or, What Can Writers Learn from Leatherface?
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Below, you’ll find the text for my talk on horror and writing, what we writers can learn from Leatherface of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame about being an artist. You can also listen to the podcast audio recorded live at a special event sponsored by the University of Manitoba’s Department of English, Film, and Theatre, and the EFTSA and Arts Student Body Council.
Let Us Revel in Blood and Glory in Death
The title for my talk is Let Us Revel in Blood and Glory in Death. To me, that title summarizes the ethos of true, radical horror. Horror at its core is a disturbing, brutal type of writing, that I believe should be the model for all writing.
I consider horror to fall into two broad categories. The first and largest is reactionary horror, a conservative story structure that is what most academics talk about when they discuss horror. In reactionary horror, the monster is a warning, and a punishment for sin. Reactionary horror, despite its surface appearances, is often deeply moralistic, and is conservative only in the sense that it is about preserving current values or reviving older values.
We should not stay up late, or the boogeyman will get us. We should not genetically engineer animals, or we will create monstrous beasts. We should not commit suicide, or we will become vampires (this is one of the traditional, now-forgotten ways that you became a vampire). We should not have sex outside of marriage, or the slasher-killer will hunt us down.
These are simple examples, but there are more complicated examples of reactionary horror. And although I call it reactionary, and suggest that it is structured by a conservative impulse, I want to acknowledge a dark, disturbing, radical idea at the heart of even the most conservative horror, which is this: the fundamental thematic notion that we deserve to die.
We genetically modified those tomatoes, and now we deserve to die at their hands. That last example sounds ridiculous, but often the logic of horror is a joke logic, and the monster-as-punishment is often a massive overreaction that the story nonetheless treats as sensible within that story’s world. Do teens really deserve to die because they had sex in the woods?
In the logic of the slasher film, yes. The logic of horror is a symbolic, poetic logic. In Stephen King’s short story “The Lawnmower Man,” the protagonist deserves to die because he didn’t mow his lawn. By not mowing his lawn, he has violated the laws of the suburbs, and is a bad American, and for this he deserves to die.
Various structural elements are almost always true in reactionary horror. The monster comes from outside, an element of chaos that disrupts the ordered world. Its very presence is destabilizing and threatens to tear that world apart, and it must be gotten rid of so that order can be reestablished, and reaffirmed. Herein lies the fundamental conservatism of most horror: the monster threatens traditional values that the story’s world is built upon, and a “happy ending” requires getting rid of the monster and reaffirming those values.
For this reason, a lot of horror is culturally specific and often morally abhorrent, even though it positions itself as moralistic. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, is fundamentally a story about how immigrants are monsters. Dracula is meant to be frightening because he is an immigrant with money and social status, who would therefore be free.
Maybe Dracula is not frightening to us in this way, but he is meant to be. He spends a lot of time trying to learn to speak without an accent and memorize the train schedules. Dracula’s stated goal is to be able to walk around England and pass as a native Englishman. This idea, that there might be no perceivable difference between a foreigner and a native-born Englishman, and thus possibly no meaningful difference, is a fundamental violation of the British class system of the time (and even today) and is in many ways why Dracula is monstrous.
Monsters are always abnormal and transgressive. Their abnormality often makes them transgressive, giving them power to violate the categories that constrain the rest of us. This is why they are agents of chaos — and why they are dangerous — because they threaten order by simply existing, by being there. The monster is abnormal (a Thing That Should Not Be) and transgressive (doing things it should not do) and (last but not least) Symbolic of a fate worse than death.
In other genres, death is often the worst fate that can befall a character, but in the horror genre death is usually the best thing that can happen, a mercy. Fear in horror stems from the fate worse than death, whatever fate the monster delivers or represents. Often this takes the form of the monster breeding monsters, turning its victims into replicates of itself, this process of monstrosity being the fate worse than death.
This odd, double-status of many monsters offers an opening for a more radical strain of horror. Monsters are the worst possible of things, and powerful things, but because they are powerful they are attractive, and their monstrosity is paradoxically sometimes a weakness that allows them to be pitied in particular ways.
What interests me most is this more radical strain of horror. In a radical horror story, everything at first seems to be unfolding according to the usual patterns, but reaches a point where a reversal takes place. The monsters seems to have come from outside, but then we discover it was here all along. The monster appears to transgress and violate order, but then we realize that this order was illusory. Often, this world we believed to be ordered is found to be built on chaos, a structure designed to contain and repress the chaos that the monster represents.
But the monster, immortal, rises to destroy this structure, to tear apart our world, because the monster in radical horror is the Truth.
In radical horror, the monster still symbolizes a fate worse than death, but this fate is the loss of reality, or at least what we once took for reality. Acknowledging the Truth is a fate worse than death because it destroys us conceptually and completely, reshaping our identities and our perceptions. The purest form of radical horror is cosmic, although the scale of the story might be smaller.
This is the difference between Cthulhu and Satan. Satan, the adversary, confirms God’s existence. Evil might defeat Good in the story, or threaten to, but Good is there. Good is real and meaningful. The cosmos has an order, even if that order is threatened by violation or annihilation. But Cthulhu is not Evil. Cthulhu is beyond Good and Evil, making meaningless the very concepts. A Christian God or a demonic Satan may or may not exist in Cthulhu’s universe, but it does not matter, because neither represent anything that matters in the face of the Great Old Ones, who are the only truly sublime creatures in an infinite universe that is not even large enough to contain them.
But the most subversive and radical horror classic, in my view, is not Lovecraft’s work but Tobe Hooper’s. The plot’s scale is so much smaller, but the malevolence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre outscales anything that Lovecraft conceived. In Lovecraft, for all its surface radicality, we are on the side of humans against monsters. We are invited to view the impossible beasts with horror. But in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, something much darker takes place.
There is a bizarre formal moment in Texas Chain Saw Massacre where we find ourselves alone with Leatherface. This is a fundamental break in the pattern that the film otherwise observes, and that these kinds of films generally, as a rule, often strictly observe. The formula goes like this: we follow a group of characters that splinter. One by one, they fall victim. As each breaks away from the pack, the camera follows them. Broadly speaking, the camera stays with them, and they are the focus of its frame, and then the killer enters the frame. The killer does what a killer does best. When they die, the film cuts back to the group, to the next victim. We follow the next victim in the same way until he is dispatched. Eventually, the final victim becomes the focus, then she kills the killer.
But in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, there is a segment after Leatherface murders the third victim (who, like the others, has entered his house) where the camera stays on Leatherface. It does not cut away. He flails around the house, looking for more intruders. When he doesn’t find them, he looks out the window into the yard. He sees no one. He sits and worries, doing whatever passes for thinking in Leatherface’s brain.
Then we return to the normal formal pattern. The next time we see Leatherface is outside of the house. We can piece it together in retrospect. From Leatherface’s point of view, his house is an ordered universe. Then something comes from outside. (When I teach the film, I like to point out that due to stand your ground laws, much of what Leatherface does would be legal in Texas today.)
This is not a simple shift in perspective, where we are asked to understand Leatherface’s point of view. Leatherface is still a void behind his masks, a non-face inside of stolen faces — a sublime, unknowable, incomprehensible monster.
But we are with him, not with the others. Not with his victims. We are somewhere in between, and we are being asked, implicitly asked, to make a decision about where we will stand from here on out.
Earlier in the film, one of the killers (the hitchhiker) talks about the slaughterhouse where the family used to work. The characters discuss how head cheese is made, out of a meat jelly from the flesh of a cow’s head. One of the women in the van is disgusted, and her male friend points out that she’d like it if she didn’t know what was in it. She dismisses his comment.
Later on, the same characters stop at a gas station and buy some sausage for a snack. They eat the sausage on the road. Much later, we discover that this same gas station is owned by the cannibal family, and we can do the math. Prior to being murdered, and turned into meat, these victims happily, though unknowingly, became cannibals themselves.
But they can hardly be blamed for it, and neither can Leatherface. The whole family worked in the slaughterhouse, but was laid off when the slaughterhouse shut down. They are still doing now what they were doing then, only they don’t see a difference between humans and cows. They don’t see a difference between the inside of the slaughterhouse and the outside. Leatherface doesn’t even see a difference between his face and the skin of another person’s face.
These are their transgressions. But are they wrong? The story does everything in its power to suggest that they are not wrong. Leatherface is the monster, but the monster is the Truth.
The slaughterhouse was wrong. The slaughterhouse was a lie, and so it died. The Truth is that slaughter is not confined. The universe is a slaughterhouse.
The universe is a slaughterhouse, and Leatherface, despite his name, despite his multiple masks, has no face. Because humans, like cows, are just meat, indistinguishable from the others in the herd, their private selves totally meaningless. This is the truly dark suggestion of the story: that Leatherface is its only character, the only person who could be considered anyone, precisely because he is no one, because humans are nothing.
The story asks us to accept this, to accept these various Truths that its monsters represent. Going back to Lovecraft, we find in the history of horror a recurring monstrous object: the book of impossible knowledge. Its most famous incarnation is Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, but we see it also in Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow and in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. These monstrous books realize the impossible dream of literature: to fully and completely capture the Truths of the world in language so powerful and perfect that the book itself transforms the reader.
Leatherface and his cannibal family, we should also remember, are creators. Artists. Their home has been decorated with furniture made from bones, lampshades made from flesh, and even odd objects that have no utilitarian purpose and must be construed as artworks, like a clock with a nail through its face. The film also opens with a sculpture that the hitchhiker has made out of corpses, like some nightmare mirror version of Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo.
But back to the cursed book of impossible knowledge, which drives its readers to madness by revealing to them the Truth. These books are monstrous, and authored by monsters, and transform their readers into monsters. We see analogues in horror film — the film in The Ring, most obviously — and in this respect horror has produced many of these meta-monsters that mirror cultural fears about horror stories themselves.
There is something wrong with these stories. Something wrong with their authors. Something wrong with their readers. They are abnormal. They are transgressive. They will transform you. They will take away the things you believe, a fate far worse than death.
In horror stories, it is often precisely for this reason that characters die: they cannot believe in the reality of the monster. It is by definition impossible inside of their ideas about reality. They must get rid of the monster, deny its reality or jettison it from reality, or give up their reality.
In radical horror, they give up their reality. In these stories, nothing is less real than reality. But even in reactionary horror, often characters die because they cannot fathom the monster’s existence. They keep finding corpses, drained of blood, with what looks like bite marks in their necks, and have no idea what could be happening, as if they had never read a vampire novel. Or, somebody mentions vampires, but of course they all know that vampires aren’t real.
They will deny that vampires are real even when the vampire is sucking their blood, because it is better to die than to accept that they were wrong about vampires, to live in the world where monsters exist. Of course, only if they accept this new reality, that they are living in the world of the monster, can they survive. If you find yourself in a horror story, your only hope is to let hope die and accept that the horror is happening.
In Hitchcock’s Psycho, we suffer a moment similar to that moment in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. After we’ve followed Marion Crane for the first part of the film — who, we should try to remember, is the film’s main character — we meet Norman Bates. The two talk. Afterward, Marion retires to her room, but the camera stays with Norman, a fundamental break in the film’s formal pattern up to that point.
Norman takes down a painting, to reveal a peephole, and looks inside. The film cuts to a point of view shot where we occupy Norman’s perspective, and watch Marion undress.
Later, when the murder takes place, after the killer has fled, Marion lies dying in the bathtub. She has slumped to the ground and raises up her arm, reaching for us. The camera pans to reveal that she’s actually reaching for the shower curtain, to try to pull herself up. But in that split second, before we know what she’s doing, it truly does seem like she’s reaching out for us, for help.
But we don’t help her. We just watch. The killer left the room, but we stayed behind to watch her die.
Psycho is ultimately a reactionary story, although formally quite radical (name another movie that murders its main character after investing 47 minutes into her story, a story in which nearly every plot thread has now been cut and rendered utterly meaningless). But it similarly asks us to position ourselves between the killer and his victim and decide where we will stand.
InPsycho, because it is reactionary, the correct choice is clear: we must pick the side of the victim, of the human, because the nature of Norman’s mental illness effectively renders this a ghost story of possession. However, Norman-as-Norman (not Mother) offers us a strange point of possible identification that introduces a real radicality into the film.
After Marion is dead, the camera does not know what to do without the story’s protagonist. It floats through her empty hotel room, looking for something to look at. Finally, Norman enters the room, and the camera latches onto him. Next, we watch as Norman “discovers” Marion’s body and then cleans the room. It’s a lengthy sequence, where we literally watch Norman clean up the blood, removing all traces of the crime, in a drawn-out scene that conventionally is precisely the kind of scene normally covered by an ellipsis. Hitchcock makes us watch a long scene of mundane action that typically we would understand had happened but never see.
All this time, we are with Norman, like we were with Leatherface. We have by this point seen both positions — killer and victim — and are asked to choose, although it is a less radical choice because we don’t yet know that Norman is the killer and just view him as a victim of another sort.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, by contrast, asks us to choose the side of the monster. Because, whether we like it or not, the monster is the Truth. We don’t have to go start cannibalizing people, because that’s not what the film is about: it’s about admitting that we don’t matter to the world.
This is precisely the position we need to occupy if we want to survive this world — for example, if we want to have any hope of surviving climate change. We must give up our illusions that we have destiny and will somehow be saved, that our death is not coming. One of my students once observed that horror stories thematically seem to boil down to a single, three-word fear: We are wrong. Alongside this, of course, we find another three-word lesson: Death is coming.
I would expand things slightly. The ethos of horror is a strange, twisted, but ultimately necessary ethos, akin to Alain Badiou’s fidelity to the Event. We are wrong, and so deserve to die, but instead of denying this, we should revel in blood and glory in death.
Stephen King once said, “I’ve always strived to hurt the reader … I think a book should be something that’s really alive and really dangerous in a lot of ways.” Ironically, this is rarely true of King’s works, but I think it is a good goal for horror, and even more broadly for writing in a general sense.
Writing, at its best, is a monstrous thing. It is abnormal and rare, and it transgresses boundaries, doing symbolic violence to our received ideas, delivering them to a fate worse than death. The monstrous book of impossible knowledge that horror presents as its own meta-monster is, to me, the great goal of art. This is precisely what we need our writing to do — slaughter our selves and their concepts in service of ruthless, transformative Truth — if we want to survive this world.
- Music by Patrick Short (aka Electric Candles), who is better known as Kindest Cuts
- Photography by Michael Sanders of Electric Monk Media
- Art Design by author S.M. Beiko
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