Warning: This video contains shocking imagery, and so the faint of heart might want to gird themselves before Pressing Play.
[Complete script follows:]
We like to think we are in control, of our lives, of our bodies, of our futures. If we work hard and manage our lives, everything will turn out fine.
We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . until we lose that fragile sense of control.
Illness, injury, the loss of a loved one: all of us have experienced moments when we realize we have no control over things, when we are powerless.
That’s an uncomfortable place to be. But these experiences teach us that just because we’re human, that doesn’t mean we’re special.
Art critic John Berger has said: “Animals are born, are sentient, and are mortal. In these things they resemble man.” In other words, our most basic selves are animal. The horror movie reveals this, by showing us our mortality, stripping away our arrogance.
Trapped. Tortured. Hunted. Slaughtered. This is the way of life, and death, for most animals. We’d like to forget this, but the horror film never forgets. It reminds us that, like the over 50 billion animals killed every year for human consumption, in the end, we are all meat.
The images of violence so abundant in modern horror movies may seem prurient, mindless, sadistic. But they also show us what we would otherwise turn away from: namely, the raw material fact of our physical bodies, which, at the end of the day, are only so much meat.
Most of us believe that human beings are more than this, but horror movies are not so sure.
Plot and dialogue are crucial to a great horror film, but when it comes time to immerse the audience in fear, the only sound we hear is screaming.
And sometimes a string section.
To be without a voice is to be put in the place of animals: speechless.
No film better captures this feeling of brute powerlessness than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When a band of twenty-somethings pick up a hitcher in rural Texas, he tells them about an old slaughterhouse that has been closed down. He tells them his family’s always been in meat, a grotesque line that cuts several ways: First, for generations this community was sustained by the local meat industry; Second, like the rest of the community, the hitcher and his family are no more important to big agriculture than the animals they slaughtered; and Third, driven to madness, they now make meat out of anything that crosses their path, animal or human, male or female.
This scene is arguably the most terrifying ever filmed. It exemplifies the moral force of siding with the victim. Here we see a woman stripped of every last vestige of her humanity, her very fear made an object of derision by her monstrous hosts.
Most striking is the camera’s concentration on her eyes. A baby’s eyes tell a mother what it needs, what it feels; in a dog’s or cat’s eyes we can tell if it is happy or sad, scared or confident. Eyes transcend the species barrier, but, unfortunately, that isn’t going to help this victim.
And this is why horror movies bring us to these horrifying places: so that we can’t ignore the appeal in a victim’s eyes. In horror we bear witness to suffering. We recognize ourselves in the victims, and the victims in ourselves.
This family has always been in meat. For the film’s most frightening antagonist, known as Leatherface, this is literally true. He wears a mask made from the skin from a human victim. He is one of the most terrifying creations in the history of cinema. Yet in this scene, unexpectedly, we feel a grudging sense of sympathy with a monster we have already witnessed ruthlessly murdering several hapless twenty-somethings. He is like a guilty child, uncomfortable in his own skin. Underneath that mask we can imagine a being stalled at a rudimentary stage of development, and made evil. But we can also recognize, perhaps even relate to, his anguish.
Our protagonist has clearly been wounded by her experiences, inside and out, and she can only laugh maniacally as the truck moves away at the growing distance between herself and her erstwhile attacker. This distance, though, is only an illusion. Her attacker’s dance of demented victory suggests a kinship between their warped psychological states, and a reminder that monsters and victims, predator and prey, are often two sides of the same being.
Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.