One of the legends of second wave horror and one of the genre’s most well-known titles is one of enduring reputation. Back when I was a kid, everyone I knew – parents and children, alike – talked about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre like it was a top to bottom celebration of depravity and an anatomically correct examination of the insides of our bodies, turned outside by the teeth of chattering chainsaw.
I’d let a video tape run one night on Cinemax when they ran Friday the 13th late into the night. I fell asleep before the movie was over and upon reviewing the evening’s recording, I was delighted to find that Friday 1 was followed immediately by Friday 2 and then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’d never seen it up to this point so imagine my disappointment when I settled in for a gorefest and found nothing of the sort. For a long time I lacked the equipment to properly appreciate the movie but at the time I couldn’t believe it. All this time. All this hype. None of it true. What a let down. The bizarro soft porn with the underwear-on dry humping that Cinemax followed Texas Chainsaw up with wasn’t nearly enough to alleviate what was one of the greatest disappointments of my 13 year-old life. Trust me. This was common for me when I finally caught up to certain movies that had this reputation. Ask me about the first time I ever saw A Clockwork Orange sometime.
Sure. I’d come to appreciate both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Clockwork Orange when I was older but it took time and perspective to fully grasp what made Texas Chainsaw so potent. Along the way, I kept hearing that the movie was based on a true story, although no amount of research could ever turn up an account of a van full of teens massacred by a family of lunatics in the barren wastes of forgotten Texas. What I did find was the following:
Edward Gein is probably no stranger to you if you’re reading this. Those of us with an appreciation for horror have a tendency to travel in morbid circles and take our fascination to culturally apocalyptic territory but let’s say you don’t know who Ed Gein is. Often labeled a serial killer, Gein doesn’t quite fit the profile. In 1957 Gein was accused of and confessed to the murders of two women in Plainfield, Wisconsin. That’s not all, though. Gein was a prolific grave robber whose dozens of late night excursions into local cemeteries resulted in the theft of a lot of body parts that he used to make furnishings around the house like bowls (skulls) and lampshades (skin). Prior to everything falling apart for Gein, local kids would come by and hang with him and if you can believe it, he was known as a pretty dependable babysitter. See, Ed was largely regarded as a local weirdo but harmless. He was a nice guy as far as anyone could tell, even though he had no handle on social interaction. Several kids reported seeing shrunken heads in his house which Gein explained away as actual shrunken heads recovered from the South Seas when his brother was deployed there with the Navy. Speaking of Gein’s brother; Henry Gein was the older brother of the two and the only one to see something wrong with the way they were treated at the hands of their wretched mother. He frequently brought this to Ed’s attention. Ed would angrily rebuff his claims. During a brush fire at their farm, Gein reported Henry missing. When his body was recovered, it showed signs of being beaten. The death was ruled an accidental asphyxiation in spite of this, yet some people suspected that Ed had murdered his brother.Eventually, Gein would murder the owner of a local tavern and then owner of a local hardware store and bring their bodies back to his place. He, being the last person to shop at the hardware store was one of the first suspects to be an investigated and the police immediate discovered the horror at his farm. Gein eventually confessed to skinning the corpses he dug up and building a woman suit from the skin. A suit which he wore in an awful ritual where he would pretend to become a woman.
Gein’s life before everything went truly awful was pretty sad. His mother was an abusive, awful woman who berated Gein’s father endlessly for being what she considered a failure. Gein, raised without any kind of social conditioning, grew up to be abused just as bad as his father. After his father’s death, Gein submitted to being his mother’s caretaker feeling like he had no other option and that’s what a good son does. When she died, however, his entire life went off the rails. Things sucked before she died but now without any kind of guidance in his life, he didn’t know what to do and his own self-loathing coupled with the loss of his mother drove him to some pretty nast extremes in his already extremely weird behavior.
Even by today’s standards, this is a pretty shocking case. Gein, having only been accused of murdering two women and tried for only one of the murders, had desecrated the corpses of dozens of freshly buried women and lived among the remains. His murder victims, both killed for reasons Gein could never explain had been mutilated post-mortem and dressed out like deer shot during hunting season. The woman suit made from human skin elevates this case to even higher morbid heights and was the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s iconic maniac, Leatherface. Leatherface, whose background is never fully explained, wear a face made from the skin of other victims. For what reason, who can say? The horrible story of Ed Gein is so powerful, in fact, that he was also the inspiration for Norman Bates from Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho (and the Hitchcock flick, too!), as well as Buffalo ‘put the fucking lotion in the basket’ Bill.