Discussing the aspects of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that are based in “truth” isn’t an easy or straight forward exercise. The film’s initial claim that it’s “based on real events” was an intentional lie created as a means of attracting movie-goers by appealing to their macabre sensibilities; it was a gimmick, but to this day, many fans seem unaware of this deception. Still, there are connections between the fictional character Leatherface (originally played by Gunnar Hansen) and the infamous Wisconsin “ghoul” Ed Gein; elements of Gein’s story and personality were incorporated into the scrip by screenwriters Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper (who also directed the film).
Ed Gein vs. Leatherface
Ed Gein was a Wisconsin farmer who was born August 27, 1906 and died in July 26, 1984 at the age of 77. On the surface, he had little in common with the fictional icon, Leatherface. He was raised by a single mother and, after her passing, he spent most of his life in solitude. Gein was incredibly shy and socially awkward; a strict religious upbringing left him unable maintain normal relationships with those around him—especially women. But he wasn’t even technically a serial killer, having only slain 2 victims (with a rifle, not a chainsaw). Gein wasn’t a sexual sadist, a violent psychopath, or a confirmed cannibal (all major characteristic of his “counterpart” Leatherface). He was, however, a “body snatcher”, and it was Gein’s disturbing fascination with dead bodies that Hooper and Henkel incorporated into TCM.
Gein did wear masks made of human flesh, but he did this as a means of satisfying desires to be a woman, and not to cover some degenerative skin disease (as is the case with Leatherface). These transsexual inclinations were actually explored in the 4th Chapter of TCM: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994). In addition to a female flesh mask, Gein created an entire bodysuit, complete with breasts and a vagina; he would frequently romp around his property in this gruesome attire.
When police raided Gein’s farmhouse in 1957, they found a veritable house of horrors. In addition to the freshly butchered body of Bernice Worden (a local shop keep and Gein’s final victim), the home was filled with disgusting “trophies” culled over years of grave robbing; these included: Eating utensils crafted from human bones, cups and bowls fashioned from skulls, dozens of severed nipples sewn into a belt, and a box of female genitalia. Police also discovered lamp shades and furniture constructed from human skin. Much of this imagery was adopted by the crew of Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the interior of Leatherface’s house.
Gein died peacefully at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in 1984; by all indications, he was a model patient who never made trouble, and was even put to work as a janitor.
For all the gory details you can handle, check out this History Channel documentary about Gein and his cultural impact below.
Ultimately, Gein’s influence on Leatherface is merely peripheral, as the two shared few common characteristics or circumstances. Still, Gein has been cited as an influence here, and on other major horror movie icons. Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) from Psycho (1960), for example, had been mentally disabled by a domineering mother, and also enjoyed preserving dead bodies. Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine) from The Silence of the Lambs shared Gein’s desire to craft a female flesh suit as a means of soothing gender dysmorphia.
Quite often, horror movies are inspired by a single action or image, and this is certainly the case for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the Trivia section of IMDB, Hooper’s true impetus for creating the seminal gore-fest, the initial spark, is revealed: “Director Tobe Hooper claims he got the idea for the film while standing in the hardware section of a crowded store. While thinking of a way to get out through the crowd, he spotted the chainsaws.” And the rest is history.
The Real Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Recently released on Netflix is the documentary The Real Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film tells the story of Robert Elmer Kleason, a mentally unstable gun hoarder who was convicted of murdering a couple of Mormon missionaries in his trailer on the outskirts of Austin, Texas in 1975. After he murdered them, Kleason (who worked as an apprentice taxidermist) chopped the bodies into pieces with a band saw before disposing of them, most likely sending them to the dump along with additional piles of animal remains (a byproduct of the taxidermy process). The investigation is only half the story, as Kleason would go on to beat a death-row rap before fleeing to Britain, were he married a widower and reinvented himself as an arms dealer. Clues suggest Kleason may have been ready to resume his macabre hobbies, having recently procured a band saw—just like the one he used to dispose of the missionaries.
Capitalizing on the cultural impact of Tobe Hooper’s film, Kleason’s crimes were referred to as “the real Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
If you subscribe to Netflix, you can see the documentary, HERE.