Hunger can be terrifying, whether it’s what it drives you to do or what it drives others to do to you.
Cannibalism, fully in the sense and definition of one eating one’s own species, is an ancient taboo and probably one of the oldest horrors thrown about. And for those of us in nations or regions with regular access to food of some sort for the majority of our lives, it’s an unimaginable sin often attributed to “those” people who aren’t as “evolved” as the rest of us. In a way, this disdain crosses the species line and can tinge some rhetoric of individual vegetarians or vegans on how they regard others of broader diets.
But I ask you, and them: what do you know of hunger? Real hunger? Ever-present and mind-gnawing hunger? FIght-or-flight primal survival mode hunger? Not being hangry, or not having your blood sugar crash, but absolute, genuine, hair-graying hunger? Because that is the hunger that lies at the base of terror and nightmare that is cannibalism. It’s not the crazed psychopath frothing for human flesh because the neighbor’s parakeet told him to do it or else his blood would dry up in his veins, but the average, everyday person in dire circumstances driven to the brink of desperation, and with little to no other options to pursue in a desperate attempt to survive.
Because such realities have been in this nation and other nations at various times, often due to bad weather or harvests. A successive wave of bad luck for agriculture could wipe out small communities, whereas large events harrowed nations and regions. I will not provide links in this post, but I can say running a simple Google search (whether image or all) on “1920s Russian famine” will generate shocking images that have been committed to film. The event it is part of is the greater upheaval and food instability that underlie the establishment of the Soviet Union; an event that was used as background to explain what made Dr. Hannibal Lecter into Hannibal the Cannibal. The fact that it’s not commonly taught or gone over in detail is, perhaps in part of the shame of it having occurred in the first place, but perhaps a self-inflicted piece of denial by a society that lived on after it (much like, say, the members of the white community who perpetrated the Tulsa race massacre).
It is a dreadful reality that has occurred, and may yet still occur despite many efforts to prevent it, whether at home or abroad. And it all starts with addressing the reality of what is there to eat when the default, reliable and expected staples are not?
For me, the term “delicacy” in cuisine equals “horrible tasting food ate to avoid starvation.” Snails are not an immediate choice for a meal, especially compared to fruit, gathered nuts and berries or nutrient-rich animal flesh. But when there’s not a single thing available except for snails, it’s suddenly an interesting menu option. And it’s often pursued because, if we’re not alone, we know that desperation may make us consider the horrible specialty menu reading us over at the same time. There’s lots of old cartoons showing anthropomorphic castaways looking over their companions as prime dining, but the unfunny undercurrent of the joke is the reality it reflects.
The raw shock and horror of the experience in real life is best shown in that iconic work, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. Horrid as it is to phrase this next sentence in this way, but it is, in effect, a best-case scenario of doing what must be done to survive. There’s no drawing of lots, no desperate pleas to be spared, no ugly fights for life, and no morbid rending of still-warm freshly-dead flesh to satiate the maddened state survival instincts triggered in the attacker. Think more of the horror of the film Ravenous and its 1840s America context, loaded with nods to the Donner Party and Alferd Packer.
Finally, to really reach into what I would argue is one of the most conceptually frightening horror films of all time, and its various reinterpretations and additional performances, I would like to touch on the mondo film genre and its voyeuristic observation and judgment of cultures other than our own, and how it spawned the cannibal film. The most infamous of these films is Cannibal Holocaust, with its real animal suffering and stunts that left anyone but the performers wonder if actual violence and crimes were committed to the cast. The most recent of these is Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. But, ultimately, both focus on outsiders breaching or invading an isolated community only to fall prey to that community (for justified or unjustified reasons). And, cannibalism is an aspect of these fictional tribes’ isolated culture surviving and thriving, with the acts, beliefs and methods used becoming required rituals to keep the community going.
Though the cannibal films and mondo films pack a punch, these are works created by snobs meant to shock and astonish a bunch of other snobs using bigoted shorthand, and still dehumanize the other even when the other has been humanized; in Cannibal Holocaust the foreigners get what they deserve, but the fact that the natives still did what they did is a statement about the natives in its own right.
This ultimately brings me to the film franchise I’m going to talk about, which has a new release on Netflix: the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM).
As a kid growing up in a part of Texas not that far away from what terrain was shown in the film, it scares me. Not scared, but scares me still. Why would some 70s slasher flick do that to me? Because it’s not just some 70’s slasher flick. It’s not some escaped murderous lunatic carving up people in his old neighborhood, it’s not a vengeful mother or son punishing the selfish and wicked along with any other unfortunate present. It’s not some Grand Guignol for the masses. It’s a horror story unfolding before our eyes which has been firmly rooted in the time of its creation, allowing it to very easily be mistaken to be found footage or a performance of a very real event that occurred recently.
There are several entries into this particular film franchise, but I am specifically going to focus on the original film. The reboot/restart sequels like the 3D one or anything else like that all sort of miss the point and try delivering into the “monster mythology” of the family or its most recognizable boy, and thus demote Leatherface into yet another common slasher film killer. And, from my initial viewing of the Netflix offering, my original plans to review the new film fell by the wayside as I realized that this new release also misses the points and powers of the original film, and feels like it’s merely trying to capitalize on the nostalgia success that the latest Halloween films have enjoyed.
As many reviewers and critics have noted before, TCM is a gruesome fairy tale of old: Hansel and Gretel stumble across the old witch’s house and almost get gobbled up. Or rather, the band of youths foolishly go astray and fall victim to the mad and cruel bandits dwelling not far. That isn’t the actual plot, but the beats are there and resonate with the audience. It’s a “happy” ending since there’s a survivor, but that’s the only “happy” aspect of the story. To understand the full weight of forces that created the cannibal clan, we need to look at the 1970s, as well as some key events before then. Madness plays a role in this story, but not to the garish degree of extravagance that drama likes to crank it up to for a “memorable performance.”
Before TCM was made, America was shocked to its core by the actions of one Mr. Ed Gein of Plainfield, Wisconsin, in 1957. You may Google search him and his crimes, which included murder, mutilation, and graverobbing, and find more pictures that you would have ever known to have existed. His madness and crimes inspired the book Psycho, which in turn inspired the film Psycho, which in turn generated a lot of material on crazed killers and unhealthy familial relationships and the like. Add on to this time the ghoulish fascination of serial murder cases, like the Cleveland Torso killer or Ted Bundy, and you have the pot of imagination bubbling in America at the time.
Around the time of TCM, the nation was facing the decline of the Vietnam War, as well as economic woes and downturns that struck everywhere: the promise and prosperity of those propaganda-tastic golden 50s had dissolved, technology and its advances were winnowing jobs through innovation and automation, and conflict in the Middle East, itself a legacy of decades-prior colonialism and decades-current Cold War scheming, impacted fuel supplies and prices, leaving lines of customers waiting at the gas pumps (sound familiar?). Throw on top of this the withering death of small communities after their economic arteries were severed with the broad cutting pass of the new U.S. Interstate Highway system (oddly echoing the “train company bypassing the town” trope once more), and then you’ll see where our ogres of old may lair.
For the younger readers who may not have gotten this in the first pass, a summary for thee: Imagine growing up in a rural farm community, and have been part of the community for generations. Community stories and memory can recollect bad weather events or famines or scandals or moments when the Civil War or Great War or whatever war hit home. Like many generations of old, families tended to stick to family businesses, and all were ill-prepared to leave the community and find a niche elsewhere. Now, as the youngest members of the family, you are watching the way of life known by your family crumble away one way or another. The glory days of the past are too far gone to try and catch them again, and doing what you’re good at isn’t enough to keep money in your pocket, and then at some point, food on the table. You know doing it yourself isn’t an option, because you don’t have the land or the skill or the bout of luck that would have let you be a farmer, much less let any of your ancestors be farmers. Raising and selling livestock was the way of the town, and jobs linked to that are the only means to make your way in the town.
You’re not homeless, since you have the family household to live in, but it isn’t worth much and can’t offer much to move elsewhere and start again, so selling the home means homelessness. Maybe back in the day the family had livestock and land to sell, but misfortune and whatnot already drove the family to sell those things off long ago. And, the big drive a couple of decades ago was to get bodies out of the fields and into the factories, so you did along with your family. But, nowadays, because costs are bad and measures must be made, the factory starts to invest in technology rather than training workers, and old jobs start to fall by the wayside. Skilled killers and butchers aren’t needed as much anymore at the slaughterhouse thanks to automation and more efficient and safe meat processing procedures.
So now, trapped in a soon-to-be-ghost town, sheltered under the only home you’ve known, and rendered useless to the community by time and technology–a community that didn’t always welcome or accept you and your family in the first place–you’re driven to do anything to survive, even if that anything is a bit unthinkable.
However, how unthinkable really is it? A bunch of hollering and squealing comes out a pig just the same as a chicken or a bull–they just wriggle around differently. Death is part of life, too–that piece of fruit on the table is just as dead as that strip of bacon, and they both came from something that was alive not that long ago. The only difference is that the piece of fruit couldn’t run away or scream. The screaming and the killing doesn’t bother you, because that’s just life on the farm or on the old job. It’s been going on ever since the time of the Bible, and it’s just how life is.
So you start to do what you’re going to do. You pick off people that those around these parts aren’t going to miss–drifters, lost travelers, escaped criminals, and the like. And lo and behold, it works out. There’s food on the table again. But there’s always lean times when it comes to hunting and farming, so it’s best to stock your larder for when those days come around, like when there aren’t as many travelers or there’s lawmen sniffing about. What’s the point of those lawmen, anyway? They didn’t keep the slaughterhouse from firing all of those people, or arrested them when they failed to pay any severance or pension. The law’s always been hard on the family, and they don’t care to deal with you at all if they had a choice.
And by mercy, it’s working. In fact, you’ve got so much that you have a hard time keeping it from spoiling. What can be done? Well, sell it to anyone else who’s hungry? You just don’t waste good food. Don’t have to tell anybody the secret recipe. Heck, if they come back for more, then they’re no better than you. You can sell off all that other stuff that’s left behind, too, after keeping the things you like.
And, then, what do you know? A gas shortage. Sure it means that you can’t sell gas and make money that way, but it makes it easier to go harvest.
Though the description I used above uses “harvest” instead of “hunt” or “kill,” the vocabulary doesn’t really matter much–the deed is the same regardless of the word used to describe it. And this perspective, from what I can intuit, maps onto the minds of the cannibal family members in TCM. There’s suggestion of incest in the family (but not confirmed), but that detail would reinforce the idea that the family is an outcast family in a small, declining community. Desperation and abuse and unchecked mental health issues hang on the family like the skin on their bones. And then, with that troubling foundation, throw in the existential crisis of unemployment and starvation. It’s not just another bad year, but the end. The well is dry, and the family can’t just up and leave like everyone else is doing. This is home, and they’ve been through too much to abandon it now.
The family does what it knows and what it can to survive, but built on a flawed logic driven to further extremes out of desperation. In the original film, the family consists of three grandsons and a grandfather: an end to a family line. All three grandsons have some degree of mental issues, based on whatever reason (once again, incest being an inferreed reason), their respective ages also reflecting their respective instability.
The Cook is the “sane” face of the family, who maintains a facade that allows victims to be drawn in. He’s also able to voice reason and play individuals’ natures against themselves, such as him advising to keep away from the old farm near the family home. He knows a well-placed “you oughta not do that” is enough to get some to do something they’re inclined to do anyway. However, he’s not able to slaughter the livestock like his brothers, and he has issues with having his authority being respected, resulting to violence and abuse to maintain the household.
The Hitchhiker is a polar opposite of the Cook: young, wild, unpredictable, and unaware of how his behaviors are off-putting to others. He’s the irresponsible bratty younger brother who always clashes with the eldest. However, he is one of the most capable of the killers, and shows a genuine love of his work and of the craft. He’s also the kid who plays with his food, torments the livestock as it awaits its slaughter, and a morbid artist who crafts and sculpts with the dead. We learn that the scenes of desecration in the graveyard at the opening of the film is his handiwork. He’s more cunning than we are led to initially believe, but his energy and mania often overwhelm him and lead him to act impulsively.
Finally, there is Leatherface, the iconic killer of the film. He is not some massive wall of menace terrorizing individuals, but a large young man with deformities and severe developmental issues raised in a horrible environment. After Leatherface kills Jerry in the family home, we are provided a closer look at him, and it’s clear that he has Hutchinson’s teeth, a classic indicator of congenital syphilis.
He is the one who does any actual killing in the film, and he continues to do the work he knows, but with a different species of livestock. This massive menace is easily dominated by the other two brothers, and he fulfills certain roles that the family lacks by literally assuming a new mask to fit the role. The mask we initially see is a work mask, worn when he slaughters victims. The next mask, that of an old lady, is when he works as a domestic, preparing meals and getting the house in order for dinner. Finally, the pretty lady mask that he wears at dinner echoes the Southern tradition of dressing up for dinner, showing that tradition and doing things as they’re supposed to be done is how he was raised.
In fact, I’d argue that when Leatherface does what he is supposed to do and how he’s supposed to do it, he succeeds. The first youth, Kirk, is killed with a hammer blow, just like how a farmer may lure in a hog to be slaughtered. Then, when Pam is caught and put on the meathook, it’s not any different than catching a loose animal so it can be dealt with later. And finally, when Jerry stumbles into the house, Leatherface dispatches the intruder in defense of his home. Three quick kills that were successful and done the way they should’ve been done.
It isn’t until after Jerry is killed that things start to go wrong for Leatherface. He is realizing that there may be more people coming to the house to look for their friends, and the prospect whets his appetite. In his mind, he’s being clever by laying in wait outside of the house and ambushing anyone who comes along. He also thinks that if he uses the chainsaw instead of a hammer, he’ll wound them so that they can’t run away, or possibly that he can butcher them on the spot and not have to clean up a mess in the kitchen again.
The only reason why this ambush is successful is because there’s an impaired victim present: Franklin, the wheelchair-bound brother of final girl Sally. Whereas Sally can easily run away, Franklin, in a wheelchair not made for going through the wilderness, is just an easy target to be disemboweled by Leatherface’s chainsaw. Sally flees, and she ultimately escapes because she’s able to outrun Leatherface and go somewhere that has been made out of bounds for him: his older brother’s gas station. He suspects that he’s going to be in trouble, so he hurries home to put away the meat of his recent kill, as well as get the house ready for dinnertime.
Leatherface’s fears are proven right: the Cook returns home with the escaped girl in tow and starts berating both brothers for their mistakes. It reinforces that if he doesn’t do as he’s been told, then bad things are going to happen. This repeats itself with the final scene where a feeble Grandpa is given the honors of killing Sally. Excited by stories of Grandpa’s efficiency as a slaughterer in his prime, the family manically watches as his weak form tries and tries again to strike a killing blow. But this time, it is the manic impatience and overexcitement of the Hitchhiker that leads him to try to take the hammer and do it, resulting in the intended victim gaining an opportunity to escape.
Both younger brothers pursue after the victim, Leatherface with his chainsaw behind the thin, wild and wiry Hitchhiker flailing about with a straight razor. While the Hitchhiker is able to get close and grab a hold of her hair, he has abandoned any sense of his surroundings and stumbles out into the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler. In a morbid way, the wicked little boy ran out into traffic to catch the escaped little animal he was busy torturing, and he died as a result.
Leatherface, on the other hand, is still a formidable threat and in full attack mode. He’s able to scare off the trucker who tries to help, and he causes both to flee. However, he fails to account for the possibility of someone being able to fight back, and is caught off-guard when the trucker hurls a wrench at Leatherface’s head. Leatherface’s poor choice of weapon literally comes back to bite him, wounding his leg and impairing his ability to catch the loose prey. His failure and frustration is palpable in the tantrum dance he has with a running chainsaw that serves as the final scene of the film.
The film is full of instances of things going wrong and warnings. The astrology references, not trusting intuition over altruism, the unheeded advice, and even the disobeyed orders of the Cook all lead to a disastrous end. And, of course, the ultimate taboo of cannibalism overarches the film. And there are such veins of thought that creep into the mondo films and cannibal films of the time: what would one expect but such horrible things to happen there?
In essence, rural Texas becomes the American stand-in for the untamed wilderness full of savages. It’s a trope used to disparage indigenous peoples for centuries, and now its focus has been placed on the isolated rural folk of our nation. A place that tends to trend more conservative than urban areas, and whose values and practices seem outdated or even cruel in comparison. This phenomena of rural savagery crops up in other media, whether the pagan practices of The Wicker Man and Midsommar, or the grim stonings featured in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or in countless other pieces such as the classic Two Thousand Maniacs! or Kevin Smith’s Red State.
However, TCM departs from the rest of this rural horror genre because it’s about the actions of a lone family driven to desperation, though out of sight and thus out of mind for the world at large. It does not have an entire community participating in the act, as in The Wicker Man or Two Thousand Maniacs!, since the dying community is part of the problem anyway for the outcast family in TCM. It’s not a condemnation of rural America, but a dreaded light shining on the evils possible there. However, though the family does wicked things, there’s no indication that they’ve been wicked from the outset, like many tales of Sawney Beane and his family of inbred cannibal bandits. In fact, I’d argue that Sawney Beane is better represented in The Hills Have Eyes rather than TCM, but that’s a whole other discussion.
The rural isolation of the family allows for dysfunction in the family to flourish and fester for generations. The rural nature of the community enables the family to stay out of sight and keep to their business because it’s what’s expected within the community: keep to one’s own business to stay neighborly. Then, the stresses of job loss through a changing economy and the trend of vanishing small communities through innovation and technological progress pile on top of these bad variables and create the perfect storm for the dreaded horror that is the TCM family to take shape. And it’s the desperation felt from experiencing true bone-gnawing hunger that drives the extreme actions taken by the family in the film. These murders were for survival.
And that’s the key to the horror of TCM. It’s about survival; necessary evils. Imagine what America would be like if it went through a famine like the ones that wracked the fledgling Soviet Union. The rural Americans are Americans like every other American, but their realities and circumstances are very different from those in suburban or urban centers. Options are limited. Regulation seems to come from afar and just serves to hamper one’s ability to get by. In short, any American family could have wound up becoming Leatherface’s family. The only difference is that it isn’t some massive apocalypse like a zombie pandemic or a global blight that drove the family to get to this point, but everyday events and circumstances that can occur in our everyday world.
Think of the global warming issue: this issue can lead to food insecurity in the future, and societal instability as a result. But the problem of global warming is not abandoning meat as a food source in an effort to reduce emissions. In fact, that would be a historically poor choice for humanity, because it assumes that agricultural food sources will always be reliable and never sparse or lost. The Irish Potato Famine should stand as a key monument to why an omnivorous diet is the optimal diet. And, though the desire to be a localvore is admirable, that is built on the assumption that being a localvore is possible. Even pre-industrial communities traded food and fare, and didn’t limit themselves to “local” produce. In fact, it was vital to survival that food trade and transportation was possible because of potential food loss due to disaster, famine, drought, disease, war, or any number of reasons.
The “ethical diets” of today are, to be blunt, snobbery. I am not discounting individuals adopting a diet that’s best for their health, but rather those who praise their diet over the dietary practices of others. Their assumptions are based on countless unseen networks and advances in agriculture that makes their “ethical” diet possible. Just a handful of serious compromises to these systems could negate those diets as viable options altogether. Food access and abundance is great, but it desensitizes people to the actual struggle that is getting and maintaining a regular food source, much less a specific type of food source.
The “ethical diets” also fail to genuinely consider the diverse array of dietary needs that are out there. I’m not just talking about kosher or halal foods, nor foods lacking particular allergens. I’m talking about health issues that render people unable to eat particular foods at all. As much as going meatless might be a good idea for my health, a lot of the meat-substitute options out there that are palatable to me are bad for me due to my thyroid issues. So what about me? Get used to eating unenjoyable food for the sake of everyone else for the rest of your existence? Is that the answer for everyone who faces certain food challenges because they are the few instead of the many? How about saying that to a parent whose child has to ensure these dietary restrictions?
And, in the end, it all doesn’t matter because nature can lay low human achievement, pride, technology, and confidence in a literal heartbeat. If global warming renders conditions for agriculture worse, then it won’t matter if we reduced our meat intake because we’d have starved to death waiting for all that plant food intake that didn’t flourish and grow enough to feed us. Delicacies would still be around, but the euphemisms would fall away and the practicality and necessity laid bare. Our thriving era would be gone, and the era of surviving would be back face-to-face with us again, as it was for several generations beforehand.
That is the pragmatic terror of hunger, which TCM works with so well. It’s seeing the predatory stare of the person across the table from you, no different from that of a slavering wolf or lion. It’s the possibility that we may revert to a stage like that ourselves in the name of survival, and then become so accustomed to it that we no longer bother questioning why we do it or if we should still do it. By having the family be abusive and inbred and insane we minimize the humanity of the family, and do our best to otherize them in a blatant effort of denial. It’s not the self-aware shame shown regarding the cannibalism in Snowpiercer. It’s gone well beyond past acceptance into the dreaded realm of commonplace regularity. It’s not just you seeing yourself in the beast, but the beast seeing itself in you. And the beast killing and eating you anyway.