The real life figure of Ed Gein looms large in horror films and literature. Most famously he was the direct inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho and his terrible influence can also be found haunting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence Of the Lambs. But I’m not sure his real story has been told quite so directly as it is in Under The Floorboards which played live at the Edinburgh Fringe and has now emerged as an online performance film at this year’s Festival. You will need a very strong stomach for this one and is probably best avoided straight before bedtime. The guidance advice is for 18-plus only and that should probably apply to my next paragraph too.
Gein was popularly known as the Ghoul of Plainfield after the small town where he lived in Wisconsin in the late 1950s. Mostly a shy, retiring farm hand he nevertheless lived a double life – which was at least two more than he allowed his victims. While the actual murders were horrific enough the case is mostly remembered for the collection of human artefacts which were found when his home was raided by police. These included skulls being used as household utensils, a collection of female body parts and a lampshade and a full body suit made from human skin. Much of this was taken from the grave robbing exploits he got up to at dead of night. At his subsequent trial he was found, not surprisingly, not guilty by reason of insanity. He died in a mental institution in 1984 by which time fictionalised accounts of his deeds had taken hold on the public imagination.
It is a thoroughly gruesome but mesmerising fifty minutes which is staged relatively simply with a number of prop skeletons, a liberal use of Kensington Gore, some nudity and filmed with a strong sense of the macabre by Sian Williams. The lighting (uncredited but presumably a combination of Shaw and Williams) makes a strong impact though some of the most terrifying moments come in the various blackouts where sound alone helps imaginations to work overtime – well, mine anyway. I can’t say I enjoyed this piece but then I don’t think I was meant to. However, I did learn a lot about one of the most notorious killers of the twentieth century and what made him tick. I just hope Shaw’s own mental health is robust enough for him to play such a part repeatedly and still retain his sanity.