movie masterpiece was loosely based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name.
Psycho shocked and captivated audiences globally, and soon afterwards, the spine-chilling horror movie inspired a string of iconic horror movies and slasher films.
New York true crime researcher Professor Harold Schechter said Gein was culturally significant, as he generated an entire industry of horror films.
“Gein is clearly unique in the annals of American crime for a variety of reasons but perhaps mostly because he is a culturally significant figure,” Professor Schechter, who wrote about Gein’s madness in his true crime book Deviant, said.
“If it hadn’t been for Gein, we wouldn’t have had Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which means we wouldn’t have had Hitchcock’s masterpiece, which inspired the entire modern cycle of American horror.
“So it can be said that every slasher movie ever made stems directly from Gein.”
Warning: The remainder of this story includes gory details that some readers may find disturbing.
The making of a murderer
The story of the Wisconsin farmhand, who possessed a low IQ, is a tragedy. Gein’s isolation on a Midwest farm – after the death of his dysfunctional parents and brother – triggered his descent into madness.
As a child, Gein’s masculinity was undermined by his domineering mother, Augusta, who infiltrated his thoughts with passages from the Book of Revelation about the evils of women.
Augusta was Gein’s last remaining family member, and died in 1945. He continually searched of her replacement, robbing the graves of those women who resembled his mother. Gein confessed to killing two women – Plainfield tavern owner Mary Hogan in 1954, and hardware store owner Bernice Worden in 1957.
Wisconsin police were unprepared for what they found in Gein’s farmhouse following the death of Ms Worden. Gein exhumed corpses from local cemeteries and fashioned trophies using their human remains.
The exposure of Gein’s fetishes, including a face mask and body suit made of women’s skin, made him one of the most gruesome characters of the time.
Gein’s house was a squalor of filthy debris and littered with human remains, some refrigerated. Exhumed bodies from graveyards had their skin removed, which was used to decorate furniture. Human skulls formed fruit bowls, a belt was made from female human nipples, Mary Hogan’s face mask was found in a paper bag, and Bernice Worden’s heart was found in the kitchen.
Through public exposure of Gein, he became known as The Butcher of Plainfield. Gein’s murders had transformed the sleepy Midwest township of Plainfield into a sought-after destination for curious tourists. After it broke, the story fascinated the world.
- Leatherface unmasked: Click here to see an interactive retelling of Gein’s life, created by Monash University students. Warning: it is not for the faint of heart.
The Hitchcock effect
Following Hitchcock’s success with Pyscho, Hollywood was further inspired by Gein’s morbid fascination with corpses and his unhealthy motherly obsession.
Robert Keller, the author of Unhinged: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, confirmed Hollywood’s ensuing cinematic success.
“There are the movies said to have been inspired by the Gein case but these tend to generally play on just one aspect of the story,” Keller said.
“Psycho references the mommy obsession, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs refer to the ‘artefacts from human skin’ aspect.”
Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs generated a combined box office revenue of more than $AUD 500 million and have left a legacy in not only the horror genre, but in all aspects of cinematography.
Why did he do it?
“The thing that fascinates most people about Gein is his habit of making artefacts from human corpses,” Keller said.
“Gein was a necrophile who usually satisfied his perverse needs through grave robbing. Why then did he commit two murders? Probably to take possession of the victims’ bodies.
“He’d been watching these women for some time and had decided he wanted them.”
Keller said the kills were quick. “No gratification involved. Simple necessity,” Keller said.
“Why these two women? Some say they reminded him of his mother. Perhaps, but while he supposedly revered Augusta, he paid scant respect to his victims.
“Bernice Worden was beheaded, gutted, and hung to bleed out within hours of her murder.”
After being found guilty of the murder of Worden, but legally insane, Gein was sent to a Wisconsin psychiatric institution.
He died from complications of cancer at Mendota Mental Health Institute on July 26, 1984. He was 77.
Gein’s longing to be reconnected with his overbearing mother was fulfilled when he was buried next to her in Plainfield Cemetery.
While Plainfield’s infamy has since diminished, the Gein story has been infinitely etched into folklore.
Adrian Johnson is a journalism student at Monash University