Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Wisconsin, No One Can Hear You Scream: Ed Gein, and the Horrors of Rural America

Arrested in 1958, Ed Gein fast became the poster boy for depravity and sexual deviation. The ultimate mother's boy gone wrong, Gein's farmhouse of horrors introduced his small Wisconsin hometown and the country to the sinister world of a man society had written off as a loner, a quiet man, and a devoted son. 

Littering Gein's farmhouse were the remains of a myriad of body parts from the corpses whose graves Gein had robbed. Skulls become bowls for soup, human skin became macabre lampshades and upholstery, and pieces of intact hides were used by Gein to play dress-up. The centerpiece of Gein's den of ghoulishness was the decapitated body of one of his two murder victims strung up, and dressed out in the same manner of a deer.

Gein's dominating mother and gruesome deeds became the inspiration of an avalanche of horror movies over the years, often borrowing only an aspect or two from the Gein story. This practice has resulted alternately in some of the worst and some of the best gory movies ever made. 

The 1960 classic Psycho was one of the first to use Gein as inspiration. Norman Bates was given Gein's overbearing mother and subsequent obsession with becoming a woman made in her image. Both Gein and Norman would go on to be killers. The cross dressing, sexually confused serial killer is a theme repeated tirelessly in horror films and psychological thrillers, but Psycho was the first to capitalize on a real life scenario.

In 1974, two horror flicks emerged that had drawn inspiration from the Gein case. Classic gore fest The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its lesser known counterpart Deranged were among the first to make the disturbing Gein story more terrifying than reality, which is no small feat. Deranged does not get recognized as often as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does, but  thanks to DVD reissues and online streaming through websites like DTV and the El Rey network, it’s been introduced to a new generation of cult horror fans. 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced audiences to Leatherface and his family of demented cannibals. The farmhouse setting, Leatherface's mask made of the peeled face of one of his victims, and the cannibalistic element were all attributed to the Gein case. More directly, Deranged attempted to tell Gein's story without referring to Gein himself.

The character of Ezra Cobb in Deranged, much like Ed Gein, came saddled with an overzealous, religious mother obsessed with repressing her son's sexuality, claiming women as a whole were slutty or dirty. Also like Gein, following his mother's death, Cobb is left adrift until he begins robbing graves to use the exhumed body parts and skin for recreating dear old mama.

Taking a comical turn, 1980's Motel Hell told the tale of a farmer that planted humans and harvested their meat for his “famous fritters” served at the Motel Hello. The lunatic farmer charged with tending his garden is played by Hollywood legend, Rory Calhoun. Little of Gein is present save for the isolated farmer gone crazy angle.

Slaughterhouse from 1987 went further with the isolated farmer gone crazy theme, using an overweight, virtually mentally handicapped killer as the villain. As Gein continued to inspire horror, a new genre developed, that of the "hixploitation" movies. Due to Gein's relative isolation and subsequent trip to Crazy Town, movies set in a rural community often resorted to portraying farmers as murderous “hicks”, killing indiscriminately, usually inbred, and insane.

Perhaps the most revered movie to emerge from the fertile soil of Gein's background is Silence of the Lambs from 1991. Master filmmaker Jonathan Demme orchestrated a film that became known for its creepiness as well as its classiness. Buffalo Bill, the serial killer that skins women to sew his female body suit is closely modeled after Gein, Ted Bundy, and other notorious killers. By using Gein's predilection for repurposing human skin and presenting a sexually confused character, Demme brought some of the scariest parts of Gein's sickness to the forefront of popular culture. 

The influence of Ed Gein's activities can still be found in horror today, notably in the “Wrong Turn” horror franchise. As long as the audience continues to fear the loner, the damaged son, the disturbed individual, Ed Gein will live on in the world of cinema under various guises, but always with menace.

Brandon Engel ( @BrandonEngle2 )

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