Ed Gein is watching. The most influential figure in slasher horror may be long dead, but his eyes are upon us. So are his mother’s. The pair cast a long shadow over the American murder landscape, and you can almost feel them breathing down your neck in discovery+’s new Shock Docs special. Ed Gein: The Real Psycho is a surprisingly fun whistle past a graveyard. Documentary film producer and paranormal investigator Steve Shippy heard the infamous proto-serial killer is still haunting the town he terrorized in life, and invites psychic medium Cindy Kaza to probe the inner darkness.
Shippy can barely contain his excitement, and he makes it quite contagious. He truly enjoys exploring Gein’s hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Every room in every building has a story to tell, though he sometimes seems anxious to get out of the woods. Kaza is mesmerizing as she slips into undead energies, and lets the story tell itself through the automatic writing of paranormal TV.
The townspeople are, well, creepy. Besides all resembling the actor cast as the sinister Gein in the recreations, almost any local resident can provide deep insight on the town’s most notorious resident. A man who bought antique knives at auction reveals the object carried a curse. Within weeks of buying them, he began seeing the shadowy figure of a man leaving the garage they were kept in. His family suffered a series of tragedies. Within moments of fingering a blade, Kaza feels the evil emanating from it, and discerns it to be a possible murder weapon.
Ed Gein: The Real Psycho leaves little doubt that Gein personifies evil. The documentary loves his malicious obsession with human flesh. The incidental music expertly captures the fun of the chills and spills. Too bad it’s scarier for the investigators than it is for the audience. Shippy and Kaza go bump in the night with every blip on their spectral thermometers. They love their toys – the Kinect audio readings, R2 meters, SLS systems, and motion sensors. “Did you say ‘Ed,’” Shippy asks a blinking light, and electricity charges the entire location. The name “Ed” can be made to be heard in every burst of static caused by the phantasmal interference. Kaza can do it while drinking a glass of water.
The team makes contact with the world of the dead everywhere they go. The love finding hornets nests to kick. This special marks the first time cameras have been allowed on the Gein property, and the cinematographers do a wonderful job matching contemporary shots against existing photographs. The series also does a very good job mixing the archival media with the recreations.
The documentary special opens with a quick and lurid overview of Gein’s crimes, starting with the discoveries made in his house of horrors. In November of 1957, Bernice Worden, a hardware store owner, went missing. Gein had visited the store the night before. When the police went to call on the possible witness, they came upon one of the most sickening crime scenes in American history. They found skulls on his bedposts; peeled faces in boxes; organs and bones arranged ornamentally; chairs, trash cans and leggings made of human skin; and a corset made from a female torso.
The recreations are appealing. While the actress playing Ed’s mother August may be too enthusiastic about slaughtering a pig to render it edible, seeing the lead investigator at the Gein residence jump back six rooms after seeing a body part in a cardboard box is a wonderful introduction. To be fair, this wasn’t what was usually uncovered in routine missing persons cases. Gein robbed graves, and escalated to killing. Much of what is assumed in this documentary is actually part of the mythology of the infamous Ed Gein. Like his “masterwork,” as the documentary calls his human skin suit, we’ve seen bits of Gein in thousands of horror films. His DNA is all over the slasher and serial killer genres. He inspired the Buffalo Bill killer from The Silence of the Lambs, Norman Bates from Psycho and Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, and Bloody Face in American Horror Story: Asylum owe him a great debt.
So, we can forgive Kaza when she occasionally appears to be channeling Alfred Hitchcock rather than any of the Bates family. She almost seems stung when Gein’s mother calls her a witch in a telepathic communique. Kaza is fascinating to watch as she takes in a room, and more so when she needs a time out. She shivers internally as unseen stick figures push down the fur on her coat. The most interesting thing Kaza sees, however, comes early and the documentary doesn’t follow up on it. She says there are more remains on the property. She even brings us there in a visualization. But no one goes digging. It is a good guess, in general, whether she is channeling the earth, making inner connections or historic calculations. If they’d actually found body parts on the property, it would have been quite the scoop.
But don’t fear. This is not the empty Al Capone-hidden-vault reveal which still haunts Geraldo Rivera. The special ends just as it hits its most interesting point: The property itself is possessive. Kaza and Shippy exit the scene before their minds get twisted. Sixty years after Gein’s arrest, Ed Gein: The Real Psycho brings closure. Ed gets his knife back, his mother is very proud, and Alfred Hitchcock makes an uncredited cameo in the photographic evidence the investigators bring to the table.
Ed Gein: The Real Psycho begins streaming Friday, April 9 on discovery+.