What do Norman Bates (Psycho), Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Jame Gumb (Silence of the Lambs) all have in common? Besides being famous psychotic killers from the movies, they were all inspired by the same real life murderer, Ed Gein.
While Ed Gein was not technically a serial killer, with only two kills under his belt, his case became a benchmark upon which many movie serial killers have been based. Growing up on a farm in Plainfield, Wisconsin, Gein’s childhood reads like the handbook for creating a killer. His parents’ marriage was far from ideal, the two only staying together because of religious beliefs. He was kept away from socializing with others by an overprotective, devoutly religious and abusive mother. Gein was a shy child with rather effeminate mannerisms which left him ostracized and bullied by the only social group he was in contact with, schoolmates. As if to add fuel to the fire, every afternoon, his mother read him verses from the Old Testament dealing with murder and divine retribution. Growing up isolated on the family farm with only his older brother for company, Gein tried desperately to win his mother’s affections, to no avail.
Ed’s father, George died of a heart attack in 1940 and his brother Henry died in a fire four years later (there was some speculation as to whether Ed had a hand in Henry’s death, but no charges were ever filed), leaving Ed alone with his mother, who died less than a year later following a series of strokes. Devastated by her death, Ed boarded up the rooms used by his mother, including the upstairs, downstairs parlor, and living room leaving them as a shrine to her memory. He, himself continued to live on the family farm in a small room off the kitchen. Ed supported himself by doing odd jobs around town.
Without getting into too much graphic detail, I will lay out some of more macabre aspects of Ed Gein’s crimes, committed in 1957. Gein admitted to digging up and robbing nine different graves in three local cemeteries. He exhumed the corpses of middle aged women who reminded him of his mother, took them home and tanned their skin so he could make a “woman suit” and pretend to be female. In addition he was a collector of body parts, with a penchant for fashioning said parts into furniture and clothing items.
Gein died in 1984 in the same mental institution in which he served his sentence. Since his death, souvenir seekers have chipped away at his headstone, stealing pieces as keepsakes, until finally in 2000, the remainder of the stone was stolen. A year later the grave marker was recovered and it now resides in a museum in Wisconsin.
There has long been a fascination with the inner working of the minds of killers and the Gein case was so heinous and unusual that it became the inspiration for many writers over the years. Gein’s relationship with is mother became part of Norman Bates’ persona. His making furniture out of human bones was a trait that Leatherface took on. Gein’s “woman suit” became Jame Gumb’s raison d’etre. Gein has also been the subject of (not just the inspiration for) films from 1974’s Deranged to Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield in 2007. He is even the star of his very own musical, Ed Gein, the Musical which premiered in 2010, making Gein one of the most celebrated killers in all of history.
Society has long made killers into celebrities. We even give them nicknames like Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer and most recently, the Canadian Cannibal (Luka Rocco Magnotta, who was arrested in an internet cafe, reading news stories about himself). I am far more fascinated with why we, as a society reward these people with fame and attention, than with why they kill in the first place.
What does it say about us, that we put these people on a pedestal and romanticize their crimes (Bonnie and Clyde). Do we secretly wish we could cross that line ourselves? Is the act of murder so alluring that we feel the need to live vicariously through the horrific acts of those who slaughter others? Or is it simply entertainment… a modern day replacement for throwing the Christians to the lions or public hangings? What does it say about us a society when we punish those who commit murder, then reward them by telling and retelling their stories for decades, sometimes centuries? Are these stories meant to deter people from the act or are they meant to titillate us… or both?