As each writer on this site can greatly attest to, a love of horror can be a very personal experience. Every single one of us is a part of this because of the genre’s effect on our lives. Often times, it’s a very solitary exhilaration that is quite difficult to spell out to non-horror fans. This obsession usually stems from a moment in your youth that etches itself into the psyche. For the horror lover, it’s a feeling that is hard to capture in words. One film can end up the catalyst to a world of cinema one didn’t know existed. And so from there, we immerse ourselves in all that horror has to offer. We consume like ravenous creatures with an insatiable hunger for the perverse. The need to see more-more blood, more gore, more screaming, more shock, more, more, more. We then find ourselves entering adulthood with these same feelings, but they refine themselves to specific aspects of the genre (i.e., subgenres, offshoots, etc.) that we find the most appealing. For example, if you’re a regular visitor to The Blood Sprayer then it comes as no shock to you when I say that exploitation films are a personal love affair of mine. My unnecessary amount of knowledge on movies from the grindhouse generation is a product of my constant search for this shit. And most of it is just that-shit. But day after day, I unearth more movies I have yet to see or films that I must own. Like I said, it’s an obsession. Still, this obsession for each and everyone of us, regardless of your personal pallet, tends to be the result of the one film that captured your spirit. I would not be an exception to this rule. All of my years of consumption are the result of one film that follows me through everyday of my life-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Growing up during the slasher/VHS heyday was a benefit to people from my generation. The floodgates of 70’s drive-ins and sleaze theatre houses closed briefly, only to reopen themselves to the home video market (which Jayson Kennedy knows much more about than I do). As VCRs became more prevalent in the “average” households, the independent entrepreneur (for some reason coming in the form of drug stores and vacuum retailers) saw this as their opportunity to cash in by offering up libraries of every goofball, one-off flick being mass produced. The video rental process became an event to middle America. Not only could the entire family be entertained by movie magic, but they could do so from the comfort of their own home. No more exhorbanant ticket prices, just filling out some paperwork (remember the membership process?), grab a pizza and your night was made. Everything you could ever want was in the shelves of those video aisles. You could watch “Pete’s Dragon” for the umpteenth time or maybe dad wanted to watch a Peter Sellers flick again (most likely a Pink Panther movie). But what made these video store visits so memorable was the allure of the scads of horror films. All the movies that came slinking out of those 42nd St. theatres after the Republican homogenization of Times Square now found their home on VHS. The captivating exploitation poster artwork had now been printed onto colorful inserts that were carefully wrapped around large plastic cases but now came with added bonuses. We were now graced with some of the most violent still shots from said film and given a rousing synopsis of the film we hoped to slide passed mom’s approval process. God, the descriptions were so vivid. You could practically wipe the blood from the photos. It would make your pulse race with excitement. If the pictures were this graphic, just imagine what the movie was like! It is that very sentiment that lead me to Bubba Sawyer and his family’s heinous acts against a van full of unsuspecting teens.
My parents weren’t horror fans. In fact, to this day, after my mom took an ill-fated trip to the theatre to see “Halloween” stoned out of her mind, she has completely blocked horror from ever hoving into her field of vision again. And my old man doesn’t really say much when it comes to film, period. They certainly like movies (I’d go as far as to say my mother actually loves film) but not horror. Not in the slightest. My fanaticism piqued from two points: The first being a morbid curiosity/vouyeristic tendency to see things I’m “not supposed to see”, and the second being my grandmother. Grandma Betts wasn’t the most discerning when it came to monitoring the intake of pop culture no-no’s. She enjoys the arts and enjoys film more than a lot of my family members actually knew and/or realized (even to this day). The video store just one town up the road was filled to the brim with the bygone imports that shocked audiences just a decade earlier. This is where I cut my teeth on horror along with many other people from my generation. I needed to see what was going on in these films. I had to know if these were the “most shocking events in the annals of horror”. Grandma helped fulfill that need. She didn’t even look at what I was grabbing, she just let me rent it. This freedom I (of course) abused to no end. If it looked gruesome, I rented it. If it even remotely looked like something my mother would abhor, I watched it. Should I have been allowed such freedoms? Looking back on it, probably not. I was exposed to far more sexuality and violence than a kid at that age should be but I didn’t necessarily grasp those concepts fully. I was more interested in watching people get cut up, eaten, and torn to bits. It was fun! Yes, things scared me but it was a fear that I wanted to explore (once again, correlating back to my voyeuristic tendencies) and had ample opportunity to do so. I’m getting to Texas, by the way. Give me a minute.
To understand why Texas is so important to me, is to know the circumstances in which I first encountered the movie. My grandmother’s house was at the end of a dead end street that lead to a dark patch of woods (which aren’t nearly as ominous as they seemed in my youth). Her house had a giant picture window that gave you a clear look into the darkness. At night, it became a scary place where scary things lurked…or at least, that’s what I’d convinced myself of. The box art proclaimed that this movie was the “most horrifying motion picture” Rex Reed had “ever seen”. A giant man, running with a chainsaw in hand, wearing a mask made out of a victim’s face, while large horrified eyes peered over each respective shoulder. The film’s title was written in block lettering, each letter bold and capitalized. That in and of itself was all the convincing I needed to know that this movie was exactly what I needed. I had to watch this movie and it had to be tonight. The anticipatory car ride home was intense It was all I could do not to burst as I knew that (for some unforseen reason at the time) this movie was going to ignite my senses. What I didn’t know was to what degree.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s” genius lies in its ability to trick you. Truly, the movie is horrifying in both visual and emotional presentation, without question. But what makes it horrifying is what it convinces you’ve seen. Fans often mistakenly refer to Texas as “gory”. It’s not. In fact, there is very little gore in the movie. The chaos of watching the fate play out for the Sawyer family’s latest victims moves at a dizzying pace. Not so much in speed, but in its nasty activity. As a child, I had not yet dealt with a horror that was this realistic. My experiences prior mostly delved into creatures, demons, monsters, zombies, etc. Perhaps the closest I’d come thus far had been the faceless killers that would be known as “slashers” for years to come. But at that young of age, even I could discern between reality and not to a certain degree. I knewthat you couldn’t actually be shot, set on fire, or electrocuted, survive, and continue killing. It wasn’t a practical concept to me even then. But with Texas, reality became a new found threat. This conceivably could happen. The Lone Star State is a scary place before adding the threat of those little travelled back roads to the mix. I had family that lived there. Were they anywhere near where things like this go on? My dad picks up hitchhikers on occasion-what if one them marks our car?! And this was “based on true events”?! It was all so real, it had no other option but to be frightening. Without having ever seen it, you know from the first frame onward that there is very little possibility in this ending well for anyone involved. It’s comparable to a Fugazi song: Beginning with a quiet unrest, it explodes with a chaotic blast that is almost unmatched. When you realize that they’ve stumbled upon a place that they’re not welcome, it’s too late. The final 2 acts of the film are filled with violence, noise, maniacal laughter, and hopeless screams. There was no turning back.
It is difficult to recall exactly how the whole evening played out for me, short of sensationalizing a semi-true version that reads well. I can recap what I do remember of the evening. I sat on my grandma’s couch that ran the length of the giant picture window. She sat adjacent to me in her recliner, knitting. I enjoyed watching her knit, as she involuntarily smiles while in the midst of doing so. Her head bobbed slightly (the bobbing head is sort of a thing that happens to every aging member of my family) in a counter rhythm to the rocking of her chair. Normally, while watching movies I’d excitedly make (what I can assume were) dumb, juvenile comments about the images playing out on the screen. This would prove to be a much different experience. I didn’t say but a few words throughout the duration of the movie. Without sounding too corny, the movie left me speechless. It was so grimy. I’d seen films from this era but none had that filth that Texas did. If I do remember properly, I don’t think I hardly even moved. I’m pretty sure I sat practically immobile, just shocked at what was going on. If you’ve heard people say that watching TCM is like watching a video of something you weren’t supposed to see, they would be correct. While I knew it was a movie, it still had that feel of reality that I wasn’t ready for. I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Poorly preserved corpses propped up in furniture made out of human bones, chickens in birdcages, unintelligible grunts and squeals substituted for conversation-and all that screaming. It was a relentless experience. This wasn’t about evil. Evil is a spiritual experience that dwells in the realm of the unknown. This was a visceral experience. One that provoked a fear that I now know I wasn’t prepared for. Needless to say, sleep was not going to come easy to me that night. Of all the horror flicks I’d seen up to this point, this was the first to haunt me. The couch I normally slept on was not going to do tonight. It was too close to that window that was too close to whatever awaited unsuspecting victims who mistakenly entered into the woods…or, at least that’s what I’d convinced myself of. TCM was going to be the cause of me taking a break from horror films for a few weeks.
Despite the affect it had on me, I couldn’t deny the power of that movie. I knew at some point I would have to watch the movie again. It wasn’t going to be anytime soon, but I knew it had to happen. When I did eventually work up the nerve to revisit Texas, I discovered nuances I missed due to being overwrought with fear on the first outting. There was a comedic quality to the movie that was lost on me previously. Leatherface’s family was kind of silly. Lots of backwoods hickish behavior was the cause of the chaos that played out onscreen. And let’s not forget about our victims. Franklin, the wheelchair-bound fifth man, expertly whined his was through his performance, creating a template for generations to come. Everyone in the cast was a characture of what normal people would be in a harrowing situation such as this (which we know to be the staple of horror scripts). Was the grandpa alive, too? That aspect was confusing and made more so by the lack of explaination. While we’re at it, let’s talk about The Cook. In this family of inbred lunatics, he was seemingly normal. He dressed/looked/sounded like your neighbor (if your neighbor wore a bowtie) but instead of handing out Werther’s Original, he…um, killed and cooked people…to eat…?
Though this may have made me view the film differently, there’s still one person that made the film the classic it is: Leatherface. Leatherface is my Darth Vader. He’s my Jason. He’s my Michael Myers. While he terrified me upon first viewing, he quickly became the face I associated with horror. The chainsaw and mallet (his weapons of choice) became synonymous with fear for me. What could be more terrifying than silence abruptly broken by the sound of a chainsaw screaming? According to that movie, there’s no escaping it’s madness. From here, an icon was born into my life. Leatherface and his cohorts would follow me throughout the rest of my days…
As years travelled by, horror became an infection I would never be cured of. In a lot of ways, TCM created my pallet. Being exposed to something that unnerved me that much became the foundation I built this creepy house upon. The ball started rolling and didn’t stop. If it looked fucked up, I had to watch it. Horror was my primary drug of choice, cinematically. I tore through all the collections at the surrounding video stores and when that was finished, moved onto whatever HBO and Cinemax provided me. Some of the films from those formative years have followed me into adulthood, but none stuck like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It had its mandatory viewing times (i.e. sleepovers, Halloween) and was something I held very closely to my heart. If I was in a conversation with someone discussing horror movies, I always directed the conversation back to my beloved. I certainly watched all the sequels to Texas that dropped throughout the years, but none of them ever came close to capturing the spirit of the original. And why is it so precious to me? What makes in any more important to horror? Well, how much time ya’ got?
At the beginning of all this, I explained how and why I think horror is so personal to its fans. It’s a link to a memory. Not to generalize, but the most dedicated horror fans are banded by a common thread-we’re outcasts. I don’t mean in that whiny, “no one understands me” sort of way. I mean while we’re usually well adjusted human beings, having a full-fledged love affair with horror alienates you from the general population. Naturally, this unites us in our commonality. But after many discussions with horror fans, I’ve found that the love of the genre became so strong because it was an escape from a miserable aspect of their real life. I’m from a generation of kids who grew up in broken homes. It also happened to be the same generation that exposed the prevalence of psychological illnesses that had been hidden behind closed doors for so long (alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic abuse of various kinds). Fortunately, I wasn’t from a broken home and my parents were both hardworking, good people doing their best. I was, however, a victim of sexual abuse when I was younger. It wasn’t anything that my parents could’ve prevented from happening. It went on from the age of 6 until I was 9 years old and was able to realize that what was happening to me wasn’t supposed to be. As the whole legal process unfolded in this situation, I thrust myself into horror films and music as a means to escape. I guess I can dissect all the different ramifications of this sort of abuse and correlate it back to why I’m entertained by violence. You know, the implications of abuse and the outlet manifesting itself into violence-obsessed tendencies, blah, blah, blah. I’m not a violent person, so that theory has holes but I definitely used horror films as a way to lose myself in a fantasy that wasn’t made up of personal misery. This emmersed me in a world that had nothing to do with therapists, or lawyers, or counselors. It was a place all my own that allowed me to not be me for a few hours. This personal connection to horror, and more specifically The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has made me the person I am today. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is what allows me to say “Here is what links me to my childhood and the good that did come from it.” No, it’s not conventional but it is what has indebted me to horror until the day I die. Speaking on behalf of the horror community, I am not alone. Each one of us has our own version of this story. We don’t care about hot shit hipster films. We care about fear and its aftershocks.
I’ve attacked this from a lot of different angles. I’ve strayed off the path to the Sawyer home and wandered into the Freudian domain. I’ve even reminisced about wonderful memories of the time I spent with my grandmother. All of this was done in the hopes of trying to convey (to the readers of this website) why The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is so goddamn sacred to me. Looking back through what I’ve written, I don’t even know if I did it justifiably. This insecurity has been the source of my hesitation in writing this piece. Texas isn’t just hallowed ground to me, it’s horror royalty. Arguably, it’s the film that is responsible for the look and feel of “torture porn”. Rob Zombie has spent the last several years trying to make his Texas (not there yet…not by a long shot). Quentin Tarantino has called this his favorite film from the drive-in era. Leatherface is a mass-produced Halloween costume that can be found in hundreds of retailers each fall. Multiple toy manufacturers have paid homage to the film and Leatherface (and there are lots…trust me, my home is filled with them!). The chainsaw became the Jaws of horror weapons-where does your mind go the moment you hear a chainsaw firing up?
Like a classic film should, its ability to endure is what gives it a lasting legacy. Here I am 37 years after the film’s theatrical release, raving like a religious lunatic preaching his end times manifesto. When you can still shock/frighten the modern moviegoer, you’ve cemented yourself into the annals of film history. In our jaded post-modern society, knowing that a film from the 70’s is still making audiences wince is quite comforting. Consider this as well: If shitting on perfection is the sincerest form of flattery (also known as the remake), then Texas should be blushing. Just this week, news came down the wire that Twisted Pictures had acquired the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, ensuring that we will see another chapter in the Sawyer family’s rampage.
So, with all the rambling and detours I’ve taken, it feels appropriate to end on personal note. Years from now when my son thinks he’s too cool for school, I’ll proudly pull Texas from the shelf and be able to say “You think that’s scary? Watch this”. He’s already aware of Leatherface as our home is literally covered in TCM memorabilia, but he’s not old enough to grasp its nightmarish display. My wife and I have made a conscious effort to not be hypocritical and hide the arts from our son, while simultaneously being discerning. Having said that, I eagerly await the moment I will get to share that film him. It will allow me to tell him about my first encounters with the movie. The fear I felt, the excitement of seeing something so gonzo. From there, I’ll get to pass on all my memorabilia, regaling him with the back stories and why this thing is cool or what makes this figurine so unique. This will be the film that I pass on to my son to keep the horror gene coursing through my lineage. He will be able to attend horror cons sporting a Leatherface t shirt, chat up his geek friends about this classic and help to keep the memory vital. It’s that biding belief in this film that keeps me coming back to it. I have yet to find a movie that tugs at me in this way. Each viewing unearths another nuance to the film that I had not yet discovered. I’ve written all of this at the risk of sounding crazy, but my world is better having The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in it. It will eternally take me back to a good place. It’s both my first memory of being truly terrified of a movie and captivated by it at the same time. There’s no one item needed-this is my desert island. If the saying “he wears his heart on his sleeve” has any truth, then my heart belongs to a madman…and it’s his to have forever.