Ed Gein Part II: The Man Who Inspired Monsters

The devil is out there. Always stalking, ever-lurking, somewhere between the gossamer glow of the waking world inside our minds and just behind the walls of sleep. A genius wolf watching dreary sheep. I’m not asking if you’re religious or not, and, if we’re being perfectly honest, he doesn’t much care. He shows up and there’s Hell to pay. 

artist Gustave Dore, ‘Paradise Lost – Satan in Council’

Back in the 1950s, every god-fearing American had their butts warming a church pew come Sunday morning. The reverend would stand up and preach from the Good Book and, every so often, if he felt a particular agitation, the grand horrors of Hell would be the topic of the day. Turns out that Satan and his infernal realm of pain and suffering made for crowd-gathering material … just like it did in the Dark Ages.

Ma and Pa saintly do-wells, salt of the earth types who would never be caught dead at a motion picture show, especially one showing a scary movie, sure did eat up that Sunday-Funday grizzly stuff though. Why as a matter of fact, the nastier the Hell the sweeter the Heaven I guess you could say.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages

Reverend Wonderful had free reign to be as graphic as his imagination allowed when describing the stygian agony awaiting sinners gripped by the Devil’s talons. Horns and pitchforks, rusty chains, and Hell’s unquenching flames, it got the folks all riled up.

People liked the gory bits. They’d shout their support, yell an ‘Amen’ or two sometimes, and if the spirit took ’em, you’d see ol’ Miss Maryweather go a’running up and down the aisles. It was worshipful. It was saintly. It was a fucking circus ruled over by the good Reverend while rivets of sweat streamed like salty beads down his reddened face. The hotter the Hell the better the reaction.

“Preach it, brother!”

artist Gustave Dore, ‘Paradise Lost – Rebel Angels’

It was pure exploitation and fuck if church-goers didn’t take to it like flies to a turd. For many people, it felt right to think Satan was out there punishing unrepented sinners stewing in their own iniquities.

Did the Devil exist? Hell to the fuckin’ A you bet your ass the Devil existed. And people loved it about as much as they liked sipping their sweet lemon ice tea. He was the atavistic threat reigning over the writing agonies of Outer Darkness. His was the Inferno and all of its black miracles. The burning pits of Hell are where you’d find him and– pardon the pun – it was a burning hot topic. It was also a safe place, somewhere far away from the daily affairs of salt-of-the-earth types. 

They could take comfort knowing they would never have to deal with him. They were also goddamn wrong because one day the Devil showed up and turned out to be everyone’s meek and quiet neighbor.

He was someone they drank with, someone who babysat their kids. People were stunned stupid by the grizzly revelation as to what kind of Evil was living among them. Guess you don’t ever really know a person. Or at least what’s going on inside their heads.

And sure, it’s way easier to present Ed Gein as some evil demon or devil. Something elemental and almost fictional. He wasn’t though. He was one of us. Flesh, blood, and bone. Put his pants on just like we all do. But to his neighbors, he was pure evil. A Devil who built his house out of sin and sat on furnishings stitched together by human body parts.

You can’t make this shit up.

He surrounded himself with death and dwelt in gloom like a troll from some warped fairytale. He adorned himself in human flesh and stitches. And, if rumors are to be believed, he ate who he killed. 

Ed Gein was the stuff nightmares are made of.

inside Ed Gein’s house

But their Devil had been arrested and locked away like a community’s dirty little secret. His reign of terror was over. The ghoul who kept shrunken heads under his bed was now gone and the dead could finally rest in peace.

cop standing outside the Gein estate

Now that old charnel house of his was left to its grey solitude, a molding threshold into the domain of demons. A genuine house of horrors if ever there was one. It stood out like a festering tumor on the pristine façade of the kindly community, reminding everyone of the evils the human mind is capable of. 

A planned auction of the estate was scheduled and you could say a fungal interest blossomed about that macabre place and it was bound to draw in a crowd locals weren’t too keen on. The weird types, outsiders, people with ill intentions for sure. Freaks with a flair for the grotesque oddities of life.

the old Gein house

So when the good citizens of Plainfield woke up one morning to find Gein’s house of death and corpses had mysteriously burned down in the night – just mere days before the auction funny enough – there was a collective sigh of relief. That pretty orange glow radiating brightly in the early dawn hours meant the whole affair had to be over and done with. Call it an act of God (thank ye, Jesus) or comeuppance there weren’t any tears shed over the smoking ashes of the estate once the blazing inferno quieted down. The fire claimed everything. The grounds were burnt black as if nature rejected the earth the foundations were laid on. All that remained were the seared underpinning jutting out like decayed ribs. 

20 Mar 1958, Plainfield, Wisconsin, USA — Smoldering ruins is all that remains of the House of Horrors after a fire of undetermined cause destroyed the two story frame building on March 20, 1958. Once the home of confessed killer ghoul Ed Gein, who shocked the nation when human remains were found in it, the house was to be auctioned. Police suspected arson. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

That’s the end of that, or so it was assumed. Let lying corpses lie (ha, ha), just go on like nothing happened and this whole messy thing’ll just blow over. Thing is though, devils like Gein don’t just go away. They haunt the mind and tickle deeply repressed fantasies in us all. 

Gein had not only just reshaped American culture (not to mention kick-started an international interest in serial killers) but he became the blueprint of horrors to come. In fact, Gein was now the foundation of who the American Boogeyman was to become. Both in real life and on the silver screen.

In the years to follow the genius of horror could not ignore Gein’s playful side and as result, much of culture’s most beloved guilty pleasures sprung up out of the mire of the madman’s crimes against life and death. Had it not been for Gein picking up a shovel and heading out to a cemetery one night would we now have some of horror’s most respected and praised titles? Not likely. That’ll boil your noodles if you let it. 

Boogeyman of Boogeymen

Robert Bloch would make a name for himself – and write one of the most influential horror stories of the century – all due to his little book Psycho. Bloch was living in WI at the time and was shocked by every heinous detail pouring in from the papers about Ed Gein. The concepts of grave robbing and an overbearing mother lording her toxic influence over one lonely young man just couldn’t get out of Bloch’s head. They became the foundations upon which a budding sub-genre of horror would be fortified upon – that being the slasher genre. 

Norman Bates, the titular madman himself, is the focus of the book, something I’ve mentioned before. The book is also even more disturbing than the classic film. The book was enough to scare the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchock who earnestly recognized the indisputable talent of this story. And knowing the book was based on the Ed Gein crimes made the project all the more appealing. 

Norman Bates, kind-natured, quiet, and a bit simple, the humble face of the Bates Motel where, if you catch Norman’s eye and he gets that (uh-oh) funny feeling down his pants, chances are when you check in you won’t be checking out. Berated by his mother (who can be seen sitting menacingly in the upper window of the house atop the hill) Bates lives a lonely life. One you can easily pity. But he lives a double life too. 

As we all now know Norman keeps his dead mother at home where her dried corpse can still torment his broken mind. I think Ed was proud of that little touch. Taking it one step further Norman lets mother have her fun by dressing up and channeling the harsh woman. Hitchcock’s Psycho shocked people and with a little of Gein’s ghoulish fun reshaped the nature of horror movies. Norman Bates was the archetype for future slasher icons such as Michael Myers, Jason, and Leatherface to come.

A decade later the quiet outback of Texas became a slaughter field when young innocents were met with a chainsaw-wielding madman. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is renowned as one of the top five best horror films ever made and its most macabre moments can all be linked back to the grotesque habits of Eddie boy.

It’s interesting that each member of the deranged family of cannibals embodies an attribute of Gein. It’s as if the ghoul’s essence stains each scene from opening to final credits. 

Most people identify the skin-wearing traits of Leatherface back to Eddie, but there’s the Hitchhiker who digs up the dead and brings home the really good stuff to furnish the living room. There’s also the cook whose quiet nature lures in unsuspecting victims. He’s such a nice guy until he can catch you off your guard. Then it’s straight to the icebox with you.

You know, the more I think of it the more I’m convinced the original film is an absolute masterpiece. Every time I watch it I’m that much more impressed. It’s a simple formula but – as is proven most often in horror – it’s the simple stuff that works the best. 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became a grindhouse staple and was ultimately banned in certain countries. The UK saw fit to slap the movie on the infamous Video Nasties list. And to this day there are some countries where horror fans cannot watch the full movie. It fucked with people’s heads that much. TCM is simply metal to the bone. 

Another writer (Thomas Harris) would make a career for himself when his novel of grizzly crime and mystery took the world by storm and made Anthony Hopkins a name to be feared and celebrated once the story was adapted to film. 

The Silence of the Lambs is punch-to-the-throat thrill ride to stop a serial killer who is mutilating women. Our killer here, nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), not only channels Ed Gein but goes the extra mile by utilizing a few of Ted Bundy’s nefarious tricks to great effect. Bill goes about his transition by capturing women and turning their skins into his new and improved body. 

Though considered more of a psychological thriller than a scary movie I see it as an early example of elevated horror and the movie scared the pink fucking shit out of audiences upon its release. I was a kid when it came out and I remember being reprimanded for just talking about it. I wasn’t allowed to say the name for fucks fucking sake! As if it would conjure up something malignant and stygian. But that’s how badly this movie scared people. It snuck its way into people’s psyche and festered there.

Adding to the grizzly tension is Anthony Hopkin’s searing portrayal of cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Though incarcerated Lecter’s unique qualities make him a key element to discovering the shrouded identity of Buffalo Bill and putting an end to his reign of terror.

It’s interesting that each of these movies greatly differ from one another in tone and presentation. They each reflect on the social angst and attitude of their times and went on to further influence and redefine horror in the years to come. Hell, most people attribute Psycho as the start of the slasher genre, my favorite! And The Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspired Rob Zombie’s entire film career. Then there’s Silence of the Lambs which led to a massive boom of interest in grizzly crime films that led to future films like Se7enThe Bone CollectorDexter, and every single fucking NCIS you can imagine. Not to mention the phenomenal Hannibal show which is one of my favorite shows of all time.

It’s clear Ed Gein’s legacy could not be burned away. The Ghoul could not be spunged out of our minds. Horror endures. It always does.

As honorable mentions and in case you’ve watched these all a hundred times and need a little more Gein fix I’d recommend the following. 

Ed Gein, a movie that loosely follows the life and crimes of Ed Gein and starring none other than Kane Hodder (Jason and Hatchet) himself in the titular role. It’s not going for accuracy here and is more for shock value so you gotta take it with a grain of salt.

But if you’re in need for a serial killer kind of movie this one has you covered. It also features Michael Berryman of The Hills Have Eyes fame in it. 

Deranged, is a movie that doesn’t get a lot of attention but one I absolutely love. It’s a purer depiction of the Ed Gein story and is filmed like a semi-documentary or news special.

Yeah I know, it’s weird. But I love the tone and atmosphere of the movie. It has a retro atmosphere to it that sorta resembles A Christmas Story just slightly less satanic. 

Hitchcock, a biopic about the making of the movie Psycho. Anthony Hopkins plays the titular character and is guided by Ed Gein himself through means of inner dialogue. This move is just a little delight and fits in well if you’re in the mood for a Psycho marathon.  

Manic out!

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