The movie—or movie series—that has scared me for the longest and with the greatest intensity is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. The original (which is technically titled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) came out before I was born and has loomed in the shadows my whole life. Growing up in Texas, it was impossible not to at least know that the movie existed. In its opening narration, the movie claims it is based on a true story, and people took that statement at face value. My husband moved to Huntsville, Texas, when he was eleven. Our state prison is there, and local lore when he was growing up included the tidbit that the real Leatherface was a death row inmate there. But he wasn’t. He isn’t real, and the story is completely fictional. I didn’t see the movie as a kid, but the whole idea of it really freaked me out. The things I imagined must be in the movie were actually far worse than anything that’s actually in the movie.
As a kid who wasn’t allowed to watch horror movies at all, I was both fascinated by and afraid of them. I would read about them whenever I could, especially if the book or article didn’t contain any scary pictures. (I still can’t cope with reading Fangoria.) Pictures became a real issue in 1986, when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was released. There were TV commercials for it and posters at theatres and in video stores. I was so petrified of the posters that I refused to go into a video store for about a year because WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF I SAW IT? It was like the poster itself would “get” me somehow. I would dissolve into a whimpering mess if I ALMOST saw the poster. I had nightmares that someone was forcing me to watch the movie. Not that someone would chop me up with a chainsaw—just that I would have to watch a fictional movie about it.
The Chainsaw movies actually have excellent posters. The first movie had the notorious “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” poster that somebody should have won a special Best Tagline Oscar for. TCM2‘s poster that was a direct parody of the iconic poster for The Breakfast Club, only with Leatherface and family instead of Judd Nelson et al. This approach makes sense because TCM2 is more satirical in nature, darkly comedic. At least that’s what I’m told, because I still haven’t seen it! Leatherface=TOO SCARY.
But I did finally see the original, in odd circumstances. In October 1998, I was living in Austin and working for a temp agency. I received an assignment to work as a receptionist at a local entertainment company, 3 Ring Service, for a few weeks. They provide equipment and personnel for carnivals, casino nights, and that kind of event, and also have signing telegrams for hire. When I got to the company, in a little converted house in a funky south Austin neighborhood, I was brought in to meet the owner in his office. Behind his desk was a huge TCM “Who will survive…?” poster. It actually startled me, and the owner, Allen Danziger, noticed that I jumped a little. That’s when he told me that he has the poster because he’s in the movie. He plays Jerry the ill-fated driver of the van full of victims/future roadside barbecue entrees. I did my best to cope with it like an adult and have a sense of humor about it.
About a week later, one of the singing telegram performers came by the office to pick up his assignments. He was a middle-aged man with a large frame, almost a foot taller than me. He played the company’s Grim Reaper, who usually is hired by a person’s co-workers to embarrass them at the office on their 40th birthday. One of my co-workers introduced him to me: “This is Bill, he’s our Grim Reaper. Oh, you might know him—he played Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2!” I tried to be cool, and said it was nice to meet him and I thought Leatherface was really scary “when I was a kid.” I left out the part where I was having a minor panic attack on the inside. At any rate, Bill Johnson is a nice guy and made a good Grim Reaper.
That Halloween, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (which is the greatest movie theater on the planet) did a screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with director Tobe Hooper (best known for directing this film, the TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot, and Poltergeist) in attendance. I decided to suck it up and finally go see this movie that had bothered me for so long. It seemed like the universe was telling me this was the right moment. So I went and saw it, and it scared the living daylights out of me. It is WAY too intense. The movie isn’t nearly as gory as most people might expect. It was a low-budget independent movie, so bloody special effects had to be used very sparingly. (John Bloom, aka Joe Bob Briggs, wrote a great oral history of the making of TCM that I highly recommend.) But I was so scared I had to sleep with the lights on in my apartment that night.
A few years later, there was an all-night horror marathon held as part of the Austin Film Festival. Once again, one of the movies in the marathon was the original TCM. Tobe Hooper was there again, and he noticed when I slipped out of the theatre as the movie started. (He wasn’t going to sit through it either. You know, he’s seen it a few times at this point.) I told him I’d seen it before and couldn’t handle it. “So good job,” I told him. “It’s way too intense for me and I can’t go through that again.” He seemed pleased.
Will I ever watch TCM2? Maybe. I’ve seen a lot more horror now, and I’d probably be okay. But there’s that creeping phobia that still makes me want to avoid it.