You’ve likely heard of Ed Gein. His house of horrors made headlines for years after he was sent to a mental hospital for his actions. They were so memorable, in fact, that he inspired some of the most iconic horror movies of all time: Psycho (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
First, a quick primer: People in Plainfield, Wisconsin, had talked about Ed Gein for years. They had witnessed strange things at his farm, including shrunken heads that looked frighteningly real. For the most part, however, people shrugged it off—even when local residents started going missing. It wasn’t until the deputy sheriff’s mother disappeared that anyone discovered the extent of the atrocities going on at the Gein farm.
Discovered among Gein’s possessions were four noses, nine masks made of human skin, numerous decapitated heads, lampshades and bowls made of skin, and lips being used as a pull on a window shade. Gein later admitted to two murders (including the deputy’s mother, who was found gutted in his shed like some type of animal) and claimed that most of the items had come from late-night cemetery raids.
Gein endured a difficult childhood. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother was verbally abusive toward him. Gein nevertheless idolized her, a fact that apparently concerned his older brother Henry, who occasionally confronted her in Gein’s presence. In 1944 Henry died in mysterious circumstances during a fire near the family’s farm in Plainfield. Although Gein reported his brother missing to the police, he was able to lead them directly to the burned body when they arrived. Despite bruises discovered on the victim’s head, the death was ruled an accident. The death of Gein’s mother in 1945 left him a virtual hermit. In subsequent years, Gein cordoned off the areas of the house that his mother had used most frequently, preserving them as something of a shrine.
Gein attracted the attention of the police in 1957, when a hardware store owner named Bernice Worden went missing. Gein had been seen with her shortly before her disappearance, and, when law enforcement officials visited his farm, they found her body. She had been fatally shot and decapitated. Subsequent examinations of his home showed that he had systematically robbed graves and collected body parts, which he used to make household items, clothing, and masks. Also discovered on Gein’s property was the head of Mary Hogan, a tavern operator who had disappeared in 1954.
Gein admitted to killing the two women—both of whom allegedly resembled his mother—but pled not guilty by reason of insanity. In late 1957 he was deemed unfit for trial and was subsequently confined in various psychiatric institutions. In 1968, however, after it was determined that he could participate in his own defense, Gein was put on trial. He was found guilty of killing Worden—reportedly due to financial reasons, prosecutors only tried one murder—but then was deemed insane at the time of the crime. He returned to a mental hospital, where he remained until his death in 1984.
If it sounds like something straight out of a horror movie, well, that’s because it is. Three of them, in fact, even a show since Norman Bates “Bates Motel” is also based on Psycho as well.
Before Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho into a movie, it was a very disturbing novel by writer Robert Bloch. Bloch happened to be living about 35 miles away from Plainfield when Gein was arrested and knew the vague story of what had happened. Picking up on a detail he had read—that psychiatrists suspected Gein’s clothing made of women’s skin was for the purpose of pretending that he was his recently deceased mother—Bloch wrote a story about a man obsessed with his mother. When sordid details of Gein’s past came to light, Bloch was surprised at how closely Norman Bates seemed to match.