Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Psychosis” blows out its 60th birthday! Did you know that its main character, Norman Bates, played by an extraordinary Anthony Perkins, was inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein, who terrified America in the 50’s?
In the 1950s, the Ed Gein affair fascinated and terrified Americans. Murderer and grave robber who made objects with human remains, he has never ceased to inspire cinema and series through the ages. He notably served as an inspiration model for the creation of the character of Norman Bates from the novel Psychosis, before becoming a cinematic icon under the auspices of Alfred Hitchcock and played by Anthony Perkins.
“Inspired by real events”. “From a true story …”
When this little warning pops up at the start of a movie, it’s like an unconscious click is happening in our head. What we are about to see has really taken place in life. And when it comes to a thrill, suspense, horror, or horror movie, that warning often generates apprehension before the movie has even started. The monstrosities that we are about to see have really been committed by someone …
Over the decades, many sordid news items and many psychopathic killers have inspired fiction. In the United States, the cinema has been drunk with all the stories of possible serial killers, drawing from one, drawing from another, characteristics and quirks that are quick to frighten the public. But, some of these killers have clearly exceeded the fascination quota. This is the case with Ed Gein.
Ed Gein is one of the first serial killers to hit the headlines in the United States. The discovery of his misdeeds – necrophilia, murders, butchering corpses, etc. – deeply shocked America in the late 1950s and marked, in a way, the end of innocence.
The one then called “The Butcher of Plainfield” made the headlines so much of the time that it was, unsurprisingly, the inspiration for many fictions, such as the novel. Psychosis and its adaptation to the cinema (1960) but also, later, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Le Silence des Agneaux (1991). As reporter Dan Hanley aptly puts it in the documentary Ed gein by Alex Flaster (2004): “Good fiction writers could draw inspiration from Ed Gein to create just about all their horror movie characters. Because alone, it has all the characteristics“. Characteristics that will mark forever …
Storming the house of horrors
It all began – or rather all ended – on November 16, 1957 in the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin, located just 50 km from the home of a certain Robert Bloch, the one who would end up writing Psychosis two years later.
That day, the disappearance of Bernice Worden, who runs the local hardware store, is reported. Police are questioning 51-year-old Ed Gein because he is the latest customer to visit the store. At the time, the latter was considered a lonely old boy, a little odd but very helpful, who did a lot of odd jobs in the city. In his deposition, Gein tangles his brushes a bit and the police come to his home to continue the investigation.
They discover a sinister place, close to the dump, without electricity and almost abandoned. Inside, they find Bernice Worden, hung upside down, beheaded and gutted like an animal, then make a whole bunch of terrible discoveries: human pieces in jars, bowls made from skulls, an armchair made from shreds of skin, curtains, gloves or even lampshades made of human skin …
Police also find a bag containing the head of a woman who mysteriously disappeared three years earlier, Mary Hogan, the owner of a bar Ed Gein frequented. Immediately arrested, Gein confesses to two murders, explaining that all the other human remains found in his house are actually from corpses he stole at night from local cemeteries. Declared irresponsible and unfit to follow his trial, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital. In 1968, he was entitled to two new trials, the second finally declaring him not guilty because mentally irresponsible. He will end his life in a psychiatric institute in 1984.
“A mother is the best friend a boy can have”
As in Psychosis, the heart of the Ed Gein case lies in the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and her son. Born in La Crosse in 1906, Ed Gein grew up in Plainfield alongside his brother, their alcoholic father and their mother, a religious fanatic. For many years the family leads a quiet existence, although at home Augusta Gein dominates and humiliates with all her arms, even teaching her sons that women are sinners and that the world is full of immoralities.
Augusta even punishes her children when they make friends their age. Obsessed by this mother whom he admires and fears at the same time, Ed Gein would have grown up on the margins of others, physically but also emotionally. At the time, he would also have suffered from the bullying of his comrades who found him effeminate. At 13, he finally left school and ended up seeing only members of his family.
In Alex Flaster’s documentary, Harold Schechter, the author of Deviant, describes their 80 hectare farm as a “real incubator of madness”. A desert place that is strongly reminiscent of the property of the Leatherface family in Chainsaw Massacre (which Gein will eventually fill with his artifacts as well).
This isolation will worsen since in just a few years, Ed Gein will lose all the members of his family. His father died of a heart attack in 1940 and his brother Henry died in a shady fire four years later, an accident that could never be blamed on Ed even if there were serious doubts. He then lived alone with his mother for a few months before the latter fell ill and died in 1945. Gein was then 39 years old. Devastated, he prays for her return, preserves the rooms she frequented like the rooms in a museum and ends up giving free rein to his delusions …
To become a woman?
According to the psychiatrists who evaluated him after his arrest, his rout would have taken its maximum form in a few years after the death of his mother. His mental imbalance would then have led to a psychosis. Ed Gein would have suffered from schizophrenia, hallucinations and would then have thought to be the instrument of God. After wearing his mother’s clothes, he allegedly tried to resuscitate her by visiting the cemeteries where he unearthed the bodies of women.
Harold Schechter explains about this in Ed gein : “Part of Gein seeks to regain his mother’s physical presence at home, while the other revels in the desecration of corpses.” He will then make a woman’s costume, as if to become one in turn: a “breast jacket” with a woman’s torso, a kind of leggings with the tanned skin of a woman’s legs and he will also collect female genitalia. Making clothes from the human remains of women is clearly found in Leatherface but also in the Buffalo Bill of Silence of the Lambs (with the addition of the idea of cross-dressing).
The fascination until today
Relationship with the mother, isolation, madness, cross-dressing, making objects with human remains … The characteristics of Ed Gein’s story have been found mixed up everywhere in modern fiction when his story has not. been told from A to Z in biopics. Cinema, series, comics, painting, video games and even music have looked – and continue to do so – on his terrible actions and his still very mysterious personality, denoting the fascination exerted by horror which comes from reality. In American Psycho, this trend is also shown at its extreme through Patrick Bateman, himself a serial killer and a great admirer of Ted Bundy and Ed Gein.
Before Ed Gein’s property burned down in March 1958, it had been put up for auction, along with his car which had ended up being bought up to be placed at a fair, with the public paying to see the car of the “butcher of Plainfield “. When he died in 1984 at the age of 77, Ed Gein was buried alongside his “best friend” and the only woman in his life, his mother. After his burial, his gravestone was stolen (then found), and in the years that followed, his grave collected heaps of letters and flowers. When does reality want to join fiction?