The Real Texas Chainsaw Massacre: How Ed Gein Inspired Classic Horror Movies

Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all tried to make sense of one serial killer.

The year was 1957 and crime rocked the headlines. Elvis Presley swiveled prison stripes in Jailhouse Rock. Mary Elizabeth Wilson, the Merry Widow of Windy Nook, gave beetle poison to the last of her quartet of husbands. The Barbershop Quintet took too much off the top of gangland’s Lord High Executioner Albert Anastasia. The body of the 3-to-6-year-old Boy in the Box was found in Philadelphia. But they were all eclipsed by “Weird Ed,” a quiet, unassuming man from Wisconsin farm country.

Investigators found the corpses of Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden, two women in their 50s, and the remains of about fifteen bodies, when they searched Ed Gein’s Plainfield, Wisconsin, farmhouse after his arrest. Ed said he couldn’t even remember how many people he actually killed. That was irresistible to filmmakers in the post-post-war era that followed Eisenhower’s America when cinema was throwing off the prohibitive motion picture codes. Three classic films, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 chiller Psycho, Tobe Hooper’s 1973 killer The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs, as well as the 1974 low budget cult flick Deranged, all delved into the memories Gein supposedly repressed.

“Geiners” jokes replaced “dead baby” jokes in Wisconsin within weeks of the arrest. The joke spread to the rest of the country in December 1957, when Gein’s “house of horrors” made the covers of both Life and Time magazines, a feat unmatched until Bruce Springsteen hit Time and Newsweek in the mid-seventies. But it was a pulp novel from horror writer Robert Bloch that truly caught Hollywood’s attention.

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Psycho novelist Bloch lived about 35 miles away from Plainfield when Gein was arrested. He read local reports and picked up details like that psychiatrists suspected Gein’s clothing made of women’s skin was intended to help with the fantasy that he was his dead mother. Bloch didn’t know how close his fictitious Norman Bates was to the real Ed Gein until after the book was published and the country learned more about the quiet mama’s boy farmer.

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Sit a Spell 

Edward Theodore Gein was born on August 27, 1906, in the Plainfield’s small farming community. He was born with a slight growth over one of his eyes and was bullied by kids in school who found him effeminate. Ed’s father, George Philip Gein, died after his heart gave out from a lifetime of booze on April 1, 1940, aged 66. Ed’s mother was Augusta Crafter. By all accounts Ma Gein wasn’t too far off from Norman Bates’ mom. She was overbearingly prudish, controlling and, in the years leading up to her own death, immobilized by a stroke and left in the care of her son, Ed. Augusta died at the age of 67 on December 29, 1945, a year after Ed’s brother Henry died in a suspicious fire on the 160-acre farm on the outskirts of Plainfield.

The movies don’t mention it, but Gein may have had at least one male death, a fratricide, on his resume. His brother Henry was trying to live a normal life after his father died and his mother became increasingly oppressive. He started dating a divorced, single mother of two and was thinking of shacking up with her. Ed saw the relationship as his brother’s rebellion against their mother and shut him out.

According to reports at the time, Henry Gein had a heart attack while he and Ed were trying to put out a brush fire on property they owned in a neighboring county. The Geins didn’t have to farm their land because of federal agriculture subsidies. They were burning marsh vegetation when the fire got out of control and the fire department was called in. Ed reported his brother missing at the end of the day and, according to some reports, a search party went out into the dusk with lanterns and flashlights and found Henry’s dead body lying face down. It looked like he had been dead for a while. His body had not been burned in the fire. The only bruising Henry sustained, according to the Harold Schechter Ed Gein biography Deviant, was blunt trauma to his head. Other reports say Ed led the police right to the body.

The police didn’t suspect foul play. There was no official investigation. No autopsy was performed. The county coroner officially labeled asphyxiation as the cause of Henry’s death. It wasn’t until state investigator Joe Wilimovsky asked Ed about the 1957 death of Bernice Worden that it was even questioned. A later report by Dr. George W. Arndt posited that it was “possible and likely” that Henry’s death was “the ‘Cain and Abel’ aspect of this case.” Gein’s mother Augusta had her debilitating stroke shortly after Henry died.

Deviant also mentions an incident from 1945, when Augusta saw a man named Smith beat a dog to death when she and Ed went to his place to buy straw. Gein said his mother saw a woman come out of the house and yell at Smith to stop. Augusta wasn’t upset about the animal attack as much as she was about seeing a woman who wasn’t the man’s wife being in his house and labeled her “Smith’s harlot.”

Augusta died shortly after suffering a second stroke. Schechter wrote that Ed “lost his only friend and one true love. And he was absolutely alone in the world.” Ed was a 39-year-old bachelor who never dated women and never left home. He kept his mom’s bedroom exactly as it was when she was alive. He sealed off the drawing room and five rooms on the second floor and lived in one downstairs room and the kitchen.

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Ed got hooked on porn and pulp horror novels and became fascinated by Nazi atrocities and medical experiments. He read medical encyclopedias and books on anatomy. He was especially interested in female anatomy. He started grave-robbing cemeteries in Wisconsin, digging up recently buried female corpses. He would dissect most of them and return them to their crypts seemingly undisturbed, keeping heads, hearts, sex organs, livers and intestines as trophies. Gein later admitted that he brought home the bodies of women he thought resembled his mother. He tanned the bodies’ skin and experimented with human taxidermy. Police said he practiced necrophilia, but Gein maintained that he never had sex with the bodies he dug up because “they smelled too bad.”

Gein started hunting less fragrant, living victims in 1954. Mary Hogan, 54, disappeared from the tavern she ran in December 1954. Bernice Worden, 58, who ran the town’s hardware store, disappeared on November 16, 1957. Gein was a sloppier killer than he was a grave robber and left a sales receipt on the counter. Warden’s son, Frank was a deputy. He ordered investigators to search the Gein Farm.

A House of Horrors

Nothing could prepare the police for what they found at the Gein residence. It was truly a house of horror. His refrigerator was stocked with frozen human organs. There was a human heart in a pan on the stove. The police found a box filled solely with human noses. They found a collection of dried, female genitalia in a shoe box under a bed. Nine women’s faces had been stuffed and mounted on one wall. The police found Mary Hogan’s head in a paper bag.

Police found Bernice Worden’s body hanging from the rafters in a shed behind Gein’s house. It had been gutted like the carcass of hunted animal. Her head had been removed. It was discovered in a bloody burlap sack at about 4:30 in the morning. Twine had been nailed into the sides of the skull. Gein said he was planning on hanging it on his wall as a decoration.

Gein had apparently kept himself busy since his mother’s death. He was an inventive craftsman whose works would probably have their own shelf at Hot Topic now. Ed upholstered chairs with human skin. He made soup bowls from the sawed-off tops of human skulls. He made a bracelet out of skin and a belt out of female nipples. The cops found a lamp shade made out of flesh that gave off an eerie glow and another that was decorated with a pair of woman’s lips.

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According to Schechter’s book, Plainfield police officer Art Schley was so disturbed by the scene he beat a confession out of Gein by banging his head into a brick wall until he admitted to the shooting death of Mary Hogan. The other cops had to pull him off Gein. The police also didn’t have a warrant when they initially searched Gein’s place. The confession was ruled inadmissible. Schley died of a heart attack before Gein came to trial. People who knew him believed he was so traumatized by the scene that his body gave out just to avoid testifying. He was 43.

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Gein claimed he was in a daze when he went to the cemeteries. He said he didn’t remember digging up the bodies and believed he went home rather than follow through with it. The investigators didn’t believe that all of Gein’s victims came from the graveyard, so they asked him to corroborate his story. When the cops dug up two of the graves Gein directed them to, they were empty.

Gein pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity On November 21, 1957, in Waushara County Court. He was found mentally incompetent and declared unfit for trial. He was shipped off to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin, and then the Mendota State Hospital in Madison. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The trial for the killing of Bernice Worden started on November 7, 1968. It lasted one week. A psychiatrist testified that Gein didn’t know whether Worden’s death was intentional or accidental.  Judge Robert H. Gollmar found Gein guilty of first-degree murder on November 14. At the second trial, Gollmar ruled Gein “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Gein also admitted to killing Mary Hogan.

The state never bothered to try Gein for the murder of Mary Hogan. They felt it was a waste of taxpayer money because he would spend the rest of his life in mental health hospitals anyway. Gein was first sent to Central State Hospital. He was transferred to the Mendota Mental Health Institute in 1978. While Gein was in detention, his house was burned to the ground in a suspected arson.

Bad Taste Carnie Act

The movies weren’t the first industry in entertainment to see the value of the famed “house of horrors.” The 1949 Ford sedan that Gein was driving the day of Bernice Worden’s murder was sold at public auction in 1958. Carnival sideshow operator Bunny Gibbons from Rockford, Illinois, paid $760 for the “Ed Gein Ghoul Car.” “Ed Gein’s crime car, the car that hauled the dead from their graves,” could be seen for 25 cents admission starting in July 1958 at the Outgamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin, until it was closed down for bad taste at the Washington County Fair in Slinger, Wisconsin.

A news report at the time said Ed participated in an “insane transvestite ritual.”  The investigation of the house also turned up a shirt of that Gein made from the tanned torso of a middle-aged woman. The shirt had a full set of breasts. Gein later confessed that he wore shirt at night and pretended to be his mother. It came out later that Gein decided he wanted a sex change after his mother’s death.

A New Kind of Cinema Star

All movies have common ingredients: plot, casting, script, direction and editing. Horror movies usually add blood, gore, a rising suspense and a few pop-up scares. Movies about Ed Gein could also assemble the itemized list of things the cops found at his residence: Four noses; Whole human bones and fragments; Nine masks of human skin; Bowls made from human skulls; Ten female heads with the tops sawn off; Human skin covering several chair seats; Nine vulvas in a shoe box; A belt made from human female nipples; Skulls on his bedposts; Organs in the refrigerator; a pair of lips on a draw string for a window shade, and a lampshade made from the skin from a human face.

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Alfred Hitchcock didn’t avail himself to the cinematic arsenal when he made Psycho with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. The master filmmaker relied on the suspense of intricate camera work and a titillating shower scene that redefined editing. Low-budget director Herschell Gordon Lewis thought Hitchcock cheated the audience by not showing the violence and invented “splatter” movies in response.

The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill is based on Gein, Ted Bundy, Gary Heidnik, and Edmund Kemper, not solely on “Weird Ed.” Demme had no problem using everything on the police evidence list. But Tobe Hooper was the first director to truly deliver the story in a way the “Godfather of Gore” could appreciate.

“What happened is true! Now the movie that’s just as real,” promised the lobby cards for Hooper’s 1974 indie classic. “The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Gein never actually used a chainsaw, but who cares? Leatherface and his family embodied a fear that had been bubbling in the national consciousness for years. Hooper lovingly assembled a horrific backwoods shack out of the splinters of America’s fractured psyche. Every room was a nightmare. Even the blades of grass outside the house looked sharp as pirates’ cutlasses. The acting was so natural it appeared almost amateurish at the time, but the fear in the players’ eyes were so alive the indie film has become a timeless classic.

Gein died of lung cancer on July 26, 1984, at the age of 77. He was buried in the Plainfield Cemetery, the old haunts he used to grave rob.