Warning: This week’s post describes events which may be disturbing to some readers. While the events in The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho are fictitious, the events involving Ed Gein actually occurred. I promise no gory pictures or videos, but you may want to abandon blog now if you’re particularly squeamish.
In November of 1957, police in Plainfield Wisconsin discovered something so appalling, so horrific, that it was embedded permanently in American culture and the American psyche. The acts of Ed Gein would be echoed by characters based on him in some way in horror novels and films for decades after. Two of the best of these works are The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. Let’s look at the fictional characters before delving into the real person.
I’m going to assume I don’t need to put in spoiler alerts here. I’ll leave it to you to spot the real Ed Gein in each of the fictional characters.
The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs was first a novel (1988) which was adapted for film (1991). The main story is about an FBI trainee named Clarise Starling and her interactions with the captive psychopathic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter. Starling is trying to get information about a serial murderer who has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill”.
“Buffalo Bill”, later named as Jame Gumb, is the Ed Gein character in this story, although the character is actually an amalgam of several murderers and kidnappers, including Ted Bundy and “The Green River Killer”, Gary Ridgway.
Gumb would kidnap his victims, sometimes pretending to be injured to lure them in. He held them for several days before killing them by a gunshot to the head. He then partially skinned the bodies and dumped them in nearby rivers. It turned out he was keeping the skins to create a “woman suit”, a suit he could wear to feel as though he had become a woman.
Psycho was also a book first (1959), before it was adapted for film (1960). In this story, a woman who stole $40,000 from her employer winds up at the Bates Motel in a town called Fairvale. The motel manager, Norman, spends some time talking to the woman. He has been a shut-in, taking care of his mother, who he claims has gone a bit sick in the head. The woman pleads fatigue and turns in for the night. Later, Norman finds his mother covered in blood, and goes to check on the woman. He finds her in the shower, stabbed to death. He determines his demented mother was jealous, and decides to protect her by covering up the crime.
The woman’s boyfriend and sister send a private investigator to look for her. He calls them to say he thinks Norman may be involved, but he’s going to try to talk to the mother and then return to talk to them in person. When he fails to return, they go to the motel to find out what happened. They eventually find the corpse of the mother, who has obviously been dead for years. They are attacked by Norman, who is dressed in his mother’s clothes and a wig.
Norman is captured. It turns out he had grown up in near isolation, with only his mother for company. She had been a harsh and demanding parent. When she started dating a man, Norman grew fearful of being abandoned by her. He poisoned his mother and her boyfriend. Later, he dug up the corpse of his mother and kept it at their house. Norman developed a sort of split personality, where most of the time he was his mother. He could be both personalities at once, and hold conversations. After his capture, Norman’s personality seemed to go away, and only the mother personality was left.
The Author, Robert Bloch, got the inspiration for Norman entirely from Ed Gein. Most of the details of the Gein case hadn’t been released yet, and Bloch was actually surprised by how much of Gein’s motivation for what he did he managed to guess correctly. Bloch had good reason to be interested in the Gein case, Bloch lived a mere 35 miles from Plainfield in the town of Weyauwega at the time.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The “Leatherface” character from Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also based on, or at least influenced by, Ed Gein. That wasn’t a particularly good movie though, so that’s all I’m going to say about that.
The Butcher of Plainfield – The Real Ed Gein
Bernice Worden disappeared from the hardware store she owned on November 16, 1957. A receipt at the store proved Gein had been one of the store’s last customers. Worden’s son also claimed Gein had been at the store. The police went to search Gein’s house. The found Worden; beheaded and disemboweled, her body hanging upside down in a shed like a dressed out deer. That’s just the start. They also found the head of Mary Hogan, a local tavern keeper who had disappeared 3 years earlier, in a paper sack in Gein’s house.
Gein had murdered both Worden and Hogan by shooting them with a .22 caliber rifle before dismembering them. These are the only murders ever proven to be committed by Gein, but the dismembered remains of more than a dozen people, mostly or entirely women, were found in the house. Skins had been tanned and turned into chair coverings. Skulls adorned the bedposts. A lamp shade was made of human facial skin. A belt was made of human nipples. Gein had 9 masks made of women’s faces, and a suite made of female skins. Gein would wear the suite and masks, pretending to be female.
It appeared that, other than Worden and Hogan, Gein would dig up the graves of recently deceased, middle-aged women who reminded him of his mother. (Actually, one of these WAS his mother.). Authorities tried to tie Gein to other area disappearances, but only Worden and Hogan were proven. Gein claimed not to remember much of either the murders or the grave robbing.
Gein was declared insane, and lived the rest of his life in various high security mental hospitals. By most accounts, he was a model patient, never giving anyone any trouble. He died in 1984 at the age of 77.
How did Gein turn into what he was? The accepted view is that it was because of his mother. His alcoholic father was not a big part of Gein’s life. His mother, Augusta, was very religious, in an Old Testament, fire and brimstone kind of way. She didn’t want outside influences, especially women, corrupting her two sons. She bought a farm in Plainfield, far from neighbors, and kept the boys isolated as much as possible. After Gein’s father died in 1940, they only had each other. Gein’s brother, Henry, died mysteriously in 1944 while helping to fight a fire near the farm. Henry’s body was allegedly not burned, and there was evidence of blunt trauma to the head, but the official cause of death was asphyxiation. Henry had apparently harshly criticized their mother shortly before his death.
Augusta died in 1945 after a series of strokes. Gein’s grave robbing started shortly after that.
A Washington Connection
After Gein’s death, he was buried in Plainfield near his mother’s grave. People would chip pieces from his headstone, perhaps as some sort of sick souvenir. The entire grave marker was stolen in 2000. It was found in 2001 near Seattle, in the hands of the promoter for the band Angry White Males. It is now safely back in Waushara county, but will likely never be returned to the grave it was made to mark.