By TOM WEAVER
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,
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
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
"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 ; 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."
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
"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
"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
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."
think that we're all in our private traps -- clamped
in them -- and none of us can ever get out." Norman Bates
- "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.
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!"
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
"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."
ON THE BECK-"PSYCHO" CONNECTION
Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers
and many others available from McFarland
Thanks to John Antosiewicz, Ted Bohus, James H. Burns, Noël
Carter, John Cocchi, Charles Collins, Richard Gordon, Bob
Madison, Mr. X and Tony Timpone