Based on a True Story...
The Truth Behind the Monster Who Inspired Movies Like 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' 'Psycho,' 'Silence of the Lambs,' and Many Others...
There’s nothing quite like settling down at night to watch a horror movie with a few friends, a buttery popcorn bucket overflowing on your lap, a plush blanket draped over your legs and an eerie soundtrack playing through the speakers to get you in the mood for the next few hours of screams and slaughters. And nothing quite like seeing "Based on a True Story" popping up over the screen to give you a chill that you won’t quite shake during the movie or even days after. It’s an unsettling stray hand brushing against you that, yes indeed, this could happen to you, just like it happened to these innocent victims on the screen.
When I was young, I quickly became obsessed with the horror movie cult classics. In 8th grade, I watched The Birds with my sister. She was afraid of birds for an entire summer, cringing ever so slightly at the sight of them in a subtle way that only a sister would notice. But it got me interested in the others: Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, even the Scream movies, which I binge watched and then promptly purchased on DVD. But as my curiosity for true crime grew, so did my interest in the monsters behind the senseless acts on the screen. Surely, they too had a past, a motive, a reason for these horrific acts of violence. And was this a violence learned or something they were born with? Who were they and when did the change switch- like a match to a gas leak. When and why did this flame rise up inside of them? During my first ever deep-dive into this “research,” I went where any young teenager might—the internet. And here, I found Ed Gein staring coldly right back at me.
Ed Gein was born Edward Theodore Gein on August 27, 1906. This is important to keep in mind because everything from how they interviewed suspects to gathering evidence was vastly different in the early 1900s. Ed was born in Wisconsin. His mom’s name was Augusta and she was married to Ed’s father, George. George was an alcoholic who was unable to keep a job for very long. Finally, they settled on a 155-acre farm which was, as you can imagine, very far away from civilization. This was partly because George was able to sell a grocery store he owned, but it was noted that Augusta also wanted to keep an eye on him a bit. This became the family’s permanent residence and Augusta became pretty protective of who was allowed in and out. She didn’t allow people inside to play with the children and Ed only left to go to school. They were basically in isolation. He spent most of his time doing chores and his mother was extremely religious, so she often would go on about how awful the world was, how drinking was evil, how most women were naturally prostitutes and instruments of the devil, etc. So she was a really not-chill kind of mom. She read to them from the bible every afternoon and usually chose passages about death and murder. I don’t know if this was to scare her children into acting correctly but it sounds pretty frightening to me. And imagining this type of childhood on an isolated farm where you’re lead to believe that most of the world is evil… it can’t be a good place to grow up and flourish as a child.
He was shy in school and his teachers recall him having some odd behavior, like laughing to himself out of nowhere. Whenever he did manage to make a friend, he was punished by his mother. So, he was almost forced to be a recluse and anti-social. In 1940, his father died of heart failure and it was up to Ed to pick up the slack around the house. He had to do more chores and help cover expenses by doing some odd jobs. Ed had two brothers who were handymen but he mostly babysat. It was said he related well to children and had a hard time talking to adults. Based on his upbringing, I can see why he’d have such poor social skills. A bit later, his one brother Henry planned to move in with his girlfriend. He called Ed out for being too attached to his mom and basically talked badly about their mom, which seems kind of understandable. I can only imagine how I’d feel about my mom if I was in this situation. Or how my sister and I might’ve talked about her behind her back. However, Ed was apparently very surprised and hurt by his accusations.
A little while later, Ed and Henry were burning marsh vegetation out in their field and the fire got out of hand and the firemen were called. By the end of the day, when the firefighters left, Ed reported his brother missing. Henry was found by a big search party. He was dead and lying face down. He’d been dead for some time and there were no burns on his body, so his death was also ruled as heart failure. However, he also had bruises on his head. They dismissed any reports of foul play, even after they officially listed asphyxiation as the cause of death. Asphyxiation is when air is blocked from the lungs and this could be by choking or putting plastic over someone’s head, anything that blocks air flow. No official autopsy was done and many now speculate that Ed had something to do with Henry’s murder.
After Henry was dead, Augusta went through a stroke and Ed pretty much dedicated his entire life to taking care of her. It was just the two of them in the house at this point. She had another stroke later in that year. She was visiting a man to purchase straw and she saw a woman in this man’s house who he was not married to. She got so angry about this, calling her a harlot, that she suffered another stroke which ultimately deteriorated her health and caused her to die just a year after Henry had died.
Now Ed was all alone and he had lost his only friend and who some call “the love of his life.” (Many say he died a virgin.) He lived alone on the farm and consequently boarded up all of the rooms that his mother used (*cough, cough, inspiration for Psycho*). The parlor upstairs and downstairs and the living room were completely boarded up so that they stayed the exact way she left them. The other parts of the house were messy or deteriorating, but the rooms that were boarded up remained untouched and pristine. Ed himself, lived in a small room off to the kitchen. He took odd jobs to help him get by and became obsessed with cannibals and Nazis and read as much as he could about them in his spare time.
Looking at his past and the way his mother acted towards everyone, it is obvious that Ed has a very sour view of the world. He could be interested in Nazi’s or cannibalism primarily due to the idea engraved in him that so much of the world should be punished or does not deserve to live because they are evil.
On November 16, 1957 it really all came crashing down on him. On this day, a hardware store owner named Bernice Worden disappeared. I kind of picture this town like the town in Hateful Eight but maybe that’s just me. The hardware store was closed all day and some people just believed it was because it was deer hunting season. But her son was also a deputy and he entered the store at around 5 PM to find the cash register open and blood stains on the floor. He told investigators that Ed Gein had been in the store the evening before and returned the morning of Nov 16th for a gallon of antifreeze. He knew this because he even saw a written receipt a sales girl had written out that day for the antifreeze. So that evening, Ed Gein was arrested. In my opinion, I don’t think that is enough evidence to arrest someone but it could’ve been likely that he was the only suspect or it just seemed very obvious. In this day and age, cops might go to see the last person who was in a hardware store but they couldn’t arrest them without evidence. Again this was the 1950s, so rules were a bit different and it was a very small farm town.
They arrested Ed that night and searched his farm right after his arrest. The police force discovered Bernice Worden’s decapitated body in a shed on his property. She was hung upside-down by her legs with a cross bar at her ankles and ropes around her wrists. He had been in the process of skinning her like a deer but her cause of death had been from a gun wound. Searching the house, authorities found this following list. Prepare yourself.
- Whole human bones and fragments
- Wastebasket made of human skin
- Human skin covering several chair seats
- Skulls on his bedposts
- Female skulls, some with the tops sawn off
- Bowls made from human skulls
- A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist
- Leggings made from human leg skin
- Masks made from the skin of female heads
- Mary Hogan's face mask in a paper bag, It was later discovered that her head had nails through her ears and twine tied around each nail, almost like he was getting ready to hang her head on a wall like a trophy.
- Mary Hogan's skull in a box
- Bernice Worden's entire head in a burlap sack
- Bernice Worden's heart "in a plastic bag in front of Gein's potbellied stove"
- Nine vulvae in a shoe box
- A young girl's dress and "the vulvas of two females judged to have been about fifteen years old"
- A belt made from female human nipples
- Four noses
- A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring
- A lampshade made from the skin of a human face
- Fingernails from female fingers
- He also had a wall of 9 faces of women, carefully preserved and displayed almost like a hunter.
These items were photographed and destroyed. Gein told investigators that he made 40 or so visits to graveyards at night to dig up bodies. He said about 30 times, he’d just leave without anything, but sometimes he’d bring something home from one of the bodies. He said he always did this in a zombie-like state, almost as if something else was in control of his body. He’d only bring home the bodies if they looked like his mother. (!!) Then he’d skin them and make all of the other household items he had around his house. The investigators originally didn’t believe him, but they dug up a few graves that Gein had pointed out and found nothing in the caskets. Some of the caskets had rings or jewelry because Gein didn’t feel he needed or wanted this. This makes the whole situation even creepier somehow. If he kept the jewelry and sold it, it would almost make slightly more sense but it was really just so he could carry out these crimes. He also told investigators in a chatty way that he would wear his “woman skin shirt” around the house and try to wear vaginas from his victims almost like underwear at the same time (Inspo for Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs). All of this corroborated Gein’s story and they had not only a confession but a lot of evidence, as well.
Gein admitted to trying to make a woman suit out of skin to literally crawl into his mother’s skin. He wanted to become her. He even had a skin “shirt” hung up in the closet, complete with boobs. This is some more direct inspiration behind Norman Bates dressing like his mother and keeping her skeleton in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The investigators asked if he had sex with any of the bodies but he said no, because they “smelled too bad.”
One investigator, upon interviewing him, smashed his head into a wall. The interview was deemed inadmissible and he was going to have to testify at trial. Right before Gein’s trial, he actually died, and it was said it was due to what he had seen and gone through throughout the case.
November 21, 1957 he went to court, charged with one count of first degree murder. There wasn’t even a jury. This was technically the only thing they could prove, but they assumed he was the culprit despite the many other missing women cases around the area. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (This only works a very slim amount of the time.) Psychologically, he definitely had a bit wrong with him. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and declared unfit for the trial. He was sent to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. This sounds like basically the worst place in the world. Today, it is a maximum security prison.
Oddly enough, almost 10 years later in 1968, he was declared “mentally able to confer with a counsel and participate in his defense.” The trial began November 7, 1968, almost 10 years after he had originally gone to trial. A physiatrist even testified that she couldn’t be sure if Bernice’s death was an accident or on purpose. Personally, if it was an accident, I don’t think he would’ve hung her up to skin her. I think he would’ve called the police and admitted to everything but hey, that’s just me.
Gein had said that while he was admiring a gun in Bernice’s general store, the gun went off, killing her. He said he was trying to load a bullet into the gun to test out; I don’t know how easy it was to load a gun. I can’t think of a reason someone would need to do that inside a store. He testified that he hadn’t even aimed at Bernice but he accidentally shot her and he can’t remember the rest of the morning. Gein’s defense requested that the trial was held without a jury. It seems pretty obvious that a jury would find him guilty of murder. Gein’s judge found him guilty. A second trial was held dealing with his insanity plea where he was consequentially found not guilty by reason of insanity.
We was ordered to spend the rest of his life in a state hospital for the criminally insane. He spent the rest of his life there, apparently admitting in that time that he also killed another woman named Mary Hogan.
Gein’s house was a tourist attraction for a while but was eventually burnt down. Arson was suspected but it was never investigated. This might be due to the fact that everyone was a bit relieved to be rid of the house. When Gein learned that his house had burnt down, he supposedly shrugged his shoulders and said, “Just as well.”
Gein’s car, which he used to haul his victims' bodies home, was sold for $750 to a sideshow carnival where they charged 25 cents to see the car. The mental hospital tried to shut this down but he drew in more than 2000 visitors in just the first two days. Gein died at the mental hospital due to lung cancer on July 26, 1984. It’s very odd to think of him alive up until then because it truly wasn’t that long ago. He died at 77. Over the years, people would chip away at his gravestone to take pieces home as souvenirs. Eventually, even his gravestone was stolen. It was recovered a year later and now sits in the Waushara County Sheriff’s department. His gravesite now is unmarked but easy to figure out—he lies between his mother and brother.