Apocalyptic Americana

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre | art by Tony Stella

illustration by Tony Stella

“I guess everything means something.” 


When we are introduced to the soon-to-be-vulnerable youths in Tobe Hooper’s
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, they are talking about what the stars portend for their trip. Sitting in the back of a van full of five friends, Pam reads out loud from an astrology book, explaining to her fellow travelers how the malefic planet Saturn is currently in retrograde, its chances to infect the world with evil maximized. It’s a scene that is easily forgotten once we careen into brutality, but it’s significant; in a film that provides no answers as to the source of the human depravity it depicts, it is ironically through invoking the esoteric that we feel proximate to some sense of reality. As if we could not understand such cruelty and carnage being committed by human beings—we surely must be hurtling towards the rapture. A few minutes later, they pick up a hitchhiker off the side of the road. 

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Despite its title, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre famously contains very little blood. It more than makes up for it in sweat. Filmed during a Texan heat wave, where the daily temperature averaged 100 degrees, Hooper utilized (and weaponized) the environment to push his film deeper and deeper into madness. The filmmaker once told The Austin Chronicle that the reflecting behaviors of sunspots and solar flares influenced the film’s structure, “the way it folds continuously back in on itself, and no matter where you’re going it’s the wrong place.” The oozing red sunspots that make up the title card cast an ominous solar mantle over the nightmarish world the characters enter—maybe they were always a part of it to begin with.  

The film is a miasma of the hellish summer heat and everything that comes with it. Each frame feels sun-stained, covered in a grime that attaches itself to one’s body. As the camera lingers along the roadside, it captures the heat itself, hovering above the pavement in long dreamy waves. Technical decisions added to the oppressive atmosphere as well: Cinematographer Daniel Pearl shot on a fine-grain, low-speed 16mm film that required a great amount of light, thus capturing more light than typical, especially for a horror film. Instead of hiding in the shadows, everything in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is uncomfortably exposed, like bare skin under a searing sun.  

It’s also the rare movie to capture stench on celluloid. From the opening image of a decomposing corpse staged upon a gravestone, it seems as if every other scene features the fetor of hot, rotting meat. When Pam (Teri McMinn) stumbles into Leatherface’s workshop in search of her missing boyfriend, the skeletal menagerie she finds, rife with chicken feathers and pieces of vertebrae strewn about, is gag-inducing in its realism. It is easy to see why: the animal corpses strewn throughout the cannibalistic Sawyer family’s house were all real, borrowed from a local veterinarian, and the lights on set cooked the already-decaying meat while filming. One look into McMinn’s eyes and it’s quite doubtful that the actress is faking her disgust.  

All of these sensory elements come together to create a cacophony of endless punishment for the characters and the viewer. The airlessness of the world stretches to the outer limits, and as soon as the violence commences, the outside world no longer feels accessible. The mechanical sounds that rumble and squeal throughout the film, essentially comprising the soundtrack, weave the visual components together and change the environment from unsettling-but-harmless into horrid. These sounds—a generator struggling to stay on, a van sputtering and running out of gas—begin as seemingly quotidian noises of downtrodden rural life. But as the killings begin, these noises are transformed into harbingers of death. Not only in the form of the titular chainsaw, but also in the creeping realization that the aforementioned failing pieces of industrial technology may actually be fronts through which to trap and kill outsiders. Everything is corrupted, part of the mechanized (animal) slaughter that used to make up the town’s economy, but now defines the final few hours of the protagonists’ lives.  

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It is difficult to untangle The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from the historical and cultural context in which it was conceptualized: Tobe Hooper has never been cagey about the importance of the era’s political climate and how it made up the DNA of his film. The America he was exploring in 1974 was internalizing a downward spiral into social breakdown, facing an uncertain and unstable identity in a post-Vietnam, post-Manson country. For a more privileged kind of citizen, the sanctity of the American Dream was being destroyed; life as they knew it was under serious threat by forces that felt unearthly in their danger. But if you were one of the many who had been incessantly exploited and bled dry by U.S. hegemonic power (or if you were at least paying attention), you knew that the American Dream had been perverse since its beginning, its barbarism obscured or packaged differently perhaps, but never eradicated. As the friends drive past the slaughterhouse they talk about the improvements in cattle-killing technology, how it’s much more “humane” now. However, the hitchhiker refers to “the new way” as a method that only served to put people out of work, while killing just as many (if not more) cattle. When all is said and done, is there any real difference between killing something with an air gun and killing it with a sledgehammer? 

While there are material, historical elements baked into the film and its depiction of a neglected rural community in a post-industrial nation, there are also recurring, occultish touches that cast a shadow over the characters and signal their doom. The discussion of Saturn retrograde, as well as the meaning of the individual friends’ horoscopes, is brought up multiple times. Whether there are actual supernatural forces at play is never revealed, but the discussion establishes the possibility for the viewer. It transforms our relationship to the landscape of the film in an immediate way, forcing us to see not just the villains, but the land itself as threatening. After the kids leave the van, the boiling hot countryside swallows them up, one-by-one. 

The result is a kind of apocalyptic Americana, the golden grass looking beautiful one moment and then later on, under the same scorching sunlight, horrifying, like a grotesque Andrew Wyeth painting. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre avoids many of the classist trappings of other films from its era  (Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes); it doesn’t position the young group as judgmental outsiders or fetishistic tourists. Instead, they find themselves welcome in the town when they arrive at the cemetery and establish connection via Sally and Franklin’s family. There is no explicit boundary into hostile territory that they cross; they’re well into their descent before they realize they’re in hell. 

Every omen or warning that something is unsafe, or not to be trusted, is associated with heat in some fashion. Before the hitchhiker slices Franklin’s arm open with a razor, he first lights a photograph he took of him on fire, almost ritualistically, as if he is cursing him. He slices himself as well, connecting himself to Franklin, or the group, in what could be seen as a blood ritual. When Kirk and Pam wander over to the house where Leatherface has his workshop, they are initially searching for a local swimming hole, but abandon their plan once they find it has dried up in the heat. It’s the aridness of the land that pushes them in the direction of danger. When Sally (the last surviving member of the group) is on the run from Leatherface, and believes she has found help from a gas station employee (“The Proprietor”), she gazes mindlessly at the meat the man has roasting over an open flame while he goes to get his pickup truck. Unbeknownst to her, he is actually a member of the Sawyer family and is about to kidnap her. A radio broadcast talks about the heat wave as her gaze moves from the light of the fire to the pitch black night outside the open door; the hearth is deceptively welcoming, an unheeded warning that Sally will soon become a piece of roasting meat as well. 

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If we are to understand the Hitchhiker’s blood ritual as a curse, a ritual that sends our young travelers on a fateful journey to apocalyptic doom, it is one that occurs in broad daylight, rather than hidden under the cover of darkness. The bright-eyed protagonists are sheltered. They’re embracing the adventure of their road trip, but are unaware of forces (historical and supernatural) that have conjured a complete and utter barbarism to the surface of their eventual destination. The curse placed on them has not destroyed their world; it’s only made the rot of it visible.  

The climax of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a family dinner: a nuclear family twisted into an abject form. Sally sees her fate with eyes wide open—in fact, the scene is often so striking because of the many close-ups of her eyes stricken with dread, panicked not because she wonders what may happen to her, but because she knows there is no way out. The horror isn’t lurking in the dark; it’s lain out naked in front of her.  

When, against all odds, Sally does escape, it is daytime again. Running back out into the summer sun, drenched in sweat and dirt and with Leatherface at her heels, it’s hard to imagine a world where she will ever feel safe again. It is forever changed, its evil revealed. The image of Leatherface dancing with a chainsaw against a yellow sky, the sun casting a glare on the camera, is naturalistic and almost joyous. He is not an aberration, but rather part of the hellish American landscape, a hell of our own conjuring.