20 Terrifying Facts About The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

In the summer of 1973, newbie director Tobe Hooper—who passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74—and a group of unknown actors ventured out into the Central Texas heat to make a horror movie. Braving blistering temperatures, on-set injuries, and a shoestring budget, they produced one of the most terrifying motion pictures ever made.

More than four decades after its release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still shocks and thrills audiences with its realistic imagery, unhinged tone, and “based on a true story” marketing—and its status as one of the ultimate cult classics shows no signs of fading. Not bad for a little film that drove the cast and crew insane during production. From marathon shooting days to flying chainsaws to mafia money problems, here are 20 facts about one of the greatest slasher films of all time.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A CHRISTMAS SHOPPING CROWD.

The inspirations for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are surprisingly diverse, ranging from director and co-writer Tobe Hooper’s attempt to make a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel to real-life Wisconsin murderer and corpse defiler Ed Gein. According to Hooper, though, the light bulb moment that really ignited the film came at a department store during the Christmas 1972 shopping rush.

"There were these big Christmas crowds, I was frustrated, and I found myself near a display rack of chain saws. I just kind of zoned in on it,” Hooper told Texas Monthly. “I did a rack focus to the saws, and I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly.’ I went home, sat down, all the channels just tuned in, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me in what seemed like about 30 seconds. The hitchhiker, the older brother at the gas station, the girl escaping twice, the dinner sequence, people out in the country out of gas.”

2. LEATHERFACE IS ALLEGEDLY BASED ON A REAL PERSON HOOPER KNEW.

Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding maniac who would go down in history as one of horror cinema’s greatest villains, shows obvious Ed Gein influence thanks to his mask crafted from human skin, but Gein was not the character’s only precursor. The idea of a mask made of human skin actually came to Hooper far more directly, and creepily.

“Before I came up with the chainsaw,” Hooper said, “the story had trolls under a bridge. We changed that to the character who eventually became Leatherface. The idea actually came from a doctor I knew. I remembered that he’d once told me this story about how, when he was a pre-med student, the class was studying cadavers. And he went into the morgue and skinned a cadaver and made a mask for Halloween. We decided Leatherface would have a different human-skin mask to fit each of his moods.”

3. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL TITLE.

After inspiration struck, Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel hammered out a script over several weeks and gave it the eerie title Head Cheese (named for the scene in which the hitchhiker details the process of how that particular pork product is made). Then it was changed to the menacing working title of Leatherface. It wasn’t until a week before shooting was set to begin that the eventual title arrived, suggested to Hooper and Henkel by Warren Skaaren, then head of the Texas Film Commission, who’d helped the project get financing.

4. IT IS NOT A TRUE STORY.


New Line Cinema

Though the real crimes of Ed Gein did influence Hooper and Henkel in their writing, the idea that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is itself based on a true story is something that grew out of the marketing of the film. The opening narration, which promised that “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths,” certainly helped that along, as did the original poster and its promise that “what happened is true!” Despite this clever aura, the tale of Leatherface and his deranged family is still a work of fiction, despite continued protestations from fans even decades later.

“I’ve had people say ‘I knew the original Leatherface,’” Gunnar Hansen, who played the killer character, recalled.

5. GUNNAR HANSEN WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL LEATHERFACE.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but the massive Gunnar Hansen, who passed away in 2015, behind the Leatherface mask in the original film now, but he was apparently not the first person cast in the role. When he first heard that the film was being made, Hansen—then a graduate student in Austin—was told he’d be “great” for the role, but that it was already cast. Then the original Leatherface quit.

“Two weeks later,” Hansen recalled, “the same guy calls and says, ‘The guy who was hired as the killer is holed up drunk in a motel and won’t come out. There’s a lot of bad karma surrounding this movie, and I’m quitting.’ So I called [art director] Bob Burns and told him I was interested.”

Hansen—who stood six-foot-four and weighed 300 pounds—won the role from Hooper on sight.

6. LEATHERFACE WAS INSPIRED BY REAL MENTAL PATIENTS.

With no real dialogue (apart from a gibberish scene that Hooper eventually cut) to drive his character, and his facial expressions hidden by a mask, Hansen had to come up with other ways to express who he thought Leatherface was. When Hooper wanted the character to “squeal like a pig,” Hansen went out into the country and studied a friend’s pigs. Then, to capture the mental instability of the character, he went to an Austin mental hospital and studied the movements of the patients there, which he then incorporated into his performance.

7. TOBE HOOPER REALLY WANTED A PG RATING.

Despite its reputation for gruesome mutilation and gore, much of the violence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is suggested rather than directly depicted. This is because Hooper was hoping for a PG rating so that the film could reach a wider audience (there was no PG-13 at the time) and was told by the Motion Picture Association of America that he could help his cause if he limited the amount of onscreen blood.

“As you watch the film, notice there’s probably about two ounces,” Hooper later joked.

Alas, the film’s intensity ultimately meant it earned an R rating. Still, it’s probably not as gory as you remember.

8. THE NARRATOR IS A YOUNG JOHN LARROQUETTE.

The film’s menacing opening narration is an instant tone-setter, preparing the audience for a truly horrifying experience. The voice providing that menace? John Larroquette, then an unknown actor who was referred to Hooper by a friend. Hooper asked Larroquette to imitate Orson Welles for his reading, and while he didn’t quite get that, what the actor ultimately provided worked wonders.

9. THE SHOOT WAS HARROWING.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was produced on a budget of $60,000 raised by Bill Parsley, a Texas Tech administrator and former member of the Texas Legislature who fancied himself a film producer. Even in 1973 it was a shoestring budget (John Carpenter’s famously low-budget Halloween was made for five times that amount a few years later), which meant little pay and long hours for the cast and crew. To make matters worse, the production endured a Texas summer with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees (including 115-degree heat for the un-air conditioned interior shots), a single bathroom shared by more than three dozen people, costumes that could not be changed because the actors only had one set of clothes, and the constant presence of the bones and rotting meat used as props. Virtually no member of the cast went uninjured, and the heat and stench got so punishing at one point that the actors would run to the windows of the house where the dinner scene was shot to throw up and breathe a little fresh air between takes.

Years later, Hooper sarcastically referred to the experience as an “interesting summer."

10. THE LEGENDARY DINNER SCENE WAS SHOT IN A SINGLE MARATHON DAY.


New Line Cinema

The dinner scene near the end of the film in which Sally (Marilyn Burns) is terrorized by Leatherface and his family is one of the most intense sequences in all of horror cinema. It feels like you’re actually watching a group of people going insane, and that’s because … well, maybe you are.

In addition to the excessive heat and odor in the dining room during filming, the sequence was given another challenge: It had to be completed in a single day because John Dugan, the actor who played Grandpa, refused to endure the 10-hour process of getting his makeup applied a second time. “He announced that he was not sitting through it again,” Hooper said.

As a result, the cast and crew worked for 27 straight hours to finish a scene that takes up only a few minutes of the film’s runtime.

11. THE CAST ACTUALLY DISLIKED FRANKLIN.

For the role of Franklin, Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother who draws the ire of the audience when he grows angry with his more able-bodied friends simply because he can’t share in their fun, actor Paul Partain opted to take a very Method approach to his work.

“I was a young, inexperienced actor who didn’t realize that it wasn’t like theater," Partain later said. "You didn’t have to stay in character all the time. When I first read the part, I could see that nobody wanted this guy to be there. It just hit me that he was whiny.”

Partain’s commitment worked just as well behind the camera as it did in front of it. At one point he and Burns stopped speaking to each other between takes, and Hansen later recalled that Franklin was the only character he was actually happy to kill.

12. LEATHERFACE’S VICTIMS TREATED HIM AS AN OUTSIDER BEHIND THE SCENES.

    As a large man who had to work every day in triple-digit heat while wearing a wool costume that he couldn’t change out of, Gunnar Hansen already had it rough while making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He got so smelly by the end of production that the rest of the cast and crew avoided eating around him. To make matters a little more difficult, though, he also dealt with an interesting character technique that his victims engaged in. During the shoot, Burns and the other kids who would eventually fall prey to Leatherface avoided Hansen because they didn’t want to hang out with their killer.

    “During the filming, none of them would talk to me or be anywhere near me until they were dead,” he later recalled.

    This behind-the-scenes observance actually produced some intense onscreen results. For example, when Jerry (Allen Danzinger) discovers Leatherface’s slaughter room and then meets the man himself, the scream he lets out is genuine. It was apparently the first time he had seen Hansen in full costume.

    13. LEATHERFACE ACTUALLY WEARS THREE DIFFERENT MASKS.

      Though his name would suggest a singular horrifying visage, Leatherface actually wears multiple masks in the film—the rationale being that they were the only way he could truly express himself. There’s the plain killing mask he wears for most of the film, the “grandma” mask he wears while preparing dinner to show his “domestic side,” and the makeup-covered mask he wears to sit down to dinner, complete with a suit in the Southern tradition of dressing up for the evening meal.

      14. THE FILM’S MOST BEAUTIFUL SHOT ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN.


      New Line Cinema

        For all its brutality, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also made use of the natural beauty of its location to produce some truly stunning images, including one shot that almost didn’t happen. While shooting at Leatherface’s house, Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl conceived a shot that would track under the swing in the yard and follow Pam (Teri McMinn) at a low angle as she walked toward the house, which would grow menacingly in the background until it towered over her. According to both Hooper and Pearl, producers (namely Parsley, who visited the set often and feared the film would be a disaster) didn’t want them to spend time on the shot, as it was not a part of the storyboards they worked from for much of the film. They fought for and ultimately got the moment, and it remains the most beautiful composition in the film.

        15. BURNS WAS ACTUALLY CUT DURING HER SCENE WITH GRANDPA.

          The scene in which Sally’s finger is cut so that her blood can be fed to Grandpa was supposed to rely on a very simple special effect. The knife blade used in the scene was dulled by a piece of tape which also held a rubber tube attached to a “bulb” full of fake blood concealed in Hansen’s palm. As he dragged the knife across Burns’s finger, Hansen was supposed to squeeze the bulb and pump the blood out to simulate the cut, but the tube kept clogging in take after take. Frustrated and exhausted (this was during the 27-hour shooting marathon), Hansen ultimately stripped the tape off the knife when no one was looking and cut Burns for real.

          “At this point I was so crazy that I just wanted to get the film over with,” he later said.

          16. YES, THE SAW WAS REAL.


          New Line Cinema

            Though its teeth were removed for some shots, the saw Hansen wielded in the film was indeed a working chainsaw, and it sometimes put cast members in real danger. The blade of the saw was just inches from actor William Vail’s head for the scene in which Leatherface begins carving up Kirk’s body, and Hooper and Pearl had to carefully dance around Hansen to shoot the film’s final moments as Leatherface swings the saw around. Hansen himself ended up with the closest near-miss of the film, though: During the chase scene in which Leatherface pursues Sally through the woods at night, Hansen slipped and fell, sending the saw flying into the darkness. With no idea where the deadly power tool would land, Hansen just covered his head and hoped for the best. The saw landed just a few inches away.

            17. THE CAST DID NOT GET TO SHARE IN THE FILM’S SUCCESS.

              Because of its low budget, many of the stars of Chainsaw took ownership shares in the film rather than a salary, but their shares were actually percentages of Vortex, the company set up by Henkel and Hooper to produce the film. Since Vortex only owned half the film, with Parsley owning the other half, their shares were all sliced in half, which many of them apparently didn’t realize at the time. To make matters more complicated, Bryanston Distributors—which acquired the film for release in late 1974—was declaring revenue for the film was much, much lower than the millions it raked in at drive-ins and midnight shows. The producers eventually took Bryanston to court, but by then the distributor’s financial situation was so dire that they had no demonstrable assets to sue for. In the end, the cast saw very little money for their work.

              “Three months, no check,” Ed Neal, who played the hitchhiker, later recalled. “Six months, no check. Nine months, a check for $28.45. We were angry."

              18. IT HAS AN ALLEGED CONNECTION TO THE MAFIA.

                In terms of ticket sales, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most profitable films of all time. With the addition of an extra investment to help him finish post-production, Hooper had made the film for a little more than $80,000, and Bryanston acquired it for distribution for $225,000. The film went on to earn $12 million at the box office in its first year, according to Variety, but Bryanston ultimately claimed only about $1 million of that. Why the discrepancy? Allegedly because Bryanston’s owners—Joe and Lou Peraino—were members of the Colombo crime family. The brothers apparently got into the film business in the first place after muscling away the rights to another classic ‘70s cult film: Deep Throat.

                19. ONE CAST MEMBER USED TO FRIGHTEN MOVIEGOERS AT SCREENINGS.

                  Because of its realism and “true story” marketing, Texas Chainsaw created the opportunity for some interesting encounters between fans and cast members. McMinn once recalled picking up a hitchhiker with a friend (which is ironic, given the film’s relationship to hitchhikers) and listening to him describe how scary the film was to her until she asked if he recognized her.

                  “I thought he was going to have a coronary,” she said.

                  Of all the cast members, it was Ed Neal—the hitchhiker himself—who would have the most amusing reaction from fans. He used to visit screenings of the film at Austin’s Village theater, wait for his scenes to come up, and then tap viewers on the shoulder and watch them freak out.

                  “They finally asked me not to come back anymore,” Neal said.

                  20. YOU CAN HAVE LUNCH AT LEATHERFACE'S HOUSE.

                    The original location used as the house of Leatherface and his family was located in Williamson County, Texas, in what is now the Round Rock area. The house isn’t there anymore, but if you head west of Austin into Kingsland you can find the actual home, restored and now in use as a restaurant. It’s called the Grand Central Café, and though the owners proudly include its cinematic heritage on their website, you won’t find any human bones as part of the décor.

                    Additional Sources:
                    DVD commentary by Tobe Hooper, Daniel Pearl, and Gunnar Hansen – 2003

                    10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

                    Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
                    Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
                    Focus Features

                    Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

                    Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

                    1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

                    This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

                    2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

                    One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

                    3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

                    In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

                    4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

                    Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
                    Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
                    Focus Features

                    Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

                    5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

                    Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

                    6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

                    When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

                    7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

                    In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

                    8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

                    Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

                    9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

                    The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

                    10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

                    Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

                    You Can Rent This Wizard of Oz-Themed Cottage in North Carolina

                    Airbnb
                    Airbnb

                    This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. In addition to watching the film, you can opt for a more immersive way to celebrate the occasion. As Travel + Leisure reports, a cottage in West Jefferson, North Carolina offered on Airbnb is perfect for any traveling Oz fan—and it’s only $35 a night.

                    The studio cottage is considered a glamping destination and is slim on amenities—it has a breakfast nook, porch, sofa bed, and a Porta John—but the Oz-themed details more than make up for the lack of luxurious perks.

                    A pair of stockinged feet are visible under the home, hinting at a witch’s untimely demise; a character mural of Dorothy and her three escorts, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, appears on the side of the cabin; inside, various other decorations pay homage to Baum's books, including a pair of ruby slippers and a few stuffed Totos.

                    A cottage with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme in West Jefferson, North Carolina is pictured
                    Airbnb

                    If you go, you’ll have to act quickly. The cottage is open only in the spring, summer, and fall, as it has no heat.

                    The Airbnb listing has a perfect score across 16 reviews. You can book it here.

                    [h/t Travel + Leisure]

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