With Halloween upon us I thought it might be a good time to remember the man responsible for the “Mother” of all horror films, Psycho.
In 1957 the real life story of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man who lived with his domineering mother was discovered to have led a double life as a handyman and as a psychotic murderer who collected human body parts fashioning them into clothing and a variety of household items. Using Ed Gein as inspiration for Norman Bates, Robert Block noted “Mothers sometimes are overly possessive, but not all children allow themselves to be possessed” when he penned his book, Psycho.
Robert Bloch was renowned for his dark wit and macabre imagination, he once stated “I haven’t had this much fun since the rats ate my baby sister”. The now defunct OMNImagazine commissioned him to write a non-fiction article detailing the process of death from cancer. Specifically his own, which was imminent. This was to be my first assignment for the magazine, and his last.
I phoned him to arrange the details of the shoot and he requested a “simple picture” at his home and not to be bothered with any grooming or wardrobe. He was very lucid and sounded better than I had imagined he might, unsure of his current condition I asked when he wanted to schedule the shoot. “If you need the money you better be here today or tomorrow, anything after that’s a gamble.”
The following day I rang the bell of his beautiful semi-modern home accompanied by a single assistant. I was expecting a more ominous looking home, after all, this was the guy who said “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Several minutes later we started considering the worst as we realized there were no signs of life, silence from inside, no cars in the driveway, the curtains were drawn. We rang the doorbell again and listened to confirm it was working and then knocked. Just as we were considering leaving, the door slowly opened to reveal an impish, barely ambulatory but jovial Mr. Bloch looking very “Vincent Price” donning a red velvet robe replete with ascot. “My apologies for being slow to the door but I’m afraid building suspense is in my blood.”
I had expected that family members or a nurse would be present but he was alone in the house. He led us to his living room and collapsed onto the sofa. I thought there might be a giant “elephant in the room” but he constantly made light of his prognosis. Clearly his emotions were more robust than his health so I was intent to take as little of his time and energy as possible. I started to suggest we do this another day but stopped when I realized that perhaps we couldn’t. He assured me that he had completed the OMNI article and once the photo was done he had nothing else on his calendar…ever. He asked to be photographed at his typewriter, where much to my dismay there was no evidence of a heart in a jar. The conversation quickly turned to an oddly humorous discussion about what the next few weeks would hold for him. He discussed his own death with a wit, clarity and nonchalance that was disarming. As it became clear the conversation was sapping his energy, he reclined on the sofa as we set up several shots around his home. When he felt up to it we made quick work of the simplest set-ups and abandoned the rest of the shots as he was clearly losing steam.
While my assistant wrapped the location I helped him back to the sofa where he continued to impress me with his intelligent wit, his presence of mind and the analytical way he was approaching his own demise. It was a valuable and timely lesson taught by someone uniquely qualified to teach it and one that I would reference often when forced to face with my own mortality, fortunately with a better outcome. Robert Bloch left quite an impression on me and passed shortly after these images were made.
I searched for the OMNI article online and found references to it but couldn’t find the unabridged text. The search was not in vein as I was impressed with the eloquence of this passage he wrote:
“Why do we personify time? Is it because we’re afraid to admit that our lives are measured by an abstract force that neither knows nor cares about our entry into existence? Or our departure into death? Time is our mysterious master, giving it a face and hands we attempt to transform it into our servant.”