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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hollywood And American Obsession With Serial Killers, Part I


In early October 2006, New Line Cinema released The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. A prequel to the 2003 remake of the 1974 original film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it features Leatherface's first chainsaw murder, set four years prior in 1969. While there have been many different types of teenage slasher movies that feature infamous fictional serial killers, from Halloween, featuring Michael Myers, to Nightmare on Elm Street with Freddy, to Friday the Thirteenth's Jason Voorhees, TCM perhaps outdoes them all.

Tobe Hooper directed the original movie and its widely-panned 1986 sequel as low-budget horror. An article on Wikipedia notes that he devised the film when he spotted some chainsaws while trying to get out of a crowded store. It became an international sensation and is considered one of the most memorable horror movies of all time.

Loosely based on the creepy tale of Wisconsin killer Ed Gein, who didn't use a chain-saw but did gut at least one of his victims like slaughtered deer, this film begins in 1969 as four teenagers cross Texas to have some fun before one gets drafted to go to Vietnam. Three of them wind up captured by a cop and taken to the Hewitt farm, where Thomas is becoming Leatherface. Directed by John Liebseman, the new film recognizes scenes from the original that were cut in the remake.

There were other sequels as well: Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994). In 2003, Marcus Nispel directed the remake, updating the teenagers' situation and personalities, and cutting some of the more gruesome cannibalism scenes. However, the formula for slasher movies holds true throughout: promiscuous, good-for little kids get whacked while kids with moral fiber and stamina generally manage to survive and even to save or assist others.

Since Gein figures into several films, including Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, featuring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins (also with three sequels), let's review his grisly deeds.

Gein's Legacy

When the police went to the farmhouse in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where Gein lived alone after the passing of his parents and brother, they meant to question him about a robbery, but he wasn't there. Entering a deteriorating out-building, they spotted what seemed to be a dressed deer carcass hanging from the rafters. On closer inspection, they realized that this corpse was human. Hung feet first was the headless body of a woman, slit from her genitals to her neck, with her legs splayed apart. They wondered if this might be a missing storekeeper, Bernice Worden.

Next, the police entered Gein's house and their questions were answered. Inside they found all manner of body parts, including skin, a box of preserved female genitalia, a heart in a frying pan, a box of noses, the sawed-off crania from several skulls, death masks, a skin vest with breasts, and a female scalp with black hair.

Gein admitted that he'd stolen most of them from the local cemetery, but he'd also killed Bernice Worden, as well as another missing woman, Mary Hogan. He was suspected in the disappearance of four others, but those women he did kill or dig up had been about the size of his mother and he'd been using skin from the bodies to make himself a female "suit." Alone and socially inept, Gein had devoured books on human anatomy and Nazi experiments, sending away for shrunken heads. Although he denied consuming the flesh, some who studied the case believe he did.

As well, he kept a shrine of his dead mother in a room, which became the basis for the demented character, Norman Bates, in Psycho. Whenever he feels lust, he cringes under the load of guilt from his Puritanical mother. So he kills the object of it, restoring his "balance" and pleasing his dead mother, kept mummified in her room. He also transforms into her, as a case of multiple personality disorder.

Gein was found to be insane (unable to grasp the nature of his acts) and incarcerated in an institution, where he eventually died in 1984, but his psychosis lives on in these films. The Hewitts are cannibals, devouring body parts like candy. Leatherface, a grave-robber, wears a mask made of skin and a bloody butcher's apron. Norman Bates has transgender issues with a violent twist. His crimes were recreated in House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) as an amusement park ride.

Another low-budget Gein-esque move was Deranged, about a demented middle-aged man, dominated by his mother, who digs up bodies in the local cemetery, and there's a recent First Look Pictures bio-pic, simply titled Ed Gein.

Leatherface isn't the only serial killing monster having his origins unpacked; another character involved in a Gein-inspired film is set to return as all.

Hannibal Returns

Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant but psychotic psychopath of The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter and its remake, Red Dragon, not to mention Hannibal, will return to show us his background in Hannibal Rising. All of these films are based on novels by Thomas Harris.

It's commonly supposed that the Buffalo Bill character in The Silence of the Lambs is a composite of the acts of three infamous serial killers: Ted Bundy's MO in luring victims, Gary Heidnik's basement dungeon for sex slaves, and Ed Gein's habit of skinning victims of the right size to create a type of pieced-together vest. Supposedly, it will transform him into a female).
Harris had attended meetings at the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit, learning as much as he could about how the elite crew of profilers worked. At that time, renowned profilers such as John Douglas and Robert Ressler were members of the BSU (now BAU), and both consulted on the filming of The Silence of the Lambs, released in 1991. It went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor and Actress, and to become an international sensation. Despite the villain's gruesome actions, audiences cheered him on.

In the story, agent-in-training Clarice Starling is sent to imprisoned serial killer and cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to learn about the mind of "Buffalo Bill," a killer who is holding a woman hostage in a high profile case. Lecter plays mind games with her, in part to keep his superior edge and in part because he likes her and wants to keep her coming back. While this scenario would never occur in real life, the novel and film had a sense of authenticity because of the FBI's participation and approval. Jack Crawford, the unit's head, was based on either Ressler or Douglas, or both. The implication is that killers know best how other killers operate, and Lecter does in fact supply key information. In Red Dragon, the idea that the agent is but a slight psychological step away from the killer's mindframe is emphasized.

William Peterson, who now plays Gil Grissom on C.S.I., took the role of Special Agent Will Graham in Manhunter, a 1986 Michael Mann film derived from Harris's novel, Red Dragon. Lecter first shows up in this tale, which involves Francis Dolarhyde, a bizarre killer who is also a self-conscious and somewhat sympathetic victim. Simpson writes in Psychopaths that it's a film about destabilizing forces in relationships, and the continual flow of the roles of killer and victim into each other. It's also about alienation, failure, misunderstanding, and the violence that rides on the inability to fully connect. There's no refuge anywhere, and psychological necessity becomes a driving force. "The Gothic territory into which the detective must venture," Simpson points out, "contains its own subversions that are inseparable from its affirmations."

In Hannibal Rising, Lecter's early life is chronicled in Eastern Europe, from the ages of 6 to 20, including the death of every member of his family during World War II. Given Harris's penchant for psychoanalytic theory, he will probably draw deep-seated causal inferences about exposure to death and development into a killer.

While it's unlikely that someone with the flamboyant psychosis that Lecter reveals, especially in Hannibal when he opens the skull of a living man, would ever become as controlled and refined as that character is, there have nevertheless been killers in history who come close: they have pulled off massive deceptions of normalcy while also carrying on with detailed torture murders. Notable among them are H.H. Holmes and "B.T.K," Dennis Rader.

But that story is coming next

Katherine Ramsland

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D. has published twenty-five books. She holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy. Currently she teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.


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