When Ed Gein was arrested in 1957, his horrific proclivities shocked America. Known around his hometown of Plainsfield, Wisconsin as a reliable—if eccentric—handyman, Gein’s unassuming demeanor hid a gruesome private life. When investigators first searched his home in connection with the disappearance of local hardware store owner Bernice Worden, they found furniture, masks, clothes, and other paraphernalia fashioned from human skin and bones. They also found Worden’s body.
As the investigation shed more light on Gein’s unspeakable habits, the middle-aged loner admitted to also having murdered Mary Hogan, who went missing in 1954. Additionally, he confessed to having made around 40 nighttime visits to cemeteries between 1947 and 1952 alone, during which he would sometimes exhume the bodies of middle-aged women who reminded him of his deceased mother.
Gein’s relationship with his mother was a deeply complex and upsetting one. In life, Ed’s mother Augusta was his only friend. When she died, he was the only surviving member of his immediate family. Left alone on the family farm, he turned the rooms used by his mother into an informal museum, closing them up so they would remain as they had been during her life. He used the rest of the house as his workshop to create a suit of skin designed to resemble Augusta.
Related: The Butcher of Plainfield
Once arrested, Gein was asked what exactly he'd planned to do with the bodies he exhumed–the presence of nine stuffed vulvas led to many questions. He denied attempting to have intercourse with the corpses, claiming that they smelled too strongly to stomach such an act. He was, however, attempting to crawl back into his mother's skin.
He also used skulls as candle holders, made a lampshade out of skin, and fashioned a belt out of nipples.
Although not technically a serial killer, as he only killed two people, unsurprisingly, Gein’s crimes left an indelible impact on the country’s consciousness. The skin suits, in particular, have left an impression. But his twisted relationship with his mother has also entrenched itself as a horror trope of its own.
Ed Gein's many strange compulsions inspired some of the most effective horror movies ever made. These 11 Ed Gein movies are the best and most hideous films to take inspiration from his life and crimes.
The iconic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film is based on a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. Bloch wrote the story in the 1950s while living just 35 miles from Gein’s hometown of Plainsfield. In an eerie coincidence, although the murderer in Psycho bears many similarities to his crimes, Gein was not arrested–and his crimes didn’t become known–until Bloch had nearly completed the book. The author later said that he was surprised to discover “how closely the imaginary character I'd created resembled the real Ed Gein both in overt act and apparent motivation."
The story of Psycho follows Norman Bates, a disturbed young motel owner harvesting a deeply messed-up relationship with his domineering mother. Hitchcock’s movie went on to inspire four sequels and a remake, as well as the prequel TV series Bates Motel.
Three on a Meathook
The second film from exploitation director William Girdler, 1972’s Three On a Meathook follows four young women who seek help from local farmers after their car breaks down during a weekend outing. Unfortunately, as the movie’s title suggests, it’s all downhill from there for the young ladies. Similar to at least one of the women murdered by Gein, the victims in the movie are hung from meathooks. The killer in the movie, Frank, also has a Gein-like relationship with his deceased mother, and a penchant for cooking and eating human meat (it’s uncertain whether Gein was a cannibal, although it’s largely assumed he was).
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Despite marketing that touted this seminal 1974 horror film as being “based on a true story,” it’s more accurate to say that Texas Chain Saw Massacre was slightly inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein. According to actor Gunnar Hansen, who originated the role of the skin-mask-wearing Leatherface, the film’s creative team of Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel “decided to have a family of killers who had some of the characteristics of Gein: the skin masks, the furniture made from bones, the possibility of cannibalism.” Leatherface in particular has strong similarities to Gein, particularly with regards to his unresolved mother issues—the mummified corpse of the family matriarch is kept in the house.
Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile
Despite a change in name, this low-budget, strangely comedic 1974 film is a fairly straight-forward, surprisingly accurate Ed Gein movie. It follows Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom), who lives in an unspecified part of the midwestern U.S. with his religious zealot of a mother. When she dies, Ezra becomes obsessed with digging up and repurposing corpses, before finally turning to murder in order to satiate his bizarre compulsions.
This low budget 1980 slasher film from director William Lustig has gained a cult following (and a remake starring Elijah Wood) since its release. Joe Spinell stars as Frank Zito, a disturbed young man with a deranged relationship to his deceased mother and a fondness for decorating with human scalps. Frank sows mayhem across Manhattan, collecting gruesome souvenirs of his crimes, a la Ed Gein.
The Silence of the Lambs
Perhaps the most well-known Gein movie, and certainly one that has most-enhanced the killer's notoriety is The Silence of the Lambs. This 1991 movie, based on the book of the same name by Thomas Harris, follows James Gumb —aka Buffalo Bill—a flesh-obsessed serial killer who leaves his victims to starve in a well until their skin becomes slack enough to remove and fashion into a suit. If there's one character more frightening than Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter, it's a character based on Ed Gein.
Ed and His Dead Mother
Steve Buscemi stars as the titular Ed in this bizarre 1993 dark comedy. After hardware store clerk Ed’s mother dies, he’s heartbroken. When a traveling salesman says he can bring Ed’s mother back to life, Ed jumps at any chance to see her reborn. But when Mabel returns, she has a new thirst for blood and taste for human flesh—and Ed may decide it’s time to cut the umbilical cord once and for all.
In the Light of the Moon/Ed Gein
Perhaps more than any other movie on this list, 2000’s In the Light of the Moon/Ed Gein remains faithful to real-life events. The film follows Gein’s childhood, depicts the suspicious accident that caused the death of Gein’s brother (who disapproved of the intense relationship Ed had with their mother), explores Gein’s crimes, and ends with his time spent in a psychiatric institution following his conviction.
Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainsfield
This 2007 movie made the odd decision to fictionalize huge aspects of the Gein story. The plot focuses around Gein kidnapping the local sheriff’s girlfriend and daughter, which wasn’t on the long list of Gein’s actual crimes. Given how horrific his life actually was, it’s odd that the movie embellishes so much.
Ed Gein: The Musical
The title says it all. This parody features song and dance numbers that take place in the main character’s head—kind of like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but with more grave robbing.
Child of God
This unremittingly bleak 2014 movie was adapted from the 1973 book of the same name by Mr. Cheerful himself, Cormac McCarthy. The story was reportedly inspired by newspaper reports McCarthy read about a possible killer operating in Sevier County, Tennessee, but the interests of the lead character are very similar to Gein’s. The story follows an Appalachian loner named Lester Ballard who discovers his necrophiliac tendencies when he comes upon a dead couple in their car. When his dead lovers are destroyed in a fire, Lester begins hunting for new ones. Co-written and co-directed by James Franco, Child of God is—as previously mentioned—a desperately bleak look at the evil committed by an isolated, ill man.
Featured photo: Alchetron and still from "The Silence of the Lambs" via Orion Pictures