The Truth About Ed Gein's Bizarre Killings
The serial killer's horrifying crimes gained global notoriety and inspired several books and horror films.
In 1957, an unassuming middle-aged man in small-town Plainfield, Wisconsin, was arrested. Ed Gein was charged with the first-degree murder of one Bernice Worden. The ensuing investigation revealed that the full scope of Gein’s crimes and ghastly activities was beyond belief — at least one more murder, that of Mary Hogan; and a years-long descent into grave-robbing, butchery, possible necrophilia, and possible cannibalism.
This real-life killer became national nightmare fodder, his atrocious exploits entering comfortable 1950s living rooms though TV news reports and other media, infecting the relative innocence of the time. LIFE magazine, the publication that was on every coffee table and grocery-store aisle, offered extensive coverage and lurid crime-scene photos in their December 2, 1957 issue.
His crimes were covered in the documentary Ed Gein: The Real Psycho streaming now on discovery+.
"The mind of Ed Gein — it’s a terrifying place." This is the first-ever paranormal investigation at the notorious Gein farm, and, needless to say, it’s chilling. 😨#EdGein: The Real Psycho drops this Friday on @discoveryplus >>> https://t.co/Ky9kkbtqRd pic.twitter.com/LziPWJRgiL— Trvl Channel (@travelchannel) April 6, 2021
The nature of his deeds ensured his place in the pantheon of monsters, and this real-life bogeyman is not forgotten 60 years later. The case is so haunting that it’s been the inspiration for or influence on no fewer than 11 feature films —not including documentaries — some classics, some barely watchable.
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, based on a novel by Robert Bloch, hardly needs an introduction; it’s one of the most famous movies of all time. It’s spawned four sequels and a remake, and is enjoying a revival with a current television series, Bates Motel. This story of a maladjusted young man and his inability to let go of his close relationship with his domineering mother, even after her death, was published by Bloch in 1959, while he was living in Wisconsin, just a few miles from Plainfield.
Three on a Meathook, 1972
This inept exploitation film, oversteeped in proggy, psychedelic jazz rock, is difficult to watch — not because of the gore, but because it’s just so awful. The brutal murders of young women seem almost punctuation for all the scenes of groovy bands onstage. It’s not overtly connected to Gein’s crimes, but there is clear influence. After the first victims are dispatched —and hung on meathooks, hence the title — the killer visits his mother’s grave and talks to her. Later, more young women come to the farmhouse for a dinner of “veal.” I’m sure you can guess the secret ingredient.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974
Still one of the most terrifying films of all time, Tobe Hooper’s backwoods fairy tale features a killer named Leatherface, as he wears the human-skin masks of his victims, and sometimes dresses as a woman, while wearing a woman’s face. The isolated farmhouse’s interior decorator took a page from Gein’s (leatherbound) book, with furniture made from human bones and a mix of human and animal remains throughout the house. The desiccated corpse of the family matriarch is also kept in the home, sitting in a chair in the attic.
Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, 1974
Despite being a work of fiction about a character named Ezra Cobb, peppered with comedic moments, this offering from Alan Ormsby somehow seems the most accurate to the real Gein case. The religious zealot mother who poison’s her son’s mind in relation to women is there, and the lonely son who spirals into mania and violence after her death, as well as the grave-robbing and the corpse-home-decor, complete with human-skin furnishings.
William Lustig’s film has a big-city setting rather than desolate farm land, but the revered and domineering mother is back, coaching the killer from beyond the grave. In his madness, this killer experiences confusion between his “unclean” prostitute victims and his mother. He scalps his female victims, although instead of wearing them like Gein, he places the trophies on mannequins.
The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
While everyone remembers Hannibal Lecter from this classic film, let’s not forget about Buffalo Bill, the subject of Clarice Starling’s investigation. He who puts the lotion on its skin to make sure it’s soft and pliable for when he makes his woman-skin suit.
Ed and His Dead Mother, 1993
This one makes the list for the name, basically. But despite being a ridiculous suburban sit-com, this dark slapstick comedy does concern the resurrection of a deceased, overbearing mother, and the main character owns a hardware store.
In the Light of the Moon/Ed Gein, 2000
This one is an attempt to portray the genuine case with Steve Railsback playing the Plainfield Ghoul himself. Rather than being a violent gore fest, this film spends quiet moments at home with Ed, and focuses on the fragile mental state and spiraling descent of the mild-mannered bachelor. It’s a haunting exploration of the background and motives of the quietly psychotic killer.
Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield, 2007
Another try at some realism, this time with horror fave Kane Hodder in the Gein role. The real story of murder and grave-robbing is here, but for some reason the film veers from the truth with a fictionalized plot of murders that didn’t happen. As if there isn’t enough horror fodder in the true story — no need to invent details! Not to mention that Hodder, mostly known for embodying the physically imposing role of Jason Voorhees in four of the Friday the 13th flicks, is completely wrong for the role of Gein, who didn’t have that type of physical presence.
Ed Gein: The Musical, 2010
What can be said of this one? A parodic, goofy retelling of the story, with musical numbers that take place in the head of the title character. Why? Not sure.
Child of God, 2014
This is a faithful retelling of Cormac McCarthy’s bleaker than bleak 1973 novel of the same name, which was inspired by Gein’s deviant deeds. The harrowing tale of hillbilly loner Lester Ballard, who just can’t catch a break, but somehow keeps surviving like a cockroach, covers all the bases. As Ballard’s mind breaks, he begins collecting corpses, creating new ones, and even buying dresses and makeup for the pretty ones.