Ed Gein

The inspiration behind the legends of horror cinema

Ed Gein, by any definition of a civilized culture, was a deeply disturbed individual. This man, clearly in the relentless grip of mental illness, committed horrible, despicable, and indescribable acts on both the living and the dead. His life is the material from which horror movies are born. In fact, three classics of horror cinema — Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) — were inspired by the truly troubled existence of Ed Gein.

Although his name is not commonly associated with other serial killers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jack the Ripper, Gein shares with them a place in the history of the most infamous criminals, despite having killed only two people. This is due to the nature of his crimes, which went beyond murder, including grave robbery and other acts that reveal a deeply sick mind.

“Ed Gein was unique in the annals of American crime,” comments Harold Schechter, author of “Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original Psycho.” Gein represented a seemingly harmless figure, a Midwestern farmer during the Eisenhower era, a time many remember nostalgically as a period of simplicity and decency. However, behind that facade lay a macabre story, almost taken from a twisted fairy tale.

The life of Ed Gein

Born in Wisconsin in 1906, Ed Gein grew up with an alcoholic father and a fanatically religious mother. He lived much of his life on the family farm in Plainfield, isolated from the rest of the world. After his father’s death in 1940 and the mysterious death of his older brother in 1944, Gein and his mother withdrew even further into a Spartan existence.

After his mother’s death in late 1945, Gein began to descend into what a judge later deemed madness. In 1957, local police visited his farm to question him about the disappearance of shopkeeper Bernice Worden. What they found was chilling: Worden’s decapitated and dismembered body, along with hundreds of body parts scattered around the house. Gein had turned the home into a macabre museum of death, with masks made of human skin and skulls turned into bowls.

His cultural impact

Ed Gein confessed to making numerous trips to local cemeteries to rob and desecrate bodies. Although not considered a serial killer in the traditional sense, his necrophilia and use of bodies to create grotesque objects place him in a category of his own.

Gein’s atrocities inspired several horror characters in popular culture. His attempt to revive his mother’s body is a key point in “Psycho.” The creation of human skin masks was used for the character of Leatherface in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” And in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the serial killer Buffalo Bill, who kills women to make skin suits, is loosely based on Gein.

Schechter points out that these horror stories are essential to our culture. They allow us to vent and control our deepest and darkest fears. “Tales about monsters allow us to vent some of the fears, terrors, and desires that we possess,” states Schechter.

The fate of Ed Gein

Ed Gein, known as “The Butcher of Plainfield,” was arrested in 1957 and charged with the murder of Bernice Worden. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane, where he remained until his death in 1984, at the age of 77.

The story of Ed Gein, with its horrific details and lasting impact on horror culture, remains a chilling reminder of how far human darkness can go when combined with mental illness.