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."
For dedicated disciples like Fox, Gein's personal road to hell is paved with grotesque souvenirs. In addition to piles of Gein-related newspaper clippings, Fox's personal trove includes a Photostat of Gein's death certificate, several Gein books-including one that features stomach-churning police photographs of Bernice Worden-and a videotape of Deranged, an obscure 1974 Gein homage directed by Bob Clark (later of A Christmas Story fame) under an assumed name. Fox's latest find? A Nice Quiet Man, a video documentary that features a rare Gein interview as well as actual footage of human relics seized inside the killer's farmhouse.
Granted, Fox's company has no corner on crime curios of questionable taste. Should the spirit move them, well-connected homicide buffs can also thrill to such dismemberabilia as a tee shirt featuring an autopsy photograph of executed lady-killer Ted Bundy, an audiocassette containing the taped confession of hitchhiking hatchet man Henry Lee Lucas, or The Manson File, a scrapbook filled with minutiae like the L.A.-area TV Guide listings for the night of the '69 Sharon Tate massacre-presumably so readers can imagine what the victims might have been watching on TV when unexpected guests dropped in.
But for some reason, none of these monsters of recent vintage has captured the imaginations of the crime cognoscenti the way Ed Gein has.
The younger people who may not have heard about Gein see Jeffrey Dahmer on TV," Fox explains. They hear about this head he kept in his refrigerator and they think what he's done is really wild, that it's really cool and macabre. But let's face it-Jeffrey Dahmer can't touch Ed Gein. Jeffrey Dahmer's just not that interesting. It's all been done before-and much better-by Ed Gein.
Think about it," says Fox, who has apparently devoted a lot of thought to the subject himself. The pull chains on the lamps made out of lips? The belt buckle made of human nipples? Wearing the skins of an entire woman and dancing in the moonlight?" Fox laughs. This is great stuff. It really is."
If Ed Gein's ghoulishness was somehow influenced by an overbearing mother, Damon Fox's vicarious fascination with same can probably be traced to a gore-hound dadÏthe father in question being none other than Valley movie maven Bill Rocz, host of Channel 5's Family Theatre.
(Fox was actually born Bill Rocz Jr. He explains that he uses the more theatrical moniker because Bill is not a name for a rock singer.")
Most dads take their sons to baseball games, miniature golf courses, places like that," says Fox, a 1978 graduate of Tempe High School. Not us. We never did anything like that." Instead, Rocz and son regularly prowled the Valley's seamier drive-ins in quest of cinematic carnage, seeking out gutbucket triple features at places like the long-defunct Nu-Vue and Acres drive-ins.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, I Spit on Your Grave-the bloodier they were, the better we liked 'em," says this chip off the old butcher block. When the young horror-movie buff eventually learned that there really was a Leatherface" (the Geinlike madman of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Fox recalls, the realization made Virginia's discovery about Santa Claus look like death warmed over.
YOU NEEDN'T BE a tee-shirt-wearing headbanger to appreciate Ed Gein's body of work. Just think of him as America's answer to England's Jack the Ripper.
One of Eddie's devotees is filmmaker Errol Morris, best known for his award-winning true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line. Reminiscing in a New Yorker interview several years ago, Morris recalled actually moving to Plainfield for a year in the mid-Seventies and renting a room from a Gein neighbor to soak up atmosphere for a possible book or movie. At one point, he said, he and German director Werner Herzog even considered digging up the grave of Gein's mother to see whether the ghoulish handyman had tampered with it (a detail, perhaps apocryphal, popularized by Psycho).
²ÔThere's been a tremendous amount of growing interest and attention paid to Gein," says New York true-crime writer Harold Schechter, author of Deviant, the Gein bible. Now in its fourth printing, the 1989 paperback continues to be a steady seller in the overcrowded nonfiction-crime market.
Schechter points out that the pop-culture landscape is littered with Gein references.
Paying homage to the makeshift meat wagon with which Gein carted his graveyard trophies back to his farm, an Eighties punk-rock group dubbed itself Ed Gein's Car. More recently, the heavy-metal band Slayer recorded a tune called Dead Skin Masks." Gore-rock behemoth Tad Doyle, a former butcher from Idaho, frequently dons a Gein tee shirt during performances with his band Tad. In the book Warts and All, a collection of skewed celebrity sketches, artist Drew Friedman includes one panel depicting the scourge of Plainfield guzzling cocktails with comedian Buddy Hackett.
And when Gein died eight years ago, Variety magazine recognized his many contributions to the film biz by running his obituary on the same page with that of the recently deceased Richard Burton.
I've spent some time trying to figure out why Eddie has the popularity he does," says Schechter. There's something about his character. I always think of Eddie as Barney Fife with a chainsaw, this goofy little small-town guy doing all these horrible things and nobody has a clue. I think there's probably a lot of appeal in the disparity between what he seemed to be and all these incredible things he was doing."
Schechter suggests that you couldn't ask for a nicer serial necrophile than Ed Gein.
He wasn't really sadistic in the way that [Chicago crawlspace killer] John Wayne Gacy was-somehow you don't feel the same level of evil that you feel with Gacy," Schechter says. Eddie dispatched the women very quickly-he basically just shot them through the back of the head with a bullet. It wasn't as if he were inflicting torture on people-that wasn't his style at all. This is not to redeem him, but it does make it harder to imagine someone like Gacy attracting a fan club of anyone but serious perverts."
Since Schechter's Gein bio hit the racks three years ago, he reports receiving mail from dozens of Ed enthusiasts. Those correspondents have included everyone from routine autograph seekers to serious Gein academicians. One sent in detailed sketches based on Schechter's book. Another correspondent advanced a theory suggesting that Gein's fascination with wearing skin represented some sort of primitive ritual.
Schechter claims he has never felt that he's dealing with potentially homicidal pen pals.
There is a quality to this case that is very much like old horror folk tales like Hansel and Gretel," Schechter says. In every small town there's always a haunted house, and the kids always believe that the person who lives there is an ogre or a monster. But the thing about Eddie was that the stories were true. To many people, Eddie Gein is like a character out of myth or folk tales."
People in Eddie's hometown don't have quite the same detachment.
Of course," says Schechter, there are many people still living in Plainfield to whom Eddie was all too realÏpeople whose relatives' graves were violated."
Back in the Valley, Gein aficionado Charles Merbs makes no bones about his own interest in the case. A University of Wisconsin student in 1957, Merbs was part of the forensics team assigned to unscramble the skeletal remains scattered throughout the Gein farmhouse and elsewhere around the property. This was the first forensics case I'd ever worked on, and it was bizarre in the extreme," says Merbs, now a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University. As I recall, there were about a dozen skeletons, and our job was to identify them and get them back to the proper graves."
While macabre, the chore was not nearly as grisly-or, depending on your Gein threshold, as interesting-as it may sound. Merbs conducted his work in a crime lab miles from the death farm. Some of the bones had been used for decorative purposes," he recalls, but most were just buried around the farm." Thirty-five years later, Merbs still dredges up details of the Gein investigation as a case study in his ASU classes.
Merbs says he finds it strange" that people would want to adorn their cars with Ed Gein bumper stickers, but Merbs can appreciate the attraction the case still holds. He himself continues to clip Gein articles out of magazines and newspapers.
There's certainly a fascination there," he says. What he had done was so horrible and so unbelievable that it led to this weird humor. Everybody had their Gein jokes-even my mother. But it certainly wasn't funny to anyone who lived in the area where it actually happened."
Even Damon Fox concedes that point-right after he's reeled off his own favorite Geiner."
(Q: Why did Ed Gein keep his house so warm?" A: So the furniture wouldn't get goose bumps.")
I can see where people who were personally involved with this might not appreciate Eddie the way I do," says Fox. He grudgingly admits that even he might have been ticked off if Gein had turned a deceased loved one into a buckskin miniskirt.
Asked what he'd do if he were ever approached by a relative of a Gein victim-say, Bernice Worden's son-Fox grins and says, I'd say, `Cool! Can I have your autograph?'"
THE SELLING OF ANNIE LEIBOVITZ... v1-15-92
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.