Fans of vintage horror films tend not to be drawn to the exploits of real-life serial killers; for our "fixes" of macabre mayhem, we turn instead to the silver screen and the (generally bloodless) bloodbaths harmlessly play-acted on Hollywood sound stages. And yet the name Ed Gein is familiar to most horror fans: We know that the shiftless, middle-aged Wisconsin ne'er-do-well was responsible for a string of grisly backwoods killings and mutilations (not always in that order), and the reason we know is because Robert Bloch reportedly used him as the model for the character of Norman Bates in the novel Psycho.

But, apart from their respective homicidal streaks, similarities between the two are elusive, to say the least. Bloch wrote in his 1993 autobiography Once Around the Bloch that he "knew very little of the details concerning [the Gein] case and virtually nothing about Gein himself" when he wrote his 1959 page-turner. The author claims to have created Norman "from whole cloth," basing his story on no person, "living or dead, involved in the Gein affair" (italics mine). And, true to Bloch's disclaimers, there's precious little resemblance between the grinning, gregarious small-town loafer Gein and the Norman Bates described in Bloch's novel: a plump, bespectacled, 40-year-old motel clerk who relishes his books, basks in gruesome fantasies, and squirms under the ruthless domination of his ever-present, nagging mother.

Noël Carter, wife of renowned fantasy-SF writer Linwood Carter (1930-88), says that "Norman" can be traced to a far more likely sounding source of inspiration. "I heard about this from Lin," offers Mrs. Carter (an author herself). "Lin and I met at the end of 1962 and were married in '63, and I became very involved with science fiction and fantasy, and with all Lin's cronies. Among his cronies were Chris Steinbrunner from [New York City's] WOR-TV, a wonderful, dear friend, and an awful lot of people who had been around in the '50s. They were all older than I, and among the people in the group that sort of ebbed and flowed with time was Robert Bloch. And Bloch was fascinated by [Castle of Frankenstein magazine publisher-editor] Calvin Thomas Beck. Calvin was also in that group, on the fringes of it, with his mother constantly in tow.

"When I met Lin, we saw all the Hitchcock retrospectives and were avid Hitchcock fans. I told him how much I liked Psycho, and he told me the story that, when Robert Bloch was part of this group, Bloch got the idea for Psycho and he based it on two characters. One was the Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, who killed women and hung up their eviscerated bodies. Ed Gein is the one everybody knows about. But Norman was also based on Calvin Thomas Beck and his mother.

"Chris Steinbrunner [author of two renowned film books and the Edgar-winning The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection] later confirmed this, so it wasn't just from Lin. This was common knowledge, but it wasn't discussed a great deal because Calvin was part of the group and it might hurt his feelings. Calvin's mother was a noisy, dominating little Greek woman who followed him most everywhere. She told me herself that she went to his college classes, she monitored classes at college with Calvin. As she told me this, I thought to myself, 'He must want to kill her!,' but he was completely dominated by her."

John Cocchi, one of America's top film researchers, an author and expert-in-residence for American Movie Classics, is less certain about the long-whispered "Beck-Bates" connection. "Chris Steinbrunner used to invite me to the very elaborate Halloween parties that Noël and Lin gave out in Queens, and I met Calvin there. Calvin and I became friendly, even though the mother was always with him. And, yes, I heard the [Psycho] rumor, people were always saying that about Calvin. He and his mother had a very close relationship which he didn't care for, but he just couldn't get rid of her. I guess he was too polite to tell her off, to say, "I'm a grown man, I'm middle-aged. Don't follow me around!" But she didn't have any kind of a life aside from him, so I guess she had nothing else to do!"

Writer James H. Burns first met Beck in the "Hospitality Suite" of a 1976 Lunacon; Burns walked in and saw a man on the phone with the hotel operator, imitating Orson Welles and asking to be connected with the Diamond Exchange in South Africa ("That was my introduction to Calvin Beck!"). Burns also questions the persistent rumor. "It sort of smacks of something that may have started as a funny joke, and became a rumor, and then was around so long and seemed to have so much going for it that it became accepted as truth," says the Esquire/American Film/Preview/Starlog scribe. "There could have been grudges back in the '60s that continued for a long time, or even resentment that Calvin was the only person of that fan group who was publishing a successful magazine. He may have been the only fan ever to publish a national magazine, at least, one that lasted that many years. Maybe secretly people resented that -- fandom can be an envious place. And any negative thing you could say about Calvin would stick in people's minds. The [Psycho rumor] is the kind of story that has such resonance to it, such bizarre juice, that over 30 years of thinking about it, you could start accepting it as fact without even realizing that you first heard it as a rumor."

Mrs. Carter sticks to her guns. "I was told that Robert Bloch admitted it, but he was a little reluctant [because] he was afraid of a lawsuit or something! It was common knowledge, and it was not something that people surmised.

"Lin and I used to give what was quite a celebrated Halloween party every year, starting in 1964 maybe," Carter continues. "For about 12 years, we gave a big, big party. People came from all over, it was well known in fandom and a lot of people from fandom were part of the group, science fiction and fantasy writers and artists. And Calvin always used to angle for an invitation. I had never invited him because of his mother, because his mother went with him everywhere. For instance, she went to all of the cons, whatever con he went to, she was there too. What happened finally was, Calvin called me up and asked why he was never invited to the party. I said, "Well, frankly, Calvin, it's because of your mother. I'd love to have you come, but we're all grown-ups here, and we don't invite our parents to parties!" He said he understood, and he would like to come, and he would make sure his mother

"So he came to the party, and she called up virtually every hour on the hour. She called up to check that he was there. She called up several times. I'd say, "Mrs. Beck, he is with a group of friends. They're upstairs, they're in the library, looking at books. No, I'm not gonna call him to the phone. Yes, he will get home safely." This is the kind of woman she was! I presume she was like that throughout his life, and this is what Robert Bloch observed. The whole Mother business in Psycho comes from Calvin's mother. August Derleth wrote about Ed Gein in the book Wisconsin Murders [1968]; I read it years ago, and nothing about Gein made me think of Norman and Mother. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that [what Lin Carter, Steinbrunner and, allegedly, Bloch] said was true. As a writer myself, I know that one thing will stick in your mind, and that will be a jumping-off point. Calvin Thomas Beck's mother was the jumping-off point for Psycho."

"His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world." Dr. Richmond (Simon Oakland)

Adding weight to the argument, Beck even resembled the fictional Norman. "Calvin was overweight, very greasy-looking, with a full, fat-cheeked face," says Carter. "He had black, wavy hair that was very unattractive, and a mustache. And he did wear glasses. Calvin was always overweight, and unhealthy looking."

"But he was wall-eyed," says Cocchi, adding a detail not found in the Bloch book. "One eye was straight, and the other one looked over to the side. So he never looked directly at you. I think that was a defect he was born with; he told me once that he had like 30 percent impaired vision, I guess like a black spot. When he looked at people, he couldn't see them correctly unless he moved his head and looked at them with his other eye. (In which case, the bad eye was now looking off to the side!) He didn't explain why he never tried to have it fixed; maybe it couldn't have been."

"I was with Calvin and a friend at a convention in New York," reminisces Ted Bohus, Jersey-based filmmaker and editor-publisher of SPFX magazine. "Calvin was saying something and I was totally ignoring him. My friend said, "Ted! Calvin's talking to you.' I said, "Oh! I'm sorry! I didn't know -- 'cause he was lookin' at you!" One eye went one direction and one eye went the other direction [laughs]! We were hysterical. But, fortunately, Calvin had a pretty good sense of humor about those things."

Bohus first met Beck in the late 1960s; introduced by a mutual friend, they discovered they not only shared an interest in movies and magazines but that they lived five blocks from one another in North Bergen, New Jersey. Despite their proximity, however, Bohus entered the Beck house (9008 Palisade Avenue) but once. "I had heard that people had a lot of trouble trying to get in to see Calvin," says Bohus. "A lot of times they would go to the door if they were supposed to give him an article or something, and he'd open the door a crack and put his hand out and grab the article and just slam the door in their face. One time he asked me to bring to his house something he needed for the magazine. I go over to the house and he opens the door a crack, and I say, "Well, can I come in?" He looks behind him, like he's worried that something's gonna descend on him, but then he says okay. As I walk in this house, out of one of the adjoining rooms I hear this 'voice' [Bohus makes bird-like shrieking noises]. A horrible, screeching voice! It would yell his name, and then start ranting and raving. I got in for a little while (the place, of course, was all stacked up with crazy shit), but with her ranting and raving so much, I felt embarrassed. I didn't know if she was gonna come out and stick a knife in my back or not! It was that scary. I said, 'Look, Calvin, maybe we'll get together some other time.' And it was a shame, because he seemed to like certain people, like myself, who [shared his interests]. He really seemed like he wanted to get out and do stuff. Boy, it was very strange."

"I think that we're all in our private traps -- clamped in them -- and none of us can ever get out." Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)

"Mr. X" (a CoF staffer speaking on condition of confidentiality) recalls the one time Beck complained to him about the mother: "He said, 'You have to understand my mother. I'm the only son she has, and I have to live with it.' It was kind of an emotional outburst; he was unhappy about something his mother did, and he said to me, 'She never allows me to have any friends.' That's the only time I ever saw him become emotional. One time his mother got so emotional that [CoF associate editor] Bhob Stewart, who was working there at Beck's house, got so upset he couldn't work any further. He just dropped everything and walked out of the house and took the bus back home. Beck had to call him and reassure him it wasn't gonna happen again." Stewart quit the magazine after a subsequent North Bergen visit ended with Helen Beck raising a shoe over her head and physically threatening him.

"My mother -- what is the phrase? -- she isn't quite herself today." Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)

Noël Carter remembers one of her stranger encounters: "When I was very new in Lin's group, I did not know that you were supposed to avoid the mother like the plague. We were all at dinner, at a steak house in New York, and Calvin and his mother were there. Everybody rudely just jumped for seats, and I ended up at the end of this long table with Calvin's mother, because everybody else was smart enough to avoid her. She said to me [in a heavy Greek accent], 'So, tell me, dahling, vot you theenk Greek men?' (That's the way she spoke.) I did not want to talk with her [laughs]. I figured, 'If I'm rude, she will ignore me, and I can continue with the conversation at the other end of the table.' So I said, 'Well, frankly, from my experience in college, I think Greek men are dreadful.' She looked at me and she said, 'You're absolutely right!' and, to her, this made us soulmates [laughs]! She then told me about her relationship with her husband, including some of the intimate details, such as the fact that they never slept together after Calvin was born. (You can see what a burden that put on Calvin.) She made her entire life around Calvin. She hated the father; the father was hated and reviled. They lived together but they had no relationship. Her whole life went into Calvin, and Calvin's education: 'I even went to college with Calvin. I monitored all his courses with him.'

"Then she went on to say that her husband (who was no longer living) had been ill for many years. Well, I later found out that the story was that the father had evidently had a stroke or something, and he had been upstairs in the bedroom for years. And no one ever saw him. So, you see, this was another aspect of Calvin's story that Robert Bloch picked up on. The father disappeared up there to the bedroom, and nobody was quite sure when he died. All of a sudden, he just wasn't around any more. I mean [laughs], they could have kept him a prisoner, for all anyone knew! One could really embroider this, I'm just giving you the bare bones, which is that he was up there, a stroke or heart attack victim, cared for, but never seen by anyone after a certain point. Ironically, many, many years later (this was after I divorced Lin), Calvin's mother became ill and bedridden, and she retired to the upstairs, where she was taken care of but never seen. Then, ironically, he became ill, and was bedridden for a long period of time. It's sort of like a generational thing, goodness knows what was going on in that house. I would not particularly like to think about the psycho-dynamics of it, Psycho being the operative word!"

"But she's harmless. She's as harmless as one of these stuffed birds." Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)

John Cocchi also got the impression that Helen Beck had hated her husband, Calvin's dad. "Well, I think she didn't like too many people. When Calvin and his mother were with us, and one of us had to speak to her (we always avoided her, we always thought she was odd), she would always tell us about her life. But never about her relationship with Calvin, that was never spoken of. She was always saying, 'I was a great concert pianist, but when I married my husband, he forced me to give it up.' She said she had been living almost on the dole since then. We didn't know whether or not to believe her, I didn't really believe her, but I never contradicted her. We always took her with a grain of salt."

"She would always have stories to tell," laughs CoF contributor Charles Collins, who first met the Becks (again through Steinbrunner) back in the '50s when father, mother and son lived in Elmhurst, Queens. "Oh, she said she had worked for the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover had gotten down on his hands and knees to thank her for the work she did. She was very anti-Communist at the time, and she always felt there were Communists pursuing her [laughs]! Then we'd hear about all the other great things that she did, and what an artist she was in the old country."

Collins continues, "After Psycho came out, the [Calvin-Norman] rumor was very prevalent among the science-fiction crowd. I met Robert Bloch on a couple occasions, like when he was guest of honor at the first World Fantasy Convention, but I did not feel that I knew him well enough to ask. But the rumor was always there, and I always wondered about it myself. Calvin's mother was extremely possessive and controlling, and quite mad. She had the classic delusions of grandeur and delusions of persecution. So our relationship with Calvin ran in cycles. We would go over there, we'd visit him, we'd go out with him, but every time we went out, his mother always came with us. Always, right up until she got so elderly that she couldn't. But whenever she felt that we were getting close to Calvin, she would break up the relationship in very bizarre ways. We'd be friendly with Calvin for a while, and then the mother would intervene and we wouldn't see him any more. Then a few years would pass and everything would be all right again."

In preparing his 1975 book Heroes of the Horrors, Beck contacted New York-based movie producer Richard Gordon and asked to speak with him about his experiences with Bela Lugosi. "This must have been in the early 1970s. I was at my old office at 120 West 57th Street," says the veteran filmmaker. "He called me and asked me if he could come up to interview me. It was, I think, the first interview I ever did for a genre magazine. He came up, and his mother, whom I had heard about from Bill Everson and other people, came along with him. He came into my office and sat down, and she stood in the corner behind his chair. Didn't say a word throughout the entire interview, just kept her eye on him. I also remember that she was dressed all in black. He was dressed very informally, but she was dressed completely in black, rather like Mrs. Danvers always was in Rebecca. He must have been in my office for about a half-hour or so. And when he finished, he got up and thanked me and he and she walked out. She was silent throughout the entire session. I was reminded of Norman Bates and his mother in Psycho -- the whole ambience of having him and his mother in my office was very reminiscent of Psycho. That's the thought that's crossed my mind any time I've thought of him, down through the years."


Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

Thanks to John Antosiewicz, Ted Bohus, James H. Burns, Noël Carter, John Cocchi, Charles Collins, Richard Gordon, Bob Madison, Mr. X and Tony Timpone

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