THE GREATEST SHOW UNEARTHED GHOULISH ED GEIN'S FANS ARE STILL MAD ABOUT THE BOY

USING FLASHLIGHTS and kerosene lanterns to lance the darkness, incredulous lawmen warily make their way through the horrific clutter inside the Wisconsin farmhouse.

It is the evening of November 16, 1957, and the men have good reason to be wary. They are prowling through Ed Gein's ramshackle playground of death, a real-life house of horrors orchestrated by the fiend whose crimes will later inspire the films Psycho, ¯The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs.

Moments earlier, in a small shed near the farmhouse, the men had discovered the decapitated body of 58-year-old shopkeeper Bernice Worden. The woman's disappearance from her hardware store in nearby Plainfield a few hours before had triggered the investigation. Her carcass-flayed, splayed and filletedÏnow hangs from a pulley like a freshly slaughtered heifer.

Inside the garbage-strewn farmhouse, investigators find further evidence of a mind that has careened far past madness.

Fifty-one-year bachelor Ed Gein, the shiftless handyman in the deerstalker cap who lives in the house, has obviously been far more industrious than anyone in the small farming community ever imagined. Scattered about the spook house are myriad examples of Gein's handiwork. There are trash baskets, a tom-tom, lampshades and other pieces of furniture fashioned from human skin and bone. In the kitchen, officers realize that an unusual soup bowl is actually a sawed-off skull. A Quaker Oats box holds a variety of human noses in varying states of preservation. Elsewhere in the house, they find Bernice Worden's head, several dried-skin masks that had once been faces and a collection of garments" stitched from human hides. (Carrying cross-dressing to its ultimate extreme, Gein later admitted he enjoyed donning his macabre creations for midnight promenades around his isolated property.)

By the time investigators have waded through the morass of human shards, they find evidence of murder, grave robbery, taxidermy, necrophilia, perhaps even cannibalism.

It would have been hard for any of the men to imagine that anything crazier lie ahead.

Like, for instance, the Official Ed Gein Fan Club, a group of carnage connoisseurs based in Tempe, Arizona. It's an international club" (actually a mail-order enterprise) that celebrates the memory of a man responsible for the most sensational blood bath of the Fifties.

Confined to mental institutions after he confessed to murdering two women and desecrating the graves of at least a dozen more, Ed Gein died in 1984 at age 77. His fans live on.

Here it is!" shrieks the dripping-blood typeface atop an ad for the Official Ed Gein Fan Club. The ad, which appeared in Psychotronic Video (a magazine devoted to schlock movie genres), heralds Gein as America's most famous defiler of the dead" and the master craftsman who made furniture and face masks from human flesh and body parts."

For $19.85, the fiendish faithful receive from Foxx Entertainment Enterprises an official 3-D puff print" glow-in-the-dark tee shirt, a button and a bumper sticker. Coming soon: the official Ed Gein Deerstalker Cap.

All merchandise is emblazoned with an actual rare police photo" of Gein-a dopey-looking character whose simpletonlike demeanor masked one of the most deranged minds in criminal history.

People eat this stuff up," explains 31-year-old fan-club founder and merchandise marketer Damon Fox, whose own countenance suggests nothing more sinister than his alternative career as a singer for the heavy-metal group Stormtrooper. If you like horror movies or anything else that goes bump in the night, you've just got to love this guy."

Fortunately for Fox, there apparently are plenty of people who can't wait to tickle their gag reflexes with Geinitalia.

Since his company (which also sells horror-movie tee shirts) began advertising Gein merchandise in fanzines late last year, Fox reports he's received orders from around the world. Following the publication of Give Your Heart to Eddie, a British coffee-table tome due out this Valentine's Day, Fox expects another surge of orders; Gein is reportedly huge" in England, Fox says.

There are some very, very hard-core Eddie fans out there," says Fox, who suspects that most of his mail-order customers are 20-year-old guys." One of the orders I got right before Christmas had a little note attached: `Oh, yes, yes, YES! Send me three deluxe packages so I can make merry with the meat this holiday season!'"

For the dedicated Geinophiles (who still squabble over whether his name rhymes with fiend" or dine"), there's plenty to live for.

In addition to the introduction of Fox's Gein gewgaws, Ed-heads recently thrilled to the made-for-cable Psycho IV: The Beginning, the latest in a string of sequels generated by writer Robert Bloch's Gein-driven novel. Even more important was the release of the critically acclaimed The Silence of the Lambs, which featured two characters (Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill") inspired by Gein.

Add to this the unavoidable parallels drawn between his crimes and those of serial cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer (also of Wisconsin) and it's little wonder that, in '91, Gein emerged as the underground's answer to General Schwarzkopf.

Still, isn't there something a tad morbid about worshiping a demented doofus who pored over obituary notices as if they were his own private personals column?

Sure, it's sick," answers Damon Fox, smiling wickedly. It's like a car wreck. Everybody looks at a car wreck, right? But if it isn't a good wreck, if there isn't any blood, they turn around and keep on going. Ed Gein is like a good car wreck."

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