There’s a moment in the original "The Texas Chain SawMassacre" when The Cook, sole proprietor of W.E. Slaughter BBQ, sadly laments his misgivings to Sally, the helpless woman tied up at his dinner table: “There's just some things you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it.” That’s pretty much how I feel about watching this movie.
The experience of watching the 1974 classic horror film forced my mental state toward an uncomfortable ledge and then pushed me right over into total shock. I’ve only ever been able to watch the entirety of the movie twice, and I’ve never dared to watch it alone. I’m obsessed with its history -- the production, the ways the movie was received by critics and audiences -- and yet what sticks with me in my nightmares is the roaring sound of the saw’s engine as Leatherface, a cannibal who never speaks, chases after his terrified victims. In these dreams, I’m always the one being chased. The misshapen, tanned human flesh of his mask is the most chilling specter for me as he gains ground, ready to slice through my legs or torso right before I wake up.
Without fail, I’m relieved that the nightmare is over and afraid to sleep again.
Plainly put, the first "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" terrifies me. I never want to watch it. And it’s my favorite scary movie.
From my perspective, this is not a contradiction.
The general consensus on favorite movies is that these are the ones that have high re-watching value. We buy DVDs and Blu-rays and subscribe to video streaming services so that we can see our beloved treasures on-screen over and over again. We tell our friends about these movies and make plans to watch them together. We quote memorable lines and craft inside jokes around the scenes we like best.
But what if one of your favorite movies isn’t something you’d want to watch under most circumstances? What if you spent hours, days, weeks thinking about a movie that you still didn’t want to see again for fear of a fictional character that you (rationally) know is not hiding behind your shower curtain when you’re alone in the house?
I think of myself as a reasonable person, but my fear of Leatherface is not something that can be reasoned with. Any material with the ability to terrify and transfix on this level has clearly made an impact. Calling this movie a “favorite” might seem like a stretch, but for all of the time I’ve spent thinking and talking about a film that disturbs me as much as this one does, I must really enjoy something about it.
I first saw "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" at a middle school sleepover. Three girls and one easygoing mom went to the video store and two of us picked R-rated movies that our mothers refused to let us watch. I think the other movie was probably something lighter and certainly sexier – at 13, we were all highly interested in depictions of sex and its mechanics. The night continued uneventfully and we waited to see the scarier of the two films after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep.
Spoiler alert: there isn’t any sex in this movie and not much in the way of blood and guts, but we were too scared to even talk to each other. I don’t remember screaming, but after almost 90 minutes of relentless dread, we grabbed our pillows and went upstairs to sleep without saying anything more than, “Good night.”
If we had screamed, one of the parents likely would have come in and turned off the movie. But we didn’t scream. The power and lure in this particular version of "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is its ability to scare me thoroughly without once compelling me to stop watching.
I didn’t try to watch it again until the fall of my sophomore year in high school, October 2001. My boyfriend was my age, but we’d met through my younger brother -- after they became friends, this guy spent most of his time at my house sneaking Marlboro reds on the back porch. I liked his wide blue eyes and Southern drawl, but he had a girlfriend and so I wrote him off. It was my mom who pulled me aside and said, “He’s always looking at you, Allison. He likes you.” I didn’t believe her until he broke up with his girlfriend and asked me to our school’s Homecoming, then sealed my “yes” with a kiss. He spent a lot more time inside the house after that.
Boyfriend or no, he loved to tease me and he insisted that I would conquer my fear of “a little old scary movie” by watching it with him. My brothers joined us in the living room. Suffice to say, none of the guys shared my fear of Leatherface; they picked up on the movie’s vein of dark humor and howled at the part where The Cook beat Leatherface with a broom while screaming, “You damn fool, you ruined the door!” Meanwhile, I shrieked at every jump scene.
After the movie ended, I wondered if perhaps I had overreacted to watching it back in middle school. What I didn’t know was that while I had ducked into the bathroom, my boyfriend decided it would be funny to hide in the hall closet and jump out at me with a broom. My restraint in not beating him to death with this very broom was nothing short of courage under fire.
Ever since that “screening,” I haven’t been able to watch the original "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," but I thought perhaps my terror would wear down for the 2003 remake. My friend Krissy took me to see an afternoon matinee and at first it wasn’t so bad, but by the time Leatherface was jumping on the roof of a van and slicing through its ceiling with his trusty (never rusty) chainsaw, I had nearly broken her hand with anxiety-riddled squeezes and when I could take no more terror, I begged her to leave early.
Up until this time, I had never walked out on a movie. I wish I could say that my need to bolt stemmed from a poetic, Roger Ebert-esque impulse (in his review, he wrote that he “intensely wanted to walk out of the theater and into the fresh air and look at the sky and buy an apple and sigh for our civilization”), but the truth is that I was genuinely too scared to sit through even one more minute of the experience.
There were other times that I would watch the sequels in the franchise (from the sanctuary of my living room -- in case I needed to turn it off), but the follow-ups/remakes were goofy and lacked the atmospheric terror of the original film. Yet I can’t begin to quantify the page views I’ve given to sites like IMDB in looking at the facts of the franchise (quotes, reviews, trivia), as well as researching the origins of the script (the crimes of Ed Gein) and learning the behind-the-scenes stories from making the first movie in 1973.
As unlikely as it might seem, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" captured something in my imagination, perhaps a desire to provoke my own fears or morbid curiosity.
Then I read Chain Saw Confidential, a memoir by the actor who played the role of the first Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). He didn’t write the script or even have any (intelligible) lines in the movie, but Hansen shares director Tobe Hooper’s sly sense of humor. He’s also a poet and taught English at the University of Texas while studying the works of Herman Melville. His opening line in the book was a callback to Moby Dick: “Call me Leatherface.”
Reading this book reminded me of all the elements that made the movie so fascinating – in writing about everything from "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Epic of Gilgamesh" to the psychology of masks, Hansen makes a strong case for the movie’s place in the horror canon.
Will I work up the nerve to watch it again soon? I hope so. But whether your favorite scary movie involves power tools or psychological warfare, I believe that even the thought of watching it should send the appropriate shivers up your spine. If you really get something out of your favorite scary movie, you might even wonder if you’re brave enough to see it again. But after all, there are some things you’ve just got to do.