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Some of the greatest horror films have their roots in reality. Freddy Krueger of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was based on a string of sleeping deaths in LA that director Wes Craven read about. The Hannibal Lecter books and films were loosely based on the interviews conducted by authorities with incarcerated serial killer Ted Bundy in search of the Green River Killer. The 2008 cult hit THE STRANGERS is based on a terrifying childhood encounter by director Bryan Bertino. And one of the most terrifying true stories to seep its way into popular culture also gave birth to three notorious horror icons: Norman Bates of PSYCHO, Buffalo Bill of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and Leatherface of A TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The man, and story, that inspired these horrid tales is Ed Gein and his house of horrors.

The Story of Ed Gein

Born August 27, 1906, Ed was one of two boys born to Augusta and Phillip Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin. Phillip was an alcoholic and Augusta was domineering, preaching and beating both Ed and Henry, Ed’s older brother. The family lived in seclusion, in a small farmhouse far away from any prying eyes, Ed only leaving the estate for school. Ed’s father passed away at the age of 66 of alcohol poisoning, and Augusta’s abuse became more severe: she would preach Bible passages filled with violence, death, and divine retribution, and would punish Ed whenever he attempted to make friends. After Henry’s suspicious passing in 1944 (authorities found Henry’s body after the two brothers had been burning vegetation on the property, and ruled his death accidental by way of asphyxiation. Henry would routinely badmouth their mother and had started seeing a divorcee, all to Ed’s (possibly murderous) chagrin), Ed and his mother were all alone.

Ed Gein.
Ed Gein

A paralyzing stroke shortly after Henry’s death caused Ed to become his mother’s full-time caretaker. Augusta’s anger and bitterness continued to grow as her mind began to slip, and she continued to preach the evils of women to a very receptive Ed. Augusta suffered another stroke less than a year later, and passed away in 1945, leaving a heartbroken Ed alone to tend to the farm. Ed sealed off the rooms his mother would frequent, such as her bedroom and the living room, and continued his existence in an increasingly squalid home, his mind slowly slipping into oblivion.

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From 1947 until 1952, Ed began robbing the graves of recently passed middle-aged woman. In interviews, Ed stated that he had done this while in a trance state and, in many cases, came to while still in the cemetery and placed anything he took back into the grave before leaving. In other cases, his trance state remained until he returned home with the newly exhumed corpses, at which point he started his experimentation, creating household objects out of their body parts. The centerpiece of his macabre works was one of the most disturbing creations in human history: a full-body flesh suit, in an attempt to actually become his mother.

Ed’s nocturnal grave visits soon turned into right out murder, when, in 1954, Ed shot and killed tavern owner Mary Hogan. Not much is known of this murder, as it was not discovered that Ed had killed her until authorities found her face in Ed’s house years later, and Ed stated he does not remember the murder. The beginning of the end for Ed came in 1957 when hardware store owner Bernice Worden went missing. With Ed being the last reported customer of the night before, he became the lead suspect, and when authorities went to his home to investigate, they found a horror show.

Ed Gein's house, where the body parts of over a dozen people were found.
Ed Gein’s house, where the body parts of over a dozen people were found.

Authorities found Bernice’s corpse, hung upside down, gutted like a deer, her head missing. A deeper examination of the house revealed even more horrors. Human skin was used as waste baskets, lamp shades, and seat covers. Several human skulls littered the property. An entire human skin suit was discovered, including a torso piece, leggings, and several skin masks, one of them being Mary Hogan. A box of vulvae were found, as well as a belt made of female nipples. It was collection straight out of the bowels of hell.

Ed was taken into custody and pled insanity. He lived the rest of his life in an insane asylum, where he passed away due to respiratory failure in 1984 at the age of 77. Ed’s legacy, though, lives on to this day.

The Cinematic Interpretations of Ed Gein

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.

The first, and one of the best known, interpretations of Ed Gein first appeared only a few short years after his capture. In 1959, Robert Bloch released his book PSYCHO, about the murderous intent of Norman Bates and his domineering mother, which became a critical and commercial success. In 1962, the book was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and became one of the most influential horror films of all time.

While Hitchcock changed the character of Norman Bates into a young, attractive bachelor, Bloch’s literal interpretation of the character is much closer to that of Ed. He is middle-aged, balding, short and fat. He is a quiet character who is entirely devoted to his mother and after his mother’s death, begins dressing, and killing, as his mother. Hitchcock changes the age of the character but keeps the rest of the moving parts: Norman Bates is obsessed with his mother, he dresses as her to kill who he deems his mother would see as “sinful,” and he keeps her mummified corpse in the family home. Of the three famous cinematic interpretations of Ed Gein’s story, this film is the closest to the source material.

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12 years later in 1974, the world was shaken by what some still consider the scariest film ever made: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Following the doomed journey of a van full of teenagers as they come across a cannibalistic family, the lead antagonist Leatherface became one of the most frightening creatures ever put to film. The film was a success, catapulting director Tobe Hooper to larger projects (such as the haunted house classic POLTERGEIST), and is considered one of the greatest horror films made, earning an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a spot in the permanent collection within the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface.
Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface.

While PSYCHO followed Ed’s crimes to a closer extent, TEXAS CHAINSAW captured the actual horror of his crimes. When Leatherface first appears on screen, he wears the weathered skin of a previous victim, just as Ed had a collection of face masks found throughout his home. It is a disturbing moment for viewers, something that had not been seen on film up to that point, as investigators on the Gein estate had never seen such grotesque arts and crafts. Director Tobe Hooper also captures the horror of the Gein house with the Sawyer house. Bones fill the halls and rooms. Bodies lay dried and mummified in wheelchairs as mobiles made of human bones spin from the ceiling. The Gein house was found in a similar fashion, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE shows what type of a nightmare walking into a house like that would be like: upsetting, sickening, and terrifying.

Finally, there’s 1991’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, based off of the Thomas Harris novel, which follows FBI field agent Clarice Starling as she hunts down an elusive serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill while getting advice from the ultra intelligent and ultra dangerous Hannibal Lecter. The film went on to be a resounding success, winning five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Role (both actor and actress), and Best Writing, making it one of only three pictures to ever win the “Big Five.”

Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill.
Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill.

While the relationship between Agent Starling and Lecter is loosely based on the interviews between investigators and famed serial killer Ted Bundy when looking for the Green River Killer, the character of Buffalo Bill was based loosely off of Ed Gein. Bill is a quiet, unassuming man who lives alone, just like Ed. Bill lures and kills woman, with the intent on making a suit out of their flesh.

While Ed made and possessed a suit like this, this is where the similarities between the characters end. Throughout his interrogations and trial, Ed remained steadfast on the point that he made the suit to become his mother, to crawl into her skin. Tabloids of the era called his crimes an “insane transvestite ritual,” and that angle is the same one filmmakers took when creating Buffalo Bill. In the film, Buffalo Bill is from an abusive household, and in attempt to escape his own hated identity, he attempts to become a woman. When surgery fails, he turns to homicide in his quest to create a “woman’s body.” Besides the ultra backwards view on transgender people from the filmmakers, it doesn’t exactly mirror Ed’s crimes, as Ed was a broken, lonely, insane man attempting to bring his mother back into this world.

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Ed Gein is one of the most famous serial killers in American history, yet he only killed two people. What was discovered about Ed’s personal life and what was discovered within his decrepit house of horror is what lives on today in both our films and our nightmares.

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