It’s not unheard of for a murderer to inspire a movie. It is, on the other hand, rare for a killer to inspire an entire subgenre of film.
In Ed Gein’s case, he inspired two subgenres.
The first, we’ll call Mommy Dearest flicks. These freaky films center on the presence of a mother, real or imagined, whose overbearing nature spurs her son to commit atrocious acts. Psycho is the gold standard here, though the Mommy Dearest trope extends to other works like The Manchurian Candidate and Throw Mamma From the Train.
The second is Skin Flicks, which is to say, horror and thriller movies where a character wears someone else’s skin. That sounds specific, but it’s more common than you may think. Buffalo Bill straps on a skin suit in The Silence of the Lambs, as does Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
So how did Ed Gein spawn so many horror conventions? And just what did he do to earn his nickname of “the Mad Butcher of Plainfield”?
In the pictures we have of him, Ed Gein, born in 1906 in La Crosse County, Wisconsin, looks like, well, a dope. He’s the rural, plaid-clad embodiment of the caricature he would assume—a friendless country boy with an alcoholic father and a Bible-thumping zealot of a mother, who grew into a loner living in a house local children feared.
He was raised on an isolated farm on the windswept fields of Plainfield, WI. Ushering him through this cold landscape was his mother, Augusta Wilhelmine Gein, who could be as severe as the blizzards that howled across the high plains, or as fiery as the flames of Hell, of which she constantly warned her sons.
Augusta’s marriage to George, Ed’s father, was by all accounts a sad one; she loathed George’s alcoholism and failure to find steady employment. She found solace in a particularly angry brand of Lutheranism, and would often read graphic passages of corporeal punishment to Ed and his older brother, Henry. Augusta was particularly concerned with sex and women, believing the former to be a sin outside of procreation, and the latter a source of diabolical temptation.
When George died of heart failure brought on by his alcoholism in 1940, Ed was in his early 30s. He and his brother began working odd jobs to support the family. During one such task—a controlled burn to clear brush—disaster occurred. The fire went wild, and after a local fire department put it out, Ed reported his brother as missing. When Henry’s body was finally found, it was determined he had died of asphyxiation, although at least one of Ed Gein’s biographers suggested foul play may have been involved.
Augusta died in 1945, leaving Gein bereft of the strict direction that had guided him through childhood and into young adulthood. Ed Gein had been robbed of a mother. But he had a plan to keep women in his life.
In 1947, Ed Gein began sneaking into local graveyards at night and digging up the bodies of recently interred women—especially those who resembled Augusta. After assuming complete control of his family’s property, Gein withdrew from public, living off Federal farm subsidies and odd jobs. Children whispered about the old Gein house, and its shadowy resident who kept his mother’s room locked and inaccessible.
This macabre routine continued for roughly five years. Then, on November 16, 1957, owner Bernice Worden, owner of the Plainfield hardware store, vanished. Her final receipt was for a gallon of anti-freeze, a product that Gein had been interested in purchasing. Investigators decided to investigate the Gein house.
What they found was the stuff of nightmares. Worden’s headless body was gutted and hung upside down in a shed. Mercifully, she had been killed before she was mutilated. Her body had been otherwise trussed and butchered—her head was stuffed in a plastic bag, while her heart was rumored to have been found in a sauce pan, though some crime scene photographers claimed the heart was in a paper bag.
Other grisly paraphernalia included nine vulvae stuffed in a shoebox; a pair of lips on a window shade cord; a corset fashioned from a human torso; a belt made of nipples; skulls used as candle holders; and a wastebasket, lampshade, and leggings all fashioned from human skin.
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Under questioning, Gein admitted to making dozens of nocturnal visits to the local burial ground in what he called “a daze-like state”, resulting in nine confirmed grave robberies. He also admitted to the murder of tavern owner Mary Hogan, who had gone missing in 1954. Though Gein later recanted this confession, Hogan’s skull and a mask made from her face were all found in the house.
When asked if he had engaged in intercourse with the bodies he exhumed, Gein replied, “they smelled too bad.” He did, however, admit to wanting to create a suit made of women so that he could crawl, quite literally, back into his mother’s skin.
In 1957, authorities charged Ed Gein with murder in the first degree. Initially, the courts found him mentally unfit, and he was sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Gein returned in 1968, once doctors confirmed he was capable of standing trial. After testimony from psychiatrists, a judge declared Gein not guilty by reason of insanity.
Gein was sent back to maximum security mental institutions, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died of respiratory failure due to lung cancer in 1984, at the age of 77.
In 1958, shortly after his capture, a fire swept through the Gein home, burning it to the ground. Many suspected arson. When told of the inferno that consumed his house of horrors, the Mad Butcher of Plainfield simply shrugged.
“Just as well,” he said.