A look at Tobe Hopper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and why we are so intrigued by serial killers, blood, and gore.
Why is blood and gore so intriguing? It’s a question that plagues me whenever I am confronted with blood, guts, and the visceral on-screen. Even more so during this time of the year because this is time when The Walking Dead comes back into my life. Why do I let it come back though? Why do I want to see how many different ways a zombie’s brains can be splattered over Rick and the gang?
I’m going to attempt to answer this question by looking at the classic film Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I will, of course, focus on the original released in 1974. This is perhaps THE most gruesome film I have seen and hopefully this post will reveal why.
Carol Clover has observed, “…the emotional terrain of slasher films is pre-technological.” With this statement, I believe she is referring to weapons of choice in slasher films. For instance, we are more likely to see someone pick up a knife, or a hammer, or even use their bare hands to enact and satisfy their killer craving. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface chooses the chainsaw as his weapon of choice. However, the only appearance the weapon makes is a short scene in which Franklin is chopped in half. But in this short instance, we don’t get the blood and gore we expect (or want). Instead, we get our satisfaction earlier on in the film from the Hitchhiker picked up on the side of the highway (never a good idea, especially if you’re in a horror movie, but that’s another topic for another time). We get to see the Hitchhiker violate the body by slicing open his hand, letting blood flow past that invisible barrier. I believe the killer in a slasher film, in this case the Hitchhiker along with Leatherface, serves the role of breaking the barrier between the visible and the unseen for the audience. In the role of mediator, the killer breaks that taboo fascination humans have with what is hidden beneath our skin.
Franklin is awestruck, showing a lingering intrigue about the Hitchhiker’s act of violence. Clover remarks that Franklin is, “fascinated by the realization that all that lies between the visible, knowable outside of the body and its secret insides is one thin membrane, protected only by a collective taboo against its violation.” This shared fascination serves as a sort of link between the killer and victim in this film. Although deemed an outsider from the very beginning, Franklin is not the typical victim the audience would sympathize with. But the focus remains on Franklin, the audience relies on him to confirm their fears or revulsions towards the killer. But as Franklin is not so different from Hitchhiker, the definition of who is the killer and victim in this film to come into question.
The comparison between Franklin and Hitchhiker allows the line between killer and victim in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be blurred. If Franklin represents “normal” society in this comparison, their similarities would suggest that both sides could take on the role of the victim, with Franklin as the victim of the cannibalistic Leatherface clan and Hitchhiker as the victim of the slaughterhouse industry (again, there is a lot more to be said here, but let’s save it for another post).