Apr 25, 2013

Unremitting Disgust

This is a paper that I wrote as a final project for a class called The Power of Food in Literature, Culture, and Film (just ending -- I present this paper next week.) The full title is:

"Unremitting Disgust: The Culinary Experience of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

It's not exactly journalism, but I'm pretty proud of it as a media analysis and so thought I'd post it here. Enjoy. Bring a bucket.

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is considered by many to be the first “slasher” or “splatter” film in the genre of horror. This distinction, while thoroughly deserved, is striking because there is almost no blood used for the film’s special effects. The unique atmosphere of unremitting disgust, terror, disorientation and chaos is created through the tactical use of organic decay – the butchery of farm animals, rotting meat and flesh, strewn chicken feathers and bones. The film’s power also comes from how the story plays off of deep-seated fears and taboos that are held about cannibalism in American society, blurring the line of distinction between human and animal meat. This comes to a head in the notorious “dinner scene” where Sally (the only victim to escape) is both the guest and the main course. The forced intimacy of this dinner invitation is heightened by the fact that Sally is completely under the control of her captors – she is tied to her chair, screaming, but is still given a plate of food and spoken to with a grisly-absurd kind of Southern hospitality. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains one of the most effective and artfully done horror films today, yet it cannot be described as gory. The images of rotting flesh, human butchery, animal detritus and decay throughout the film strike a very deep chord of disgust and fear in the viewer.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is only one in a chain of films inspired by the true-crime story of Ed Gein – others include such touchstone works as Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs – which continues to fascinate today. Gein was a reclusive farmer in rural 1950’s Wisconsin who robbed graves and killed women to obtain body parts that he used to make crafts and costumes (face-masks, leggings, even a vest made of real breasts – a very primitive form of transvestism.) There were rumors of evidence of cannibalism found at Gein’s house, which were later revealed to be unfounded.

“It wasn’t long before the facts surrounding Bernice Worden’s murder – horrific enough to begin with – underwent some significant alterations. Mrs. Worden’s heart, for example, which had actually been discovered in a plastic bag near Eddie’s stove, was suddenly reported to have been found in a frying pan on one of the burners. The old suit of clothes in which her entrails had been hidden became a refrigerator packed with vital organs, all of them neatly wrapped in butcher’s paper. Stories began to circulate that the widow’s body had been dismembered and her legs hung up to cure in Gein’s summer kitchen. Eddie’s cellar was rumored to be stocked with quart jars full of human blood” (Schechter 93).

Ed Gein’s acts were so shocking and debased because the ways he used human bodies bespoke no understanding of their humanity, so cannibalism would not be a far leap – in a certain way, it would make more sense than his taxidermy-esque efforts. Nevertheless, the story of Ed Gein’s cannibalism persists. This hearsay about the horrific goings-on at the Gein farmhouse sparked the imagination of Tobe Hooper to create The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with cannibalism combined with grave-robbing and some more bizarre fetishes besides. A particular rumor that seemed to scare the inhabitants of Gein’s small Wisconsin town the most was that of collective, unwitting cannibalism. As Schechter goes on to say, “The stories of Ed Gein’s cannibalism generated even ghastlier rumors – that the little man had handed out packages of human flesh to his neighbors, passing the meat off as venison – and local clinics suddenly found themselves trying to cope with an epidemic of gastrointestinal complaints” (119). This concept is explored in detail in Hooper’s film.

The group of five teenagers who become the victims of the wild, inbred Texas family first encounter the father as a seemingly-affable proprietor of a local gas station. They stop for gas and barbecue  which is revealed later in the film to be made of human meat. By this action an interesting spiral is created, where capitalistic consumers become complicit (however unwittingly) in the taboo consumption of human flesh, later to become consumed themselves (Merritt 202). All three generations of the family of killers are ex-abattoir workers who have continued using their skills to butcher ensnared humans and sell them as barbecued meat. They also make knick-knacks and furniture out of their bodies, a practice directly inspired by Gein. Leatherface, the burly older brother who kills his victims as swiftly and efficiently as if they truly were cattle, wears a mask made of flayed human skin.

An invitation to dinner is first extended to the band of teenagers when, after leaving the gas station, they pick up a hitchhiker who happens to be the youngest member of the Family. It becomes immediately clear that The Hitchhiker is very bizarre, twitchy and somehow revolting. Franklin, a member of the group, starts asking him about the old slaughterhouse where his grandfather used to sell his cattle and finds that the Hitchhiker’s family had been laid off from their jobs there, as a result of new technology. Merritt describes how, “While the Hitchhiker explains in an ironically coded way: ‘My family’s always been in meat’ (a description that gathers multiple meanings as the film progresses), Franklin is unwittingly close to the truth when he mutters a disgusted response: ‘A whole family of Draculas’’’ (213). This scene inside the van is cut between shots of the lines of cows confined in the slaughterhouse, foaming and dripping at the mouth from the strong Texas heat. The Hitchhiker gets very excited talking about how the cattle used to be killed by sledgehammer, and how his brother could make a great head-cheese from the remains. He invites the teenagers over to their house to try some, but they decline saying that, “We’re kind of in a hurry,” because by now everyone in the van is feeling a little uneasy and sickened by the whole conversation. They throw the Hitchhiker out after he cuts himself across the hand, smiling with glee, and drive away as he smears his blood across the door. 

The members of the group stumble one by one into the house of these killers, situated very close to where they are staying, and one by one are slaughtered by Leatherface (wearing a white butcher’s apron). They are clubbed over the head, hung on meat hooks, dismembered with a chainsaw, and stuffed into freezers. Sally, the last member to be caught, manages to almost escape after she witnesses Franklin being sawed to pieces. But when she runs back to the gas station in town, frantic and terrified, she is beaten and hauled back to the house by the father (whom the family refers to as The Cook.) There is a very striking, brief but quiet scene where Sally is sitting in the gas station believing she is safe – she is shaking and half-crying, gazing around the store, and spots a rack of grilling sausages bathed in hot red light. The camera lingers on the meat for a few seconds, seeming to imply something that Sally has begun to realize. The moment is quickly shattered by the father attacking Sally with a broom, but still serves to enhance the slaughterhouse atmosphere of the whole film. 

When the Hitchhiker sees that his father has brought Sally home, he recognizes her from earlier in the van and shouts laughingly, “I thought you was in a hurry!” She has now been forced to accept his dinner invitation, as she learns the true nature of this family’s business. The dinner scene soon follows, which Merritt offers some pertinent observations on: “Transgressive themes that destabilize the distinctions between human/animal, consumer/consumed, build to a sadistic climax during the ‘dinner party’ scene, where Sally is both guest of honor and ‘main course.’ In this parody of a domestic scene, perverted small-town hospitality, demented family values, unrepentant sadism, childish bullying, and cannibalism are absurdly combined” (224). Heightening the sense of domestic parody, Leatherface has now slathered makeup on his mask of human skin and put on a nice blue dress. Cook coos to Sally, while giggling at her terror, “Now young lady, you just take it easy there now. We’ll fix you some supper in a few minutes” (Hooper). Sally is given the odd courtesy of a plate of food (two sausages and some mashed potato), napkin, fork, and glass of water – although she cannot move to reach them because her hands are tied to the arms of the chair. When the Hitchhiker wheels his decrepit and near-dead Grandpa into the room, he pricks Sally’s finger and gives it to the old man to suckle. He does so, turning Sally into another kind of consumable and horrifying her so much that she faints momentarily.

When she regains consciousness and dinnertime resumes, the discussion turns to killing and who should have the pleasure of slaughtering Sally. Her screams and pleas do nothing to dissuade the members of the family, who laugh and mock her continuously from across the table while the father attempts to comfort her. He says, “‘Now just you hush. It won’t hurt none. Ol’ Grandpa’s the best killer there ever was. Why he never took more than one lick they say’” (Merritt 227). Over thirty hours were spent filming this dinner scene, and the cast describes how the combination of unbearable 100° F heat and rotting food on the table contributed to the very real hysteria and revulsion of the scene (Shellady). The headcheese had to be changed out every half hour because it kept rotting so quickly. The sausages on the table were injected with formaldehyde at intervals to prevent them from exploding in the heat. There were black curtains over the window, so they could film during the day, so the heat was even more intense – there was a chicken head nailed to a board in the middle of the table that got very grisly and rotting as time went on. People involved in working on the film describe how there were actually buckets placed around the edge of the set for people to vomit into if they needed to. In this kind of atmosphere, with this kind of decay and stench surrounding them, the actors were able to slip completely into their sadistic characters and give a truly insane performance. 

The filth and detritus of dead animals and humans that litters the killer family’s house (one kind of detritus sometimes indistinguishable from another) overwhelms the viewer with a sense of disgust and claustrophobia. This sensation plays off of the fear centers of the mind, while bringing up a very primal, ancient taboo about cannibalism and humans being hunted for meat. One major lesson to take from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is to never underestimate the sensory power of organic decay, combined with horrifying and taboo implications, to provoke a greater response in a horror film than would be obtained through using buckets of blood. The film also drives home the intimacy and vulnerability suggested by a dinner invitation, especially one received from a stranger. The family wants the five teenagers for devious purposes, and eventually gets them – they ensnare Sally and tie her to her chair, relishing her forced compliance with their invitation and taking their time with the ultimate purpose of slaughtering her on the dining-room floor. She does escape in the end, but just barely – and there is no doubt by the end of the film that this “whole family of Draculas” will be able to carry on with all of their family traditions. 

Bibliography / Filmography

Hooper, Tobe, dir. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Bryanston Pictures, 1974. Film. 

Merritt, Naomi. “Cannibalistic Capitalism and other American Delicacies: A Bataillean Taste of
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Film-Philosophy 14.1 (2010). Web. 

Schechter, Harold. Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original "Psycho." New
York, New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1998. Print. 

Shellady, Brad, dir. Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Family Portrait. 1988. Film. 

Apr 24, 2013

My Night as a Street Preacher

Yesterday evening on a street corner in Lebanon, NH, I handed out 19 free copies of Good Omens to passers-by and kept one for myself. The last one was plonked at 10 pm in the bed of a parked pickup truck, while the cold whistled through my invigorated veins and I pondered how I was going to get home. I was purposeful, actualized, filled with holy fire, a book evangelist for World Book Night 2013.

It was a cause that needed all the help it could get -- this is only the second year that World Book Night has been happening in the U.S.. The venture began in England, spread to Ireland, and now has leeched across the Atlantic to us. Last year at a perfectly ordinary ice-cream stand on April 23rd, a blonde woman in a polo shirt asked me if I wanted a free copy of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I didn't even wait for her to finish her sentence before grabbing it. What a revelation, to find that I was not alone in loving books so much as to actually physically foist them on strangers. The idea enchanted me... which is how I ended up standing on gray sidewalks for two hours sidling up to people and trying not to look like the fanatic that I was.

As expected, I got a lot of bemused and wary responses from people. There were a few simple "yes"es, smilingly folding the book into their side as they walked along, which was good enough for me. There was a sweet old man with a yellow pointed mustache and yellow, bashed-in fingernails who was wonderfully receptive and said that he would walk around trying to spread the word. I hung out with a legless truck driver with blue eyes and three chins for about half an hour. We talked off and on while he pivoted around me in his wheelchair, sometimes angling it outwards to talk to people walking by. He didn't want a book, even though I kept trying to offer him one, saying how full his brain already was from the crossword puzzles he has on his computer at home -- 14,000 and he's on number 1,741.

One man took one look at the book I was holding out to him...

... and said that he was a follower of Jesus Christ and probably wouldn't find it so funny.
I recounted this to another guy who came out of Salt hill Pub for a smoke and rolled up his free copy to stick in his jacket pocket. He waved his hand saying, "Just take it. It's a book. No harm ever came from a book. ..Well," he started to correct himself, but took another drag as I peered down the street to watch for more people to accost. 

It's surprisingly hard to get people to take a free book. My tagline for Good Omens was, "It's about the Apocalypse, but it's really funny" (which is basically lifted from a blurb on the front but is still the best way to sum up the book.) I really did start feeling like a religious zealot, an overly earnest missionary prodding at strangers on the street to recruit them to my cause. Being a World Book Night book-giver was a boundary-pushing experience, but so thrilling for me. I know that I feel passionate about sharing books with people and that seems like a good enough reason to run with the idea (into the street... waving my little flag...)