The serial killers in our favorite horror films are despicable and evil beings, but not worse than Ed Gein, the man who actually inspired them all.
The answer to the question, “what do Norman Bates, Leatherface, and Buffalo Bill have in common?” is kind of obvious, since it's given away by the title of the article, but when I came across the story I'm about to tell you, I was really impressed to see that these three apparently different stories about serial killers were actually inspired by the same person, Edward Theodore Gein, best known simply as Ed Gein.
Let's start with his early life and how it inspired Robert Bloch’s novel, famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho. As the second child of George and Augusta, Ed was born in Wisconsin in 1906. His father was a helpless violent alcoholic who wasn't really around, and his mother, a fanatically religious puritan, was extremely severe with her two boys. She was abusive and strict, not letting her children leave the farm, unless it was to go to school. However, I bet she would have wanted to homeschool them since she believed thought they only needed the puritanical preachings she already taught them. This is important because, as it happens with many serial killers, the teachings about lust and desire they received at home is what then created such a strong tension between their passions and what they were taught as immoral and sinful.
When George died, Augusta became even more protective and controlling over her children. Henry, the eldest, didn’t like his mother’s ways and usually confronted her with serious arguments. On the contrary, Ed didn't care about the constant abuse, so he developed co-dependent behavior. She became an idol, and the only strong bond he had with another human being. In 1944, Henry died in a fire. There are many versions of what happened, but according to some stories, the police department received an alert from Ed Gein claiming that his brother was missing.
When the officers arrived at the farm, Ed took them to the place where the burnt body was lying lifeless. Others claim that the siblings were burning some dried leaves and that the fire went out of control. No matter the version, in both cases the body did present some suspicious evidence that the officers didn’t care to investigate, so it was all set as a terrible accident. Once Gein’s crimes came to light, everybody was sure it had been Ed the one who had killed his brother out of jealousy and hatred for his disrespectful attitudes towards their mother.
Only a year later, Augusta passed away, which provoked an emotional instability in his life (well, more than the one he already had). He secluded himself in his mother’s house, closed all access to the property, and turned it into a shrine to honor her. But as it happens in Psycho (and we can see it more in depth in the recent TV series Bates Motel), this was way more than just honoring the memory of his mother. It turned into an obsession. He cleaned up the house every day, leaving it as it was the day his mother passed away, and even worn her clothes to dress as herself. He wanted to become his mother, the one he idolized all his life. He soon realized he had to do something to get money and be able to sustain the house and himself, so he started working as a handyman and, believe it or not, as a babysitter.
In the meantime, several cases of missing people were reported to the authorities. One of these was Mary Hogan, the owner of the town tavern Gein used to frequent, but at the time, the authorities failed to find her as well as other missing people. It was not until 1957 when Bernice Worden, the owner of a hardware store, went missing that the police found traces of her blood in the back door of the store. After doing some investigations, her brother declared that the last time he had seen Bernice she was talking to Ed Gein. While he was at his neighbor’s house, the police raided his farm and found the body of the woman with bullet marks. Her head was missing, and with her they also found the body of Mary, who had disappeared three years earlier. But that wasn’t the only striking and creepy thing they found at Gein’s house. Enter Leatherface, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In the house, they found many unsettling objects made with human remains. According to declarations of some of his neighbors, after his mother’s death, he got a sudden interest in anatomy, and he was often seen reading this kind of books. When the authorities entered the house, they saw why he was so obsessed with these topics. Chair cushions made with human skin, curtains handlers delicately assembled with human lips, and even lamps resembling those made by the Nazis were the most "normal" things among Gein’s collection.
In his room, they found several human masks and ornaments made with bones and other human parts, like belts made with nipples, aprons, and vests to simulate the human figure. But one of the things that made the police officers sick was the many bowls and cutlery made from skulls and bones they found in the kitchen. Moreover, according to some versions, he had remains of human organs, which made people believe that he was also a cannibal. This, together with the fact that he used women’s skin to make masks inspired two of the killers from The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter and James Gumb, better known as Buffalo Bill.
Naturally, he was immediately arrested and in the trial, he confessed he had only killed Bernice and Mary, but that he frequently dug out corpses from the graveyard to create his many ornaments. He wasn’t sent to prison because his defense claimed he was mentally unstable and, therefore, he wasn’t conscious when he committed the crimes. For that reason, he was sent to several psychiatric institutions where he remained until he died in 1984.
I still don’t get how he was able to get away with all these hideous crimes. I mean, when I saw these movies, I was absolutely petrified only to think that someone was capable of doing something as terrible. Now knowing that all these were actually inspired by the crimes one single person committed is, frankly, extremely disturbing.
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