The Truth Behind the Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Leatherface, chainsaw held up by serial murderer in movie
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gunnar Hansen, 1974 
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Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkle, the original screenplay writers for the classic horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, are both University of Texas alumni.  The writers being in the state of Texas, could plausibly have had an edge regarding the local lore. Was their 1974 slasher film about an actual true life event?  This question typically garners vague explanations and seems to be the stuff of urban legend. The quick and easy answer to the question is no, the film does not depict an actual event. What influenced the creation of the story told in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre film and how it has come to be perceived as walking a fine line between fact and fiction will be explored in this article. 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre premiered on October 1, 1974 in Austin, Texas, almost a year after the completion of filming. The film screened nationally in the United States as a Saturday afternoon matinee and found greater success with a broader audience after it was falsely marketed as being a "true story". After 1976, the film was reissued to first-run theaters every year for eight years, with full-page ads. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise sequels fed the suggestion that there was truth in the original in their being advertised as even though not based on a true story they were based on the original film.

Movie poster with leatherface wielding chainsaw
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Movie Poster
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The concept for the film arose in the early 1970s while Hooper was working as a college professor at the University of Texas in Austin, and as a documentary cameraman. He had previously developed the idea of a film centering on isolation, the woods, and darkness, and continued to explore these ideas as he solidified the concept of the film. He also credited the local San Antonio news as part of the inspiration for the film, due to the graphic nature of the stories being featured. Watching the local news whose coverage was graphic, "showing brains spilled all over the road" led to his belief that humankind was the real monster, just wearing a different face, so in his film he “put a literal mask on the monster" which came to be known as Leatherface. The additional "lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things" that Hooper noticed took form with the idea for featuring a chainsaw which came to Hooper while in the hardware section of a crowded store as he contemplated a way to get out quickly through the crowd.

Hooper also cites the impact of shifts he observed in the cultural and political landscape as influences for the film. He directly correlates the intentional misinformation that the "film you are about to see is true" as a response to being lied to by the government about things "including Watergate, the gasoline crisis, and the massacres and atrocities in the Vietnam War." Leatherface and his family are presented as believable victims of industrial capitalism, their jobs as slaughterhouse workers having been rendered obsolete by technological advances. Hooper based the plot loosely on the murders committed by 1950s Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a murderer whose story has inspired various horror films, such as The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. 
Kim Henkle stated that he "definitely studied Gein,....” but also noticed a murder case in Houston at the time, a serial murderer named Elmer Wayne Henley. He was a young man who recruited victims for murderer and rapist Dean Corll. Henkle recalls seeing Elmer Wayne on the news saying, “I did these crimes, and I'm gonna stand up and take it like a man."  This quote by Henley struck him as interesting, that “he had this conventional morality at that point. He wanted it known that, now that he was caught, he would do the right thing. So this kind of moral schizophrenia is something I tried to build into the characters."

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, has significantly influenced the horror genre. Wes Craven, Ridley Scott and Stephen King have cited it as an influence in their work. Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle called the film "a backwoods masterpiece of fear and loathing, Texas style." The film has also been declared one of the few horror movies to invoke "the authentic quality of nightmare".  The story lives on in the minds of those who are not quite sure if the events portrayed happened or were completely imagined.

Thirty-six years later, some critics have called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre one of the scariest movies ever made. Mike Emery of the Austin Chronicle said that the film was "horrifying, yet engrossing ... it never seems too far from what could be the truth". This realism and similarity to coverage of criminals in the news, compounded with the misleading marketing gimmick used to draw people in have proven very successful. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre grossed more than $30 million in the United States, making it one of the most successful independent films of the 1970s.

© Becca Knight


Rebecca has lived in Texas for over 20 years. Her location informs much of what she knows and is why she decided to create this blog.
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