The Butcher of Plainfield: ED GEIN (Chuck Parello, 2000)

Ed Gein is an important figure in the study of American cannibalism, not because he ate a lot of people (we can’t be sure how many) but more for the inspiration his deviant activities furnished to some great books and movies, after his arrest and incarceration.

This film, called Ed Gein in the US and Australia and In the Light of the Moon in other markets, follows the life and crimes of the Wisconsin man who became known as “The Butcher of Plainfield”. Plainfield is a little town in Wisconsin, about forty miles from Chicago. Gein would haunt the cemetery at night to dig up corpses of recently deceased women, take them home and make all sorts of things out of their body parts. As well as chairs and lampshades covered in skin, bowls made of human skulls and belts made of nipples, ideas inspired by his fascination with Nazi atrocities, Gein would make women suits out of human skin (which inspired Jame Gumb – “Buffalo Bill” – in Silence of the Lambs) and then dress up as his Mama (which inspired the book and later hugely successful 1960 Hitchcock movie Psycho). His facemasks made out of human faces inspired the character Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Truly a seminal figure in cannibal studies!

The plot is pretty much an accurate retelling of his hijinks, as far as anyone can tell without asking him (and he claimed he couldn’t remember anything about the murders, plus he’s dead now anyway). Ed (Steve Railsback, who had played Charles Manson several years earlier) grew up with a mother (played by Carrie Snodgress of Diary of a Mad Housewife fame) who was a vituperative fundamentalist and beat the fear of God into her children.

Ed worshipped her and thought she was a saint, and went batshit crazy when she died.

But in a tiny little town like Plainfield WI, everyone was a bit weird (the film starts with some genuine interviews of the locals, and they look even stranger than Ed). Local people thought him odd but harmless, and even employed him to babysit their kids. He seems to have had no interest in women, until the ghost of his mother appears to him in a burning bush (I kid you not, this is how much he is Biblewashed).

Meanwhile, Ed spends his nights digging up recently deceased women and souveniring their parts, particularly their lady-parts, which he has researched pretty solidly.

His house if full of his trophies: lamps made from human spines, and shrunken heads.

But what he really wants is for Mama to return from the dead. He practices on his excavated corpses to see if he can command them to “AWAKE – AND ARISE!” and one seems to turn her head, but by now we are deep in his psychosis. He visits his mother’s grave and begs her to return.

He reads books about head-hunters, Nazis, and even the pulp detective comics that he used to get into trouble for wanking to in his younger days.

There are flashbacks to those younger days, including the funeral of his brother (whom, the movie tells us, he killed, which may also be true). Ed hugs his Mama, telling her it’s just the two of them now, but she pushes him away, feeling his overenthusiastic erection. Ed is a sinner, and he needs his saint.

So anyway, Mama’s ghost tells him that the women of the town are all sinners, whores, and he must visit God’s judgement upon them, then she will be able to return to him. Pretty clear to us, the audience, that he is having psychotic delusions, but to him it’s all very real, so he heads off to shoot, kidnap and eventually fillet and cook two of the townswomen – the one that runs the bar in town and the one that runs the general store. He also collects mementos like noses and breasts, and he particularly likes vulvas.

The rest of the bodies are not wasted either.

He has no neighbours within screaming distance, so he can get up to whatever he wants, including dancing in the moonlight in what Hannibal would call a “vest with tits”.

But bloodshed is not really his thing (even though he killed his brother, but that was for insulting their mom). The men of the town go off hunting deer as soon as the season starts, but Ed tells one of his prospective victims that he hates hunting.

But Mama has other ideas, and it’s clear that Ed has learnt, as a good Wisconsin carnophallogocentric man, how to dress a carcass. The men of the town are spending their nights inculpably slitting open harmless ruminant mammals of the family Cervidae, but are shocked and nauseated when the carcass in Ed’s basement turns out to be of another species. The word “butcher” has dual meanings – the butchers of Plainfield are horrified by activities of the “Butcher of Plainfield”. Put a capital B on the word butcher and it moves from blameless to shocking. But it’s hard not to notice that, until his psychotic delusions of mother take over, poor Ed is doing what everyone else is doing, but he’s doing it to dead bodies rather than living white-tailed deer.

Once the cops finally accept that Ed is not a harmless eccentric, they find lots of interesting things in his house.

This was a huge story in 1957!

So that’s Ed, our modern, domestic cannibal – a man (usually) who seems a bit odd but, everyone thinks, is apparently harmless. Think of the big names of modern cannibalism – Albert Fish, a sweet old man who took ten-year-old Grace Budd off to a purported children’s party, but really took her home for his dinner. Jeffrey Dahmer, who took young men home for photography and sex but then drugged them, drilled holes in their heads and ate parts of them. Armin Meiwes, who advertised on the Internet for someone who wanted to be eaten, and ate the successful applicant. Issei Sagawa, who shot a fellow grad student at the Sorbonne because he wanted to have sex with her corpse and then eat bits of her. Each of them were described by their neighbours as either “normal” or a bit odd but harmless.

Chuck Parello and Steve Railsback won Best Film and Best Actor respectively at the 2000 Sitges Film Festival, one of the leading festivals featuring horror and fantasy films. But the film scored a wretched 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics calling it “dry and dull.” I beg to differ. Ed is played as dull, because he appeared to be so, right up until he imagines Mama riling him up to declare war on loose women. His dullness and misapprehension of social and religious conventions that are usually unquestioned, is the whole point of the film, and the two main actors, Steve Railsback as Ed and Carrie Snodgrass as Mama, do a superb and convincing job. The slow, rural pace makes the sudden appearance of violence and body parts all the more shocking, and there’s plenty of both. The deaths when they happen are slow and wretched, as they would no doubt be in real life. There’s a surprising amount of suspense, the soundtrack admittedly is incredibly annoying, but other than that it’s a pretty great cannibal film, with lots of interesting philosophical questions to chew on.

Skin in the Game: PETA’s URBAN OUTRAGED campaign, 2021

https://www.urbanoutraged.com/

This website purports to sell leather goods: shoes, belts, coats, etc., all made from human body parts. And like many websites in this competitive time, they offer free shipping!

The campaign is from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and started back in June with a poster from celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz, who has photographed Kim Kardashian, Ricky Martin, Katy Perry, and Paris Hilton, as well as being a judge at America’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

PETA’s press release stated that leather production isn’t just cruel, but also contributes to the climate crisis, releasing hazardous chemicals. The World Bank has also cited cattle ranching as one of the largest drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Farming, transporting and killing animals for meat and leather is responsible for a very large proportion of global greenhouse emissions.

Here’s the poster near Penn Station in New York.

On the Urban Outraged website, the items for “sale” reveal human faces, human teeth, and oozing blood. Each item is named after an individual who was “killed” for it and is “reviewed” by customers. (“I’m not really a boot person, but I’m glad Meg was, because these are the best boots I’ve ever worn.”). Users can even send a fake “gift card” to their friends’ emails using the form on the last page.

After the initial page, the website gets deadly serious and asks:

Why is it OK to raise sheep just to shear off their wool?
Why is it OK to kill a cow for leather?
Why aren’t you horrified by what’s already in your closet?

“While Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Free People (all owned by Urban Outfitters, Inc.) don’t actually kidnap, abuse, or kill humans or other animals for their products, they do sell skin and other animal-derived materials from farms and suppliers that exploit and kill animals.
Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for wool, cashmere, leather, down, mohair, silk, and alpaca fleece production. Sheep are often beaten, stomped on, and kicked in the wool industry. Goats exploited for cashmere scream out in pain and terror as workers tear out their hair with sharp metal combs. Later, their throats are slit in slaughterhouses and they’re left to die in agony. And cows are routinely beaten and electroshocked for leather at some of the largest suppliers

Many cannibal films featured in thecannibalguy depict not just the consumption of human flesh but the use of other body parts, particularly skin. Think of Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, wearing a mask made of human skin. Or Jame Gumb, “Buffalo Bill” from The Silence of the Lambs, making a woman suit because he is frustrated at being diagnosed as not a true transsexual. Both characters, as well as Norman Bates from Psycho, were based on the real-life “Butcher of Plainfield” Ed Gein, who did kill a couple of women but mostly sourced his body parts from gravesites, and produced a bewildering array of  chairs, waste-baskets, bedposts, bowls, corsets, masks, belts and lampshades from human skin and bones.

The use of human skin, including for binding books, is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. Human skin used as a medium goes back into prehistory, and was reportedly popular among the Assyrians, who would flay their prisoners alive and display their hides. Perhaps the best known modern examples were the lampshades of Nazi concentration camp guards, but it was also not uncommon among slave owners, who felt that, since they owned the slave, they could use his or her body as they wished.

People have expressed shock and outrage at PETA’s new website, but that really was the point. Such atrocities against humans were carried out by people who saw nothing particularly wrong with what they were doing. The workers who skin cows and sheep, minks, snakes and crocodiles, dogs and cats and so many other animals are just, they say, doing their job. But that acceptance of appalling suffering for the sake of meat or clothing brings us closer to the possibility of adding one more species to the list of edible, flayable animals.