I was talking to my friend Canadian Kate* when she made a truly outrageous claim:
*her name is Kate, she’s from Canada.
She claimed that Ed Gein was cooler than Ted Bundy.
Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of serial killers will know, of course, that Ted Bundy is way cooler than Ed Gein. The argument raged on for seconds (maybe even minutes) before we decided that we’d have to settle this scientifically.
We decided on six categories* which would determine which was the overall more awesome serial killer:
*Kate: Do you think it’s at all weird that we’re nutting out a measuring stick for serial killers here?
Me: I did, briefly, but then I realised that it was even weirder that you would even think that Ed Gein compares to Ted Bundy in any way.
I should probably point out that neither of us has any ambition to be serial killers (although if we did, we’d definitely be awesome at it) and of course we don’t actually respect or admire these men for their deeds.
But let’s face it, serial killers are pretty damned interesting.
Kate: Are we morbid, unnatural people for finding this all so endlessly fascinating and enjoying ourselves compiling data on serial killers?
Me: I think it’s because they’re so far removed from our own nature.
Me: I could never kill anyone, so I find anyone who can just absolutely fascinating.
Me: Serial killer? Sign me up for the newsletter!
Ed Gein isn’t a household name and it’s contentious as to whether he’s even a serial killer – he was only convicted for two murders. But he’s fascinating for his continued effect in popular culture and our imagination.
Like many ‘disturbed’ people, Gein had a rough childhood. His parents were unhappily married, but stayed together for religious reasons. His mother was a powerful character who ruled her two boys with an iron fist. They were only ever allowed out of the house for school, and were discouraged from making friends or having relationships outside their family unit. Religion was the main fodder the boys were raised on, with daily Bible readings focusing on the Old Testament, and lectures about the immorality of the world and the evils of both drink and women. Verbally abused at home, Ed was also bullied at school due to a slight physical deformity and his antisocial ways.
His father died young and Ed had a problematic relationship with his mother – he was desperate to please her, but faced verbal (and potentially physical) abuse at her hand. Still, when his brother started exploring a world view outside of the one on which they’d been raised, he suffered a suspicious ‘accident’ during a brush fire. Gein was never convicted, but researchers believe Gein killed his brother for his disloyalty to their mother. A year and a half later, his mother died, leaving Gein alone in the house. He boarded up the rooms his mother had lived in, leaving them exactly how they were.
And then he started grave robbing.
Specifically graves of women who reminded him of his mother.
This sort of creepy mother/son relationship is the foundation of Norman Bates’s character in Psycho, and the family dynamic (of a son who’s just misunderstood) forms the basis of Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But even creepier is how Gein inspired The Silence of the Lambs: he created a woman suit.
When police eventually investigated Gein’s house after the disappearance of the local hardware store owner, Bernice Worden, they found both Worden’s corpse (’dressed out like that of a deer’) and Gein’s souvenirs:
After his mother’s death, Gein decided he wanted to be a woman, so he made a suit which allowed him to pretend to be female.
The arresting officer, Art Schley, died only a month after testifying at Gein’s trial. He physically assaulted Gein during questioning so Gein’s initial confession was inadmissible. Friends and family say that Schley was so traumatised by the crimes and by testifying that he had a heart attack and died at the age of 43.
Gein was originally deemed mentally unfit to stand trial and went off to Central State Hospital. When the hospital was converted to a prison, he was transferred to another.
Eventually Gein was considered sane enough to stand trial for his crimes and he was found guilty – but spent the rest of his life in a hospital, legally insane.
Gein’s grave became a site of frequent vandalisation with the gravemarker being chipped away and eventually stolen altogether. When it was recovered, it was placed in a museum.
Gein’s car, which he used to move the bodies, was sold at public auction after the trial, and became a carnival sideshow attraction. For 25 cents, carnival goers could see the car.
Ted Bundy is my very favourite of the serial killers. He is an amazing, fascinating, man. A monster, of course, but once you get past all the rape and murder, it really is impressive what he managed to accomplish. My strangest dream is to play Ted Bundy in film some day.
Most serial killers have what’s called a “stressor” - an event that makes them snap, something that finally pushes them over the edge and makes them start killing people.
Ted Bundy doesn’t seem to have anything like that. His tale starts in 1972 when he was 26. Ted had two long-term girlfriends (both at the same time, neither of whom knew about each other) and asked one of them to marry him.
Two weeks after she accepted, he dumped her and started killing people.
Not people he knew, just random college girls. He murdered about 9 people in 9 months; The police had descriptions of both him and his car, and several people rang their hotline to accuse Ted specifically, but the police were getting so many random accusations that they had no particular reason to go after him.
He moved from Washington to Utah, killed three more women in October and about four or five more in the next 6 months before finally being arrested…for not pulling his car over to the side of the road when asked.
They found evidence tying him to the murders, Bundy was found guilty for kidnapping in Utah and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. That might have been the end of it but Colorado wanted to try him for murder, so they extradited him. He was allowed to visit the court-house library during a recess where he jumped out a window (spraining his ankle in the process), casually strolled through the town, and hid on top of a local mountain.
Lost on the mountain, Ted was found by a man with a gun who was specifically searching for him, but managed to talk his way out of trouble. Amazing. He stole another car and drove down the mountain; he would almost certainly have gotten away, but was pulled over because he was weaving in and out of his lane on the highway and his headlights were dimmed.
Ted Bundy was sent back to prison, and escaped for a second time; this time they didn’t even realise he was gone until 17 hours after his escape. He caught a plane to Chicago, a train to Michigan, stole a car, and drove it to Atlanta, then caught a train to Florida, and started killing again: five people in one night, and then another about a month later.
A few days after that last murder, he stole another Beetle (his car of choice)…and got pulled over.
Cars. They seem to be Ted Bundy's kryptonite.
In June, 1979, 5 years after he’d started killing people and almost 2 years since he last escaped, Ted Bundy was sentenced to death.
On the 24th of January, 1989, a full ten years later (he managed to delay his death in a dozen different ways) Ted Bundy was put to death. I can’t honestly say that it was a bad thing - normally I’m completely against the death penalty, but this guy was just too good at escaping to be kept alive. I can say, however, that if he was still alive, I’d be interested in meeting him. I think he was a fascinating individual.
Ted Bundy confessed to 30 murders, but the exact number has never been proven - estimates are as high as 100, but most guesses are around “35″, so we’ll use that for now. Each murder will be given a value of 0.1 (for a total of 3.5) because let’s face it, it’s not a particularly interesting crime. He also escaped from prison…twice…which gives him an extra 2 points, for sheer audacity.
He raped a lot of women, which he can have half a point for and I’ll give him an extra point for necrophilia. Necrophilia is pretty rare, and it has a lovely, exotic-sounding name. Maybe I’ll name one of my daughters Necrophilia; “Phil” for short.
Total score: 7/10
They could only ever prove that Ed Gein killed 2 people, but a lot of young girls went missing around the area in the six or seven years before Ed’s arrest. He claimed that he had nothing to do with these missing girls, and never found anything linking him to the crimes; none of the body parts found belonged to them, no evidence ever turned up. I love the idea that there was a second, unrelated murderer in the area, around the same time, but I suppose we’ll never know exactly what happened. He can have 0.5 for his murders, we’ll split the difference.
His crime-count really starts adding up when you count his grave robbing - he made over 40 late-night visits to the local cemetery (where, incidentally, he was later buried.). He can have a full 5 points for that (grave-robbing is super interesting). He can also have 4 points for “desecration of human remains” just for sheer quantity and creativity: he had a belt made out of nipples and a bowl full of vulvas. One was painted silver, with a bow on it.
Total score: 9.5/10
Gein used the remains he recovered from the graves of ‘recently buried middle-aged women he thought resembled his mother’ to create trophies that included clothing (socks and a vest) and furniture upholstery made out of tanned skin, skull-cap soup bowls, a window shade pull made of human lips and shrunken heads. He also created a ‘woman suit’.
Only two murders (and one’s just suspected). I think murder should get a guaranteed 3 or higher. So let’s go with 3 + 1.5 for other, relatively harmless, crimes.
Total score: 4.5/10
Some early theft, but the main part looks to be kidnapping, rape and murder, though there’s some necrophilia and prison breaks in there too. It’s murder, and there’s lots of them, but they seem to be pretty straightforward ‘I hate women’, power-hungry kind of stuff.
So a definite 3, plus another 2 for number and geographical range, plus 1 for violence. 1 for prison breaks (cool, but not really hardcore) and 0.5 for other misc. crimes.
Total score: 7.5/10
First, he represented himself at his (main) trial and cross-examined witnesses. He won over the judge, who stated
“It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity as I’ve experienced in this courtroom. You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer, and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that.”
While cross-examining a former co-worker, Carole Ann Boone, Bundy proposed and Carole Ann accepted. They were legally married, and Bundy was entitled to conjugal visits which led to the birth of his daughter. Carole took their daughter and disappeared, however, presumably after coming to the realisation of what kind of man she’d married. No one knows what happened to them.
Bundy, when questioned by the FBI after his sentence, spoke of himself only in the third person and only in hypothetical terms. And as a last ditch attempt to save his life, Bundy agreed to an interview with an evangelical Christian organisation where he claimed ‘porn’ made him do it.
Representing himself in court – and doing it well – is pretty darned awesome. Let’s go with an automatic rating of 2 for representing yourself, with an extra 2 for doing it well. Proposing to a witness you’re cross-examining and having her accept? Drink the whole freakin’ bottle. Bundy gets a 9.5
The only reason he doesn’t get a 10 is just in case, in some inconceivable future, someone figures out a way to top that.
But I’m not holding my breath.
Total score: 9.5/10
Not so much – he was kept pretty busy with the digging and the tanning and the craft work. I’ll give him a 2 for handy-work and creativity.
Total score: 2/10
I had a few different ideas for determining notoriety among the general population. Going door-to-door, ringing random phone numbers, stopping people on the street…
Then Canadian Kate suggested that ringing random phone numbers to ask about serial killers would be a bad idea, so instead we settled on “The Mum Test”. I contacted my mother, and Canadian Kate contacted hers.
My Mum: Ed Gein, I’ve never heard of. But Ted Bundy…he’s a mass murderer, isn’t he? And a TV show character.
Me: TV show character?
Mum: Yeah, on one of those American bits of crap.
(I went off and looked “Ted Bundy” up on IMDb. Apparently he was played by James Marsters (Spike, from Buffy) on an episode of “The Capture of the Green River Killer”. I was impressed that mum had seen this show and remembered the character from one episode, but then she got back to me.)
Mum: Wait! Al Bundy, not Ted Bundy. He’s from Married With Children.
Ted Bundy: 1
Ed Gein: 0
Al Bundy: 0.5
Canadian Kate rang her mother, who instantly recognised Ted Bundy’s name, but had no idea who Ed Gein was…until Kate said “He’s the guy who Buffalo Bill is based on.”
“Ohhh,” she said. “Him.”
Personally I think this is cheating, but I’ll give Ed half a point.
Ted Bundy: 2
Ed Gein: 0.5
Then, for a slightly more reliable test, we went to Google Trends, and compared their names. Ted Bundy got “1.00″, and Ed Gein got “0.82″.
Then, for the fun of it, I compared them both to John Howard, ex-prime minister of Australia. Ted Bundy was still ahead.
For the sake of science, I’ll multiply the google results by 5, and add them to The Mum Test.
Ted Bundy: 7/10
Ed Gein: 4.6/10
And, assuming that both of our mothers had heard of John Howard,
John Howard: 6.7/10
Ted Bundy has had four movies made about him - The Deliberate Stranger in 1986, Ted Bundy in 2002, The Stranger Beside Me in 2003, and The Riverman in 2004 (there must have been a demand for serial killer movies in the early 2000s). That last one starred Cary Elwes which automatically gives it a bonus point. Ted Bundy was the only one that was theatrically released, but I’ll go with a point for each one.
In addition to that, there are a handful of bands that I hadn't heard of named after him - “Ted Bundy”, “Ted Bundy Loves Dogs”, and “Dr Bundy or How I Learned To Stop Murdering Girls and Love Myself”. No points.
Ted Bundy’s biggest coup, however, would have to be Silence of the Lambs. There are aspects of his character that inspired both Hannibal Lecter (the greatest fictional serial killer of all time - a favourite of both myself and Canadian Kate) and Buffalo Bill: Ted Bundy was approached by the FBI to help them solve some current serial killer cases (this is what helped keep him alive for another 10 years after his sentencing) and Buffalo Bill’s habit of asking girls for help to lure them to his van was directly taken from Ted Bundy. One point.
Total score: 6.5/10
Ed Gein’s movies were all theatrically released - Deranged in 1974, In the Light of the Moon in 2000, and Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainsfield in 2007. Apparently they were all awful though: one point each. He, too, inspired a few bands that I haven't heard of - “Ed Gein”, “Ed Gein’s Car” and “The Philharmonic Orchestra of Ed Gein”. No points.
Ed Gein’s contribution to pop fiction are mainly the fictional serial killers based on him. Three of the most well-known serial killers in the world - Buffalo Bill, from Silence of the Lambs, Leatherface, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the big one, Norman Bates from the film Psycho (although only the film, not the book). He can have two points for the last two and one poing for Buffalo Bill because he shares that honour with Ted Bundy.
He can also have a point because Marilyn Manson’s ex-bassist named himself “Gidget Gein” in tribute to Ed Gein.
Total score: 9/10
Well, there’s the necrophilia – Bundy used to revisit his corpses for sex until they’d decomposed too much. There’s also some squickiness with the actual crimes, but they were more “violent horror” than real squick.
Let’s go with 2 for repeated necrophilia, plus an added 1 for the ‘until putrefaction made it impossible’ part. 0.5 for assaulting a woman with a speculum – anything associated with PAP smears is automatically squicky. And he can have a 0.5 for repeatedly applying make up to the corpses.
Total score: 4/10
Grave digging? Dressing human bodies like animals? Skull-cap soup bowls? Human clothing?
I’m going with an 8 for this one; his score could have been higher if he’d eaten the flesh (no sign of that) or had sex with the corpses (he didn’t because they smelled too bad).
Actually 8.5 for that, because he admitted he would have had sex with them if they hadn’t smelled bad.
Total score: 8.5/10
I was telling my sister about what they found in Ed Gein’s house. Her reaction: “That’s so disgusting, but it’s also kinda cool. If it wasn’t real life, it’d be awesome, but it actually happened, so it’s really gross.” It’s a quandry that I think a lot of people find themselves in. Serial Killers: Fascinating but gross but kinda cool anyway.
Anyway, before we reveal the final scores, and determine who is the cooler serial killer, let’s see all the numbers again:
The final scores:
Ed Gein: 38.1/60
Ted Bundy: 41.5/60
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Ted Bundy is the coolest serial killer, but only by a hair! We don’t like to actively encourage serial killers, so there will be no prize (also: he’s been dead for twenty years, almost to the day.) but from now on, whenever you find yourself in that argument (and if your friends are anything like mine, this is a near-constant occurrance) about whether Ted Bundy is a cooler serial killer than Ed Gein, just send them to this webpage.
Because we just proved it. With science.
While I was writing this, someone suggested that perhaps there is another serial killer out there, somewhere, who is cooler than Ed Gein or Ted Bundy. It’s a little hard to conceive such a killer, but feel free to put other serial killers through our rigorous scientific process. Then - and only then - will you be able to tell, using numbers, exactly how cool any serial killer is.
Suggestions: “Charles Manson”, “Jeffery Dhamer” and, most interestingly of all, “Jack the Ripper”. I’m curious to see how Jack the Ripper compares, because he was quite cool indeed.
If you disagree with any of our findings, feel free to let us know. You’ll be wrong, of course (we have science on our side) but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts!
Note: Please do not become a serial killer, in an attempt to be the coolest of all times. That would just be embarrassing for everyone.
Canadian Kate, my co-writer for this piece, can be found at her Tumblr, where she writes about writing, romance novels, and Australian fiction.