Posted on March 12, 2015

Seeing and Slaughtering in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Dawn

Horror films have long been recognized for their ability to reflect particularly troubling social and political concerns: it’s one of the many things that makes horror films valuable—makes them more than just a reveling in shock and gore. The most powerful horror films, moreover, continue to engage with social issues well after their particular moment of production. Tobe Hoper’s 1974 film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, does exactly this. While the film is certainly about the cataclysmic events of the late 60s and early 70s, it’s also about the politics of meat-eating and industrial slaughter, both of which remain compelling issues in 2015. 

Fans of the film have recognized how it seems to put the ethics of slaughtering cattle and eating meat front and center.

Rob Ager made a short video commentary on animal rights themes in the film (on YouTube), arguing that it demonstrates “our brutality to animals we breed for food and clothing.” Not least, Ager claims, the film puts the human characters in the place of animals for the slaughter.

Like a cow, Kirk is bashed between the eyes with a sledgehammer; and like a pig carcass, Pam is hung on a meat hook and then crammed into a storage freezer.

Forrest Wickman summarized Ager’s analysis in “The Ultimate Pro-Vegetarian Film is the Last Movie You’d Expect,” for Slate in July, 2013. Wickman wonders why film critics haven’t written about this theme—quoting Tobe Hooper himself as saying “it’s a film about meat.” Wickman adds that “once you begin to see the theme it is about as subtle as Leatherface’s sledgehammer.”

I highlighted the word “see” in the sentence above because I want to pick up on Wickman’s essay and develop the idea of Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a film about meat—specifically I want to make the case that the film highlights practices of seeing and not seeing that are absolutely crucial to how the meat industry functions. “Most of us,” Wickman writes, “would prefer to be naïve to the suffering that goes into our own meat.” Just as Wickman suggests viewers haven’t seen the pro-vegetarian theme in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so too, they don’t like to see what happens before their meat arrives shrink-wrapped in their grocery store.

Indeed, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is more than a film about meat, more than a pro-vegetarian film: it’s a film about the politics of seeing and most importantly not-seeing that are crucial to the meat industry.

I want to look at a scene early in the film that orients us to the theme of seeing and not-seeing. In their van, and right before they pick up the hitchhiker, the teens become overwhelmed by a stench. Looking out the window, Franklin declares (with some excitement) that it’s the “old slaughterhouse.” “You see that building there,” he says, gesturing beyond the van, “that’s where they kill ‘em. They bash ‘em in the head with a big sledgehammer.” Immediately afterward, the camera uncannily gives us a view the group would actually not be able to see from their van—a close-up the head of one of the cows in the slaughterhouse (Fig. 1). Almost immediately, though,

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

the camera pulls away and offers the view the teens do have—just a building, the living animals invisible somewhere inside it, a cattle mass, a mere blur as the human protagonists speed by on the adjacent highway (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Franklin continues enthusiastically: “It usually wouldn’t kill ‘em on the first lick,” and the camera moves, again, inside the slaughterhouse—getting so close that at first we see only an out-of-focus part of a gate right in front of us. But then it crystallizes into a cow’s nose, then a tail, picking out the details of the animals (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Finally, the camera sets up behind the cattle, almost as if it has decided to adopt their point-of-view, and we look from where they are out to the van (Fig. 4). And the camera stays here, as we listen not to Franklin’s tales of the slaughterhouse but to the sounds of the cattle themselves. Hooper’s camera, in other words, not only makes us see the individual animals; it makes us, however fleetingly, take their perspective.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

This sequence, it seems to me, defines a politics of sight, in its relation to the meat industry, that pervades the film. Whereas the meat industry depends on our not seeing—not seeing what goes on in slaughterhouses (to animals, to workers), not even seeing the slaughterhouses themselves—Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes us see. It discards the blurred non-view of the undifferentiated, barely discernible cattle—the view from the highway—and makes us see the cows themselves.

As the film continues in its plot of humans-turned-into-cattle-for-slaughter, Sally, in particular, is made to see what really goes into the making of our food.

When she “escapes” from Leatherface the first time, she ends up at the gas station where she looks without recognition or knowledge at the barbecued meat. Her looking at this point represents the ignorance most of us live in (and most of us want to live in) when it comes to our food (Figs. 5 and 6).

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

But later, in the slaughterhouse-home of the erstwhile slaughterhouse family, Sally really sees what the slaughterhouse is—and what it does to animals and humans. The increasing close-ups of her eyes in the infamous “dinner-table” scene highlight how Sally has been forced to see what she—and all of us—wish desperately not to see (Fig. 7). And when we finally see the blood-

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

shot white of her eye, it’s hard not to think of a terrified cow about to be slaughtered (Fig. 8). Sally not only comes to see what the work of the slaughterhouse looks like, but she comes to experience what the slaughtered animal feels like.

In his fascinating account of working undercover at a slaughterhouse, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (Yale University Press, 2011), Timothy Pachirat argues that the slaughterhouse depends on a mechanism of “distance and concealment.” It depends on our eating its products while never seeing or knowing where they come from; it depends, in other words, on remaining hidden. Texas Chain Saw Massacre tells us exactly the same thing—that the act of slaughtering (whether of animals or humans) goes on behind closed doors, operates in out-of-the-way and impossible-to-see spaces. And the film makes those spaces of slaughter (of animals and humans) disconcertingly visible. Making the invisible visible may cause discomfort, panic, even madness (as in Sally’s case). But it is nonetheless something we should make ourselves see.

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