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The True Story That Inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho

Bates Motel from Psycho

When it was first released in 1960, Psycho disgusted the critics and terrified cinema goers. It was tasteless. Amoral. And its heroine died in the first 20 minutes. But Hitchcock’s film was mild compared with the real-life horror that inspired it…

Ed Gein photo

When first released in 1960, Psycho disgusted the critics and terrified cinema-goers. It was called tasteless and amoral, plus its heroine died in the first 20 minutes. But Hitchcock’s film was mild compared with the real-life horror that inspired it. 

The 2nd December 1957 issue of Life magazine carried the usual news from home and abroad. Khrushchev was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. A whole new generation was discovering Claude Monet’s artworks, and the fashion for wearing the Hawaiian muumuu had been sweeping college campuses. There was also a novelty item about English eccentrics, such as scholar Charles Ogden. He wanted to reduce the English language to 850 essential words. Strangest of all was the story of Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who had had his body embalmed and displayed in the common room of University College, London. Burial, he claimed, was a silly, wasteful act. A good corpse “could be put to sundry uses.”

One man who would undoubtedly have agreed with that sentiment had recently been arrested. His macabre story occupied eight pages of that same issue of the magazine, in a story entitled ‘House of Horror Stuns the Nation.’

He was a man with such a fondness of corpses that he dug them up late at night from local graveyards and took them home to play. Inspired by pulp magazines such as Startling Detective and tales of cannibalism in the South Seas, he would strip off the face and scalp from each skull, taking care to preserve the skin with oils. Padding out the features with a rolled-up newspaper, he would hang the faces up on the walls of his home, to be worn later as masks. He made distinctive, flesh-coined leggings from, well, pieces of flayed leg, and wore the entire upper torso of a woman as a kind of apron. Sometimes, at night, he would venture outside the door of his remote farmhouse dressed in the whole ensemble and dance around in the moonlight.

Townspeople who knew him told stories to reporters of shy Eddie Gein, the local handyman. He was always willing to help out fixing a fence or doing a spot of babysitting. Older children would sit enthralled as he told them morbid ghost stories and said that his house is haunted. Most of their parents just thought he was a couple of cans short of a Sixpack but about as harmless as they come. Eventually, in the face of overwhelming evidence, they began to view him as a cunning and devious killer. The police and psychiatrists questioning him, on the other hand, felt that he hadn’t got the slightest idea of what was going on.

 

In 1957 Robert Bloch was a moderately successful thriller writer living only 40 miles away from Ed Gein’s home in Plainfield, Wisconsin. “There was talk on the radio station about digging up graves,” recalled Bloch. “I was amazed that Gein could conduct himself without anyone suspecting the truth. I said, ‘There’s a story here.’ Writers, for the most part, didn’t do gross things in those days. You could zing the reader with one line, then get out.”

 

Few, if any, publishers would have dared print a novel that contained even half the crimes Ed Gein eventually confessed to. So Bloch used the underlying facts as a springboard for the first draft of a tight little thriller called Psycho. It was about a shy, retiring motel-keeper with a homicidal, domineering mother – which he produced over six weeks in 1958.

Janet Leigh driving in a scene from Psycho

“The story wrote itself,” he said. “I came up with his being a motel-keeper because of easy access to strangers. What if he committed these crimes in an amnesiac fugue, with another personality taking over? Let’s say he has a thing about his mother. Let’s say he has a thing about his mother. Let’s suppose his mother was dead, but he imagined she was still alive – that he became his mother while committing crimes. Then I thought, But wouldn’t it be nice if she was present in some form? And that is when I came up with the notion that he had preserved her body.”

Many of these details have such close parallels with Ed Gein’s own life that it’s hard to know where the facts finish, and Bloch’s fiction takes over. There’s no evidence that Gein disturbed his own mother’s grave or practiced taxidermy, but he did preserve body parts. Gein also told psychiatrists that he could not remember any details of the murder that finally convicted him. However, Gein admitted that it must have been him who was responsible. He claimed to have heard his mother talking to him for about a year after she died, and felt that “she was good in every way.” In reality, she had been a fearsome, Bible-quoting tyrant who dominated his every waking hour. She warned him to stay away from the women of the town, who were harlots and sinners.

The Norman Bates that Bloch created was a middle-aged, overweight, balding misfit of a man – a far cry from the teen pin-up Anthony Perkins, who brought the role to the screen. The real centerpiece of the novel, however, was the early demise of the main female character. “It occurred to me to do something not generally done in fiction,” said Bloch. “Establish a heroine, give her a problem, make her more or less likable so the reader would have some empathy for her, then kill her off a third of the way through the story. Readers would say, ‘My God, now what?”

The method of despatch was Bloch’s other trump card. “I had a notion that a person is never more defenseless than when taking a shower… a sudden intrusion is a very shocking thing.”

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

Ed Gein’s extreme tastes in the fields of home decoration and leisurewear came to light as police investigated the sudden disappearance of 50-year old Bernice Worden. Bernice ran the local hardware store in Plainfield. Her son Frank had returned from a deer-hunting expedition to find evidence of a violent break-in. It is the opening day of the hunting season; most people were out shooting in the woods. Still, Frank recalled that Ed Gein had specifically asked Bernice if she would be open that day since he’d be calling in to buy some anti-freeze. Gein, 51, was arrested on suspicion of robbery at the house of a neighbor. Two policemen went to search his decaying old farm buildings. What they found sent them straight back outside, retching uncontrollably. 

The headless body of Bernice Worden was discovered in Ed’s summer kitchen at the rear of the farmhouse. She’d been strung up from the ankles, and “dressed out like a deer.” Her head was found in a sack, her heart in a plastic bag in front of the stove, and her entrails wrapped up in an old suit on the floor. Inside the main house, amid an incredible litter of decaying food, trashy magazines, collections of used chewing gum, and a sink filled with sand, were soup bowls made from the sawn-off tops of skulls, a belt of nipples, a shoebox containing noses and another full of genitalia. There were so many body parts that it was impossible to tell how many people’s remains were present. Lampshades, a tom-tom, bracelets, and a wastebasket were covered in human skin, as were the seats of four straight-backed chairs. By contrast, the rooms in the house that had belonged to Ed’s mother, who had been dead since 1945, were just as she’d left them since Gein had long ago boarded them shut.

Life magazine merely hinted at these details. Even at that stage, they were quoting psychiatrists who speculated that Gein had “a schizophrenic or split personality.”

The local community, besieged by the world’s media, was further outraged that many of the bodies were not murder victims, but he’d stolen from local graveyards. There were even unsubstantiated rumors that Gein cooked and ate parts of his victims. Still, the psychiatrist’s report stated that “Gein denied eating any of the victims. He also denied having sexual relations with the bodies or parts of them as he declares the odor was offensive.” As one Plainfield resident bitterly remarked, “Halloween came a little late his year.”

Several graves were opened and found empty, and a 40ft trench discovered on Gein’s property filled with human remains and ashes where other body parts had been cremated. The true extent of his activities will never be known.

Found clinically insane and unfit to stand trial for murder, Gein was locked up for life in a secure institution until his death in 1984, at the age of 78. Measured against the popular view of America in the ‘50s, to the grinning two-car families enjoyed all the pleasures life has to offer and never ran out of petrol. These events seemed barely credible. How could a middle-aged bachelor live in the middle of a tiny community in a house piled high with corpses? While making odd jokes about embalming to his fellow workers, without anyone noticing? That was the scariest thing about Ed Gein: his apparent ordinariness.

The infamous shower scene in Psycho

Bloch’s novel was published in the summer of 1959 by Simon & Schuster. It enjoyed strong sales and reasonably good reviews, not least from Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review. Advance copies were sent out in February to film companies. Still, the book was turned down by Paramount’s script reader William Pinckard as being “too repulsive for films, and rather shocking even to a hardened reader.” However, according to Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Robertson, he picked up on the book by himself. “Every Monday morning Hitch and I used to read the Book Review, and this one Monday, Hitch said, ‘Boucher is raving this book, Psycho.’” The rights were secured in an anonymous bid via MCA for just $9,000. In the words of Bloch’s friend Harlan Ellison, “He got screwed royally.”

Hitchcock had never shied away from dark subjects. With films like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), he treated them in a glossy fashion, using stars like Grace Kelly and James Stewart. A low-budget, tightly shot, monochrome crime story about a cross-dressing peeping-tom killer, who keeps the decomposing corpse of his mother in the basement and stuffs birds in his spare time, was a bit of a surprise, which is why it appealed to Hitchcock.

Since October 1955, the director had presided over a wildly popular TV series of black-and-white thrillers that he would personally introduce and occasionally direct. Shooting an inexpensive film in a matter of weeks, using most of his regular TV technicians, excited him after years of lavish production. He had noticed that some of the biggest box-office successes of the last few years had been inexpensive shockers. Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein opened in New York one weekend in 1957 during a freak heatwave to packed houses when most other cinemas were deserted.

There were also examples of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1954) based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac that Hitchcock himself had tried to buy. When that failed, he brought another book by the same team, which formed Vertigo’s basis. Clouzot’s film was a psychological thriller, filmed in monochrome, that leads the viewer down the garden path to a killer twist-ending. “Hitch talked about being a big fan of Les Diaboliques,” said Anthony Perkins. “It was one of the reasons he wanted to make Psycho in black and white.”

As the film rights to Bloch’s novel were being snapped up in the spring of 1959, Perkins was six years into his film career and already talked about as being “the new James Dean.” A series of less than ideal roles, together with the strain of pretending to be heterosexual, meant that he was receptive to a friend’s advice; “How about a psychotherapy course?” For Perkins, that was only the beginning of a lifetime of analysis. Indeed, each day when he got up to play Norman Bates, he would visit his therapist for an early-morning consultation before going on to the studio.

For such a private person who was firmly in the closet and well known for romantic leading roles, that to take on the role of a cross-dressing killer in Hollywood in 1959 was tantamount to career suicide, but Perkins jumped at the chance. He had turned down a part in that year’s Some Like it Hot mainly on account of the cross-dressing involved. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho

At the time, Janet Leigh and her husband Tony Curtis were one of Hollywood’s golden couples. They attended all the right parties and fundraising shindigs for John F. Kennedy. Psycho’s opening shots of Leigh in her underwear meeting up with a married man during her lunch break were, by the profoundly conservative standards of the day, very shocking. Carving her up with a butcher knife some 20 minutes later was unthinkable. “The thing that appealed to me and made me decide to do the picture,” Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “was the suddenness of the murder in the shower.”

Joseph Stefano adapted the novel for the screen, making Norman a somewhat more sympathetic character and giving more prominence to the Leigh role at the start of the picture. Bernard Herrmann wrote the groundbreaking score, which relied entirely on strings. Over the years, the film itself has been analyzed so often that many conflicting stories have emerged. The main area of the dispute is the shower scene. Saul Bass, the absolute master of Hollywood title design, is given an extra credit as ‘Pictorial Consultant.’

No-one disputes that he drew out the scene’s storyboards, but in a 1973 interview, Bass claimed that he had directed the entire sequence. This has been emphatically denied by just about every member of the crew, and by Janet Leigh, who said, “I was in that shower for seven days. Alfred Hitchcock was right next to his camera for every one of those shots.” Assistant director Hilton Green commented, “There isn’t a shot in that movie I didn’t roll my camera for, and I can tell you I never rolled the camera for Mr. Bass.”

Given the number of people worldwide who developed a distrust of showers after viewing the film, It’s interesting to note that Janet Leigh has had a similar phobia since seeing her first screening. “If there is no other way to bathe, then I make sure all the doors and windows in the house are locked. I leave the bathroom door and shower curtain open so I have a perfect view. I face the door no matter where the showered is. The room, I might add, gets very wet.” Ever since playing the role, she has received obscene phone calls and occasional death threats, which she passes on to the FBI.

Shot under the working title Wimpy between 11th November 1959 and 1st February the next year for a total cost of $806,947, Psycho was released on 16th June 1960 by a nervous studio. The critics greeted the film with decidedly sniffy reviews, due to Hitchcock refusing to do a press screening and warning them not to reveal the ending. For the first time, the public was not allowed into the cinema after the main feature had started – which was thought by many in Hollywood to be lunacy. In the event, Psycho was a colossal hit with audiences around the world. People were queuing up to be scared out of their wits.

Hitchcock, for his part, complained in interviews that people failed to see the humor. “Psycho,” he said, “was the biggest joke to me.”

When Gus Van Sant announced his intention to start a shot-by-shot remake of the original Psycho using the same script and storyboards but filmed in color – purists were outraged. It bombed (with a current rating on IMDb of just 4.6 out of 10). But this was nothing new. Mere months after the Psycho appeared, film companies the world over were already on the bandwagon. Hammer Films quickly released a slew of Psycho inspired copies like Maniac, Paranoiac, Nightmare, Fanatic, Hysteria, and Crescendo. Shock king William Castle was equally quick of the mark with Homicidal (1961), which gleefully pillaged large parts of the storyline from Psycho and featured a decidedly familiar cross-dressing killer. Three years later, William Castle had brought the  Robert Bloch script Strait-Jacket, in which Joan Crawford has a terrible time with various sharp instruments. Like Perkins, Bloch never really escaped from the shadow of Norman Bates for the rest of his career.
Norman Bates' House from Pyscho

The ’70s and 80’s proved to be the real heyday of the slasher movie, but there is no doubt that with this one film, Hitchcock had permanently re-drawn the map of what was permissible. Back in the 1960s, the guardians of taste and decency were predictably outraged by the film’s seeming amorality and its decision to make its psychopath such a sympathetic character. There were echoes of this in the late 1990s when the still fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly signed on to play killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. DiCaprio ultimately dropped out and was replaced by brilliant Christian Bale.

Casting DiCaprio would have been a smart move, underlining the point Hitchcock wanted to make about the banality of evil

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