Inspiration for Our Nightmares: Ed Gein

Horror movies are designed and crafted to give us the creeps, to make our skin crawl, and to temporarily make us afraid of what may be around the dark corners of the world. Some people watch horror movies for the adrenaline that accompanies being frightened. Some people can’t bring themselves to watch horror movies at all, and still some, watch to laugh at the preposterous scenarios that are often featured in such films. Little do many know, that so many horror movies have at least the tip of a toe in reality. Have you ever watched a horror movie and wondered where the inspiration for such twisted tales comes from?

In “Inspiration of Our Nightmares” we will explore some of these horrible yet true stories and how they inspired some of our favorite movies. In this series, we won’t go too in-depth with the crimes committed, but just show the aspects that inspired the movie counterparts.

Welcome to the first installment!

Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are all greats of the horror genre, but what do they have in common? What connects three completely different movies made in three different decades?

The answer is the inspiration. One man has lent inspiration in different ways to each of these projects. That man is Ed Gein, the man commonly known as the Butcher of Plainsfield Wisconsin. Ed Gein was born to a radically religious mother and an alcoholic father in 1906. When his father died, Gein and his brother were alone with their mother, who was constantly berating them based on her strict views of religion and its implications and applications to life. Gein grew up having a bizarre infatuation with his mother. When she died, he became withdrawn and isolated.

Ed Gein was mostly a grave robber but is known to have committed two murders in his lifetime. He would rob fresh graves of women and take trophies that he would use to turn his home into one of the most macabre crime scenes in American history. Furniture and dishes were made from parts of the corpses that he dug up, and even the two women that he murdered would have their skin used to make a suit. Gein was caught and ultimately confessed to the crimes in 1957. He would spend the rest of his life confined to criminal psychiatric institutes. He died in 1984 of heart failure.

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THE PSYCHO CONNECTION:

Psycho focuses more on the results of an unhealthy relationship between mother and son. This is where the film draws inspiration from the Ed Gein story.  Gein’s mother had a puritanical view and preached against desire and lust, giving Gein a very distorted view of how to interact with women and making him conflicted about any feelings that he had for them. In Psycho, we see this relationship’s consequences manifest in how Norman treats Janet Lee’s character and how conflicted he feels about being attracted to her. In reality, with Gein, it drove him to be isolated and detached from reality.

In both characters, we see a strange desire to actually be their mother. With Norman Bates, this desire comes to the surface in the form of him dressing and essentially becoming his mother. Ed Gein, on the other hand, was slightly more macabre.

With that, it’s time to discuss our next film.

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THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS CONNECTION:

When we think of The Silence of the Lambs, we, more times than not, focus on Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. However, it’s the character of Buffalo Bill that draws inspiration from The Butcher of Plainsfield Wisconsin. Buffalo Bill and Ed gein both share the desire to become a woman and in both instances, went about it in very similar ways. Gein, however, did not keep anyone captive and demand that they apply lotion to themselves. But, both killed women in an effort to make a suit of skin that could be worn to transform themselves into women. This was also the inspiration that drove Ed Gein to kill the only two people that he is confirmed to have murdered.

It may not be a deep connection but does play on the deep desire each had to become women.

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THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE CONNECTION:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is undoubtedly the most fantastical take on Ed Gein’s crimes. The main inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based around the idea of having a family of Gein type characters. Gein was not nearly as murderous and there is no evidence of cannibalization with any of his victims. In fact, Gein was more notoriously known as a grave robber, digging up fresh graves of women and taking trophies from the corpses. With these trophies, Gein would make mundane everyday items such as bowls made with skull caps. The decor in the movie hearkens back to the disturbing crime scene found at the Gein house. Even the titular character of Leatherface draws inspiration with his look, with his iconic mask being made out of victims’ faces.

The psychology is nowhere near as strong a connection as the other two films discussed. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre focused and drew inspiration more from the actual crimes instead of the motivation behind them.

Ed Gein has given us inspiration for some of the most frightening characters in horror film history. None of them being a one for one comparison, but drawing aspects from one part of the infamous man. Many people may have never heard of Ed Gein, but most have definitely felt fear due to his inspiration of haunting characters.

I encourage everyone to explore both the myths that were inspired by Gein and the very real story of the deranged man himself.

For more on Ed Gein, read “Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America’s most Fiendish Killer!” written by Harold Schecter, and “Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original Psycho. Also, read the books “Psycho: A Novel” by Robert Bloch and “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris.

 

 

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