Horror films, no matter how fantastic the villain and his actions may be, the writer has usually had some sort of influence from a criminal of the past. Three of the most infamous villains, Norman Bates of Psycho, Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs, and Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all have their influence from one man. This man was Ed Gein, a “real life ghoul”, whose crimes include grave robbing, murder, and transvestitism. Ed Gein demonstrates how the combination of upbringing, psychological factors, and social isolation can factor into criminal behavior.
In order to understand his criminal behavior we shall first explore Gein’s history. Ed Gein was born into the kind of family that has become known as “the recipe for insanity”: an alcoholic father and an overbearing, religiously fanatical mother; he also had an older brother. Gein’s mother inundated her sons with biblical ideals that all women (except for her) were the instruments of the devil; she was very much authoritarian and was harsh and unforgiving in her parenting. Gein grew to believe that his mother was the epitome of goodness and righteousness, but they had a love-hate relationship. Gein had tremendous difficulty dealing with the dichotomy of his desperation to please his mother and his own naturally growing sexual desires, which were growing more and more socially unacceptable. Gein remained loyal to his no matter what; his brother Henry, however, rebelled by developing his own ideals.
In 1944, after their father had passed away, Ed and Henry were battling a brush fire that had come too close to their farm. Henry died during this fight; the report by the medical examiner gives asphyxiation as the cause of death, however Henry’s body was found in a part of land untouched by fire with bruises on his head. Ed was never suspected of this due to his simple nature and the recent death of his father, which was said to have caused enough grief in the household. Needless to say, it’s questionable.
Gein’s mother died shortly after of a series of strokes, leaving Gein completely alone in his isolated farmhouse in Plainfield, Wisconsin; the closest neighbor was at least a quarter of a mile away. After his mother’s death, Gein boarded up the rooms she used most frequently, which included the entire upstairs of the home, as well as a living room downstairs; this left Gein with the kitchen and a small room off the kitchen to be used as a bedroom. This is the time where following his mother’s religious ideals turned into acting out on his own sexualized ideologies. Gein began to drift towards the realm of transvestitism.
For the next few years Gein was a nightly frequent at the cemetery, exhuming bodies and bringing either parts or the whole body back to his home for his own sinister purposes. When asked why he did this, Gein replied that he felt “a force built up in me, a kind of evil sprit” (Hassett). From these body parts Gein created all matter of household supplies and clothing, including chairs re-upholstered in human skin, bowls made out of the tops of skulls, belts made out of women’s nipples, window pulls made out of lips, vests and leggings made out of the skin of female corpses, a box full of female genitalia, organs in the refrigerator, and death masks made out of the faces of corpses. After his capture, Gein became a suspect in four other disappearances in that area of Wisconsin. Gein only confessed to two murders, that of Mary Hogan, whose death mask was found in Gein’s home, and Bernice Warden, whose decapitated body was found hanging in his shed, having been butchered like a deer.
Gein was evaluated extensively by psychiatrists, who concluded that he suffered from “schizophrenia and sexual psychosis” (Bell and Bardsley, 7). In these interviews:
Gein told Dr. Schubert, an examining psychiatrist at Central State Hospital, that after his mother’s death he felt he could arouse the dead through an act of willpower, and was disappointed when he failed with both his mother and some of the bodies he exhumed. Schubert concluded, ‘There is ample reason to believe that his violation of the graves was in response to the demands of his fantasy life, which was motivated by his abnormally magnified attachment to his mother’ (Hassett).
In reference to Gein’s “human suits,” another psychiatrist speculates that after his mother’s death “Gein acted on a desire for a substitute for his mother in the form of a replica or body that could be kept indefinitely (Hassett).” Although most speculate Gein was guilty of engaging in sexual acts with the corpses, as well as cannibalism,
He denied having sexual relations with any bodies or body parts. But the final psychiatric report noted a very marked sexual preoccupation throughout most of his answers to questions. And while Gein also denied cannibalism, he is known to have given various people ‘venison’ — although he would later say that he never hunted deer (Hassett).
Gein’s psychoses are evident; his childhood was one of extreme isolation. Except for schooling, Gein was never exposed to any kind of “real world experiences” and social normalities, his morals and ideals being influenced primarily by his extremely religious mother. He was never able to make friends and remained only in the company of his family throughout his young and adult life. After his mother died, he hired himself out to the people of the town to do odd jobs and babysit their children. No one suspected him of having any kind of mental disorder. He was always just that strange fellow in the town who had an odd sense of humor, yet was incredibly helpful and courteous; the community around him remained stunned after he was convicted. To them he was simply the town oddball, “eccentric or not, Gein had been one of them” (Hassett).
Gein had a psychological conflict between his mother’s ideals and his own sexual desires. He was also stunted socially, having never experienced much contact with anyone besides his immediate family; he would react to questions and comments in a slightly off manner. He spent his entire life in isolation; his only company the various body parts littering his house. The skin suits would be worn by Gein on moonlit nights, as he often stated that he wished he knew what it was like to be a woman. Finally, the murders he committed were of two woman that resembled Gein’s mother; one of which he made a death mask of. One could speculate that Gein would’ve done the same thing with his last murder, had he not been caught.
Did Gein have schizophrenia? Was he a sexual psychopath? Was he simply an oddball who was too heavily influenced by his upbringing? Because of the utter macabre and severe nature of his actions, it is easy to try to blame his crimes on an organic disorder, or some uncontrollable psychosis; this way these actions may be justified in some way. If one were to speculate that Gein had a biological disorder, one would be at a loss for evidence. There were no neurological studies done, and no evidence of a hereditary disease. One cannot speculate as to the role neurotransmitters may have played, as well as the state of his neuroanatomy, as there were no biological studies done.
If Gein did actually have schizophrenia, as he was diagnosed, he would have had delusions, hallucinations, either of an auditory or visual manner, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior, and inappropriate or flat affect; these are the core symptoms of a schizophrenia diagnosis. Gein did, in fact, display some delusional behavior; for example the thinking that he could wake the dead by shear power of will, and that he could become a woman by making a suit out of the skin of female corpses. However, Gein did not describe any sort of situation resembling hallucinations. For instance, he never said that his mother continued to tell him to act in a certain way beyond the grave; her teachings and preserved rooms were the only influences remaining in Gein’s mind. Also, Gein was fully capable of taking care of himself and his farm; his speech was not disorganized, and his behavior was not disorganized. Although Gein was the town oddball, and was inappropriate at times, his affect was not so inappropriate as to make him an outcast. Gein displays some aspects of schizophrenia, although to be diagnosed with this disorder one must meet all the criteria; Gein does not.
The diagnosis of a sexual psychopath would indicate a person whose main motivation in their crimes would be to gain a sexual release. It would indicate a sexual stimulation through a person’s actions. Gein was accused of engaging in sexual acts with the corpses he exhumed; this he vehemently denied. Gein exhumed corpses in order to make the items found in his home, including a vest and leggings made out skin. Gein wished to know what it was like to be a woman, and so he wore these pieces at night. As Freudian as the situation may seem, it does not make sense to dismiss these activities as being sexual in nature. Gein never reported any kind of sexual stimulation from these activities; he never reported any evidence of this in the interviews conducted.
Also, Gein cannot be accurately described as a psychopath. In examining Gein’s personality, he was such a simple kind of person that he would have no motivation to lie when denying the speculation of having had sex with corpses. Also, after he was caught he was helpful in the investigation, confessing to his crimes, and even taking the police to the graves he disturbed. A person who is a sexual psychopath almost always has an element of shame in the commission of their crimes, wanting to hide their actions and motives. Either that or they’re so proud and cocky that they prefer to keep some parts of their crimes secret, holding them over other people. Gein was open and helpful and was not prone to lying. Although Gein displays a lack of empathy, it could be said that he didn’t know any better.
Looking at Gein in a sociological view, he lacked a sense of community in his life. The isolated location of his home, lack of friends, minimal exposure to communal experiences (such as schooling), and the narrow-minded teachings of his mother all created a socially disorganized lifestyle for Gein. There was no motivation to advance himself socially or emotionally. He had no other model upon which to build himself on, and therefore remained socially stunted and lacking an appropriate moral structure.
Gein was acquitted at his trial for first degree murder with a verdict of insanity. It was stated that Gein had a very vague memory of the two murders that he committed. Because of this conviction, and the grizzly nature of his crimes it must be assumed that he was unaware of the gravity of the social taboos he broke. He went completely against his mother’s preaching, despite how loyal and close he was to her. However, if Gein is not schizophrenic or a sexual psychopath, what is he?
Gein displays many symptoms akin to a delusional disorder. Gein had the delusion that he could become a woman for almost the entirety of his life. It was so persistent that he felt compelled to exhume female corpses to make a skin suit for himself. Although an odd fellow with a strange sense of humor, Gein was relatively secretive about his lifestyle, not allowing people to enter his house, and only going out in the skin suits after dark. This is evidence that he knew his actions were inappropriate. He accepted these delusions, despite the fact that their horrific nature was completely contradictory to his biblical upbringing, and how socially unacceptable they were. The fact that his memory of the two murders he committed is “fuzzy”, and how he felt compelled to rob graves, shows a psychological investment in his delusion. The manner in which he attempted to achieve his delusions is horrific. The fabrication of a woman suit is so extreme, as opposed to perhaps dressing in women’s clothing, which, although still considered strange, is a world away from skinning corpses. All of these aspects meet with the characteristics of a delusional disorder.
The media has portrayed Ed Gein as a horrific psychopath, drawing excessive conclusions from his upbringing and actions, and creating the most monstrous villains through his influence. However, his actions were a result of a warped view of how to achieve a goal. This was a perfect storm of nurturing, a psychological disorder, and social isolation. These crimes have become a sensationalized villainization of a man who did not have the “traditional” motives of fictitious criminals. Horrific as his crimes may have been, Gein’s personality does not lend him to the nickname of “The Butcher of Plainfield.”’
Bardsley, Marilyn and Robin Bell, True Crime Library: Eddie Gein. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/gein/bill_1.html
Hassett, Scott, Isthmus: The Daily Page: Our Psycho. Friday 11/30/2007. http://www.thedailypage.com/isthmus/article.php?article=15391
Lewis, Susan PhD, J.D., PSYC E-1875 Lecture, Harvard Extension School, Fall 2009.
Helfgott, Jacqueline, Criminal Behavior. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2008.