Under The Floorboards

Simon Shaw
Simon Shaw
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Under The Floorboards Credit: Clive Thompson
Under The Floorboards Credit: Clive Thompson

Fiction would have us believe psycho killers are urbane, erudite, seductive people. In reality, that is unlikely to be the case. Ed Gein, the real-life killer and body snatcher whose crimes inspired authors like Robert Bloch, Thomas Harris and now Simon Shaw, was hardly a charmer.

After the death of his mother, Ed (author and sole live performer Simon Shaw) struggles to make friends. His mother’s judgemental and abusive parenting has left Ed incapable of socialising and prone to screaming outbursts of temper. Missing the guidance of his mother, Ed decides to exhume her body from the graveyard and is initially comforted when he begins to hear her voice (Karen Littlejohn in full Southern Belle tones). But Mother continues to control Ed’s life and he descends deeper into insanity.

Under The Floorboards is a recording of a theatrical presentation. One can imagine in a live environment it would have been an intimidating experience with Shaw addressing the audience direct and informing them bodies are buried under the floorboards where they sit. The intensity is inevitably diminished in the recorded version; for one thing, the audience has greater control and can watch with the lights on. Yet the stylised gallows humour Shaw adopts allows him to demonstrate how Ed’s pathetic efforts to fulfil his fantasises have terrible consequences.

Ed is not articulate, so Shaw depicts his actions rather than rationalising them verbally. Ed’s actions, which included cannibalism and using body parts to make clothing and household objects, are, however, revolting, so to avoid repelling the audience, Shaw sets a mood of extremely dark humour. Skulls are used as ventriloquist’s dummies and Ed hunts down his victims adopting the vocal mannerisms of Elmer Fudd. When waltzing with a skeleton, Ed remarks his partner is light on her feet. Ed explains how to manufacture masks made from real human faces in the over-cheerful manner of a do-it-yourself TV presenter.

It is common, in real life, when a killer is revealed for neighbours, to express incredulity—stressing he was a quiet chap who kept to himself. In Ed’s case, people are unlikely to accept him as a killer because Shaw portrays him as ineffectual. With his eyes darkened into a puppy-dog stare and a wiry frame, Shaw seems creepy but not dangerous. He adopts a high voice with a child-like giggle. Preening himself in an effort to adopt his mother’s personality, he seems absurd—giving an idea of how far his fantasies are from reality.

Under The Floorboards gradually and disturbingly draws the viewer into Ed’s twisted logic. Repressed by his bizarre upbringing, he is incapable of forming relationships so makes friends with corpses exhumed from graveyards. As his madness deepens, Ed extends this reasoning into dressing as women using body parts from real people. Yet the strongest example of Ed’s insanity remains his acceptance, and justification, of his mother’s abusive behaviour.

The darkly imaginative approach taken by Simon Shaw retains the shock and horror of Ed’s exploits but avoids the sense of squalor making Under The Floorboards compelling, if disquieting, viewing.

Reviewer: David Cunningham