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Content Warning: This essay contains descriptions of body horror, abuse, and gendered violence.
As one of the first of its kind, Hitchcock's Psycho was a groundbreaking piece of cinematic art in 1960. Audiences flocked to the theater to see what would become Hitchcock’s most famous and possibly his best film. Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name was released only a year prior to Psycho's premiere, and that novel was based on the murderous and grizzly activities of Ed Gein.
Plainfield, Wisconsin had a population of around 680 people when the macabre deeds of Ed Gein were discovered in November of 1957. The words about him radiated through the small town and quickly garnered national attention as well. Though his name is fairly well-known and he is often grouped among infamous U.S. serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein only murdered two people. Though, I personally subscribe to the theory that he likely murdered a third person: his brother, Henry. His other crimes and unsettling behaviors consisted of stealing corpses from graves and crafting human body parts into household items. When police arrived on the property of his isolated farmhouse while investigating the disappearance of 58 year-old Bernice Worden, they found her body hanging upside-down in the woodshed. She had been decapitated and gutted. In the house, they found skin masks pinned to the walls, vulvas in a shoebox, a belt made of women's nipples, a lampshade made from human skin, bowls made from human skulls, chairs upholstered with human skin, the head of Mary Hogan who had been missing for three years, and even more horrors. Perhaps most shocking was the human skin suit that he had begun to construct with a woman's torso, to which he had attached straps. There was also a pair of skin leggings. He admitted to sometimes wearing these items, along with one of the vulvas which he had removed from corpses. There is no evidence to suggest that he had any sexual contact with the remains that he collected or that he engaged in cannibalism, but those things could still very well be possible.
Gein’s relationship with his late mother, Augusta Gein, became key in understanding his motivations, both in his murders and his corpse defilement. During their search, authorities discovered that her room had been left completely untouched since her death. Ed had left it as a shrine to her. Augusta had been a violently religious, domineering, controlling, and emotionally and psychologically abusive woman, towards all members of the family. She had suffered a stroke some years before and Gein cared for her until her death in 1945. Living in a world without his overbearing mother for the first time, he descended into madness in his complete isolation. Since his mother had left him terrified of contact with women through her religious zeal that instilled in him the idea that women were unclean, he sought to rectify that disconnect by robbing graves and dissecting their bodies.
All of Gein's peculiarities and perversions became the inspiration for Bloch’s novel, which in turn found itself represented on screen with Hitchcock's masterpiece. Ed Gein’s atrocities laid the groundwork for Psycho which created an opening for more slasher and body horror films in the U.S. cinema.
Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are the three most popular horror tales inspired by Gein and many people are already aware of their connection. These three films are very different in the way that they interpret their antagonists, and are able to do so successfully because there are various aspects of Gein’s actions and psychology to zero in on. Psycho focuses heavily on the mother-son relationship through Norman's desire to both be with and to become his mother, reflecting Gein’s deep attachment to Augusta and his penchant for literally wearing women. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs both abandon the Oedipal Complex and instead throw spotlight on the treating of human remains. The former puts Leatherface in a human skin mask with a family that makes furniture out of human body parts and sets it in an isolated farmhouse in a small town, while the latter features Buffalo Bill endeavoring to create an entire suit from the skin of the women that he murders.
We can easily trace a thread from Ed Gein to Psycho and from Psycho to The Silence of the Lambs, and we can also see that thread connecting all the way to horror thrillers like Halloween (1978), Friday the Thirteenth (1980), Sleepaway Camp (1983), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996) and beyond. All of these deal with repressed sexuality in some way, usually punishing women for sexual activity and rewarding the virginal by leaving them as the Final Girl. The mask that Michael Myers wears in the Halloween franchise even resembles that of Leatherface, though it is not human flesh. There are other lesser-known projects like Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile (1974), Motel Hell (1980), and Child of God (2014). The Oedipal Complex theme is very apparent in Maniac, both the 1980 original and the 2013 remake.
Prior to Psycho, the villains in U.S. horror films were more predominantly supernatural beings like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, aliens, zombies, and various creatures/monsters -- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), The War of the Worlds (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), etc. -- as these horror tales were mostly rooted in gothic fiction, urban legends, and collective societal xenophobia and technophobia. Those that included human killers, for the most part, lacked the kind of backstory that was afforded to Norman Bates, a motivation that was conceived of due to the obsessions of Ed Gein. Horror instead became grounded in realistic forms of violence, turning to terrors that encompassed blood, gore, and body horror, rather than spooky settings and imagined entities.
If you like these type of films, slasher thrillers, body horror, and unsettling tales with elements of saving and using human remains to be fashioned into household objects and the like, then you have Ed Gein to “thank” -- for lack of a better term.