THEY are three of the most terrifying horror-thrillers of all time: Psycho (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Each has left its mark in popular culture, and spawned various sequels, remakes and even television series, making their twisted antagonists horror icons.
Psycho’s mother-loving motel owner Norman Bates (portrayed by Anthony Perkins), Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s silent, chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and Silence of the Lamb’s sexually-confused serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) have unnerved moviegoers the world over.
But what most people don’t realise is that they were inspired by a real-life individual. A killer and grave robber who was called the Butcher of Plainfield.
Mother knows best
His name was Edward Theodore ‘Ed’ Gein, and he was born in 1906 in a small, rural county in the US state of Wisconsin. His family included his father George, mother Augusta and his brother Henry, who was five years older.
Augusta was a strong-willed, religious woman who resented her husband, an alcoholic who had a hard time holding down a job. When Gein was still a child, the family moved to an isolated farmhouse in the town of Plainfield.
Gein made very few friends growing up, and aside from going to school, he and his brother Henry were rarely allowed to leave the farm, leaving them at the mercy of their overbearing mother.
She would lecture the brothers about the sinful world outside, and read to them Bible passages about divine retribution and hellfire.
While his brother was known to have resented her, the more quiet and passive Gein adored his mother, and regarded her as his best friend. By their late 30s, both men still lived at home.
George died of a heart attack in 1940, and Henry died in 1944, leaving Gein and Augusta alone in the farmhouse.
Gein seemed happy to devote his time to his mother, until her sudden death in December 1945 after a stroke.
A devastated Gein soon boarded up rooms used by his mother to keep them in immaculate condition.
For the next decade, Gein continued to live in the house by himself, doing odd jobs for the townspeople.
They regarded him as a quiet and gentle man who was a hard worker, and he even made several friends among his neighbours.
However, all that changed in the winter of 1957.
A monster is revealed
On November 16, 1957, 58-year-old local hardware store owner Bernice Worden was discovered missing. Police entered her store to find bloodstains on the floor, and a receipt from earlier that morning showing that her last customer was Gein.
The main suspect in the disappearance, Gein was arrested later that evening and interrogated while the local Sheriff took a team to his farm to search for evidence.
Nothing would prepare them for what they would find there.
In a shed next to the farmhouse, horrified officers found the naked, decapitated body of Bernice Worden, hanging upside down from the ceiling.
The body had been carved open and its internal organs removed, the way a hunter would dress a de
Investigators called for backup and began to search the main house, which they discovered was decorated with human remains.
Among the gruesome finds were bracelets made of human skin, four female noses in a cup on the kitchen table, a pair of human lips on a string dangling from a windowsill, two human shin bones, strips of human skin used to upholster four chairs, a small drum made from a coffee can with human skin stretched over the top and bottom, a pair of leggings made from the skin of several women.
They also found skin from a female torso converted into a vest, nine death masks made from skinned female faces mounted on walls like hunting trophies, ten female heads sawed off above the eyebrows to open up their brain vaults, a skull converted into a soup bowl, and a purse made from human skin.
By the Sheriff’s estimate, the various body pieces would add up to fifteen women.
A further search revealed that the refrigerator was stocked with frozen human organs and that a human heart, later revealed to be Worden’s, was in a frying pan on the stove.
Evil under the surface
News of the macabre discoveries soon spread across the town and eventually the entire country. As thousands of curious onlookers swarmed the farm, Gein was repeatedly interrogated by police, and eventually revealed all.
He had felt lost after his mother’s death, and began robbing graves in 1947, seeking out recently buried middle-aged women who resembled his mother.
Gein would skin each corpse and then study his dissected trophies. He began to don the skins that he removed and wear them for hours draped over his own body, as a way to fulfil his fantasies of becoming his mother.
He also confessed to Worden’s murder, as well as that of a 54-year-old tavern owner named Mary Hogan, who had been reported missing three years earlier.
On November 21, 1957, Gein was presented in court. Psychiatrists testified that he was schizophrenic, and he was found unfit for trial and sent to a hospital for observation, where he remained for over a decade.
In March 1958, the abandoned Gein farm – which had become something of a morbid local attraction – was destroyed in a fire. Arson was suspected, but never proven.
Legacy of Horror
In late 1968, Gein finally stood trial, and was shockingly ruled not guilty by reason of insanity.
He was ordered to be committed to a mental institution for life. Gein died in 1984 at the age of 77, and was buried in an unmarked grave in a Plainfield cemetery.
His unspeakable crimes are the stuff of nightmares, and the fear and revulsion they inspire have proven to be fruitful fodder for fiction writers and filmmakers alike.
Will anyone be able to truly understand how one man’s disturbing Oedipus complex could spiral so badly out of control, leading him to murder and depravation?
And if we could, would we want to?
Stay tuned for another skin-crawling edition of Monsters Among Us on June 29th as we delve into the mind of a female serial killer.