The body hung from its ankles, naked and eviscerated. It scarcely resembled a human being, its feminine form peeled away to leave nothing but a mutilated carcass. As the flashlights found their way to her mangled form the two men recoiled in horror, one retreating back outside to bring up the contents of his stomach. The corpse that was strung up before them had been indiscriminately skinned and disembowelled like a wild animal, her pleas of mercy having fallen on deaf ears as the life was forced from her. What kind of monster could have subjected a defenceless woman to such a barbaric and degrading fate, her headless remains hanging from the rafters of a work shed, her flesh violated beyond all recognition? ‘My God, here she is!’ one of them declared when they made the gruesome find, yet how could they even be sure this was the missing person they were searching for? After all, whatever had once defined this as a mother, as a wife, had been stripped from its bones. Within an hour of the discovery the authorities had apprehended the man they believed responsible, a middle-aged recluse who worked odd jobs around town and in the decade since his mother’s passing had slowly retreated from the world.
As the police entered the adjacent house they found that the crimes of Edward Theodore Gein extended beyond the butchered body outside and within the walls that had provided sanctuary for him they uncovered an array of human remains preserved as trophies, revealing a sexually disturbed mind that until now had remained hidden beneath a visage that many felt while peculiar was ultimately harmless. ‘These grotesque furnishings were not the only evidence of Gein’s insane handiwork,’ explained biographer Harold Schechter. ‘At one point, for example, Allan Wilimovsky, a crime lab specialist, picked up an old shoebox, glanced inside and realised with a start that – as inconceivable as it seemed – he had just discovered a sizeable collection of female genitalia. There were nine vulvas altogether. Most were dried and shrivelled, although one had been daubed with silver paint and trimmed with red ribbon. Another, the topmost one, seemed quite fresh. It consisted of a portion of mons veneris with a vagina and anus attached. Looking closely at this specimen, Wilimovsky noticed small crystals clinging to its surface. The recently excised vulva, he realised, had been sprinkled with salt.’
When the unimaginable deeds of Gein were first discovered in the winter of 1957, murder had become commonplace in the United States but the revelation that a man had both devoured human flesh and performed sexual acts with a dead body sent shockwaves across the nation. Twenty years earlier, Albert Fish had been convicted of murder in New York and during the trial his taste for cannibalism was unearthed but it would be Gein’s penchant for human remains that both fascinated and disgusted the public in equal measures. And as the morbid obsession with the macabre filled every newspaper, magazine and news network it was inevitable that the horrors of Ed Gein would find their way into popular culture. Less than three years later Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most respected filmmakers in the world, directed a low budget thriller about a disturbed young man struggling with the loss of his dominating mother, who butchers an attractive woman, his perverse homicidal urges hidden from a world that failed to see the monster lurking within. Psycho would become a benchmark for American cinema, with the vampires and werewolves of old now replaced with a more familiar face of evil. And for decades to come the acts committed by Gein were echoed through the crimes of Leatherface and Hannibal Lecter.
Sewing his own woman suit out of real women’s skin
The secret deviant nature of Gein was perhaps best personified by Norman Bates, the reclusive antagonist of Psycho who is revealed during the film’s final moments to suffer from dissociative identity disorder, believing his mother is still alive. From his split personality to the corpse of his mother that he dresses and interacts with, Bates served as the blueprint for the deranged killers of the slasher and giallo thrillers of the seventies and eighties. ‘The most recent incarnation of Norman Bates is The Silence of the Lambs‘ Buffalo Bill, a mother-fixated would-be transsexual who, having been denied a sex change operation, is sewing his own woman suit out of real women’s skin,’ detailed Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws. ‘The Frankensteinian scheme of killing women for their parts (in this case pieces of skin, like pieces of fabric in dressmaking) is in the best tradition of low horror, from the 1963 Blood Feast (in which an Egyptian caterer collects female body parts, one female per part, for sacrifice to the goddess Ishtar) to the 1990 Frankenhooker (in which a bereaved boyfriend collects body parts from other women in an effort to rebuild his mangled girlfriend). And, of course, in both the conception of Clarice Starling (masculine in both manner and career, uninterested in sex or men and dead serious about her career) and its conception of Buffalo Bill (sexually dysfunctional and effeminate), The Silence of the Lambs is high slasher.’
From his sexual compulsions to his fractured mind, Gein provided the archetypal killer that novelists and filmmakers would draw heavily from for decades to come. From slasher villains like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees punishing the sinful to the backwood farmers of Motel Hell and Three on a Meathook preying on vulnerable women, his influence can be felt throughout modern horror. Prior to the arrest of Gein, most villains in American genre cinema were either the result of the supernatural, the occult or science-run-amok, but the chilling depiction of Bates in Psycho proved that the most terrifying monster of all was man. With Gein’s taste for grave-robbing, necrophilia and cannibalism making the headlines in the days following his apprehension, less than fifty miles away an author by the name of Robert Bloch was developing his second novel, one that would introduce the world to the disturbed mind of Norman Bates. When Psycho made its way to the big screen in the summer of 1960 it terrified audiences the world over and with its controversial depiction of sexuality and mental illness, horror would never be the same again. While Gein may not be as infamous as Charles Manson or Ted Bunny, his influence on popular culture over the last sixty years is undeniable.
Much like Norman Bates, the story of Ed Gein began with his mother. Augusta was the dominant force of the household, with Gein’s father George providing little in the way of financial support due to his inability to remain sober or employed for long. Gein’s mother was deeply religious and viewed men as lustful predators and women as sinful prostitutes, thus he was raised to believe that his mother was the only woman he could trust. The family moved from the city to a farmhouse in the quiet town of Plainfield, Wisconsin where Gein and his older brother Henry would come of age together. Throughout their adolescence both sons were regularly beaten by their father and following his death in 1940 Edward and Henry took odd jobs around town. The death of Henry four years later was surrounded by mystery and while it was ruled as an accident, some historians have implied that his brother was responsible, but with Edward finally having his mother’s undivided attention and affection the two remained inseparable until her own passing in December 1945. Gein was devastated by the loss and closed off her room, retaining it as a shrine to her memory. With little experience in social interaction he retreated into a world of fantasy and while he had been raised to believe that women were merely whores that could not be trusted, he still had certain needs that were starting to consume him.
By the dawn of the fifties Gein was approaching his mid-forties and had remained a bachelor since the death of Augusta several years earlier. Lacking the courage to charm women and still convinced by his mother’s warnings, he longed to touch a woman’s flesh and over time this compulsion had become too much. ‘Sitting alone in his unkempt house, Ed Gein was suddenly conscious of a strange desire,’ recalled the New York Daily News a decade later. ‘He had been thinking over some of the things he had heard at his mother’s knee – not that he doubted any of them – and all at once he wanted to see a woman’s body. Ill at ease, he wandered out into the Wisconsin night. In an almost trance-like state he walked and walked and then, to his great surprise, he found himself at the open gates of Plainfield Cemetery. He walked in and found his unerring way to the grave where his mother lay, beside his father and brother. He was suddenly weak from the anticipation he did not understand and he sat down, leaning his slight, little frame against his mother’s headstone. It was then that he noticed the newly filled-in grave in the next plot.’
Grave-robbing would become a prominent aspect of both Psycho and 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although neither of these explicitly alluded to the notion of necrophilia. For Bates, the exhumation of his mother’s corpse was due to his loneliness and inability to live without her, as well as the later revelation that he was consumed by guilt over her death. The farmhouse of the unnamed family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (identified as the Sawyers in the 1986 sequel) used human bones to create furniture and decorations but without any women in the household the film makes no direct reference to their sexual orientation, thus necrophilia is never implied. ‘We were aware of the Ed Gein story, of course,’ admitted co-writer Kim Henkel in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion. ‘Obviously Ed Gein was the character who made things out of human bones and skin and that was the inspiration for that aspect of the story.’ Yet aside from the grave-robbing and farmhouse setting, the movie bore little resemblance to the events that surrounded Gein during the mid-fifties, with the narrative focusing on five youths who wandered onto a secluded farm and are butchered one-by-one by a deranged family, before the lone survivor finally makes her escape.
Gein’s sexual awakening finally came after he had removed the body of fifty-one-year-old Eleanor Adams from the local cemetery. ‘Eddie has known her by sight for many years, though he has never spoken so much as a word to her,’ recalled Schechter in Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original Psycho. ‘Eddie hovers over the bed, ogling his prize. There is something about Mrs. Adams that has always reminded him of Augusta. But the excitement welling up in him as he stares down at the woman is like nothing he ever felt for his mother. A shiver of pleasure snakes though him as he begins to disrobe her. Mrs. Adams offers no resistance. When her waxy flesh is exposed to his view he raises his lamp and moves it slowly down the length of her body. He had heard other men refer to women as dolls and that is precisely how he perceives Mrs. Adams…as a doll. But only little girls play with dolls, he reflects. The thought makes him smile. Standing by the foot of the bed he moves her legs apart and, with the lamp in one hand, bends nearer for a better look. Abruptly he jerks back, repulsed by her smell. Mrs. Adams lies absolutely still. On a table nearby lie all of Eddie’s instruments. He sets the oil lamp down, picks up one of the tools and then, turning back to his guest, applies himself to his work.’
Gein’s victims were exclusively women
Following his new taste for grave-robbing, Gein’s desires would finally escalate and before long the inevitable urge to procure a fresh body was growing within him. On 8 December 1954 he was once again at a tavern in Pine Grove, a town close to Plainfield, where he spent the few evenings when he wasn’t hiding away from the world in his farmhouse. He had begun to develop an unhealthy obsession with its proprietor Mary Hogan and on the afternoon in question the bar was found empty, only pools of blood on the floor. The police had no leads and marked Hogan down as a missing person but during interrogation following his arrest three years later he finally confessed to the murder. During the search of his home the investigators found her decapitated head, along with the remains of several other individuals. As with most killers, Gein’s victims were exclusively women, although it is worth noting that the two he had confessed to murdering were both middle-aged and bore a strong resemblance to his mother, thus insinuating an Oedipal attraction that Gein had for her. She had, after all, raised him to believe that she was the only woman he should ever love.
While the disappearance of Hogan passed by with little consequence it would be the abduction of Bernice Worden on 16 November 1957 that brought the authorities to Gein’s door. Worden, a fifty-eight-year-old widow, was the owner of the Hardware and Implement Store in Plainfield, a business that Gein often visited. The previous afternoon he had enquired the price of antifreeze and promised to return the following day to purchase a jug. Being the first day of hunting season the town was quiet and when Worden’s son Frank returned at 5pm he found the store closed. Making his way inside he saw signs of a struggle but his mother was nowhere to be seen. Police soon arrived on the scene and upon inspecting the sales receipts they discovered that Worden’s last customer before her disappearance was Ed Gein. The circumstances behind her kidnapping seemed too similar to that of Hogan and so an officer was sent to bring in Gein for questioning, while the captain and recently-appointed sheriff made their way out to the farm to search for clues. But the horror scene that they discovered in the work shed was far more disturbing than anything they could have imagined.
‘Mild-mannered fifty-year-old Edward Gein admitted today that he slew and butchered a Plainfield businesswoman last Saturday. But, he told District Attorney Earl Kileen, the other ten human skulls found in his secluded farmhouse were collected from cemeteries,’ reported the Stevens Point Journal in its 18 November edition. ‘Parts of the skulls of ten or more persons, the skull caps sawed neatly off the skulls. Leather made of human skin, used to upholster furniture, lampshades, belts, knife scabbards and just rolled in a drawer, articles of children’s clothing. The tanned skin from an entire human head, long hair still rooted in the scalp. Two rifles, probably Japanese and two pistols, a .22 and .32-calibre. A box full of knives. One small skull, believed that of a child about six. One skull believed that of a sixty-year-old woman. Two complete sets of dentures…Gein lived alone in a first-floor bedroom and kitchen at the farm. The remainder of the house was still neatly furnished in the fashion of fifty years ago, officers said. The portions occupied by Gein, however, were called ‘extremely messy’ by the investigators.’
One of the most disturbing discoveries that the authorities made as they searched through the Gein farmhouse was his most ambitious and shocking creation. While a lampshade made from lips and a belt forged from nipples had almost turned the officers’ stomachs, the most horrifying find was a ‘skin suit,’ which Gein had built by skinning one of his victims while also retaining the breasts, allowing him to literally dress as a woman. Augusta had been very outspoken about how disappointed she was to have two sons when she had prayed her second child was a girl and with many locals admitting that they felt he had an effeminate side, perhaps this suit finally allowed Gein to posthumously give his mother the daughter she had always wanted. The concept of the skin suit would be resurrected over thirty years later through the character of Buffalo Bill, the serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs that abducts women of a certain dress size in order to create a female body suit using strips of human skin. Bill’s motives for this, according to the story’s secondary antagonist Hannibal Lecter, is because he had failed to quality for gender reassignment surgery and so had decided to fashion a woman suit from the skin of his victims.
Following his arrest on 16 November 1957 Gein had initially refused to cooperate with the authorities, remaining unresponsive to questions for thirty hours before finally breaking his silence and confessing to the crimes. Three days after he was taken into custody Gein was charged with the theft of a cash register from Worden’s store but had insisted that while he could recall the kidnapping he had no conscious memory of the murder. ‘He said he remembered going into the store to purchase a half gallon of antifreeze, that he remembered Mrs. Worden pumping out the liquid a quart at a time and that he remembered dragging her body from the centre of her North Street store into the rear area where the truck was parked,’ stated the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. ‘Asked if he remembered killing her he said, ‘No, that is what I can’t remember. My memory is a little vague.’ Gein’s moments of memory loss would later be echoed through Norman Bates who, when the mother half of his split personality took over, would have no knowledge of the events that took place during her dominance. While Gein would not claim to have such a condition, as the case went to trial the defence cited Gein ‘innocent by reason of insanity.’
On 7 January 1958, Gein was placed under the care of the Central State Hospital in Waupun, Wisconsin, a facility that treated those deemed criminally insane, under the order of Circuit Judge Herbert Bunde. Two months later the family possessions in the Gein farmhouse were auctioned off to the general public, with the farm purchased by two real estate dealers for $3,925. For the next decade Gein remained a permanent resident of the hospital and on 14 November 1968 the case finally returned to court, with Gein, now sixty-two, found guilty of the murder of Bernice Worden almost eleven years to the day after her death. With no jury present, Judge Robert H. Gollmar declared Gein insane and ordered his return to Waupun but in May 1978 he was relocated to the Mendota Institute in Madison. In 1983 Universal Pictures released the long-awaited sequel to Psycho, produced at the height of the early-eighties slasher craze, which saw Norman Bates released from a mental institution after over twenty years of rehabilitation. But for Gein, he would never see the outside of the facility again as on 26 July 1984 he passed away from complications resulting from liver cancer at the age of seventy-seven.
Cannibalism is one of the stricter taboos
In the years that followed his arrest and the subsequent trial the gruesome deeds of Ed Gein continued to fascinate anyone who had a morbid interest in serial killers, cannibals and sexual deviants. ‘In our culture, cannibalism is one of the stricter taboos and is deeply rooted in the unconsciousness of all the people, yet it evoked a tremendous outpouring of jokes in the wake of the Gein incident,’ claimed Judge Gollmar in his book Edward Gein: America’s Most Bizarre Murderer. ‘In the reaction of school children, through witticism and humour, they were able to stand abreast of their parental figures and, in many cases, knew the risqué quips before the former. Children communicated the jokes freely, not only among themselves but to their parents, thereby provoking consternation and indignation…The people in Wisconsin reacted to Gein’s horrifying crimes in an exhibitionistic and narcissistic manner and gained pleasure from them through humour. By this mechanism, they were able to have publicity directed at them but they were also able to forestall criticism of themselves for unknowingly tolerating such a criminal in their midst.’
Ed Gein may have died almost four decades ago but his ghost lives on in the endless recycling of ideas born from the horror of Psycho sixty years ago. Whether it’s through sequels, prequels, remakes or small screen spinoffs, Norman Bates, Leatherface and Hannibal Lecter have continued to horrify and entertain audiences for generations and with new outlets such as Netflix providing bloodthirsty viewers with serial killer documentaries on the likes of Ted Bundy, the public’s desire to revel in the sexual madness of maniacs from the safety of their lounge will continue to thrive. Much like the slasher villains that he inspired, Ed Gein and other killers of his ilk will return from the dead every time there is a renewed interest in their case. ‘The Butcher of Plainfield was gone but the enormity of his crimes was not forgotten,’ declared author Robert Keller in his biography Unhinged: The Horrific True Story Ed Gein. ‘Over the years that followed he would continue to be the boogeyman that Wisconsin mothers warned their misbehaving children about. And he would continue to inspire writers and movie-makers…And yet the atrocities committed by Gein were far more bizarre, far more extreme than those of his fictional counterparts. Fact, in this case, really was stranger than fiction.’