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The Truth and Consequence of Serial Killer Movies Part 1: Morbid Curiosity

‘In psychology as in logic, there are truths but no truth.’ 

― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)

Twisting the Truth

A true modern horror story not only invaded the heart of America but also the impressionable minds of a group of boys during November of 1957. Ghoulish and gaunt; a disturbing figure had made the front cover of the papers — a demonic Elmer Fudd sparking a macabre fascination for many curious youths. This ‘Butcher of Plainfield’ immediately cured writers Bloch and, unbeknownst to them, would eventually permeate the boys’ own stories later in their adult lives. He was no big bad wolf, New England witch or Lovecraftian horror from beyond but an actual person twisted into a real monster.

Most of their inspiration came from the Summer holidays when George Jr. worked in his local book store in upstate New York. His neighbours were carpenters and would often bring their son, John, and his friends — Stephen Pollack and his adopted brother, David — over on the hunt for banned EC horror comics. ‘Georgie’ (as Stephen had labelled him) was an impressionable teen and, during that same cold winter, he knew it was to be the last time he would see his younger friends before leaving for College the following autumn.

The families had become closer when David and Stephen’s father left ‘for a pack of cigarettes’ — an annual visit leading to an early Thanksgiving. On November 20, 1957, Georgie brought his smokes to the party and, in the Pollack treehouse, the younger boys took their first drag. He threw a paper in front of them, the headline reading, ’10 Skulls Found in House of Horror’. The boy who should be King stared at the reaper’s face while David coughed his guts up. Little John — a natural smoker — hummed a spooky tune and big George Romero had an idea…

Of course, it didn’t quite happen that way; in that version of the story, George and the rest of the boys had become part of the ‘Gein pilgrimage’. Families and sightseers would travel across the state for weeks and, even when the property mysteriously burned down, it still hadn’t stopped 20,000 more people turning up. George had it mapped out — travelling from the Bronx to Maine and back across to the Midwest — and was the first time they met a 15-year old Tobe Hooper. This was the alternate Stand by Me road trip; ignoring Ray Brower’s body and becoming tourists, eager to catch a glimpse of Mr Ed’s murder museum. Not the talking horse that cheered up the family at suppertime after Truth or Consequences — a genuine bogeyman who had invaded the homes of America and drawn attention worldwide.

Embedded within horror stories and modern folklore — from the metafiction to twisted crimes and slasher sub-genre — is the influence of serial killer, Ed Gein (1906-1984). His persona and actions are somewhat familiar — a Grimm fairy tale brought to life like a violated Norman Rockwell painting — defining some of the most infamous horror stories of all time. This wasn’t just a little boy who went too far pulling the wings off flies, but a killer with a mother fixation who decorated his home with the remains of his victims. 

True Inspiration

Picking away at the stitches of Gein’s morbid history of insanity — from cannibalism to necrophilia — it is more than disturbing to think how his vile actions have inspired and continue to inspire horror as entertainment. The modern cycle of Hollywood horror didn’t so much tiptoe around the subject than draw the curtain and stab repeatedly; just to make sure we knew things had changed. America was at war, abroad and on the streets… paranoid… the facade crumbling.

Labelled ‘The Butcher of Plainfield’, Gein had now become the bogeyman that depicted the growing cancer of white America. He was a grave-robbing ghoul who tapped directly into and epitomised the American gothic — his murderous impulse having grown from a quiet and strange mother fixation — a fixation that continued to grow and finally present one of America’s most infamous house of horrors.

Gein’s childhood involved an alcoholic father, and domineering mother, Augusta, who would spout passages from the Book of Revelation about the evils of women. Despite the verbal abuse and brainwashing, Gein idolised her — something that deeply troubled his older brother, Henry, who would often confront her about the situation. In 1944 Henry died under mysterious circumstances involving a fire near their farm. Gein reported his brother missing to the police where, rather conveniently, he was able to lead them directly to the burned body. Henry displayed bruises on his head yet his death was documented as accidental. Shortly after, in 1945, Gein’s mother died and he began to cordon off areas of the house she had lived in, creating a living mausoleum.

Now cut off and isolated, he became the local hermit he was known for. Descending further and further into madness he began robbing graves and eventually killed two women — Mary Hogan (killed in 1954) and Bernice Worden (1957) — both of whom allegedly resembled his mother. When Gein was arrested on November 17, 1957, Worden’s corpse was discovered hanging upside-down in his barn, gutted, decapitated and further mutilated.

Gein’s family home had become a squalid parlour, littered with fragments of unrecognisable things — human remains reconstituted as chairs and lampshades — and a refrigerator of leftovers. Other items in Gein’s home were made from human skin, including a vest, chair upholstery and belts made from nipples. Skinless bodies of those who had already been put to rest decorated homemade furniture, while the tops of skulls became fruit bowls. A human heart and female faces were found as masks and an entire ‘woman suit’ stitched together from his collection of skins. The stories of his activities invaded every home; his grizzly murders and trophies not so much waking the sleepy Midwest township of Plainfield, as throwing them out of bed, never to sleep soundly again.

Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, soon followed in 1959 and is often cited as being inspired by Gein and his macabre nature; such as his fascination with corpses and unhealthy relationship with his mother. Although the story only plays on part of Gein’s cruel nature and ritualistic habits, it was certainly enough to catch Alfred Hitchcock’s eye; giving birth to what we now label modern horror. Where Hitchcock’s Psycho delved into Norman Bates’ obsession with his mother, it was the likes of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) that presented us with the more disturbing imagery of men wearing the skin of their victims and their house of horrors littered with disturbing artefacts. 

The character of Jame Gumb — AKA Buffalo Bill — displays his own morbid desires. Not only does he carry Judy Garland’s original surname — born Ethel Gumm — in a weird camp reference but also pulls directly from Gein’s own tortured mannequin, collecting the skins of his victims and ultimately creating his own woman suit. The character sparked outrage at the time when the gay community rebuked being portrayed as a nip ‘n’ tuck lunatic, ‘We’re queer; we’re groovy; put us in your movie.’ Hollywood quickly turned heel, wearing red ribbons for AIDS victims and director Jonathan Demme (after nervously picking up his Oscar) having to apologise.

What makes Gein and the fictitious killers he inspired so compelling to writers is why he did what he did? He was a necrophile grave robber whose needs were no longer fulfilled by those already dead and therefore took further control over his possession of a body — and the most disturbing realisation? Necessity. When a killer’s motivation becomes that simple — seemingly with little gratification other than filling a huge uncontrollable void left by his overbearing mother — it is all the more unnerving.

Due to his reclusive personality, Gein was as close to myth as he was to reality. Lacking the good looks and the intelligence that made Ted Bundy and Charles Manson so charismatic, he was unable to manipulate and blend in — his quiet and reclusive nature never questioned. Some killers choose to hide while others just become the guy next door… and often a white one — a thesis in itself  — individuals who make the world a challenging place to navigate.

Guilty of murder and considered legally insane Gein was sent to a Wisconsin psychiatric institution and eventually died in 1984 where he was buried next to his mother in Plainfield Cemetery; his name etched in stone as much as etched in American folklore. Over the years since, Gein’s tombstone was chipped away at and finally stolen by an ‘Angry White Male Tour’ leader in 2000. Even though the gravestone was found in 2001 — originally thought to have been a fake — Wisconsin police decided not to put it back, in the risk of it only to be stolen again. Now its handfuls of dirt people take from a grave marked only by the dead space between a brother and a mother.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Rich Johnson

Rich Johnson's baptism with celluloid was during the Golden Age of VHS. He is a lecturer in film studies and graphic design, hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. Writing credits include: Little White Lies, Hotdog, Network, Rebeller Media, Shots and Fangoria along with up-and-coming film commentary and boutique label essays. His Devil’s Advocates book on Bone Tomahawk is due out late 2020.

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