The new true crime documentary series Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein reveals the bizarre and horrific crimes of Wisconsin’s own Ed Gein with a new twist: Actual recordings of Gein himself talking about his crimes.
On the night he was arrested, no less.
The first episode of this 4-part series about the real-life inspiration for Psycho delves into the disappearance of hardware store Bernice Worden, and how that led to the shocking discovery of Gein macabre pastime: Digging up Plainfield’s freshly buried dead and using pieces of them for morbid craft projects.
The details are told through interviews with psychologists, detectives, the hosts of The Last Podcast on the Left, an expert on necrophilia, and Harold Schechter, the true crime author who penned the definitive Gein biography Deranged in the 90s and recently wrote the graphic novel Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?
Everyone knows at least the basic details of Gein’s story: His mother was an overbearing religious zealot, he tried to resurrect her when after her death, he dug up corpses to make a female skin suit he would dance around outside in the moonlight while wearing, and he murdered two women.
That’s the purpose of episode one: introduce us to Gein and his crimes.
But what’s really fascinating about it is actually hearing Ed Gein’s voice in the old recordings. There’s not much of it, as he’s mostly just agreeing with statements about his crimes being made by the judge questioning him. But it’s surreal nonetheless to hear his voice.
Here are a few questions and interesting tidbits gleaned from episode one:
1. Where did these recordings come from? Why have they never been heard before?
“I’d never heard Gein’s voice,” Schechter says in the beginning, “so to now actually encounter this incredible piece of firsthand evidence is astonishing to me.”
“Eddie is such a mythic figure,” Schechter continues, “Hearing, you know, this actual human voice, it just makes these crimes that much more real.”
The audio presented in the show is the only known recording of Ed Gein.
But where did this recording even come from?
It’s stated in the first episode that the recording was unearthed in 2019, and that it was made by local authorities the night Gein was arrested, on November 16, 1957.
After Gein was brought to the Wautoma County Jail (now the historical museum where you can visit Gein’s cell) judge Boyd Clark and district attorney Earl Kileen were brought in to question him.
“What did you intend to do with her body? Mrs. Worden’s?” they ask. “Well you kind of thought you were deer hunting, weren’t ya?”
“That’s the way it could be,” Gein says in an apprehensive tone.
Where has this recording been all these years? The first episode, at least, doesn’t make it clear. But in an interview with MovieWeb, director James Buddy Day says:
“Ed Gein’s tapes had been in possession of the family of the judge who is in the series. They had them in a safe deposit box, and they decided they should do something with them. They reached out to a producer who’s a friend of mine who has a production company, and they listened to the tapes. They knew this was going to be incredible. They reached out to me through a mutual friend, and the rest is really history.”
2. George Gein’s entire family died when he was young
When the episode delves into Ed’s childhood, it goes all the way back with early photos presumed to be his parents George and Augusta circa 1900 and their early life running a general store in La Crosse.
“From what we know and what we gather,” Schechter says, “George Gein was a somewhat feckless, unreliable individual. He was also, evidently, an alcoholic.”
“George Gein, his life began in tragedy,” Marcus Parks of The Last Podcast on the Left says. “Ed Gein’s entire upbringing from, you know, 40 years before he was born, it’s like it was ordained.”
What he means is that Ed’s father was damaged at a very young age when, while coming to Wisconsin, his entire family drowned in a river.
George was then raised by another family that didn’t want him.
As an adult, George became a violent drunk.
We know Augusta’s religious fanaticism shaped much of what Gein was to become, but so did the abuse from his father that helped cement Ed’s bond with his mother.
Ed Gein places to visit:
3. Production tried to have Augusta Gein exhumed
Local Gein enthusiast Scott Bowser leads the camera through the snow-covered Plainfield Cemetery with a shovel to the graves of several Gein victims and the Gein family plot.
“A lot of people come out here and visit Ed,” Bowser says, “and take some of his mother’s tombstone, apparently. There’s a lot missing compared to the last time I was here.”
Indeed, Augusta’s gravestone as seen in the episode seems to be more chipped away than the last time I was there, as well.
Augusta Gein, the last and most important person in Ed’s life, died in 1945.
That’s when everything changed.
“Once his mom is no longer around,” Dr. Jooyoung Lee says, “he’s left to his own devices. He feels this tremendous sense of loss and trauma, and he descends into this darkness.”
“So from that point on,” says Schechter, “Ed really becomes obsessed with resurrecting his mother somehow.”
Ed prayed at his mother’s grave night after night, hoping to manifest her return.
Though he dug up graves around Plainfield Cemetery, including one about 15 feet from his own mother’s grave, Ed said he never exhumed her.
It seems doubtful, all things considered, and who wouldn’t love to know if he really did dug her up and bring her home?
“No one has ever confirmed his account,” a title card reads.
For the sake of this documentary, however, the production tried.
In the next scene, over an image of the Plainfield water tower, onscreen text reads, “The town of Plainfield denied our request to exhume Augusta Gein’s grave.”
Imagine going to Plainfield and asking to dig up Ed Gein’s mom.
It’s worth noting, however, that this isn’t the first time someone wanted to dig up Augusta. In 1975, filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog were planning an Ed Gein documentary. They were making trips to Plainfield, and reportedly conducting several interviews with Gein.
Morris had a theory that while digging up nearby graves, Gein may have tunneled into his mother’s to extract her. Fascinated by the idea, they planned to bring shovels to Plainfield Cemetery and dig up the grave themselves to find out.
Unfortunately, they never filmed that documentary and didn’t exhume Augusta.
Herzog was intrigued by the area, though, and returned to film parts of his 1977 film Stroszek in Plainfield and Madison.
4. Gein’s crafts were inspired by Nazi atrocities
“Which was the first grave that you went into?” the investigators ask Gein in the recording.
“Adams,” Ed says.
Eleanor Adams died in 1951 and was buried just in front of the Gein family plot.
“Did you know her when she was alive?” they ask Gein.
“Not terribly, no,” he says.
“The other bodies served as proxies,” Dr. N.G. Berrill says. “You know, close to his mother, but not quite his mother.”
Gein, as he admits in the recording, was perusing the obituaries of the Plainfield paper for potential targets. And when he spotted one with a resemblance to his mother, he would head out to the cemetery the evening after the funeral, when the dirt was still loose and easy to dig up, to abscond with the remains in whole or part back to his home.
“He wanted the bodies and he mutilated the bodies and desecrated the bodies,” Louis B. Schlesinger says, “But what he did with the body parts is itself extraordinary.”
The list of remains found in Gein’s dilapidated farmhouse is nightmare fuel. A skull on each post of his bed. A box of female genitalia, salted. With ribbons. A belt made of nipples. A skull bowl Ed would eat beans out of. A lampshade made of human skin. A chair upholstered with human skin.
Where did he get these ideas from?
Ed was reading the popular pulp men’s magazines of the time, full of lurid tales of headhunters and cannibal tribes of the South Pacific.
With the end of World War II in 1945, revelations about the horrors committed by Nazis that came out during the Nuremberg trials also started to appear in these magazines.
In the episode, one such story appears on the screen about the trial of Ilse Koch, whose sadistic behavior at the Buchenwald concentration camp earned her numerous nicknames, including “The Witch of Buchenwald” and “The Beast of Buchenwald.”
“Civilization shuddered as witness after witness told of her cold-blooded sadism in the concentration camp ruled by her husband, Karl Koch,” the story reads. “Horror reached its climax when it was said that she had lamp-shades made from human skin.”
Among other crimes, Ilse was accused of ordering tattooed inmates killed so she could make lampshades and other artifacts from their skin.
“That information [was] coming out right at the time when Ed Gein was active,” director Day told MovieWeb. “He was reading about headhunters and Nazis from these detective magazines. That was really interesting to me. We actually went back… and you could actually find literal descriptions of things Gein must have read and took, then did, because they match what they found in his house exactly.”
Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein is a 4-part series streaming Sundays on MGM+. Watch it on Amazon right here.