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Popular Culture without... Ed Gein

By Ryan Fleming

There are many different ways real life can influence our popular culture. Real events can be adapted into fictionalised retellings, real people can have their biography adapted, and any form of real thing can serve as an inspiration for something fictional. This is true of both the famous and the infamous, and it is to the latter we turn today as we consider some fictional works inspired by the grisly crimes of Ed Gein – the Butcher of Plainfield.

The horrific details of Gein’s series of grave robbing and murders appalled millions in the late 1950s when knowledge of them first became widespread; but it is not these reprehensible acts we discuss today. Instead, we will look at three famous and influential works of fiction that took these real life horrors and turned them into works of fiction.

As early as 1959, the Gein crimes were being referenced in works of fiction. Author Robert Bloch had nearly completed his new novel Psycho, and when the first details of the case began to trickle out (Bloch lived the next county over from Plainview) he included late in the process an allusion to Gein. However coincidental, the similarities between Gein and Bloch’s fictional killer Norman Bates are readily apparent – domineering mother, life lived in isolation, later predilection for grave robbing.

The success of the novel would bring widespread attention to the case and soon, a film adaptation by legendary director Alfred Hitchcock was in development. Paramount Pictures had already passed on adapting the novel and did everything they could to get Hitchcock to reconsider his decision. They refused his budget even after he cut it to the bone and offered to film in black and white with the crew from his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, claiming their studio space was fully booked up. Determined to press on, Hitchcock then offered to finance the project himself, and forgo his salary in exchange for a 60% stake in the film, and film at other studio facilities if Paramount would just distribute it when completed. This, at last, was agreeable to the company, but many of Hitchcock’s colleagues thought the endeavor would be his ruin.

After a storied production the film was released to critical reception that was initially just lukewarm - but stellar box office returns, helped by a large marketing campaign that featured Hitchcock escorting viewers through the set as a trailer before ending on a jump scare. It turned into a financial triumph for Hitchcock who returned over $15 million, which he was able to parlay into almost complete creative freedom for the rest of his career. The film was not without controversy however – the frank depiction of violence and sexuality ran into trouble with the censors enforcing the long established Production Code; they even objected to showing a flushing toilet on-screen. When the film was released with minimal cuts, it contributed to an increasing inability by censors to enforce the famous Production Code, which would be abandoned completely in 1968 after nearly forty years in force.

Amongst the many filmmakers that took advantage of the new lax censorship was a former documentary cameraman by the name of Tobe Hooper. Combining elements of contemporary issues in American politics with aspects of the Ed Gein case, he and co-writer and producer Kim Henkel would create one of the most controversial, influential, and at the time successful independent films of all time – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Along with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it was one of the earliest American horror films to function as social commentary. Hooper’s background in documentary filmmaking allowed the horror and terror presented on screen to be portrayed in a frighteningly realistic manner. In a nation still reeling from the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the oil crisis this struck a chord.

It would introduce many elements that, when combined with elements begun in Psycho and other films, would form the nucleus of the slasher genre that would dominate horror films from the late 1970s into the 1980s. The gruesome subject matter and mise-en-scene inspired by Gein went some way toward creating the films atmosphere - one that contemporary and modern critics likened to actually being in a nightmare, and this contributed to both the film's notoriety and its acclaim. Indeed, there is very little blood in the film (Hooper kept it to a minimum in the hope of securing a PG rating); instead, the film made much use of carcasses and bones obtained from a nearby butcher, but this was not enough to spare it an R rating in the US - or from being outright banned in the United Kingdom until the turn of the century, based on its title alone. Its contribution to the evolution of the horror genre was indelible (only a few years after it was released, its success allowed the likes of Wes Craven and John Carpenter to release their own mainstream low-budget horrors) and today, it's legacy continues in modern horror films that function as social commentary, such as Get Out .

Whilst the litany of low budget slasher films inspired by the likes of Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were dominating horror cinema during the 1980s, horror literature saw something of a boom period as well. There were the big names like Clive Barker and Stephen King, and a host of trashy paperbacks, then there were those that blurred the lines between horror and thriller, such as those featuring the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter by author Thomas Harris.

The second of these, 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs, saw itself adapted to film in 1991 where it became one of the most acclaimed films of all time. It would win five Academy Awards in the year after its release (the so-called ‘Big Five’ of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay), becoming the first (and so far, the only) horror film to win Best Picture. It also made the career of Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins, who won Best Actor as Hannibal Lecter despite only appearing on-screen for a mere 16 of the 188 minutes of the film. Had he not got the role of Lecter, his next option was to appear in a guest role on Only Fools and Horses as a London gangster; as good as he would have been, I cannot help but feel his career was better served by appearing as Lecter.

He would go on to further acclaim throughout the years, including playing a fictional version of Alfred Hitchcock during the making of Psycho in 2012’s Hitchcock, even interacting with an hallucination of Ed Gein in the film... and bringing this article full circle.

Like the other two films examined here, The Silence of the Lambs was not without controversy. Here, though, it was largely around potentially offensive portrayals of bisexual and transgender people in the shape of the Ed Gein-inspired Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Though denying that there was any intolerant intent , director Demme was motivated by what he realised was an almost complete absence of positive LGBT characters in film to make Philadelphia as his next film. In addition to providing an opportunity for Tom Hanks to show his dramatic abilities after being typecast in comedies, it was, more importantly, one of the earliest mainstream Hollywood productions to directly acknowledge not only homosexuality and homophobia, but also the HIV/AIDs epidemic. The Silence of the Lambs remains counted amongst not only the best horror films but also the best films of all time.

We have looked at just three examples of works that took inspiration from the grisly crimes of Ed Gein. In alternate history we often see how pulling on one thread in history can unravel all sorts of seemingly unrelated strands. If Ed Gein was to have died as a young man before he committed his crimes, we might see the Production Code sputter on for a few years longer; horror might never become a vehicle for social commentary; Anthony Hopkins might be regularly appearing in Only Fools and Horses documentaries on UK Gold, and who knows how long it would take mainstream Hollywood to address homophobia or AIDS?

We would also be without three of the greatest horror films ever made in Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs.


Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP


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