Monday, November 30, 2020

Running Low on Blood and Oil in East Texas... No Corpse is Completely Silent and No Chainsaw Can Drown Out Their Cries Completely

Death is, of course, the core anxiety that drives horror films. It's an experience that is fundamental to the human experience, not just in the sense of its inevitability as an endpoint for all of our journeys, but in the sense of how the knowledge of that inevitability shapes our perspectives and behaviours. This isn't any kind of groundbreaking proclamation; any first-year philosophy student could probably spout off entire passages from Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death verbatim like some kind of morbid mating call. Essentially, Becker argues that all of human civilization is, in one way or another, the result of humanity trying to cope with the anxiety that comes from understanding that some day we all have to cash in our chips.

To try and place horror films within this context is to ask that question that invariably comes up in discussions about the genre: Why do people enjoy horror movies in the first place? I'm not going to pretend that I can provide a definitive answer, but I have my own thoughts on the matter. Whether or not one takes Becker's theories about fear of death being the single organizational force behind the entirety of human society, it's undeniable that death is one of the fundamental anxieties that we have consistently grappled with over the course of our species' history. One has only to survey the storytelling tradition of the past five thousand years to see how prevalent themes surrounding death really are, followed closely by sex (hopefully the only time in your life you feel comfortable putting those two experiences in that particular order).

For me, horror is essentially all about catharsis. It's not necessarily that the subject matter itself is cathartic, especially considering the frequency with which evil prevails in the genre. It's more about the experience itself. If we consider that all of us are dealing with the knowledge of our own mortality on a daily basis, then seeing horror movies as a way of processing that data and metaphorically exorcising that particular psychological demon makes a certain kind of sense. The catharsis comes from acknowledging our own mortality by witnessing the mortality of the characters on the screen. It's strange to associate the horror genre with any form of comfort, but horror movies offer a safe context to deal with our own feelings surrounding death. They provide an outlet to express or acknowledge these feelings and fascinations with death, mutilation, gore, and terror in a socially acceptable way. Horror movies offer an indirect way of conceding the limits of our mortality, giving an outlet to those thoughts and feelings in a safe way. (It's also the only socially acceptable way to gamble on who's going to live longer, until we get those Westworld androids up and running anyway. I can't foresee any issues there.)

More than that, there's also a thrill, a natural high, that comes from a reassertion of how alive you really are. And what better way to feel more alive than to get as close to death as possible without actually crossing that line? Basically, watching these fictional characters die or experience countless other horrors makes us embrace life more fully, consciously or unconsciously. The audience vicariously experiences the same horrors as the characters in the movie, but they get to walk away from it all unscathed. At a fundamental level, it's the same reason that people love roller coasters; it gives us the thrill of walking right up to death, laughing in his pale, boney little face, and then get on with the rest of our lives. There's a particular kind of exhilaration that comes from walking up to that edge and pulling back at the last minute, and I think that's a pretty normal and healthy urge. Of course, I also think Waterworld is a genuinely great action movie, so take my opinions as you will.

Of all the genres of movie that I enjoy, horror seems like the one that feels most in need of explaining to audiences who not count themselves among that same fandom. I do admit that it's kind of strange that I don't feel the same urge to justify enjoying movies that fall into other genres, like action, western, science fiction, or Sean Bean dying. For a genre not held in the same regard as, say, drama or musical, by mainstream audiences, horror seems like one of the few genres that induces this sort of self-reflection as a matter of course, perhaps because of the particularly morbid subject matter and imagery and the connotations thereof. This sort of philosophical reflexivity is especially evoked by the best the genre has to offer, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre certainly can be counted among those ranks.

There are few films as synonymous with the horror genre as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It's one of those films that transcends the genre and is known outside of the inner circle of horror fans, like The Exorcist, HalloweenNightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, Poltergeist, The Silence of the Lambs, and, more recently, Saw. These are horror movies that even non-horror fans and even people who don't watch movies would be able to rhyme off (preferably in a rap or a rock opera). And like all of the other movies I mentioned, there's a very good reason that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has achieved that iconic status. 

Released in 1974 and directed by the similarly iconic Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those rare films that simultaneously completely lives up to and utterly defies its reputation. For a movie with "massacre" in its title, it seems incredibly tame by today's standards in terms of the actual violence and gore depicted on screen. On a surface level, if blood and gore is your bag, then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may seem a little quaint in comparison to your average Saw movie or even something like Cannibal Holocaust, released just six years later, and easily more gut-churning than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In fact, the first time I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a couple years back, I think I had built it up so much in my mind that I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and not really able to concentrate on the subtext of the film. I suppose my expectations had been skewed somewhat by the 2003 remake, which was fairly gory and actually surprisingly good not only for a remake but a remake of a horror movie, which tend to land somewhere on the scale from Completely Missing the Point to Total Fucking Garbage.

It wasn't until subsequent viewings of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, when I could watch it unburdened by by mutated expectations, that I truly began to appreciate what made the film so unsettling, terrifying, and memorable. The movie starts out with a group of teens picking up a hitchhiker who starts to go into great detail about the inner workings of the local slaughterhouse. The first time I watched the movie, I have to admit that I didn't pick up on the true subtext of this scene. On a surface level, it offers some scares, as this stranger behaves rather strangely, talking very openly about slaughtering cows, and eventually turns violent, attacking one of the teens with a razor. 

This is my chainsaw. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

All of this is, of course, unsettling on its own. But if the only reason for the scene was a jump scare, the movie wouldn't be nearly as iconic as it is. No, the prominence of the local slaughter house and what it represents provides the thematic context for the rest of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and turns what could have been simply superficial thrills into something truly frightening and deeply disturbing, in the best possible way.

As it turns out, the strange hitchhiker is actually a member of a family of grave-robbing cannibals, which includes the now instantly recognizable Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) who wields the titular chainsaw with gleeful abandon. The group of teens has the misfortune of stumbling upon their house, and all except one of them is killed, butchered, and served up for dinner. (The only survivor, Sally (Marilyn Burns), was a young woman or "final girl", one of the tropes codified four years later by John Carpenter in the 1978 horror masterpiece, Halloween, as a staple not just of slasher films specifically, but of the horror genre as a whole to some extent.) The idea of cannibalism, one of the last great taboos in our society, is directly linked to the imagery of the slaughterhouse established earlier in the film. The combination of these two motifs that involve the killing and consumption of other living beings touches a very specific cognitive nerve, tapping into a primal fear that seems even more prominent when juxtaposed against the trappings of civilization:

The fear that, at the end of the day, we are no more than livestock.

It's the fear, not just that we die, but that there is, in reality, very little difference between us and the various animals that end up on our dinner plates. The underlying horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't simply that we are mortal, but ultimately, that we are just meat. Much of humanity's understanding of itself comes from trying to reconcile two opposing forces of our nature: the primal and the civilized. 

On the one hand, we are, when it comes down to it, animals. We evolved along our simian cousins from common ancestors, but it wasn't until relatively recently that our species as we know it today emerged: some one hundred and thirty thousand years ago, barely a flash in the pan on a universal scale. The first seeds of any organized culture date back only fifty thousand years. In evolutionary terms, homo sapiens only showed up on the doorstep yesterday. We share ninety-nine percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. 

On the other hand, human beings have established ourselves as the dominant species on the planet through sheer brainpower. We aren't just self aware or self conscious, but self reflexive, aware of our awareness. We have organized into countless cultures and societies and made amazing technological advancements that would seem like magic to our ancestors, both ancient and, in some cases, fairly recent. It seems reasonably self-evident that there's a clear existential distinction between us and our animal cousins around the planet.

Underlying this tension between our primal and civilized natures lies an intrinsic anxiety that no matter how civilized we think we are, that the more primitive parts of us still dominate. That we aren't that different from the other members of the animal kingdom after all. That slinging shit in the middle of the jungle and slinging shit on Twitter are different manifestations of the same bestial impulses that still govern our behaviour. 

That, in fact, our intellect doesn't make us all that special after all if we are still just as prone to succumbing to our base urges.

That is to say, it makes a great deal of difference to us to look at that steak on our dinner plates and understand that it simply wouldn't make sense for that meat to come from us. There has to be some fundamental difference that separates us from our food. Some justification why that cow ended up on my plate and not the other way around. By essentially lowering human beings to the level of livestock, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays with the old fear that we truly lack that "spark of the divine," that essential line that clearly separates human from animal, and the corollary fear that there really is no line, or that the boundary is arbitrary at best and still open for interpretation or some kind of cosmic arbitration. This is also reinforced by Leatherface's identifying feature, the mask he wears made of human skin, essentially a visual representation of this anxiety that human beings might be seen from a dispassionate utilitarian viewpoint and our value reduced to the usefulness of the end products our bodies might produce.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hammers this home by tying our anxieties related to this dichotomy between the primal and civilized aspects of our natures with the tensions between the rural and urban. As a society evolves to be more industrialized, it begins to add in more and more layers between its citizens and the less pleasant aspects of their existence. (This also explains why jazz festivals are so difficult to find.) It's not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a thing. Dead bodies of relatives are tucked neatly away in cemeteries and slaughterhouses and other food processing plants are constructed and run well out of site, nowhere near the suburbs. 

This at least partially explains why so many horror films take place in small towns and rural areas, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre falls neatly into this category. There's something uncanny to those not used to a cultural experience that doesn't have those same buffers between themselves and death. Rural and farming communities represent a connection to a past in which we were forced to more directly face the realities of death on a day-to-day basis, whether it was the death of an individual that had a greater impact on a smaller community or the death involved in our food supply chain. These settings serve to remind us that, despite our best efforts, we aren't that far removed from death, that the civilizations and technologies that we build in defiance of death form a tenuous barrier at best.

Ultimately, these themes challenging the sanctity of humanity's apparent standing in the food chain and in the universe at large contribute to how deeply unsettling and terrifying The Texas Chainsaw Massacre really is, more that its disturbing imagery alone could accomplish. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were simply a movie about butchering people with a tool used in the lumber industry, then it wouldn't have stood the test of time. Instead, it stands as a terrifying monument to some of humanity's greatest fears: death, the existential uncertainty of our place in the cosmic order, and chainsaws. 

The Verdict

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those classic horror films that will continue to inspire and terrify audiences and other filmmakers in the foreseeable future. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a 10/10 = One Head Clad in a Mask of Human Skin Spinning in Anger on a Texas Highway


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  3. Indeed, from Becker: "luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow." Not just luck but perhaps "catharsis" too, and who knows what else in any given case. Which is to say that your distinction between "the subject matter" and "the experience" should be taken more seriously by more people. I feel the same way about sports, which often seem especially pointless and violent to outsiders but in fact afford us myriad "experiences" depending on what we bring with us to the interchange. Perhaps because I struggle with the suspension of disbelief, horror has never been my thing. On the other hand, I know a group of people who cycle through horror movies leading up to Halloween, then move right into Christmas movies after that, etc. The important thing is to have a movie on; content per se enters into it only as a matter of...what exactly? Being in sync with the mainstream? Being ironically out of sync with the artsie-fartsies? Some other kind of signalling? Sheer habit? In any case, here again "subject matter" does not determine "experience" quite so directly, and its main effect on future behavior seems to be merely to reinforce the determinism of the calendar.

    The rural connection is also interesting. Many contemporary observers noted a certain "cruelty" in the early Disney cartoons, and one of the artists indeed described the humor and general sensibility of this early studio cohort as "rural."