If black humor refuses to capitulate to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it also refuses to take them seriously. We can only contemplate death soberly if there is some means of avoiding it. When faced with the inevitable, laugh, clown, laugh. And the more spectacular the death, whether in total numbers or intensity of the individual event, the darker the laughter.
Consider the films that are based to a greater or lesser degree on the ghoulish career of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin part-time handyman and full-time psycho. Everyone needs something to do to fill the hours of the day. It’s just that Gein’s choices were eccentric, to say the least. They were also such stuff as cinematic nightmares are made on.
But the oddest thing about the films that draw on the Gein story for their plots is that so many of them are comedies. Dark comedies, to be sure—comedies that may make you choke on your own laughter—but comedies just the same.
The most faithful to fact of them all is “Ed Gein.”
The picture opens with snippets of newsreel footage of Gein’s neighbors in the small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. The consensus of opinion is that he was a nice guy, maybe a little eccentric but certainly harmless.
Next we’re taken to the Plainfield Cemetery after dark. We see a teen couple, the boy eager to begin what he came here for. The girl hears noises, and then the boy does, too. They get spooked and leave quickly. The shot changes and we see Ed’s head emerge over the rim of a grave he’s opened.
At home, Ed has a disinterred corpse stretched out on a table. His head tipped back, he speaks a few words over it. He is inviting the body to return to life, but we don’t know if he expects a literal resurrection.
It’s a moment in the film, like many others, that doesn’t seem to go anywhere because it doesn’t link seamlessly with the scene that follows, but we will be introduced to his mounting madness through flashbacks and vignettes like this one.
Next up is a scene in which two young boys visit Ed at home. Later we will learn that some parents trust Ed to baby-sit. The youngest of the boys slips away from Ed and goes upstairs, just to snoop around out of idle curiosity. He finds heads hanging from the bedroom door. Ed will later explain that they are shrunken heads sent to him by a relative during the World War, but we can see what the boys, perhaps, don’t notice—they are too large to be shrunken. The room also contains a lamp made from a spine, and masks made from human skin.
The boys appear frightened, but no more so than Ed himself. He tells them to leave and not come back.
We then see him at a roadside bar, essentially off to himself but chatting sporadically with his twentysomething friend Pete Anderson (Craig Zimmerman). Most of the talking takes place between two bar regulars and Mary Hogan (Sally Champlin). Mary is a large woman, middle-aged and full of racy innuendos. Ed is clearly both attracted to and repulsed by her behavior and language.
As he listens to the goings-on in the bar, he flashes back to his mother Augusta (Carrie Snodgress) and her warnings about the whorishness of most women. We have seen earlier examples of her religious zeal as she read from The Book of Revelation to Ed and his brother as they grew up.
We also see Ed’s reluctance to assist his parents as they slaughter a hog. The animal is hanging by its back feet from a rafter and the sight terrifies young Ed. His father accuses him of being a sissy and then smacks Augusta for bringing him up badly. She then turns on her son and berates him for being a panty-waist. The poor kid, approximately ten years old, is visibly upset at being accosted by both parents.
Back to the present, and Ed is having dinner with his friends, the Andersons. Ed decides that nothing goes better with country cooking than a discussion of the changes the human body endures as it rots. Even his friend Pete wants him to drop the subject.
We see him taking a woman through his house, avoiding certain rooms. He has apparently approached her about exchanging houses with him since he lives alone and has no use for a two-story farm house. His evasive manner and the house’s general creepiness result in her turning down his offer and asking to leave as quickly as possible.
His behavior with people doesn’t change so much from beginning to end, but his interior madness is beginning to run away with him. He presents the same dead, half vacant smile throughout, but the visits from Augusta become more frequent. We realize that his moonlit trips to the cemetery have resulted in several corpses disinterred and brought home.
Finally he snaps and returns to Mary’s bar after closing. He shoots her, drags her out to his truck, and drives her home. Doing nothing to mend her wound, he ties the woman to the bed and allows her to die.
At this point in the film, we see Ed at his craziest. He emerges from the house one night wearing his woman suit. His face is covered by a mask made from the skin of one of the disinterred corpses. He wears a vest made from skin on which he has attached two breasts which dangle from the front. A vulva hangs from his crotch. Topped by a wig, he dances in the moonlight, yammering in falsetto.
Steve Railsback, who first jolted audiences as Charles Manson in the 1976 TV movie “Helter Skelter,” delivers a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard performance as Gein. I mean that in a good way. It’s the character who clog dances on our nerve ends, not the actor.
Railsback’s is also a gutsy performance. This is a man about whom the audience is hard-pressed to think anything positive. The nicest thought the average viewer would have said is, “Well, they guy is certainly messed up, but it isn’t his fault.”
We will see Gein trying on noses—real noses—like the world’s most deranged circus clown. He will murder one more woman who reminds him of Augusta after inviting her to go to a movie with him and being rejected. He is now seeing his mother, and she rides in his truck with him and encourages him to “do the Lord’s work.”
His insanity doesn’t make him fearless. He’s afraid of getting caught although his attempts at jokes almost trip him up. When Pete Anderson talks about Mary’s odd disappearance Ed tells him that the woman isn’t missing. “I’ve got her up at my place. Mary’s hanging out there right now.” Pete is startled for a beat, then laughs and tells Ed he has a mighty strange sense of humor.
The murder of his second victim, a storekeeper, results in his downfall. The film ends with newsreel footage of the real Ed Gein being put into the back of a police car. The end credits are interspersed with Railsback, as Gein in the asylum, smiling the smile and telling the camera that he doesn’t remember everything that happened.
So what was Edward Gein really like? This is the movie that stays closest to the facts and does a good job of presenting the man’s madness. He was born in 1906 and died in 1984. Mary Hogan was killed in 1954, Bernice Worden (called Collette in the film) was murdered in 1957.
What fascinated the first person to translate Gein’s life into fiction—novelist Robert Bloch, who immortalized Gein as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” was the fact that he lived so long in a small community and no one noticed his mania. If he never quite fit in with the common fold of Plainfield, he never stood out, either. For his trips to the cemetery, he enlisted the aid of a man named Gus, a peculiar loner who ended up in an asylum before Gein did. (Gus is omitted from every one of the Gein films.) Even with this association, no one saw through Ed’s smile.
The joke about the murdered barmaid is real. A few weeks after her disappearance, Ed told a sawmill owner with the unlikely name of Elmo Ueeck, “She isn’t missing. She’s at the farm right now.”
What do we make of this emotionally retarded man, in life and in this film? He’s not a guy most of us would have to fear because his interest was in older women only. The main sources for our fear are his psychology and the way it manifests itself. We can deal with the extremes of his oddness only through dark laughter. How else can you react to his woman suit? The horrible fact of the matter is that when he minces out the front door, his pot belly poking out under the vest, there is enough of the humor of an awkward man in drag to generate a laugh. But when we see what it is he’s really wearing, the laughter gets stuck in our throat.
“Ed Gein” is not designed to generate laughter, but the only sane reaction we can have to some levels of real-life horror is black humor. After his arrest, sick jokes known as “Geiners” began to circulate throughout the Midwest, some of which I suspect were used by Robert Bloch in his novel and later by screenwriter Joseph Stefano in his script for “Psycho.” “Mother is, how do you say it, not quite herself tonight.”
But black humor isn’t just a distancing device that allows us to contemplate the world’s horrors without collapsing into a morass of despair and inertia. It’s also a means for saying that the world can be as horrible as it wants to be—or as our fellow humans make it—but we have moved beyond caring. It’s either a perfectly rational response to an irrational universe, or a perfectly insane response to a sane universe when sanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.