Trigger warning: graphic descriptions of mutilation.
Luckily for all of us, most psychological thrillers about serial killers are based completely on fiction. For instance, the 2021 Jordan Peele-written film Candyman is not a true story. There’s probably not a hook-handed murderer who appears when you say his name in front of a mirror.
However, you might be surprised to learn that some of the most horrifying serial killer films of all time were actually inspired by true stories.
In honor of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel set that came to Netflix on February 18, 2022, we thought it would be interesting (horrifying?) to take a look at the life of the man who inspired the iconic Leatherface: an unthinkably disturbed killer by the name of Ed Gein.
Gein’s crimes were so heinous that they not only served as the inspiration for Texas Chain Saw Massacre but also for two other iconic horror flicks: Silence of the Lambs and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
If you’ve ever seen any of these films, you may find it hard to believe that any real person could have committed the acts depicted in them. But in many ways, Ed Gein was even more twisted than the villains portrayed in these films.
Childhood and Early Life
Edward Theodore Gein was born on August 27, 1906, in La Crosse County, Wisconsin to his parents George and Augusta. He also had one older brother named Henry. Ed’s parents had a tumultuous relationship, to say the least. Augusta, who was a fervently religious Lutheran, despised her husband George for being an alcoholic and being unable to hold a steady job.
The family lived on a farm in the remote town of Plainfield, Wisconsin, and Augusta used the farm’s isolation to exert her religious influence on her boys without any interference. In fact, she pretty much forbade her children to make any friends or to allow any outsiders to come to the farm.
Thus, Ed grew up essentially alone except for the company of his mother and brother. His father was physically present but was mentally and emotionally crippled by his alcoholism. Ed’s mother Augusta preached to her boys about the evils of the world outside of their farm, the sinfulness of alcohol, the evil temptations of all women (except for herself, of course). Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Ed was required to tend to the family farm and to devote hours every day to studying the Bible.
In 1940, Ed’s father passed away. His heart failed at the age of 66 after years of alcohol abuse. In the following years, Ed and his brother Henry started picking up odd jobs in the community to help their mother pay the bills.
Four years after their father’s death, the two boys were caught in a fire in a marsh. Henry was found dead. Curiously, he did not appear to have been burned but rather had bruises on his head. His official cause of death was listed as heart failure. Many have speculated that this may have been the first of Ed Gein’s murders and that he may have been inspired by the story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis.
Shortly after Henry’s death, Augusta Gein had a stroke in 1945, apparently brought on by the sight of an unmarried woman inside the home of one of their neighbors (a woman who she referred to as a “harlot”).
She died only weeks after the incident, leaving Ed completely and utterly alone in the world. The death of Augusta Gein is seen by many historians as the driving psychological factor behind Gein’s heinous crimes.
The Body Snatcher
After the death of his mother, Ed Gein lived a very secluded lifestyle, working odd jobs here and there and reading adventure novels, often about Nazis or cannibals. Still, he kept a relatively low profile.
He retained ownership of the farm and boarded up the room that his mother had lived in. Eventually, he sold off an 80-acre parcel of the land that his brother Henry had owned. Then, in 1957, a local Plainfield hardware store owner by the name of Bernice Worden disappeared and the strange things that Ed Gein had been up to for the last decade came to light.
Apparently, the same day that Bernice Worden disappeared, Ed Gein was meant to come into the store to collect a gallon of antifreeze which he had paid for the day before. On that morning, Bernice’s son, Deputy Sheriff Frank Worden, came into the store to find the cash register open, blood staining the floor, and a purchase slip with Ed Gein’s name on it.
On the evening of the same day, Ed Gein was arrested in a grocery store and the Gein farm was searched. What they found was absolutely nightmarish.
The officers who searched the Gein farm expected to find the body of Bernice Worden, and they soon did. Worden’s body was hung upside-down by her ankles with her head removed and a rope tied around her wrists.
When the authorities entered the house, they made many more grizzly discoveries. The house was filled with human body parts in boxes, pieces of human furniture made from human skin and bones, and many other “souvenirs” crafted out of human bodies.
Gein admitted to authorities that, over the past five years, he had made at least 40 nocturnal trips to local graveyards to dig up human bodies. He also said that during most of the trips, he was in a “daze-like” which he often woke up from in the graveyard and then left empty-handed.
However, Gein also admitted to stealing from nine graves in local cemeteries. Using the body parts that he had exhumed from the graves, he created numerous artifacts out of human bodies.
These horrifying mementos included female skulls that had been turned into bowls, forks and knives made from human bones, lampshades made from human skin, a belt made from female nipples, a wastebasket made from human skin, a pair of lips attached to a window shade drawstring, a corset made from female skin, masks made from the skin of human faces, chair seats covered in human skin, and many body parts belonging to Mary Hogan, a tavern owner who had been missing since 1954.
During the interrogation, Ed Gein also said that many of the bodies which he had exhumed were those of recently deceased middle-aged women that resembled his mother. He stated that he wished to create a suit out of human skin that resembled his mother so that he could “literally crawl into her skin.”
After these horrifying discoveries were made inside the Gein property, Edward Gein was brought to trial on one count of first-degree murder. Due to the fact that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was acquitted by reason of insanity and sent to Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Later, he was transferred to Mendota State Hospital where he would eventually die in 1984 at the age of 77.
The house in which Gein committed all of his crimes was to be put up for auction in March of 1958. However, the entire house burned down the very same day that the auction was meant to take place. Arson was a suspected cause, but nothing was ever proven.
Though his house was destoryed, Ed Gein’s 1949 Ford sedan was purchased by a carnival sideshow operator who charged tourists 25 cents to see it.
In 2000, Ed Gein’s headstone was stolen and then recovered in 2001. Today, his resting place is unmarked to prevent future thefts. However, we do know that Gein is buried between his brother and his parents.