Under The Floorboards (Online review)

Under The Floorboards (Online review)

The real life figure of Ed Gein looms large in horror films and literature. Most famously he was the direct inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho and his terrible influence can also be found haunting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence Of the Lambs. But I’m not sure his real story has been told quite so directly as it is in Under The Floorboards which played live at the Edinburgh Fringe and has now emerged as an online performance film at this year’s Festival. You will need a very strong stomach for this one and is probably best avoided straight before bedtime. The guidance advice is for 18+ only and that should probably apply to my next paragraph too.


Gein was popularly known as the Ghoul of Plainfield after the small town where he lived in Wisconsin in the late 1950s. Mostly a shy, retiring farm hand he nevertheless lived a double life  – which was at least two more than he allowed his victims. While the actual murders were horrific enough the case is mostly remembered for the collection of human artifacts which were found when his home was raided by police. These included skulls being used as household utensils, a collection of female body parts and a lampshade and a full body suit made from human skin. Much of this was taken from the grave robbing exploits he got up to at dead of night. At his subsequent trial he was found, not surprisingly, not guilty by reason of insanity. He died in a mental institution in 1984 by which time fictionalised accounts of his deeds had taken hold on the public imagination.

Although the subject matter is horribly distasteful, there is no denying the skill with which writer/performer Simon Shaw has put together this solo piece which takes us into the mind of the serial killer and gives us a  taste of the horrors he perpetrated. Shaw’s Ed is himself a cadaverous husk of a man with sharp features, blackly sunken eyes and a restlessness which infects not only his body but his soul. His voice is thin and nasal, and he is capable of great bursts of anger. Many of these are instigated by the voice of his mother which he hears coming out of the radio and from within his own head and which seemingly guide his actions in perpetrating acts of violence towards other women both living and dead. By all accounts a religious fanatic able to quote chunks of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelations the hectoring tones (so well realised by Karen Littlejohn) drive her son to distraction. In an attempt to silence the voice, he carries out acts of desecration and, in the most gruesome scene of all, climbs into the skin suit of his victims in order to become her; if you’ve seen Psycho you will remember how Norman Bates takes a similar if not quite so radical approach.

It is a thoroughly gruesome but mesmerising fifty minutes which is staged relatively simply with a number of prop skeletons, a liberal use of Kensington Gore, some nudity and filmed with a strong sense of the macabre by Sian Williams. The lighting (uncredited but presumably a combination of Shaw and Williams) makes a strong impact though some of the most terrifying moments come in the various blackouts where sound alone helps imaginations to work overtime  – well, mine anyway. I can’t say I enjoyed this piece but then I don’t think I was meant to. However, I did learn a lot about one of the most notorious killers of the twentieth century and what made him tick. I just hope Shaw’s own mental health is robust enough for him to play such a part repeatedly and still retain his sanity.  

p08kn4ckToday’s bonus Scenes For Survival piece is Aleister Crowley Summons The Devil which, I guess, followed on “nicely” from the main event. Crowley (Gordon Houston) has rented a house near Loch Ness and gone into a self-enforced lockdown. He’s been ultra-busy trying to summon up Satan, but it’s not going well. In fact it’s all a bit of a bore. This is an amusing short from Denise Mina which shows just what loneliness can do to a person..

Under The Floorboards are available via the Edinburgh Fringe Festival click here

Scenes For Survival pieces are available from the NTS website – click here; a number are also available on BBC iPlayer – click here

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