Swinging in circles: The continued relevance of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

Photo from a scene in "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"

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I am haunted by a feeling of fatalistic dread. Sometimes it creeps up on me, snatching the ground from beneath me as I lie asleep, sending me hurtling toward the sudden moment when I am shocked awake, gasping to test that I am still alive. Or maybe that’s just my mind’s way of escaping my nightmares, jumping with the hope that my dreams will not follow me beyond the realm of sleep.

Awake, though, the feeling is even stronger. I think many of us are experiencing this feeling on a larger scale than before; with the ongoing pandemic and almost constant uncertainty around us, it is easy to feel like the world as we know it is crumbling around us.

Time marches on, however, regardless of my own sense of apocalypticism. Now it’s spoopy season, and my best friend may possibly be the biggest Halloween enthusiast on the planet.

One thing led to another, and at the beginning of October, we found ourselves strong-arming my family into watching “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (the original 1974 film, of course) as part of my best-friend-mandated cultural education in slasher films.

There are a few movies I’ve seen that have resonated with me on a fundamental level. These are films that demonstrate such a profound insight into culture or society that I feel a sense of deja vu seeing them, as they have perfectly encapsulated a feature of my life. “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), “Shin Gojira” (2016) and “Just Mercy” (2019) are some titles that come to mind, but the list is narrow and eclectic.

When the closing credits of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” rolled, I could do nothing but shake my head in awe. I felt seen, like the specter of the uncertain future and tumultuous present clinging to me had been recognized and validated.

Of course, when he wrote and directed “Texas Chain Saw,” Tobe Hooper’s writing wasn’t influenced by the year 2020. 1974 was a year with its own share of demons: The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had finally ended in the previous year after raging for almost a decade, the Watergate scandal had already broken but Richard Nixon held out on his resignation until August and the oil embargo crisis meant an acute nationwide oil shortage.

I felt seen, like the specter of the uncertain future and tumultuous present clinging to me had been recognized and validated.

These events and the sense of precariousness that invaded everyday life as a result are clearly showcased in “Texas Chain Saw.” Running out of gas and trying to refuel at a station that has run out is a major plot point, as it forces the group of teens who will later be the victims of the titular massacre to stall their drive home. While the allusions to Vietnam are more subtle parallels in this movie, the sequel to “Texas Chain Saw” contains an explicit subplot about the knife-wielding brother of the cannibal family (who we find out in this movie is the Sawyer family) and his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Vietnam, rendering him the most unpredictably violent member of the family.

The movie itself, however, expands this feeling of chaos past singular events, suggesting a feeling of something of a cosmic nature steering humanity toward an inevitable entropic end. Throughout the opening credits, a radio report drones on in the background, announcing a grave robbery depicted in the opening scene before moving into reports of other recent and inexplicable disturbances. These include a local warehouse fire that grew wildly out of control, a major cholera epidemic in San Francisco and an “outbreak of violence” in Houston that began with a young man, who, “angered by a local television blackout during a sports event, jumped from the 10th-story window of his apartment.”

The spread of chaos and the feeling of some greater power at work is only bolstered by the imagery of the opening credits: yellow font on a background of variegated red and black swirling in the form of sunspots and solar flares. Motifs of the cyclical also abound, from the focus on concrete images of windmills and Franklin’s wheelchair wheels to the repetitive nature of the setting, as Sally travels from the gas station to the Sawyer house before escaping to the station and being subsequently kidnapped and taken back to the house. This emphasis on circular motion seems to connect the small moments in the lives of the characters to larger cosmic cycles beyond their control or understanding.

The repetitive nature of these images, along with periodic shots of the moon and references to astrology, creates an eerie effect, seemingly trapping the characters in a cycle they don’t understand. This effect was the main idea of the movie, according to Hooper. “The structural puzzle pieces, the way it folds continuously back in on itself, and no matter where you’re going it’s the wrong place,” he said in a 2000 interview with The Austin Chronicle.

This sense of a cosmic entropic spiral doesn’t appear in a vacuum, though. The most terrifying part of “Texas Chain Saw” is the sense that it is society’s own actions that have spawned these nightmares. The Sawyer family of the movie was created by our world, a world we have seen fit to fill with callous violence and cruelty; the universe simply decides it is time to make humanity face the consequences.

My best friend often jokes that almost every slasher film is really just a home invasion from the perspective of the antagonist. “Texas Chain Saw” is the perfect example: The inciting incident of the massacre is two of the teens venturing into the cannibalistic Sawyer family’s house. On a metaphorical level, though, from the beginning of the movie the protagonists are clearly venturing into a world they aren’t a part of. Sally and Franklin, the main protagonists, are returning to the place their family hasn’t lived in for two generations. As they ride past the slaughterhouse that used to do business with their grandfather and employ the Sawyers, the teens turn up their noses at the stench of the slaughterhouse that used to be the heart of the area before automation dried up the flow of work.

The Sawyer family of the movie was created by our world, a world we have seen fit to fill with callous violence and cruelty; the universe simply decides it is time to make humanity face the consequences.

The teens have ventured to the rural countryside to ensure that Sally and Franklin’s grandfather was not one of the corpses targeted in the recent grave robbery, but their own bodies will be the ones desecrated throughout the film. They are so worried at preserving an element of the idyllic past — the grandfather whom they used to visit in childhood — that they stumble unawares into the horrific underbelly of their present. It is the world of the Vietnam War, the world of industrial automation and the slow death of rural America, a world whose rotting carcass is being devoured by the consumption culture of capitalism. Who can blame that world, then, for consuming, in turn, its parasitic, bloated overculture when the opportunity arises?

This foray into the hidden darker side of the United States is apparent from the opening shot of the film, in which the fruits of the grave-digging noises that start the film are displayed in a grisly scene of two dead bodies mounted together on a large tombstone as mist drifts across the otherwise empty graveyard. The heavy yellow filter gives the scene a sense of desolation, creating the image of an apocalyptic wasteland.

Yellow filter is used heavily for movies shot in the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia to play into American stereotypes of these countries as squalid, barren and underdeveloped. In “Texas Chain Saw,” however, the yellow filter brings the cataclysm of Nam home. Far-off countries are not the ones that lack development: Under the veneer of civility, it’s our society that has lost its humanity, and it is we who are destroying ourselves from the inside out.

The violence that we channel into foreign wars doesn’t dissipate once we come home, and “Texas Chain Saw” demonstrates this in the extreme. The Hitchhiker’s fascinations with knives, self-harm and the bludgeoning of cows in slaughterhouses lie bare our culture’s fascination with violence and cruelty. With their jobs wielding sledgehammers extinguished by automation, the Sawyer family turns to their fellow humans as an outlet for violence to sustain themselves.

The Hitchhiker’s fascinations with knives, self-harm and the bludgeoning of cows in slaughterhouses lie bare our culture’s fascination with violence and cruelty.

The movie follows the characters through this cycle of violence and trauma and death, all elements of our collective societal guilt rearing up to take their inevitable revenge. Even the ending lacks a sense of closure, as Sally is clearly traumatized when she laughs hysterically while making her escape on the back of a pickup truck, and the last shot is of Leatherface waving his chain saw in the air as he spins in erratic circles, unwilling or unable to give up the chase and put down the saw. Sally has escaped for now, but that doesn’t mean the Sawyers are content to fade into obscurity.

Slasher films give our demons corporeal form and allow us the catharsis of escape as the “Final Girl” narrowly evades the clutches of the monster. Although the major slasher franchises (“Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and, of course, “Texas Chain Saw”) have antagonists who inevitably return in film after film, each installment grants a moment of victory against a terrifying and immortal enemy. Few slashers, however, capture quite as many or as monstrous demons as “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”).

“Texas Chain Saw” perfectly captures some of the deepest anxieties and fears of American culture. It taps into our sense of guilt, the feeling that we’re in over our heads and have no idea how to escape the nightmare of our own creation. When we’re in the midst of a pandemic, catastrophic natural disasters, a climate hurtling toward the point of no return, a whole generation coming of age that has never known a time without war and countless other calamities, this film seems to speak directly to our times. Right now, the feeling of karmic entropy that “Texas Chain Saw” captured so perfectly in the ’70s is back with a vengeance.

I don’t foresee the feeling of dread clinging to me going away anytime soon. “Texas Chain Saw” is a reminder, though, that people have felt this way before and will feel this way again. Life goes on, and we fight back and take the small wins as they come. Leatherface never dies, but we’ll leave him spinning in circles for as long as we can.

Contact Saya Abney at [email protected].