Why Werner Herzog Nearly Dug Up Ed Gein's Mother's Grave

The crimes of serial killer Ed Gein were so grotesque and fantastical that they have inspired decades of movies and television, including Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as well as the characters Leatherface of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs. The grave robber, cannibal, and human taxidermist struck such curiosity in renowned filmmakers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog that they almost dug up the grave of Gein's mother just to test a theory they had.

It all started in early 1975, when Morris said he was just starting to think of himself as a filmmaker. He was fascinated with Gein's notoriety for skinning his victims and exhuming bodies to make clothing and reupholster furniture. So, Morris traveled to Wisconsin to conduct a series of interviews with Gein while he was in prison. He also visited the Plainfield cemetery with a psychiatrist friend when he noticed that the graves Gein had robbed formed a general ring around the grave of his mother, Morris recalled during an event in 2007 at Brandeis University (via The Believer). When he returned home to California, he shared with Werner Herzog his findings. He told Herzog about Gein's hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin, including his visit to the cemetery. Morris couldn't shake one nagging question: Did Gein exhume his own mother? "I dreamed of being able to exhume Ed's mother's grave," Morris said, per GQ.

Morris and Herzog make a plan to exhume the grave of Ed Gein's mother

In the summer of 1975, Herzog (pictured above, right) and Morris (pictured above, left) agreed to meet in Plainfield to finally test the theory that Gein had already dug up his own mother. And the only way to do it was to engage in the crime of digging up the corpse themselves. Herzog drove down from Alaska with his German producer, but Morris backed out; he never even left Los Angeles. Morris said it was fear that got to him. "I started to have these images of me and the Germans, the full moon, the shovels, the squad cars arriving unexpectedly," Morris said, per GQ. "The looks of horror and disgust. I imagined my mother: 'Errol! How could you What were you thinking?'" 

Without Morris, Herzog didn't dig up the grave. He did, however, see Plainfield. And Herzog was so inspired by the town's landscape that he used it for his next film, Stroszek, according to the Austin Film Society. Morris felt betrayed by Herzog's choice of setting, and it became a source of conflict between the two for years. Morris eventually spent more than a year in Plainfield and conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, but his Ed Gein project remains unfinished to this day.