I was three years old when I walked into a room in Texas and saw a woman dangling from a meat hook. Blood dripped from her neck. Her legs made frantic, jerky searches for the ground, and her hands clamored for the top of the hook as she tried to free herself. And there was a man – more of a beast – lunging at her with a chainsaw.
I threw back my head and wailed. The woman was screaming and our screams became a mutual cry of terror. Suddenly a man shouted, “The kid! Get the kid!” The chainsaw went silent. The woman stopped screaming. She and the beast stared at me. “For Christ’s sakes, somebody grab the kid!”
A man stepped out of the shadows. It was my father. To shield me from this horror – or to shield the horror from me – he carried me away, my wide eyes still locked on the man and woman. He tried to explain that no one was being hurt. These are adults pretending. The blood is fake. This is a movie.
Informally called “Headcheese,” the movie would, just days before its release, be renamed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My father, a twenty-four-year-old film student, recorded the cries, grunts, and roar of the chainsaw. He was the soundman who taped the unforgettable lines like “Stop that, Freddy, I’m a vegetarian,” and “Look what your brother did to the door.” But most important were the screams. My father got them down perfectly.
He had been hired by writer/director Tobe Hooper, who held auditions in a room on the University of Texas campus. “Can you do crazy?” Hooper would ask each potential member of the Chainsaw cast. He asked Gunnar Hanson, who played Leatherface, two questions before giving him the role. The first was “Are you violent?” and the second was “Are you crazy?” Gunnar, six-foot-four and bulky, had what it took to play the killer. His body filled a doorway and in high-heeled cowboy boots he would look even bigger. But Tobe couldn’t put a chainsaw in the wrong hands. The cast would have to do crazy without being crazy.
The soundman Tobe really wanted was out of town, but my father could operate the equipment. When he claimed to be sane, he was hired. My father owned a green Ford Econoline van, a college graduation gift from his parents. Tobe needed a van off-screen for hauling. He also needed it as a prop. So for the first half of the film, the young, doomed hippies drive around in our family car. Because the camera is positioned in the van, everyone who has ever seen the movie has ridden in it too.
Tobe soon learned that my mother could cook well and cook big. He hired her to cater the shoot, and every day for fourteen days, she packed a large meal into her car, and we drove the twenty miles north of our home in Austin to the old house where the film was being shot. She earned $100 a week, more money than she had ever made. When we arrived on the set at lunch time, someone would yell “Cut!” and the cast and crew would spill out of the old house into the front yard to eat.
On the day the dinner scene was shot, no one came to greet us.
The film’s grand finale, the scene is a long, intense interaction between every member of the Chainsaw family – mummified Grandpa, the lunatic brother and father, Leatherface – and the sole surviving young hippie, Sally, who is horrified and attempting to escape. As the film was shot almost entirely in sequence, dinner was both the end of the movie and the end of the shoot.
Dinner takes place around a long table in the main room of the house. Bright lamps were crammed into the room. Every window was covered with a heavy blanket to create the look of night. There was no air-conditioning, no cross breeze. As psycho-killers go, Leatherface was practical. Not one piece of any victim was ever wasted: he turned all edible parts into sausage and headcheese (and even peeled off faces to make his masks). Within an hour the headcheese and sausage on the table began to stink. When there was no fresh meat to replace the rotting props, the crew basted everything with formaldehyde, scrambling out between takes to pour it on like gravy.
With only one costume each – no doubles or triples like the big-budget movies – the actors smelled as bad as the rotting meat. Leatherface was the worst – the looks of horror or anger in the faces of the actors who encounter him are in part real-life disgust at his stench. Grandpa’s last mummification had to be done for the dinner shot and, because there was no more makeup, the scene was shot in one long sequence. When the filming dragged on for twenty-six hours, actors smelled more and more like their characters, and the house became increasingly uncomfortable. I sat in a trailer in front of the house while my mother went in with sandwiches. It was hard to imagine anyone eating. I watched from the trailer as cast and crew came out to gasp fresh air, to take short walks, or to vomit.
Grandpa walked further than the rest – down the long dirt driveway, and straight for the trailer I was sitting in. He was white and wrinkled and deteriorating. His eyes and mouth were lost in the folds of his puckered skin.
I couldn’t move. Behind Grandpa, my mother’s slow walk back to the trailer had turned into a trot – then a sprint. When Grandpa’s hand was on the doorknob, I burrowed under a collapsible table.
The next thing I remember, my mother was ushering me out as Grandpa lay down on a cot.
The rest is lost. I don’t remember the end of that day or of any day after that. Filming wrapped and I never saw the movie. I was too young when it was in theaters and it never occurred to me to rent it later. So last week I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time. Prepared to relive the horror, instead I was overcome with nostalgia. I closed my eyes and recalled the layout of the old house. I smiled when the meat hooks appeared on screen, just as I remembered them. My heart leapt when my father’s van drove on screen. As the young, doomed hippies drove to meet their fate, I rode with them. Even Leatherface and Grandpa seemed like long-lost uncles.
Corinna Nicolaou has written for the Washington Post and In These Times. She enjoys romantic comedies.