His crimes shocked America and became the morbid inspiration for some of the most iconic horror films of the 20th century. But who was Ed Gein, and what is his cinematic legacy? Kim Morrison investigates…
In 1957 the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin was rocked by the revelation that quiet resident Ed Gein had murdered at least two women and had been raiding local cemeteries, decorating his house with body parts and trying to create a suit made out of female skin. Having lived alone with his mother – and caring for her after a stroke – Ed was devastated by her death in 1945, and in the years between her death and the day he was caught he’d started the macabre collection that would take over his house and make him one of the most infamous killers in American history.
Gein’s case was so horrifying and unique that it’s no surprise he became a massive inspiration for a number of fictional serial killers over the years. His obsession with body parts, his desire to make an outfit out of other people and his fraught yet devoted relationship with his mother were all ideal fodder for the horror genre.
The first version of Gein which made it to the screen came just three years after his arrest, with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The more gruesome elements of Gein’s character were sidestepped in this iteration and instead the main focus is the dead mother relationship and a seemingly mild-mannered character who turns out to be a ruthless killer. Gein may have lived in a remote part of town but he was well known, and no one viewed him as a threat: the same can be said here of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The owner of a secluded motel he’s quiet and polite, and only ends up at the end of an investigation after Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) goes missing.
Throughout the film it’s clear that Norman’s mother has a huge effect on him. Much like Gein’s mother Augusta, Mrs Bates preached the immorality of other women and how evil sex was: that’s why Marion ends up dead, because Normal cannot process his feelings towards her and thinks it’s better to take her out of the picture entirely.
Norman also chooses to keep Mrs Bate’s old bedroom in pristine condition, making it look as though it’s ready for his mother should she return. Gein chose to board up the rooms that his mother favoured in their home to ensure they remained untouched too, whilst he lived in the mostly squalid rooms that were left. Norman does venture into his mother’s territory in the house – though this may be when he “becomes” her – but he still shows a level of care for her room which he doesn’t extend to his own living areas.
It’s not until the end of the film that we learn that Mrs Bates has been dead for a very long time, but her hold on Norman seems to have become even stronger in death. The fact that Norman chooses to keep her corpse shows how strong their bond was, and how unwilling he is to let go. It’s also a more toned-down version of Gein’s human house decorations, though the effect is just as gruesome when Mrs Bates’ corpse is discovered. Similarly, in real-life Gein’s suit of female skin was arguably an attempt for him to become his mother, whilst in Hitchcock’s shocker this is represented by Norman wearing her clothes.
Seven years later Gein’s influence was again seen in black comedy Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (1967). Dealing with a larger household instead of one solitary figure, the film tells the story of the Merrye family who live in isolation after the death of their father and have to deal with a genetic condition which will eventually see them descend into cannibalism. With their father’s body stored in the attic the family live in his shadow, cutting themselves off from everyone else.
Though Gein claimed he never indulged in cannibalism, it’s clear that his love of body parts and grave robbing could have ended in cannibalism eventually, and in 1974 Tobe Hooper mixed elements of Gein’s story and the cannibal family in Spider Baby to create The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). This time Gein’s character is split between the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), the Old Man (Jim Siedow) and Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). The film’s iconic opening shows the effects of the Hitchhiker’s corpse desecration spree, and it’s difficult to read this grisly tableaux as anything other than a direct reference to the grave-robbing of Gein.
When Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her friends stumble across Leatherface’s home – another unassuming but remote property – they find it full of human and animal remains which are used in a disgusting form of interior design. There’s also another deceased relative lurking in the attic, with Leatherface’s grandmother hanging out with his almost dead Grandfather (John Dugan).
Interestingly both Norman Bates and Leatherface display sides of Gein’s story which are vaguely sympathetic: Norman and Gein are shown as being pushed towards their terrible crimes because of their warped relationship with their mother and their inability to cope with her death, whilst Leatherface is seen trying to protect his home and do what he needs to in order to get by without a parental figure around to tell him what to do, much like Gein when he was left in his family house all alone.
To be clear, none of these men are portrayed as good guys but a key part of Gein’s story was the effect his upbringing and his mother had on him, and what this led him to do in later life. Both Norman and Leatherface show an extreme version of this, and allow us to explore the idea that people aren’t born evil but can be greatly shaped by those around them and the terrible circumstances they end up in.
Perhaps one of the most horrifying elements of the Gein case was the woman suit he was trying to build out female flesh so he could “become his mother, and crawl into her skin”1. While it’s not clear who he is trying to become, Leatherface also chooses to wear the faces of his victims in order to alter his personality. Overall, the thought of treating human beings like a commodity for personal use – and something as disposable as an item of clothing – is deeply disturbing.
Neither Leatherface, his family or Gein have any apparent regard for the people they encounter. From raiding their graves, harvesting their skin to wear or treating their individual body parts as something to be scattered rather than treated carefully, Gein and Leatherface’s family show that other humans don’t have any importance to them. The only people they care about are their own family members, as Gein indicated with his strong maternal relationship and Leatherface with the fact he and his family still care for their eldest member, despite him being basically a corpse himself.
The idea of using humans like this and not seeing them as anything more than a resource was carried forward into The Silence of the Lambs (1991). While Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins on Oscar winning form) is a cannibal serial killer, it’s actually Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who brings Ed Gein to screen once again. FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, also bagging an Academy Award) is tasked with trying to help find out who Bill is after he has killed a number of young women and removed large portions of their skin.
After working out that Bill was a tailor and finding unfinished dress patterns which mirror the pieces of skin Bill has cut from his victims, it’s Clarice that discovers Bill is trying to construct a skin suit from the women he murders. The direct comparison of these dead women to the crumpled dressmakers’ patterns again shows the total disregard Bill has for his victims: he doesn’t view them as people, but merely as something he can use to get what he desires. Unlike Gein – who wanted to become his mother specifically, allowing him to fill the gap she left when she died – Bill wants to slip into a person he wishes to become.
Overall Ed Gein’s case is so strange and fascinating it’s no surprise that he’s been the inspiration for some of the most iconic on-screen killers of the horror genre. Unlike some murderers who project an air of evil the moment you lay eyes on them, Gein was able carry out his work in secret for years because no one suspected him. This aspect makes him all the scarier because it implies anyone you meet could be capable of such crimes. Teamed with the unspeakable nature of what happened in his house it’s no wonder Gein’s case is still a source of fascination years later, and one which horror movies have returned to again and again.
© Kim Morrison
1. Ramsland, Katherine. “A True Necrophile”. Crime Library. Archived from the original on December 2, 2013.
Enjoyed this article? Check out our deep dive podcast episode on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) here.