Even among seasoned true-crime fans, the story of Ed Gein elicits shock.
Gein was 51 years old when, in 1957, he was revealed to have murdered two women and robbed multiple graves. Most notoriously, he collected and lived amongst body parts. His case is a regular subject in true-crime media, where his crimes and their echoes on popular culture (Gein was the inspiration behind Psycho’s Richard Bates and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, among others) have long been examined.
But throughout the years, one person never spoke: Gein himself. For all the macabre fascination Gein exercised on true-crime followers, he remained a somewhat abstract figure, more boogeyman than person. A new documentary series, Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein, attempts to change that. The show centers newly unearthed, and never-before-heard interview tapes of Gein, conducted by local law enforcement following his arrest.
The recordings were discovered in 2019, James Buddy Day, the show’s director, tells The Independent in a phone interview. County Judge Boyd Clark, who is heard questioning Gein on the tapes, kept them in his office for years, Day says. When Clark died, his family placed the tapes in a safety deposit box, where they remained for a time. Then, the family got in touch with producers Josh Kunau and Jill Latiano Howerton, who in turn contacted Day.
“The rest is history,” Day said. “I was incredibly excited, they were excited, and we were like, ‘We’ve got to get this out there.’ So we set out to work.”
Born in 1906 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gein grew up on a farm in the village of Plainfield, and still lived there at the time of his arrest. His father drank heavily and was sometimes violent; his mother is often described as obsessively religious and as having isolated her two sons (Gein and his older brother Henry) from the rest of the world.
Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein, though, is careful not to oversimplify Gein’s origin story. “When you want to understand this kind of psychopathology that is so strong and so deviant, it’s not just a result of poor parenting,” Dr Louis Scheslinger, a psychology professor at the City University of New York, said in episode one of the documentary. “There are so many people that are brought up in all of these bizarre sorts of ways. Almost none of them go out and do what Gein did.”
Gein killed his first victim, Mary Hogan, the owner of a local bar, in 1954. He murdered his second victim, Bernice Worden, the owner of a hardware store, in 1957. In addition to the killings, Gein dug up remains and collected human body parts, which he kept around his home and sometimes assembled into other items.
There is an underlying promise to the unearthing of the Gein tapes. If we are to hear from the man himself, then surely, we might be able to get an explanation for his behavior. But when Ted Bundy was sentenced to death in 1984, he described himself shortly afterwards as “tired”, “sad”, and “both fascinated with and angry at myself’ – as if he could not entirely parse his own actions. A similar feeling emerges in Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein. Often, Gein seems bewildered by his own crimes; if there is an explanation for why he acted the way he did, he does not seem to possess it.
Far from weakening the documentary, this absence of a simple answer deepens it. There is no cookie-cutter thesis to be found here. Rather, the four-part series serves as a compelling (and often disturbing) depiction of the complete mental collapse that must accompany acts such as Gein’s.
The show’s expert participants – Dr Scheslinger; Dr Jooyoung Lee, a sociology professor; Harold Schechter, the author of the Gein book Deviant: The Shocking True Story of the Original ‘Psycho’; Dr NG Berrill, a psychologist; and Dr Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, a professor of film studies – help viewers make sense of the unknowable.
“The whole concept of serial killers is based on the idea that was formed in the 1970s, based on the work of the FBI,” Day said on the phone. “Their original conceit was that they were going to go talk to these men, and that by talking to them, they would gain this ability to prophesize their actions.”
That idea, Day says, seems “ridiculous” in hindsight.
“The idea that you can talk to a serial killer, and that serial killer will have this tremendous insight into who they are and why they’re doing things has permeated films and TV,” he said. “But the reality is that almost every serial killer you’re going to speak to has very little insight into why they do what they do. You can’t rely on a serial killer to tell you why they did what they did.”
This doesn’t mean there is no truth to be found in the docuseries, which airs its final episode on Sunday. There is. It is the kind of truth that emerges when one spends just under four hours,around the total duration of the four-part show, immersed in the story of Gein and his crimes. There are detours through the history of the prosecution of necrophilia, and examinations of Gein’s psyche and upbringing. Perhaps the sane mind isn’t meant to fully grasp Gein’s actions – Gein was convicted of murder, but he was ultimately deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity” and spent the rest of his life in institutions – but the tapes do bring them into closer focus.
“My perspective changed after hearing the tapes,” Day said on the phone. “I had always assumed that Ed Gein was this meek, mild person, and that really comes through in the tapes. But when you hear his voice and you hear that interaction between him and the authorities, it really sets him apart from the serial killer myth, this kind of handsome, Anthony Perkins type who can talk his way out of anything. Ed Gein is the opposite of that. But that’s what I think is so scary about him. He really is a monster in plain sight.”
The documentary does not shy away from showing Gein’s crimes in all their gruesome reality. Police photos of his home are used throughout the series, all four episodes of which open with warnings about its graphic contents. The result is an impression of real-life horror—which is exactly the chord Day was hoping to strike.
“America has processed Ed Gein’s crimes for the last 75 years through horror,” Day says. “When his crimes were revealed in the national media in 1957, the immediate response was a horror novel called Psycho [the 1959 book from which Alfred Hitchcock’s movie is adapted].”
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre followed in 1974, as did “hundreds of movies” in similar veins, Day says. He saw a synergy between the horror genre and the real-life story in the documentary, and viewed the former as a way to unlock the latter. Such an approach wouldn’t “necessarily work with all crimes”, Day says, but it felt apt in this particular situation.
“Horror is subversive,” he says. “It allows the audience to look deeper, and see the metaphor in violence and things of that nature. This felt like the best way to tell the story.”
Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein is available now on MGM+
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