1976 Flashback: Werner Herzog & Errol Morris Plot to Dig Up Ed Gein’s Mother’s Grave
Warning: some disturbing content and language below.
By now, we all know that Werner Herzog is the most interesting human being drawing breath on this planet. His films alone should be evidence of this, but he continually drops anecdotes about his life that make it clear that no one else need even bother trying to be interesting because the market is cornered.
Here’s an anecdote I read about in passing that Herzog and his close friend, filmmaker Errol Morris (whose shoe Herzog once ate, yawn) dropped in a 2008 interview.
Apparently, during the shooting of Herzog’s 1977 masterpiece STROSZEK in Plainfield, Wisconsin, Herzog and Morris were so fascinated by the horrific deeds of hometown serial killer (and inspiration for both PSYCHO and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) Ed Gein that they planned to dig up the grave of Gein’s mother to find out if he had in fact abducted her corpse, as was alleged. It’s the kind of plan that a pair of mischievous young people, deep in their cups, might discuss late at night, but, as it turned out, Herzog was 100% serious. Morris was not. Here they are from their 2008 Believer interview:
Werner Herzog: There is something about Kemper and, of course, Ed Gein as well—we had a falling out over Ed Gein at the time, sometime later.
Errol Morris: Cannibals can turn friends into enemies. Go figure.
Werner Herzog: But actually, yes, it was a deep concern and in a way it had to do with cinema, for you at that time were more into the direction of writing. But we had a very, very intense rapport over it. Errol had a problem with me when we tried to find out in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where Ed Gein—the very probably most notorious—
Errol Morris: The movie Psycho was based on Ed Gein. Robert Bloch, the writer of the novel Psycho, lived in a small Wisconsin town, Weyauwega, about twenty miles from Plainfield. Ed Gein was notorious. And the farmhouse where he lived alone became the ultimate house of horrors. He had upholstered furniture in his house with human flesh. He was a human taxidermist, cannibal, serial killer, grave robber, necrophile. An all-around good guy.
Werner Herzog: Errol wanted to know more about the grave robberies, because Ed Gein had not only murdered people. He also excavated freshly buried corpses at the cemetery. And I do remember: he dug up graves in a pretty perfect circle. And in the very center of this circle was the grave of his mother. And Errol kept wondering, did he excavate his mother and use her flesh and skin for some sculptures in things at his home?
Errol Morris: A relatively innocuous question. [Laughter]
Werner Herzog: So the only way to find out is, I proposed, let’s go to Plainfield, grab a shovel, and dig at night. And I showed up in Plainfield, Wisconsin, because I was doing some filming up in Alaska and I came in a car all the way from Alaska down to Plainfield to visit Errol
Errol Morris: I was living with Ed Gein’s next-door neighbors at the time, who I had befriended. Beth and Carroll Gear.
Werner Herzog: You didn’t show up.
Errol Morris: Oh, much later, yes. The chronology of all this is coming back to me.
Werner Herzog: I was there, but you didn’t show up. And we had a date. It was something like September 10, and I said, I’m going to be there, and you will be there, and you didn’t show up.
Errol Morris: He’s unfortunately correct.
Werner Herzog: And I would have dug, even though Errol wasn’t there. I was kind of scared because people open fire easily in this town.
Errol Morris: Well, wait a second. I had been living there. I had become friends with this very strange doctor, Dr. George Arndt. He had written one academic paper in his entire medical career, called “A Community’s Reaction to a Horrifying Event.” Essentially it was a compendium of Ed Gein jokes. I had befriended Dr. Arndt and together we drove to Plainfield Cemetery. He had a very, very big Cadillac. It reminds me actually of that scene in your Antarctic movie. Dr. Arndt and I had put our ears to the ground in the vicinity of the Gein graves, looking for hollow areas in the earth.
Werner Herzog: I had forgotten about it completely. So things come back thirty-five years later.
Errol Morris: And Dr. Arndt, who was really quite mad—I should tell you at least one of the Ed Gein jokes. Do you remember any of them?
Werner Herzog: I don’t think so.
Errol Morris: Why did Ed Gein keep his chairs covered overnight?
Werner Herzog: I don’t know.
Errol Morris: To keep them from getting goose pimples. So I was there with George Arndt in the cemetery and Arndt had this theory that Ed was so devious that he wouldn’t have gone down directly into his mother’s grave. I had discovered that many of the graves that he had robbed made a circle around his mother’s grave. And Dr. Arndt took this new information and came up with the hypothesis that Gein went down into one of the side graves—he only robbed the graves of women who were middle-aged and overweight, like his mom. He went into one of those graves and then tunneled, that there would be this radial tunnel toward the center, toward his mother’s grave. Arndt’s theory was that Gein would never have gone directly down into his mother’s grave. Psychiatrists have amazing theories. But he would never go down into the grave. As Arndt put it: Gein was too indirect, too devious. Hence, his radial digging, this tunneling. And I wondered, Wait a second—is she really down there? I could never get an answer. I could never get a straight answer from anyone. Is Mrs. Gein still buried in Plainfield Cemetery? And I told the story—this was the big mistake here—I told the story to Werner.
Werner Herzog: And I showed up in Plainfield.
Errol Morris: And so there was this horrible realization: he’s actually going to do it. And I have to say, I did get scared. I had this picture—you know, I was always really—I probably still am—trying to please my mother. I had already been thrown out of these various graduate schools. I was a ne’er-do-well, and down for the count, and I saw my life flashing before my eyes. I saw myself arrested with the Germans. I saw this full moon. I saw the Plainfield police. I saw the police photographers. I saw myself being led away with the Germans in handcuffs, the complete disgrace. So this is an opportunity to apologize. I apologize for not showing up.
Werner Herzog: I have to apologize for something else, because my car had broken down and there was no mechanic in the mile out there. There was a wreckage yard, and I fell in love with the guy who fixed my car.
Errol Morris: Clayton Schlapinski.
Werner Herzog: Yes, Clayton Schlapinski. And I said that we were going to do a film there in Plainfield, and that really upset Errol a lot. He thought I was a thief without loot. This was his country, his territory, his Plainfield, and I shot in Plainfield. I shot a film, Stroszek, which I think is forgotten and forgiven by now, and we can maintain friendship over this now.
Errol Morris: I told Werner: For you to steal a character or a story isn’t real theft. But to steal a landscape, that is a very, very serious crime.
Werner Herzog: I understand that. I take it to heart, but there actually is a film out there, and we can’t take it off the map.
Errol Morris: It’s a very good film.
Werner Herzog: It has a beautiful end with a dancing chicken, and I really like it.