Why Ed Gein became the subject of horror films

Warning: This article contains images that some readers may find disturbing.

The following story is not for the squeamish. But it actually happened. It is so grisly, that it inspired the classic horror films "Psycho," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and "Silence of the Lambs," each using only a few elements of the facts of the case. However, the original horror transpired not in 1970s Texas or on a deserted stretch of California highway, but in 1950s Wisconsin. 

Flickr/Roger W 

The man later known as the "Butcher of Plainfield" was named Ed Gein. He was born in 1906 and grew up in poverty, living with his older brother Henry and their parents on a secluded farm. The children were only allowed to leave the property to attend school. The father was an alcoholic, despised by his wife. However, because they were very religious, divorce didn't come into question and so the family remained together until the father's death in 1940.

Their mother had drummed into the children that sex was sinful and that all women were whores. After their father's death, both boys took on odd jobs around town to help support the family. Henry, who didn't approve of his brother Ed's strange obsession with their mother, would often criticize her in Ed's presence, which created tension between the two brothers. In May of 1944, there was a brushfire at the farm and Henry was found dead. An examination of the body revealed a head wound, but the county coroner declared the cause of death as asphyxiation. Although Ed wasn't questioned as a suspect, some neighbors were already aware that Ed had been exhibiting strange behavior and questioned whether he had played a hand in his brother's death.

Now alone with his mother, Ed cared for her devotedly until her death a year later. He had been fixated on his mother and her death brought about a deep crisis. He became more and more withdrawn and neighbors avoided him because of his odd demeanor. No-one had any idea what was really going on in his house — until November 16, 1957. That was the day shop owner Bernice Worden from neighboring Plainfield was kidnapped. Her son recalled that on the evening prior to her disappearance, Ed Gein had visited the store to order some antifreeze. Bernice had written out the last receipt of the day with the word "antifreeze," so presumably no further customers visited the store after Ed had departed. And so investigating officers decided to pay a visit to Ed's farm. What they found there is the stuff of nightmares.

Ed was nowhere to be found to give police access to the house. But there was no need. A rank odor drifted out through an open door. Upon entering the house, police were not prepared for what they discovered. Scattered throughout the house were human bones and fingernails; there were heaps of human remains. And it got worse in every room as investigators delved deeper and deeper inside the isolated farmhouse's secret chambers.

In the living room they found chairs made of human skin. On the table were bowls made from skulls.

Lying on the bed were a pair of leggings made from human skin. They also found gloves from human skin.

In a shoe box, police discovered a collection of nine vulvas. Next to it, a belt made of women's nipples.

They found the face of waitress Mary Hogan who had disappeared some three years previous—it had been made into a mask. Next to it, a box containing her skull. 

Finally, they found what they had most feared, Bernice Worden's head, stuffed in a cloth bag. Later, they also found her headless body, hung and disemboweled like a slaughtered animal.

Altogether, the house contained the body parts of at least 15 women. They also found a door next to the oven where human remains had been hidden.

When Ed finally returned home, he was immediately taken into custody. He didn't hesitate in confessing to the murders of Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden. He said the other bodies had come from the cemetery. There was only enough evidence to charge Ed with two murders. 

A psychologist diagnosed Ed with acute schizophrenia and he was placed in a facility for criminally insane, where he remained until his death in 1984 at the age of 77. It is still unknown if he ate his victims himself, or—as he claimed—whether he fed them to his animals.

Ed Gein's story has made its way into countless other horror films and novels, woven into America's darkest folklore. Watching "Psycho" takes on a whole new dimension of creepy when you know its true inspiration. Will you be leaving the lights on tonight?


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