So now we reach the mid seventies in our little horror series and we arrive at possibly the film series that opened the floodgates for all the classic slasher films of the late 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, allegedly based on real events, introduced the world to the serial killer and cannibal; Leatherface. Leatherface is perhaps one of the more infamous of horror characters so, what makes him a horror icon?
Leatherface was born a mentally retarded mute with a hideous skin disease which meant he was subject to bullying and teasing from other children, because of this he did not attend school and eventually went to work in the local slaughterhouse. It was here that Leatherface excelled but when the slaughterhouse closed he and his family began raiding cemeteries for food due to lack of income and, in time, began killing hitchhikers. Leatherface is such a pitifully pathetic character. In the original film he only begins murdering the teenagers because they break down and go to the house to use the phone. It isn’t done out of malice, it’s out of fear, these strange kids keep coming out of nowhere and stumbling upon the families murderous secret. After he’s killed about 3 of the teenagers, we see him in his room, rocking back and forth practically crapping himself with fear and that makes us sympathize with him, he’s nervous and obviously has no idea what’s happening or what he’s going to do about it. Furthermore he’s not the real villain of the film, it’s his family. Leatherface is very much a man-child and he does pretty much whatever his brother or uncle tell him to do, he is incapable of thinking for himself and, once again, that warrants our pity. Leatherface’s back story also makes us pity him. He’s bullied horrifically as a child and has a skin disorder which means he wears a mask made from skin to cover himself up. Children can be cruel and almost all of us can relate because almost all of us have been bullied at some point in our lives and, despite the fact few of us have any such relation to Leatherface’s exact situation, we can still recognize it as a pretty unfortunate condition.
Well we’ve talked about Leatherface being very pitiable but what makes him scary? Well the obvious thing is that he does kill people, in fact Leatherface is based on the serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein who filled his apartment with human remains. Another interesting point is the weapon that Leatherface uses, a chainsaw, which is a pretty gruesome weapon. It’s basically a moving, jagged sword and it’s the perfect weapon for Leatherface. Allow me to explain, a chainsaw is a heavy, graceless, mechanically physical weapon and these are all terms which describe Leatherface. He’s clumsy but deadly and so is a chainsaw. In fact Leatherface’s speed is also pretty important when talking about his status as a horror icon. No matter how slow and clumsy and stupid he blatantly is, he has an annoying habit of persistence and almost a sense of omnipresence, You know he isn’t going to stop and 9 times out of 10 he will reach you and he will kill you. There’s also the fact that he’s a serial killer and a cannibal. I’ve mentioned before about the link to Ed Gein and the idea of a serial killer/cannibal in the back-end of nowhere is both terrifying and not uncommon in history and film. On top of this, we also have a sort of stereotypical mistrust of anyone who lives in the type of places that Leatherface and family live eg in the back-end of nowhere. Leatherface lives in an old dilapidated house in Texas off the beaten track. As a society we often think of these people as hicks with strange ways and that probably plays a part in why we fear Leatherface, we already suspect people living on the fringes of society as literally being on the fringes of society.
Finally I guess I have to look at the more obvious things. He’s a serial killer/cannibal who wears a mask of human skin and raids graveyards. There is obviously a taboo issue here, both murder and cannibalism are considered socially repugnant and grave robbing is a pretty morally disgusting act and also indicative of an inherent disregard for the respect of the dead. The mask made of human skin is a trademark of the character and adds to the fear of him because he becomes a walking personification of death and his home is filled with furniture built with human and animal bone showing that death has become just another aspect of family life, even dinner conversation often sways to murder, it’s the norm. It’s interesting to look at the way Leatherface is dressed. In a way he reminds me of my old friend from primary school, Matthew Hoyle. He wears a suit and tie coated in sweat patches and it adds to the ugliness of the character. He’s a plump guy in a suit in one of the hottest places in America, perhaps on Earth. It sort of adds to the clumsiness of the guy, like a fat american tourist in Africa.
Leatherface is a character who combines pity and fear. He is a victim of cruelty, a picnic basket of taboo, disgust and a great summation of all our stereotypical views of ‘hicks’.