The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Tobe Hooper (USA; 1974) Marilyn Burns
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle, 7 Dec 2023. Ticket £7
Seeing Hooper’s ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ for the second time made me think about the role played by films both in shaping the psychic atmosphere of the times and eliciting individuated psychological responses to movie imagery.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about ‘force.’ ‘Force’ defined by Simone Weil as the power that turns anyone who is subjected to it into ‘a thing’. Force “…exercised to its limit turns man into a thing; in the most literal sense it makes a corpse out of him. Force has been exercised. Someone was here, the next minute there is nobody.”
The mythologies and writings of many religions such as the Christian Book of Revelation and the Norse Ragnarok all describe in graphic detail what will happen when the world comes to an end, the end of days the time when human life is destroyed. The religio-mythical accounts all premise the aetiology of such events as within the fold of a superhuman agency. It may be that in the judgemental logic of the ‘Book of Revelation’ human sinfulness brings on God’s wrath, but it is God’s decision to visit fire and brimstone upon mankind. In other mythic variations of the destruction theme, it is the Gods or other pre-human titans that lay waste to the earth, with human extinction almost being collateral damage. The common theme is that it is the Gods who dispose.
Cut to post 1945 – it’s man who disposes . The development of atomic and nuclear weapons has led to the exponential increase in the destructive capacity of human weaponry. Weapons of mass destruction are now widely proliferated, and if used would not only totally flatten their actual targets but through the ensuant fall out of radiation would kill most of us as well as poison a broad spectrum of life on the planet. It is no longer religio-mythic texts that feed our imaginations with literalist descriptions of apocalypse rather it is the movies filled out with their digitally generated images of devastation that connect into the synaptic pathways of the human psyche. Films such as ‘Batman, Dark Knight Rises’ and the ‘Terminator Franchise’ (in particular Terminator 2: Judgement Day) create expectations of complete annihilation. In their violent playout of opposing forces (good and evil) they have chiselled the runes of annihilation into our collective consciousness. A form of popular mass entertainment has become a significant channel for habituating if not inuring its audiences to the idea of becoming ‘things’. When interviewed for news programmes, the default response of most survivors of disaster situations is to compare their experience of devastation to something they’ve seen in the movies. They are witness to the strength of a conditioning effect working through the imagery of the movie industry.
Looking at film’s influence in response to violence perpetrated at an individual level, Tobe Hooper’s ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ brings into clear relief the issue of the desensitisation of viewers to the use of ‘force’ in engaging in acts of graphic cruelty. ‘Texas Chainsaw’ is a film that celebrates the infliction of pain and death by the powerful upon the powerless. The percept underlying Hooper’s movie is that the purpose of individual power is to exert it pitilessly in the subjugation of body and mind of a victim, subjugation often to the point of killing them, rendering them dead things. In this respect ‘Texas Chainsaw’ is a different sort of proposition to previous films in the Horror genre such as the earlier Hammer movies or Italian produced horror films.
The Hammer and Italian horror movies of the 1950s and ‘60s in the main had gothic story lines revolving round vampires, ghosts, demented doctors, witches etc. However gruesome the fate of the innocent victims might be, the deaths depicted in these films were mechanical in as much as the characters’ motives for killing had a scripted rationality by dint of them being vampires necrophiliacs or schizo-surgeons etc. The perpetrators of evil in these films were driven men and women. They were possessed by their particular need but took no intrinsic pleasure from what they had to do in order to satisfy it.
In the ‘Horror’ genre of this era (1960’s) the ‘Dread’ lay partly in the actual situation – vampires needing the blood of the living – the idea of the ‘victim’ and the manner in which the action was filmed. The thrill for the audience was usually the setting up and the consequent stalking of the unsuspecting victim. This was intensified by well established cinematic tricks – switching camera point of view and representation – and using music and sound effects to amplify tension before the victim – too late – turns screams and is summarily dispatched. A knife a blow a bite: the end’s quick. The post operative shot will often feature the prone bloody body, before the scenario moves onto its next phase. ‘Texas Chainsaw’ is different: the violence is sadistic. it is opportunist and is perpetrated outside any evident rationale. Force is used for pleasure. The murder of the first woman, Pam, introduces a cruelty that sets it apart from the aforementioned horror movies and other preceding genre productions.
Pam is caught by the ‘bone man’ in the ‘bone house’. He lifts her up bodily off her feet and carries her over to a rail where he impales her on a butcher’s hook. These ‘S’ hooks are normally used to hang the dead animals in slaughter houses. We hear the woman’s screams of pain as the weight of her own body drives the hook deeper and deeper into her flesh delivering her to a slow agonising death. The presentation of killing by means of the torture of impalement immediately marks out Hooper’s film as entering different psychic relationship with its audience: Hooper is inviting the audience to witness force perpetrated for the enjoyment of extended physical suffering. As’boneman’ rams her down on the hook it’s like a magic trick of transformation: in the blink of an eye for the audience she ceases to be a living being she becomes ‘dead meat’.
This trick is compounded later in the film by Sally’s ordeal. Sally is eventually captured by ‘the bonemen’. She is bound strapped down, subjected to batterings and lacerations and the terror of being a helpless victim. Hooper develops the scene to a point where sitting opposite her at the other end of the table her tormentors take a break. For a moment they draw back from her. The men watch as Sally in visceral terror screams gasps howls overtaken by the fear and horror of what’s happening. The response of the men to Sally’s pain is an increasing unalloyed amusement and pleasure. The more pain Sally shows the funnier they find it, until they’re all collapsing in uncontrollable laughter. This is an extended scene of some minutes duration; so long I started to find it unbearable as some of the audience identifying with the merciless reduction of Sally to ‘thing’ status, started to join in the laughter.
What’s new (as far as I know to mainstream and Hollywood movies) and different in ‘Texas Chainsaw’ and what was to become a feature of subsequent ‘Slasher’ movies was the implied invitation to take vicarious open pleasure in the pain and suffering of others. To glorify force like it’s a a magic trick, turn some one into a ‘thing’ and the audience will for the most part side with the power. The underlying rationale of Hooper’s film lies in its open celebration of cruelty as spectacle. It comes with permission to openly gaze upon the infliction of pain by the party with power upon the weak.
It is a significant feature of Hooper’s script that the motivation of ‘the bone house men’ is undetermined. The scripts of the aforementioned Hammer and Italian films were always contained within a motivational schema that gave them both a form and a carapace of justifiable rationality. Hopper’s ‘bonemen’ lack any such clear purpose. They are isolated beings, driven by a psychopathic enjoyment of slaughter and death. Enjoyment of killing for its own sake which is aroused whenever the opportunity arises and someone is lured into their isolated sanctum.
The socio-cultural undertow of American psychopathy realised in ‘Texas Chainsaw’ is now celebrated on by lone gunman mass killings that characterise daily life in the USA. The intoxification of force that’s seen in the cold calculation of these mass killers is well documented: taking aim with their semiautomatic M16s (now a favourite of illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank) they coldly select their live targets and shoot them, one after another moving with calculated deliberation through the killing zone of choice. Whatever their motivation, whether it’s to play ‘God’, to wreak revenge for their real or imagined pain etc. the force is with them. They take it upon themselves to turn the living into corpes. The isolation and psychopathy at work in America probably engender a feed back loop between the type of cultural output represented by Hooper’s film and the increasing phenomena of mass murders by lone gunmen.
Most disturbing is Hooper’s gratification in the the pain of others. The sense in which Texas Chainsaw gives license to enjoyment of torture, albeit disguising this permission in what might be innocently described as an over-the-top Horror romp. But the hook is the hook, and the unrestrained rollicking laughter of ‘bonemen’ tormenters opens up a vista of the psychic legitimation of allowable cruelty, at the level of individual psychology giving notice that it’s good fun to inflict hurt, in fact it is a prerogative and affirmative of power. To express real power you have to use force to inflict death or physical pain on the opposing body, to turn it into a thing at your disposal.
If I had been one of the American trainers of torturers at Guantanamo or Bagram I would have had mandatory screenings of Texas Chainsaw Massacre for my trainees every night for the duration of the course as part of the de-sensitisation programme, a primer as to how to turn people into dead things.