From Leatherface to Norman Bates: Films Inspired by Ed Gein

Ed Gein

Once you’ve seen them, the images never leave you. Who can take a shower in a motel room without thinking of Psycho? Or the scenes from The Silence of the Lambs where “Buffalo Bill” torments his abductee in the well? Or the infamous scene from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Leatherface hangs a woman on a meathook…

The basis for all of these characters was a real life psychotic character that even the great Alfred Hitchcock himself could invent: Ed Gein, of Plainfield, Wisconsin. He was a hermit, murderer, and grave robber who essentially established the basis for the fabled  crazed, backwoods hick, who is completely cut-off from mainstream society, and likes to play with dead things.

In 1957, police drove up to Ed’s old, desolate farmhouse, suspecting he might have had something to do with the disappearance of the local hardware store owner. They didn’t find Ed right away, but they did find a body … and various parts of other bodies. The mother of one of the deputies was hanging upside down from one of the beams. Her head was missing. Nearby was a bowl made out of a human skull. A box contained four human noses and a heart. Their last discovery was a suit made entirely of human skin. More female parts confirmed the fact that Ed Gein was a killer, and a ghastly one at that.

Gein had been psychologically abused by an alcoholic father who passed away during Gein’s youth, and a mother who was a religious zealot, who demonized his sexuality and poisoned her son’s perception of women.

Novelist Robert Bloch was living in Wisconsin at the time of Gein’s arrest, and was inspired to pen the novel Psycho, which provided the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, which hit theaters in 1960. The Gein cased served as a source of inspiration for a slew of horror films — some have all but fallen off of the face of the earth, while others are regarded as among the best horror films ever made.

While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became an enormous hit,there was another film released that same year, entitled Deranged (1974), which offered a more direct telling of Gein’s story. In Deranged, rural farmer Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom), is so obsessed with his mother that he preserves her corpse after death. Not wanting her to be lonely, he murders other women and then stuffs them to keep her company. The film is notable as one of Tom Savini’s earliest outings as a special effects artist on a feature length film. It was a film that had largely fallen into obscurity, but it’s enjoying a new wave of popularity among horror fanatics thanks to television screenings on the new El Rey grindhouse/horror network, streaming options on certain websites (click here for more information), and the recently released “double feature” DVD by Midnite Media which pairs the film with Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell (1980).

One of the things that distinguishes Motel Hell is that it approaches the subject in a more tongue-in-cheek fashion.The film features Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent, the evil “agriculturalist”/hotel owner who smokes meats, which are said to be the best tasting around. The meat, as you may have guessed, is human skin.  Vincent catches victims, buries them up to the neck in the secret garden, cuts their vocal cords so they don’t shout, and then feeds them until it is harvest time.

Horrible, ghastly, demented may be words that apply to all these films, but they have provided sick filmmakers with a wealth of content for decades. And with the slew of recent remakes of hixploitation classics, including The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it doesn’t appear that Gein’s legacy is going to die any time soon.