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Straight Dope

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My friends and I were discussing the great horror movies when someone claimed that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on a true story. I went to the video store, and sure enough on the back of the box it said the movie was based on real events. I rented it, and after my friends and I watched it we got to wondering just how true this story is. Cecil, help us out here. How loosely is the movie based on the real story? What are the facts?

--Mike McGrory, via the Internet

If you're looking for me to tell you there really was a family of backwoods weirdos, including a goon in a mask called Leatherface, and that a kid really went into their house and got hit with a hammer, and then his girlfriend went looking for him, and Leatherface impaled her on a meat hook while he butchered the boyfriend with a chain saw, and then a second guy went looking for the first two and got hammered too, and then Leatherface sawed up yet another guy in a wheelchair, and then one last woman got away and found refuge in a barbecue shop, only it turned out the barbecue was really human flesh, and the shop's proprietor was Leatherface's cousin or something, and they were really all cannibals...um, sorry, but this isn't a 100 percent accurate reenactment of actual events. The real Leatherface didn't use a hammer. Also the chain saw was a whimsical creative touch. The original also lacked the cheesy sound track and 70s hairstyles.

However, I'm not telling you that director Tobe Hooper made the whole thing up. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was--well, I don't know that "inspired" is the word you want to use here, but at any rate Hooper got the idea from a sensational 1957 murder case involving Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein. Gein's exploits weren't quite the over-the-top carnival of crime depicted in the movie, but for an amateur he did OK. Gein's mother was a domineering Bible thumper who persuaded her son that all women were evil strumpets. He cared for mom alone after she had a stroke, and when she finally died he nailed shut the rooms where she'd lived. He was fascinated by crime stories, anatomy textbooks, and embalming and liked to discuss them with folks in the nearby town of Plainfield. People found him a little odd but likable. Little did they know.

One day Bernice Worden, proprietor of the town hardware store, vanished under suspicious circumstances. Clues pointed to Gein, who'd been hanging around the previous few days. The sheriff drove out to Gein's farmhouse and found Worden's headless corpse hanging by the feet in the kitchen, "eviscerated and dressed out like a deer," according to one press account. The head was in a cardboard box, the heart in a plastic bag on the stove. Elsewhere in the cluttered home authorities found ten skins from human heads, bracelets and chair seats made from human skin, a box of noses, the skin from a woman's chest rolled up on the floor, and more.

Under questioning Gein admitted to two killings--Worden plus Mary Hogan, a 54-year-old saloon keeper who'd vanished in 1954. He said he'd got the other body parts from robbing women's graves. Later accounts painted Gein as a cannibal and a necrophiliac, but a 1957 Time story specifically denied this, saying he preserved the remains "just to look at." I mean, lest you think the guy was a kink or something. Gein's story made headlines all over the country, including an eight-page spread in Life magazine. After a hearing he was committed to a Wisconsin state hospital for the criminally insane.

So, let's check off these parallel motifs from the Gein and chain-saw sagas: grave robbing (oops, I forgot to mention this in my summary of TCM), butchering of victims, use of human body parts as an element in the home-decorating scheme (this was in TCM too). The great literary themes. But wait, you say. Mild-mannered bachelor murderer, lonely rural setting, obsession with dead mother. There's another classic horror movie this reminds me of, and it doesn't have anything to do with gasoline-powered garden implements. You got it, babe: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Gein was also one of the sources for Hannibal the Cannibal in The Silence of the Lambs. I ask you, how many movies has Mother Teresa inspired? Of the three flicks, TCM is undoubtedly the stupidest (I'm telling you, it doesn't play as well as it reads), but they say it launched the slasher genre. Way to go, Ed. Shows you what a man can accomplish if he won't settle for upholstering the seats in leatherette.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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