News Column

The Wisconsin State Journal Doug Moe column

May 10, 2013


May 10--Maybe the only way to get a fresh take on Ed Gein is to take Gein himself out of the equation.

A little history shows this to be true.

The notorious 1950s serial killer from Plainfield has inspired writers and film directors dating back to Robert Bloch's 1959 novel "Psycho," made into a classic film a year later by Alfred Hitchcock.

Distinguished filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog concocted a plan in the 1970s to travel to Plainfield -- in Waushara County -- and dig up the grave of Gein's mother to see if the skeleton was still there. (Gein had both mother issues and a predilection for unearthing corpses.)

Morris and Herzog discussed the contemplated excavation during a 2007 appearance at Brandeis University. At the last minute Morris got scared and backed out. Herzog hung around Plainfield and ended up shooting a film, "Stroszek," using Plainfield residents as actors.

The deeply weird movie came out in 1977. Roger Ebert described how the film ends with a policeman radioing the following: "We've got a truck on fire, can't find the switch to turn the ski lift off, and can't stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician."

The movie played the Wisconsin Film Festival in spring 2009.

It was later that year that the trophy for audaciousness -- Ed Gein division -- was retired, probably forever, with the release of a film titled, "Ed Gein: The Musical." The movie's writer told me the filmmakers didn't even try to shoot the musical comedy in Plainfield. Omro was more welcoming, the writer said. "After we convinced them we weren't going to eat their kids."

So the question remains: What's left to say about Ed Gein?

Caleb Stone's answer is to cast his eye not on Gein, but on the residents of Plainfield, and how the killer's notoriety impacted them.

Stone, 39, is a Dodgeville writer, and his Plainfield play, "The Arsonists," debuted in 2011 at the Alley Stage in Mineral Point.

A new production by Madison's Mercury Players Theatre premieres tonight at the Bartell Theatre on East Mifflin Street. It will run through May 25.

Stone grew up in Poynette and attended UW-Madison, where he studied creative writing and got involved with a local theater group called First Banana Productions, which staged its shows at Brave Hearts Theatre on Atwood Avenue.

Stone wrote numerous one-act plays, and in 1997 he directed no less a work than David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" for First Banana at Brave Hearts. When we spoke earlier this week, Stone had warm words for Brave Hearts founder Tom Petersen. The theater closed its doors in 1999, and Petersen succumbed to a brain tumor just a few months later.

Although Stone hasn't lived in the city for a decade -- relocating to Dodgeville in 2003 -- his Madison theater connections served him well these years later with the recent offer to stage "The Arsonists" at the Bartell.

"The Arsonists" is Stone's second full-length play. He decided to expand from one acts after the Alley Stage -- "a beautiful little outdoor theater," in Stone's words -- opened in Mineral Point in 2006 and advertised for original submissions.

"I thought, what the heck, I'll take a shot at writing a full-length play," he said.

Stone fashioned a tale about a father and son who follow a devastating loss with a camping trip to the boundary waters of Minnesota. A ghost figures in the story. He called it "I See Her Everywhere" and Alley Stage produced the play in summer 2008.

"The Arsonists" came out of Stone's interest in true crime stories and his growing up in Wisconsin. He'd heard about Ed Gein, of course. But he had no interest in revisiting the gore of Gein's deeds. Rather, his interest as a dramatist lay with others in the town.

When Gein's story burst into the headlines in 1957, it seemed nearly unprecedented. It predated the "In Cold Blood" murders in Kansas and other horrors to come.

"This was when America was fairly innocent," Stone said.

Reporters and make-a-buck artists descended on Plainfield in droves. According to Stone, who has researched the case, the town's initial horror turned to anger at the intrusion. A line may have been crossed when rumors began to swirl that the Gein home would be turned into a tourist attraction or its items auctioned to the highest bidder. In early 1958, the house burned down, official cause unknown.

Stone's play -- "I kind of give it away in the title," he said -- centers on two couples in Plainfield and how they deal with events spinning out of control in the town.

Stone said some theater friends from Madison saw the production of "The Arsonists" in Mineral Point in 2011, liked it and expressed interest in bringing it to Madison. That's happening, starting tonight at the Bartell.

Stone will be there. He's always interested in the audience reaction. He recalled one performance in Mineral Point when he was approached afterward by a young man who said he'd grown up in Plainfield. It's still a touchy subject, the man said. Until his senior year in high school he had never heard of Ed Gein.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.


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