Sunday, August 17, 2014

Guest Column: Ed Gein: The Original Backwoods Bumpkin

This column was written by guest writer Spencer Blohm.

Ed Gein. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

He was a good old-fashioned boy, according to his neighbors. He was described as quiet and shy, and lived with his mother until the day she died. But on November 16, 1957, store owner Bernice Worden disappeared — and what the search party would find at Ed Gein’s house would shock America and inspire a sub-genre of horror movies that continue to this day: hixploitation.

Plainfield, Wisconsin was a town right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, which only made matters more perplexing when sheriff’s deputies discovered Gein’s gruesome collection. Not only had he killed Worden, he had decapitated her body and hung her upside down like a freshly hunted deer. Worden’s heart was in a saucepan on the stove. Among the other items found were bowls made from human skulls, and lampshades and chairs covered in human skin. Gein had not only killed, but he had raided the local graveyard for trophies — he even constructed a “woman suit” to wear after he had decided he wanted a sex change.

America had never seen anything like this; it had cannibalistic and sexual overtones almost impossible for reporters to describe in detail. Gein was arraigned on November 21, 1957 and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity; he would eventually be tried in 1968 and found guilty after a one-week trial, but was remanded back to the hospital until his death in 1984.

The Midwest’s idyllic perception of itself was destroyed. Before, if someone lived on a farm by themselves or with their mother, it was assumed that they merely wanted privacy. News of the Gein case invited grim speculation about what other horrors might be tucked away out of public view in the rural countryside. The farmer who lived a solitary existence became a person to be feared, and it became a true horror trope when Robert Bloch chose to put his stamp on the story...

Bloch was a horror novelist who knew a terrifying story when he saw it, and the Gein story inspired him to pen the novel Psycho, subsequently made into a movie by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Norman Bates, just like Gein, had an unhealthy attraction to his mother and had preserved her corpse in the Bates Motel. Psycho was a success both as a book and as a movie, and others would attempt to duplicate its success — most without much luck.

Then in 1974 came two films with a different take on the Gein story: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alan Ormsby’s Deranged. Ormsby took a more factual approach, changing the names but sticking fairly close to Gein’s story. Hooper took the Gein story and repurposed facts to suit his own narrative, which placed the story not in the Midwest but in rural Texas. Hooper’s film centered around a redneck family in the middle of nowhere making a living by selling barbecued tourist meat. This was a true hixploitation film in every sense of the word — the rural white family, the twisted values, lack of intelligence, and complete removal from mainstream society. Leatherface, with his penchant for tailoring masks from human skin and dressing as a woman, is a homage to Gein. While Texas became an enormous success (leading to several sub-par sequels and inept remakes) Deranged quickly fell of the radar after its release, but it has garnered a lot of attention recently thanks to Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, which has screened both films somewhat frequently this past year on cable and DTV (more information here).

Later, the movie Motel Hell approached the hixploitation genre in a more comical way, taking the “country redneck” trope and satirizing it with a cringe-inducing story about a redneck hotel owner who has his own victims in perverse pasture so he can make jerky out of their skin. Later, The Silence of the Lambs was a best-selling book and Oscar-winning film about an FBI agent raised in rural West Virginia tracking a killer who skins his victims and wears their skin. But all these movies, whether comedy, drama or straight-up horror film, owe their inspiration to that solitary man from Wisconsin named Ed Gein.