Monday, October 12, 2015


I'm not always the most consistent guy, but apparently for these blogspot I am.  It seems that we're once again going to be traipsing around the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  More to the point, we're going to be traipsing around what inspired the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  And Psycho.  And a million other horror movies.

Today we're going to talk about Ed Gein.  This is not for the squeamish, and it's all true.  Again, this is pretty rough stuff, so if you're not up for gruesome stuff you should maybe skip this post.

In 1957 in the tiny town of Plainfield, Wisconsin, a woman running a hardware store vanished mysteriously.  Her son recalled that on the day of her disappearance a local odball hermit stopped in to say he needed some anti-freeze, but that he'd be back for it later.  When examining the receipts the woman had written they saw that the last one she did was for anti-freeze.  This led the police to the doorstep of Ed Gein, the guy that needed the anti-freeze, and it led to the discovery of one of the most notorious crime scenes in history.

Anyone familiar with movies like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will find the details very familiar:

  • A domineering mother that kept her sons isolated on the family farm, only letting them leave for school.
  • The boys were taught real fire and brimstone Old Testament divine retribution, and that all women were nothing better than prostitutes.
  • Ed and his mother had a close relationship that made Ed's brother very uncomfortable.
  • When Ed's mother died he sealed up the rooms that she used and kept them preserved, while the rest of the home devolved into squalor.
The comparisons went beyond the family environment:
  • The crimes Ed committed included murder, grave robbing, and cannibalism.
  • He robbed fresh graves of women that resembled his mother.
  • The home was filled assorted trophies made from the bones and skin of the bodies he collected. These included furniture, upholstery, masks, and boxes of body parts.
I'm going to stop there because it doesn't get any better.  The details are so horrible that you can see why these crimes went on to fuel the cinematic nightmares of every generation of filmmaker that came after their discovery.

When the details of the crimes were discovered, and the trial began to unfold, there was supposed to be an auction of the Gein property.  Locals heard rumors that a person intended to buy the house and turn it into a ghoulish tourist attraction, and not long after that the home mysteriously burned to the ground.

Ed was found guilty but insane, and he spent the rest of his life in a mental health facility in Madison Wisconsin.  It was there, while working on a graduate degree in Philosophy, that future documentary film legend Errol Morris became fascinated by the details of the case.  Morris eventually interviewed Ed Gein several times, and in time he moved to Plainfield, Wisconsin and spent a year interviewing the folks in town about the case.

It was also at Madison that Morris met Werner Herzog, and they bonded over the macabre details of the Ed Gein case.  They even went so far as to develop a theory that Ed had dug up his Mom, and they planned to visit the cemetery in Plainfield, under the cover of darkness, to dig up the grave and find out if their theory was true.  Luckily, the timing was never right, and they were unable to follow through on the plan.

To this day the hundreds of hours of recordings that Morris assembled during his time in Plainfield are unreleased, and he has said that he simply hasn't had the resources to transcribe them all and get them organized into a larger project.  On the plus side, it was during this time that he developed the interview technique that he employs in his documentaries today, many of which have been made with his old friend Werner Herzog.

In 2010 I went on a road trip across Wisconsin.  My main goals were to visit Houdini's home in Appleton, and then cruise down to Madison for some movies and record stores.  It was while I was in Appleton that Shelley reminded me about Plainfield, so I looked at some maps and realized it was about halfway between the two cities.  With some coordination between the interwebs and my GPS I was able to chart my course.

Plainfield is a really small town, with a population of less than 900.  From what I could see, the most jumping business in town was a huge truck stop on the other side of the main highway.  I wasn't really interested in being the creepy outsider that noses around in their dirty laundry, because to this day Ed is probably still the boogie man that kids are warned about, and even after 60 years this is their claim to fame.

Many of the sites related to the Gein crimes are still around, but I'm not interested in posting any of the photos I took other than these:

This is where the Gein farm once stood.  It's surrounded by amazing Wisconsin farmland and forest, and diagonally across the road is a pretty huge home.  The land is filled with "no trespassing" signs, and I took their advice.

It's strange to think that such a small town had something so horrible happen in it that its impact on pop culture is still seen today.  Plainfield is like any number of rural communities we drive past because the new highway takes traffic right past it, and its citizens are familiar types that you see every day.


There are lots of films that have been inspired by these horrible deeds, but one of the most disturbing of these films is the movie Deranged, staring Roberts Blossom.  You probably know Blossom best as the cranky old neighbor that befriends Macaulay Culkin in the family favorite Home Alone.  Deranged very closely follows the details of the Ed Gein case, and it's just as gruesome and dark as you would expect.

If you're up for it after reading all this, you can watch Deranged right now, complete with massive subtitles.

I think maybe tomorrow I'll write about bunnies or something.

1 comment:

Chad said...

Herzog also filmed much of Stroszek in and around Plainfield. It's pretty fascinating just as a time capsule of small town Wisconsin in the 1970s. Herzog doesn't play on the creepy angle overtly, but the dark undertow of the movie was apparently more than Ian Curtis could handle.