Ed Gein Was the Real-life 'Psycho'

By: John Donovan  | 

Ed Gein Norman Bates
Ed Gein (right), aka "The Plainfield Butcher," was the real-life inspiration for iconic horror film characters like "Psycho's" Norman Bates (left) and "The Silence of the Lamb's" Buffalo Bill. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of historically documented murders.

Ed Gein was, by any civilized culture's definition, a sicko. Here was a man, clearly in the unforgiving grip of mental illness, who performed horrible, despicable, unspeakable acts on bodies, both living and dead.

His life was the stuff horror movies spring from. Indeed, three scream standards — the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Psycho," 1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs" — all were influenced by Ed Gein's very real, very deranged life.

His name (it's pronounced geen) is not often lumped in with those of other serial murderers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jack the Ripper. Part of that is because, for all his evil, Gein murdered only two people. But because of the particulars of his crimes — he was a prolific graverobber, and his sickness went well beyond that — experts understand that Gein belongs with history's most infamous killers.

"There's nobody like Ed Gein," says Harold Schechter, author of "Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original Psycho," the 1989 book that serves as the definitive word on Gein. "He was unique in the annals of American crime. There are a number of things that make him endlessly fascinating. The most obvious is just the notion of this kind of meek, Midwestern farmer, living in the middle of the American heartland during the bland, balmy Eisenhower era, which we kind of nostalgically remember as this 'Leave it to Beaver' world, who was committing these incredible, unspeakable acts.

"It's one of those crimes that seems almost like some nightmarish Grimm fairytale come to life. Something like Hansel and Gretel in this remote cottage that seems very benign."

home of Ed Gein
The home of murderer Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin, looks peaceful and idyllic. But in reality, Gein murdered two women here, and used the house to dismember bodies of graves he'd robbed in the area.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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Who Was Ed Gein?

Edward Theodore Gein was born in Wisconsin in 1906 to an alcoholic father and a fanatically religious mother. He spent much of his life on the family farm in Plainfield, largely isolated from others. After his father's death in 1940, and the mysterious death of his older brother in 1944, Gein and his mother retreated further into a spartan life on the farm.

Shortly after she died at the end of 1945, Gein cordoned off many of the rooms in the family farmhouse — as a shrine of sorts to his dead mother — and began his descent into what a judge later would rule as madness.

In 1957, local police went to the farm to question Gein about the disappearance of shopkeeper Bernice Worden. In a shed on the property, officials found her decapitated and butchered body, and in the main farmhouse, they discovered hundreds of other body parts strewn throughout a few rooms that Gein lived in after his mother's death.

The details were horrific. Masks made of human skin. Skulls turned into bowls. Worden's head, and the head of another victim, Mary Hogan, were both in bags. Human hearts and other organs throughout the kitchen and the rest of the house.

Gein soon confessed to police that, in addition to killing Worden, he had made dozens of trips to local cemeteries to steal and desecrate bodies. The case against Gein made international news.

Ed Gein
Ed Gein, seen here in handcuffs, is being led away from his house to to be arraigned for murdering two people and hiding body parts in his house.
Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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Gein Was a Graverobber

"I don't really consider Ed Gein a serial killer. He did execute a couple of women. But he wasn't a serial killer ... he wasn't someone who got his pleasure from torturing and killing victims," Schechter says. "Basically, he was a necrophile. Although he was a particular kind of necrophile, apparently."

Schechter points to the French criminal François Bertrand — the Vampire of Montparnasse — who in the mid-1800s was arrested and jailed for sexual crimes against corpses. As bizarre as Gein's crimes were, they were different from the ones Bertrand committed more than a century earlier.

"Ed Gein was a very American kind of necrophile. He wasn't into the romantic aspect of it. He just wanted to use the bodies to make do-it-yourself projects," Schechter says. "He dug up the bodies of these middle-aged women. There's evidence that he initially tried to get the body of his mother, but because the soil in that part of Wisconsin is very sandy, a lot of graves are lined with these concrete linings, and he couldn't get at it. But he would dig up these other women and bring the corpses home and dissect them and make all these bizarre and grotesque objects."

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Gein and the Creepy Characters He Inspired

Gein's attempt to reanimate the body of his dead mother is linked directly to a key plot point in "Psycho." His penchant for making masks of human skin was used for the character Leatherface in the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" film. And in Thomas Harris' novel, "The Silence of the Lambs," and its movie adaptation, serial killer Buffalo Bill — who ritualistically kills women to make skin suits — is loosely based on Gein

"There're so many elements of the Gein case that strike this chord in the public imagination, kind of reawaken all these childhood stories about cannibals and ogres," Schechter says. "Like all myths, it's constantly being retold and renewed in terms that speak to the preoccupations of the particular era."

Schechter, more than 30 years after "Deviant," is still at it. He and artist Eric Powell will release a new, graphic-novel version of the Gein story, "Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?" in July.

These types of horror stories, in whatever medium, have a long history in American culture. And they are, Schechter argues — most notably in his 2005 book, "Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment" — absolutely necessary.

'[Psychiatrist] Carl Jung talks about the 'shadow,' the dark, socially unacceptable part of ourselves. It's a fundamental part of what we are that requires some sort of nourishment, some sort of outlet," says Schechter, whose academic training is in psychology.

"Stories about monsters somehow both allow us to ventilate some of the fears, and terrors and desires that we possess, having to do with violence and sex and so on and so forth. And I think they also help us to control our fears."

house of Ed Gein
An unidentified police officer examines the junk-filled kitchen in the farm house of Gein, where they found human skulls and other parts of human bodies. They also found the butchered body of Mrs. Bernice Worden hung in a shed near the house.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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