Hollywood pushes “based on a true story” films quite often, not just in the present day with the success of movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Paranormal Activity (2007), which were manufactured true tales, or stories faked in their “reality” by the filmmakers before the films themselves were written, made, and released. The true “true story” film, one that was made with some sort of input from an existing historical tale or anecdote, has been around for some time, likely since 1899’s Major Wilson’s Last Stand, a short war film dramatizing the deaths of Major Allan Wilson and his men in final engagement of the Shanghai Patrol in Rhodesia in 1893.
Indeed, many films that advertise that they are “based upon actual events” are only loosely based upon them, sometimes to absurd extremes. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), for instance, was technically “based on actual events” only in so far as a rash of otherwise healthy people dying in their nightmares for no apparent reason — see the LA Times articles which inspired Craven in this Reddit subthread — inspired the creatives to elaborate the story of Freddy Kreuger.
Alfred Hitchcock’s incredible, genre defining horror piece Psycho (1960) is probably the most prevalent example of the “based on a true story” horror flick. Psycho and its underlying historical catalyst helped spawn multiple horror pieces that ultimately became very successful franchises: Tobe Hooper’s brilliant, low budget slasher flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974), with its chainsaw wielding maniac Leatherface owes much of his character to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho; Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) owes his name to Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) lover in Psycho, played by John Gavin; Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) owes much of his character to Norman Bates as well. Buffalo Bill is probably the most historically and psychologically accurate of all, in light of what we know about the actual historical catalyst behind the movie serial killer.
All of these movies, to a large degree, owe the respective pathologies of their various madmen to both Norman Bates in Psycho, and the historical catalyst that helped develop the Bates character in the Robert Bloch novel upon which the movie itself is based: schizophrenic Wisconsin grave robber and serial murderer Ed Gein. Hitchcock bought the rights to Bloch’s novel anonymously for just $9,000.00 and also bought every copy that he could get his hands on: control of information was a big part of the key to Psycho’s initial success. Because of the ubiquity of Psycho’s story, this article will not focus on it: but will instead look at the film itself, parallels between Gein and Bates, and their differences.
Ed Gein grew up on an isolated farm near Planfield, Wisconsin with a abusive, alcoholic, father, and a very domineering, religious zealot, of a mother. Augusta Gein, in fact, moved the family to their Plainfield homestead to shield both her boys from the outside world (they only left the farm to attend school). After the passing of Ed’s father (and later his older brother, more on that below), it was just Ed and Augusta on the farm. It is for this reason that many Gein scholars call the farm a factory for madness.
It was after Augusta’s death in 1945 that Gein began losing his already tenuous grip on reality, the paranoid schizophrenia he would later be diagnosed with likely manifesting itself more fully around this time. Gein ultimately murdered at least two women, and pillaged the graves of many others in the hopes of weaving himself a “woman suit” from their skin — an exact similarity to Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. This is not a huge departure from Psycho however: Bates, as mother, killed to reconcile a guilt complex that was intimately intertwined with his sexuality. Gein killed and robbed graves partially for this as well, yet his main motivation he very much shared with Norman: preserving mother in some way.
Gein is distinctly different in character from Norman Bates in further ways. First, Bates is a fairly young guy (maybe in his late 20’s) in Psycho, Gein, in contrast, was in his late 40’s when he began killing and robbing graves. Hitchcock (and likely Bloch) thought making him younger would increase Psycho’s distinct level of tension. Second, Gein did not murder his mother, like Bates did in the film. There has been, however, many questions surrounding Gein’s brother’s suspicious death on their Wisconsin farm during a brush fire he was fighting with Ed.
It is important in looking at “based on a true story” films, to not necessarily judge the film itself on how faithful the filmmaker is to the story, but rather how well the filmmaker tells the story he is presenting — just as in any film. Hitchcock chose to tell Psycho in a number of innovative ways as the story arc of the film itself had never really been attempted in Hollywood. It was for this reason that he chose to go with monochrome versus Technicolor: he literally did not know how the huge amount of blood — actually Hershey’s syrup — in Psycho would play. Hitchcock also wanted to experiment to see what would happen if he did an exceptionally executed black and white movie, because black and white, poorly made B-Movies were doing so well at the box office. Psycho is, in essence, high art in B-Movie drag (pardon the pun).
Hitchcock knew he had a hit on his hands. It was for this reason that he decided to forego his usual $250,000.00 salary in lieu of sharing profits on the film. This move earned him about $15 million as he took many other avenues to cut costs, like retaining much of the crew he used on the television side of what he did.
The marketing of Psycho was also a gigantic part of its initial success because it all drove home the fact that any details or information about the movie’s narrative needed to be tightly controlled — many of these techniques were also borrowed from Hitchcock’s one time rival, French Master of Suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot in his marketing of 1955’s Diabolique. Hitchcock, for instance, did not even tell his cast the film’s ending until very close to when he shot it, when he gave them that part of the script. He also swore them all to secrecy (literally) before he began filming. Every theater showing Psycho also had a cardboard cut-out of Hitchcock with the following message to the audience: “The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life, not to admit to the theatre any persons after the picture starts. Any spurious attempts to enter by side doors, fire escapes or ventilating shafts will be met by force. The entire objective of this extraordinary policy, of course, is to help you enjoy Psycho more. Alfred Hitchcock.”
All this, combined with artful storytelling, combined to deliver one hell of a cinematic punch that stands the test of time, 58 years after its conception in Psycho.