Ed Gein, Werner Herzog, and me

by Jim Knipfel

Laura seems to think that my relationship with the Machine represents the first symptom of some fast-evolving psychosis. Maybe she's right, but fact is, the list of people I want to talk to when I get home from work is a remarkably short one. I walk in the door, drop my bag, drop the coat, take off the shoes, open a beer and hit the button on the Machine. Hear who it is leaving me a message, then cut the volume. All I need to know is who it is--I don't care much what they have to say. Most all of them are asking something of me or scolding me for one reason for another.

I jot down who called on a piece of paper, vowing that I'll get back to them within the month. Sometimes I do.

But there's still that short list. And if I hear a voice from that short list, I'll get back to them toot-sweet--or if I'm home when they call, I'll actually pick up the phone. So when Joe called the other night, I answered.

Joe's a painter, a sometime performer, and a collector of remarkable, macabre ephemera--everything from freak show and wax museum memorabilia to letters from serial killers to one of his latest acquisitions, an actual scab from Jesus!

For some time now, Joe's been hoping to do a portrait of Ed Gein, "America's Most Bizarre Murderer," and the inspiration, to some obvious degree, behind books and movies like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs, Deranged and Three on a Meathook. The only thing stopping Joe was the fact that he couldn't find a picture of Gein's mother (a necessary figure for one of Joe's portraits).

I told him about an unfortunately dreadful Gein bio recently published by the fine folks at St. Martin's--Paul Anthony Woods' Ed Gein--Psycho! which, while not containing a picture of Gein's mother, does include a rather tangential reference to Joe. It was all very strange.

I dunno--do I have to go back through the facts of the Gein case? Given that I recently talked to someone who had never heard of him, I'll give a thumbnail sketch. Ed was a simpleminded, kindly young man who grew up on a dying farm in Plainfield, WI, with a damning fixation on his cruel, domineering mother. After she died, he tried to keep her spirit alive by digging up graves of motherly-types and taking the body parts he wanted.

Gein House
He was also responsible for the murders of at least two local women, the last of whom was found hanging upside down in his shed, decapitated, split open and cleaned out like a deer. A search of his farmhouse revealed the remains of at least 11 women--heads, bones, a collection of masks made from real faces, chairs and lampshades made from human skin, internal organs wrapped in brown paper and kept in the freezer, and--central to it all--an actual suit constructed out of a woman's skin which he would don before dancing around under the moonlight in a strange ritual only he understood.

There. That's all you need to know for now.

Anyway, talking to Joe about Ed Gein got me to thinking about that case again. Now, I'm the first to admit that my enthusiasm for the whole serial killer thing has waned dramatically over the years. I don't give a rat's ass about Bundy or Gacy or Manson or Dahmer or any of those folks anymore--with the exception of Ed Gein. And there's a reason for it.

The Gein story broke a mere eight years before I was born, and about 40 miles away from what became my hometown in Wisconsin. It was inescapable that Ed Gein mythology would become one of the central, controlling demons lurking in my head. I grew up with Gein stories. And apart from that, the Gein case, in one way or another, just kept following me around.

In high school, I became good friends with Judge Robert Gollmar, who handled the last two of Gein's public hearings (in 1967 and 1974). Gollmar wrote the first and best of the Gein books. (There are plenty of other books out there, including Herbert Schechter's Deviant, to fill in the details.) When Gein died in 1986 at the Mendota Mental Health Facility in Madison, WI, I was living less than a mile away, contemplating my own crimes against nature. On top of that, my pals in the band Killdozer (who were also based in Madison at the time) kept dropping Gein references into their songs and album cover art.

Right around the time of Gein's death, I happened upon Werner Herzog's 1978 film, Stroszek, which remains to this day my favorite film of all, topping even Taxi Driver and Dawn of the Dead. Bruno S. stars as Stroszek, who flees bad times in Berlin with his hooker girlfriend and moves to the States. They end up in a trailer park in Railroad Flats, WI, where their lives crumble into bloody dust, and Stroszek shoots himself on a ski-lift. The end.

Werner Herzog

Here's where the strange connections begin to arise and why I think that Stroszek is one of the most influential films in American underground culture, whether people realize it or not.

Rumor and myth and hope have it that Stroszek was also the favorite film of Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis--and that Mr. Curtis watched the film on the eve of his band's first American tour--and that immediately after the film was over, he hanged himself in his ex-wife's kitchen. I think it's safe to say that without the film there would've been no hanging, no subsequent Joy Division canonization and no goth movement. There would also've been no New Order, and hence none of that new disco rebirth crap--which evolved into everything from acid house to Einsturzende Neubauten discovering basic rhythms.

We also wouldn't have two more of those damnable tribute albums clogging up valuable record store space. Or more than two, if you consider that the same company who put out the second Joy Division tribute album also put out the Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus tributes (two bands which wouldn't exist without Joy Division). Damn you, Werner Herzog!

Moving backwards some, the "Railroad Flats" of the film was actually Plainfield, a site chosen by Herzog specifically for its Gein connections. In fact, during the filming (which included scenes in the hardware store where Gein killed his last victim), Herzog became so obsessed with the case that he decided to find out for sure, for himself, whether or not Ed actually dug up his mother (something never determined during the investigation).

He made arrangements to meet his cinematographer, Errol Morris (who later went on to direct Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time), at midnight in the cemetery. Morris was supposed to bring the shovels, but he never showed.

See, not only were films like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre responsible for every single slasher film ever made, but if they hadn't been made, Herzog would probably never have heard of Ed Gein and would've ended up trying to film Stroszek--if at all--in Dallas or Atlanta, where it just wouldn't have worked. It's a genealogy which, if you think about it, puts Herzog's film on a par with Halloween V and Driller Killer.

Interviewed some years later, Herzog explained the best way to figure out exactly what's going on in American culture: "You know," he told Roger Ebert in 1986, "there are some of these places in the United States where all the lines of force cross each other almost like knots, like a certain sort of concentration of what's going on in the rest of the United States. These are places like the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, like San Quentin prison, like Disneyland, like Las Vegas...and like Plainfield, WI."

There was a time not long after reading that quote when I decided that I wanted to move to Plainfield for a year, live in a trailer, and raise pit bulls--just to see if Herzog was right. Who knows? Maybe one of these days I'll still give it a go.

Thinking about this all now, maybe I should give credit to Mr. Gein instead of Mr. Herzog for making underground culture what it is today. But given that America is a land of fictions, I'd much rather give credit to a fiction (i.e., Stroszek) than to an actual sad little man who did some terrible things.

Copyright 1996 by Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.
Ed Gein photos graciously supplied by The House of Horrors, a kool web sit devoted to horror movies.

Buy Jim Knipfel's books from with the links on the Slackjaw books page.

Tell us what you think of Slackjaw. Add a comment to the Slackjaw guestbook or view the guestbook.

You can also send email to Jim Knipfel.

Goto: Slackjaw Online Home ~