The Texas Chainsaw Legacy: An American Love Affair with "True" Crime

This article was originally published on Donner, Party of One and is reprinted with permission

In 1974, Tobe Hooper terrified audiences with an all-too-real work of fiction. Almost 30 years later, audiences still want to believe it really happened.

It is an unfortunate fact of modern movie marketing that "based on a true story" has become the brightest badge a film can wear. It is as if, in an ironic twist, Godard's rebellious dictum "cinema is truth 24 times a second" has been taken so literally by mainstream audiences that they are now desperate to believe that anything on the silver screen could represent reality. Even the success of high-octane escapism can spike dramatically if it claims to be "based on true events", regardless of whether the alleged events are known to the public in any specific terms. The history of this seduction is too vast to encapsulate here, but examples are so plentiful that one can seemingly always be found within temporal spitting distance. Bryan Bertino advertised his 2008 home invasion horror The Strangers as “inspired by true events”, but rather than referring to a specific situation it seems to simply refer to the fact that people really do invade one another's homes; 2012's The Possession, a jewish iteration of The Exorcist, claims to base it self on a true story, though it is actually based on a museum curator's account of his spooky professional experience rather than a supernatural assault on an innocent family; the 2009 sci-fi thriller The Fourth Kind insists on its veracity with an opening oath sworn by lead actress Milla Jovovich that the film is a mix of Unsolved Mysteries-style reenactments and REAL FOOTAGE of the REAL ALIEN ABDUCTEES. Why anyone would choose to construct a movie in this way is anybody's guess, and The Fourth Kind is hardly a portrait of success, but the fact remains: filmmakers have some reason to believe that basing a film on a "true story" will put butts in seats. Why is it that we might value verite more than pure fantasy? Is it conditional? That is: not all audiences might reject an almost 100% synthetic entertainment juggernaut like AVATAR in favor of a difficult and compelling Henry Lee Lucas biopic, but that said, are there particular cinematic situations in which we prefer to believe that we are being presented with the truth? If so, why?

A lot has been made of the real-life inspiration for Tobe Hooper's trailblazing 1974 horror classic THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. To be totally fair, several powerful movies claim as their muse the murderous rural grave robber Ed Gein's untoppably outrageous ten year crime spree in the perfectly-named small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Though he committed his last murder in 1957, Gein's fabulously perverse criminal career continued to seduce cinematic luminaries from the debut of Psycho to the release of Silence of the Lambs (to say nothing of the endless catalog of great and terrible exploitative biopics and Nth generation ripoffs thereof). The effete momma-worshipping bumpkin was himself an artist, creating furniture and corpse couture from the fruits of his boneyard harvests and his plus-sized female murder victims, selected for Gein's most famous project: a skin suit resembling his late mother. Ed Gein's body count did not rise above three, but the depravity of his crimes remains unequaled by more prolific serial murderers, and moreover, the almost fantastical nature of his activities remains irresistible to filmmakers of all stripes. Witness in particular: the seven movies (so far) that make up the undying franchise of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.