The DVD release of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s latest cinema episode is probably driving the traffic to the post I did a while ago noting that the movies are not based on any Texas incidents (see “Based on a true story, except . . .). The original movie, in 1974, was billed as “based on a true story.” “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin,” the Narrator says opening the film.
The latest enfilmations apparently carry the same claim (I say apparently because I have never seen any of them through, and only a few snippets on television of any of them — I go by what I hear and see from others).
We have the testimony of the author of the original screenplay that it is fiction, loosely based on a famous case in Wisconsin which was also, very loosely, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the later, more horrifying Silence of the Lambs. Other internet sites say it’s fiction, such as Snopes.com (a favorite and very good hoax and error debunking site).
Still, the kids ask.
Why not turn this into a geography and/or history exercise? Kids need to know how historians and geographers know that what they say is accurate and truthful. Why not use this popular film as a jumping off point? How do we know any part of history is accurate? Let kids manipulate and investigate this question with an example that appeals to them.
Lesson plan suggestions: I cannot imagine any reason for actually showing the films in class — any of the films. Film information should be given by the teacher, or can be gathered from internet databases such as the Internet Movie Data Base, www.imdb.com. Most of the kids will have seen the film or be rather familiar with it, though girls less so than boys, in my experience.
Here are questions that students with active internet links or a good library could research, in order to form an opinion about whether it is likely that the movie is based on a Texas incident:
- Are there famous Texas cases that involve cannibalism?
- Are there famous Texas murder cases involving hitchhikers or groups of travelers?
- Are there famous Texas cases involving families of murderers?
- Is there a Hewitt, Texas?
- Is there a Travis County, Texas?
- Is Hewitt in Travis County?
- Would Hewitt be a likely spot for the events described in the movie? Why, or why not?
- What do those people most closely associated with the movies say about the underlying story upon which the movies are “based?”
On the basis of the answers to those questions, ask the students to form an opinion about the veracity of the movie — is it truly “based on a true story?”
Here are my comments on the questions.
1. Are there famous Texas cases that involve cannibalism?
Oh, my. No. You must be confusing Texas with Colorado. Early European explorers accused Texas natives of occasional cannibalism, but such charges are not well documented and are dismissed by most current historians.
And in any case, that would have been in the first half of the 16th century (Spanish explorers first came to Texas in 1519). No roads, no hitchhikers.
(Do any number of different Google or Yahoo! searches; they will come up with little referring to Texas and cannibalism.)
2. Are there famous Texas murder cases involving hitchhikers or groups of travelers?
Yes, and famous cases, too. Henry Lee Lucas confessed to a lot of murders, probably more than he could possibly have committed when they were all totalled. He was convicted of a 1979 murder of an unidentified hitchhiker, but other than the word “hitchhiker” few of the details match.
3. Are there famous Texas cases involving families of murderers?
None that I can find. I’ve tried various searches. If you find one, please let me know.
4. Is there a Hewitt, Texas?
Yes, indeed. Hewitt is just south of Waco, Texas, about two miles west of Interstate 35. See the map.
5. Is there a Travis County, Texas?
Travis County, Texas, is the home of Austin, the state’s capital. Travis is one of Texas’ five “supercounties,” counties large enough to need additional courts beyond those prescribed by the state constitution, and is in other ways quite large now, a major urban area. (The other supercounties are Dallas County, Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, Harris County, home to Houston, and Bexar County, home to San Antonio. By the way, Bexar is pronounced “Beyar.”)
6. Is Hewitt in Travis County?
Ah, here’s a rub. Hewitt, Texas, is in McLennan County, about 100 miles north of Austin, and 90 miles north of the Travis County line. If the movie sites Hewitt in Travis County, it’s off by a good distance.
7. Would Hewitt be a likely spot for the events described in the movie?
The quick answer is “no.” Why? Hewitt is a small town, but not that small — population of more than 11,000 in 2000. Nor is it so far off the beaten path. It’s only a few miles south of Waco, a largish college town (Baylor University), and Hewitt is barely a mile off of Interstate 35. I-35 was not always there, of course — but it was completed in the Waco area in 1972, a year before the alleged massacre. Hewitt is not isolated enough that such events could occur without television coverage. Hewitt is not far enough away from I-35 that anyone passing through would get off the freeway to have such an encounter.
Hewitt is unlikely to be a venue for such a story. Hewitt is too close to Waco to be really rural and isolated; Hewitt is just off a major freeway, not out on an isolated rural road. Hewitt is a small town, but not a tiny town.
8. What do those people most closely associated with the movies say about the underlying story upon which the movies are “based?”
Uniformly, the original director/screenwriter Toby Hoopes and others say that the story is fictional, very, very loosely based on the Wisconsin story of Ed Gein, as noted earlier (see the Snopes.com site for a good discussion, from which the following passages are quoted):
So, true story or not? Certainly there was no real family of cannibalistic chainsaw murderers slaughtering people in Texas, nor any actual series of chainsaw-related killings. Writer/director Tobe Hooper said the inspiration for the film came from his spotting a display of chainsaws while standing in the hardware section of a crowded store:
“I was in the Montgomery Ward’s out in Capital Plaza. I had been working on this other story for some months — about isolation, the woods, the darkness, and the unknown. It was around holiday season, and I found myself in the Ward’s hardware department, and I was still kind of percolating on this idea of isolation and such. And those big crowds have always gotten to me. There were just so many people to go through. And I was just standing there in front of an upright display of chainsaws. And the focus just racked from my eyeball to the people to the saws — and the idea popped. I said, “Ooh, I know how I could get out of this place fast — if I just start one of these things up and make that sound.” Of course I didn’t. That was just a fantasy.”
Hooper has also said that he based the character of Leatherface on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who robbed graves (his own mother’s supposedly among them), allegedly engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism, and murdered at least two women in the 1950s (one of whose corpses was found hanging naked — decapitated and disembowelled — in Gein’s residence).
Finally, had there been such a story, how could it possibly escape the headlines during the trial? The movie doesn’t show the arrest and trial of the murderers, as I understand it. So, either they have not been caught yet, and no one knows about it (including, of course, the scriptwriters and producers of the movies) , or the story would be — shall we say — bleeding all over local newspapers, and probably national newspapers, too. In contrast, Ed Gein has been the topic of a television documentary for the Biography Channel — it’s there, headlines and all. It’s not hard to find the truth about the inspiration for the movie scripts.
That we have to ask the questions, and then have to search to find any details at all, tells us that the story line is fictional. There are websites that document the sites where the original movie was shot, various sites within about a 100-mile radius of Austin, Texas, but in no way all in the same small town.
The final, and biggest reason we know that the Texas chainsaw massacre story is false is this: “Tejas” means “friendly,” and that’s the state’s nickname, the “Friendly State.” Friends don’t chase friends with chainsaws.
Now, did your students realize that they were doing history? Did they understand that they were asking questions historians ask about any event, and trying to determine the veracity of the account? No? Well, at least I hope they had some fun.
Post Script: The Storyteller in the 1974 original is portrayed by the late John Henry Faulk, the great civil libertarian, friend of the late Molly Ivins and Texas historian J. Frank Dobie, historian (M.A. from the University of Texas, with his thesis, “Ten Negro Sermons”) and the former New York radio personality who was blacklisted as a communist, and who sued, successfully, the people who operated the newsletter Red Channels that carried the blacklist. Faulk’s blacklisting and later lawsuit are documented well in the book and television movie, Fear on Trial. In a Texas history class, or in a study of the Cold War and the Red Scares, Faulk should be mentioned, if only because he was so entertaining. His later career, in movies like this one, as a humorist on the amazingly popular hayseed humor program “Hee Haw,” and as a campaigner for political freedom, make him a likely anchor for a little side trip on any of these issues.