In Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, John Kenneth Muir explains some of the narrative and symbolic devices that Hooper uses in his film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to build horror and suspense.
First, Muir says, Hooper sets the tone of the film by using symbolic images that suggest that the world exists within an indifferent, or even hostile, universe in which human life is not only meaningless but also endangered. A corpse is shown, posed as if it were a work of art (55). Then, Hooper shows “close-ups of violent eruptions on the surface of our sun,” the red shade of which “belies a kind of anger,” the whole image implying, again, that “the universe is disordered, anarchic, even cruel.” Indeed, the sun and the moon may represent the eyes of the “cosmos,” suggesting that the cosmos is “watching from a distance” (56). One might even wonder if the heavenly orbs might suggest that God is observing the bizarre and hideous actions that transpire in the film. If so, the God who watches such horrors is obviously not a loving God, but a voyeur who is something along the lines of a sadist. A third image is that of armadillo road kill. It is important to observe that the armadillo “is overturned, upside down,” because such a position, Muir points out, “is a long-time signifier of death in the language of the cinema” (56). This image accomplishes a double task, Muir says. First, it reinforces the idea that “the ordered universe has become topsy-turvy” because although “the highway is a symbol of man’s intelligence and his need to connect one place to another,” the presence of the dead armadillo suggests that “above and beyond man’s sense of self-imposed order (the road), is the overriding chaos of the universe” (56). Second, the image of the dead armadillo heralds a similar image of a homeless man, “signifying. . . the death and horror to come”:
Not long after the shot of the armadillo, a drink is seen in the cemetery to be lying in the same position as the road kill. . . . In fact, this is the film’s second “armadillo” shot: the drunk’s face is upside down in the frame too, out of order, signifying again the death and horror to come (56).So far, three images have conspired, so to speak, to indicate that the world exists within an indifferent, or even hostile, universe in which human life is not only meaningless but also endangered. Next, sound--or, more specifically--music is used to further underscore the universe’s cosmic indifference to humanity:
The music in the film. . . is distinctly unpleasant, all cymbal crashes and echoes; highly discordant and jarring. There is no lyrical theme running through the music, no recognizable leitmotif, only a jumble of ugly, seemingly random sounds strung together. Like the eruptions on the surface of the sun, the music reflects the absence of equilibrium, sanity, reason, and order in the universe” (56).This sense of an unintelligible, meaningless, and possibly hostile universe comes across even more clearly when there is, as it were, a “theme” or “leitmotif” to man-made sounds, such as, for example, the news report to which one of the film’s characters is listening at the moment that he is struck and killed by a passing truck while he is busy reliving himself into a cup while standing at the edge of the road. The report is full of seemingly random events of a “discomforting” character, which, taken together, indicate “a disordered, uncaring universe” (57).
Having used both images and sound to symbolize such cosmic indifference to humanity, Hooper now turns his film’s attention to its characters, eliminating, from the very outset, first the group of victims’ “alpha male,” followed, in short order, by the elimination of the second male, which leads the female character on her own, with “no ‘male’ figure to cling to at all” (57-58).
Hooper ratchets up the film’s horror and suspense by refusing to grant the character’s experiences any meaning; what happens to them--and, vicariously, to the audience, has no cognitive or epistemological significance; they learn nothing from it. Therefore, their experience is without value:
He denies his viewers the critical act of learning. . . . an audience usually learns important facts from the story’s structure or through the expositional dialogue of the main characters. . . . Knowledge does not pass from one protagonist to the next and no acts are explained or even rationalized. . . . They are killed without learning anything. . . and so the audience doesn’t learn anything either (58).The failure to explain the bizarre, violent incidents lends the film verisimilitude, Muir suggests, because, in moviegoers’ own lives, similar events transpire, without readymade answers (58).
By setting up a series of expectations on the parts of both his characters and the audience and then frustrating or “overturning” them, Hooper maintains the horror, the randomness, and the suspense of his movie’s action, Muir adds: “They go to the gas station expecting gas, but it’s out of gas. They go to the swimming hole expecting water, but it’s dry. They go to the friendly looking farmhouse down the lane expecting help but find only insanity and death” (58).
Likewise, the characters are dwarfed by their surroundings, which suggests that they are of comparatively little significance whose lives are often on the verge of extinction, whether they are aware of their danger or not:
Hooper takes special pains to accentuate the vastness of the universe around his young characters. . . . Hooper sees [them] much as those very characters view the spiders in the web or the cows locked away in the slaughterhouses. They’re little, meaningless creatures, running around in their lives with a sort of tunnel vision, unable to see that they inhabit a much larger and terribly frightening domain. As human beings, we. . . do a hundred “normal” and “routine” things . . . while unaware that a tornado could be approaching, or that a serial killer could be roaming the very neighborhood where we live. But we impose a false sense of order (and hence security) in our everyday existence and Tobe Hooper’s modus operandi is to strip all that away. . . . We‘re victims of a universe that unfolds randomly (59-60).According to Muir, Hooper is not necessarily an atheist. It could be that “the universe has a plan”; it’s just that “humans don’t know what it is, or even if they’re important to it” (60), a point that Hooper underscores through imagery, camera angles, and his characters’ dialogue:
Under the uncaring eye of the distant sun, Jerry’s van picks up the Hitchhiker. . . . Under a giant blue sky, the Hitchhiker [one of the film’s antagonists] and the van itself might as well be ants on a hill or cows in the slaughterhouse. . . . Hooper and cinematographer [Daniel] Pearl make inventive use of the low angle perspective. . . . [to reveal] the inherent hierarchy (or disorder) of the universe. High above his oblivious characters stand outer space, suns, and galaxies. And those cosmic entities could not care less that five teens are about to meet their makers in a backwater corner of some place called Texas.
The film’s dialogue reinforces many of these themes (60).
The film’s central antagonist, the cannibalistic, transvestite, serial killer name Leatherface, is himself an embodiment of Hooper’s view of the universe as an uncaring, hostile place: “Ultimately, the very nature of Leatherface’s villainy is a prominent part of Hooper’s thesis about the universe, too.” For example, “he doesn’t want to have sex with the lovely Sally.” Instead, as if she were nothing more than a cow in a slaughterhouse, “where her grandfather once worked,” Leatherface would rather slaughter and eat Sally and wear her face as a mask (60).
The sole survivor, Sally survives merely by chance: she “happens to get a break, to escape the crazies and make it to the road beyond the farmhouse but none of that is part of a design or intentional strategy on her part. It’s just the law of averages” (66); the universe remains impartial in its indifference to all humanity. Moreover, as Muir points out, Sally’s escape may not have left her unscathed emotionally: “her sanity is in serious question at the end of Chain Saw” (66).
Finally, Hooper uses even seemingly random business and road signs to reinforce his movie’s horror and suspense:
Also interesting is Hooper’s appropriate use of signage at just the right times to provide the audience with subconscious clues about the horror to come. At the gas station, there is a sign reading “Gulf,” quite an appropriate brand for a half-way place between two regions, in this case the normal and the insane. Shortly thereafter, another sign reads “STOP” as the protagonists near the old Franklin place, a visual warning that is ultimately ignored (67).It should be obvious that Hooper is a consummate director of horror films, adept in the use of symbolic imagery, instrumental music, the denial of thematic meaning to his characters’ experiences, frustrated expectations, irony, size discrepancies between characters and their vast surroundings, dialogue, business and road signs, and other forms of non-verbal communication to suggest both horror and suspense. Any storyteller, whether of film or literary fiction, interested in the horror genre would do well to study the techniques of such a master. Fortunately, Muir’s study of precisely this topic, in Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, helps one to do just this.