Finding Human Dignity in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dementedly sadistic horror movie than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Sure, the film isn’t particularly gory, but despite that lack of on-screen blood and guts, the insanity of the Sawyer family still hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s a visual and psychological assault on our sense of decency, so this is quite possibly the last movie you’d expect to teach us an important lesson about human dignity.

But the way I see it, the film’s deranged violence is precisely what makes it so meaningful. By presenting us with a family that disregards human dignity so callously, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes it clear that we should do the exact opposite. The movie shows us the horror that ensues when human beings are considered disposable, so it almost forces us to recognize the value of human life.

To be fair, we can view just about any slasher in that same light, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre brings this theme to the fore in a unique way. The kills themselves possess a thematic depth most slasher deaths can only dream of achieving, so to really see what this film can teach us about human dignity, we have to pay close attention to some seemingly throwaway details and take a deep dive into its surprisingly well-thought-out structure.

“My Family’s Always Been in Meat”

To begin, we have to understand something about Leatherface and his kin. They’re not just your run-of-the-mill slashers who kill for the hell of it. Rather, they’re a family of slaughterhouse workers who love their line of work a bit too much, and two scenes in particular really hammer that point home for us. To begin, before our five protagonists stumble upon the Sawyers’ house, they unknowingly pick one of these cannibals up as a hitchhiker, and this scene sets the tone for the entire film.

The hitchhiker proudly proclaims, “My family’s always been in meat,” and he even shows off some pictures he took at a local slaughterhouse. It’s clear from both what he says and the way he says it that he’s completely in love with the place, but at this point in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he’s just a lone voice. We don’t know if the rest of his family feels the same way, and it’s only in the third act that the truth finally comes crashing down on us.

The Sawyers at the dinner table

By the time we get to the crucial scene, Leatherface has already killed four people, and the only one he hasn’t murdered yet is Sally Hardesty. She’s tied up at the Sawyers’ dinner table, and the three brothers decide that they want their grandfather to make this final kill. The guy used to be a slaughterhouse worker, and according to his grandsons, he was the best killer around. He’s a living legend to Leatherface and his brothers, so naturally, they want to see their grandfather work his magic once again.

Those two bizarre conversations essentially function as bookends to Leatherface’s murderous rampage in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and they let us know that the hitchhiker in the opening act isn’t just a crazy outlier. His whole family is just as insane as he is. They’re all so in love with killing and eating animals that they kill and eat people too, so they view Sally and her friends as nothing more than cattle.

Hammers and Meat Hooks

And if we pay close attention to the weapons Leatherface uses in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we’ll see that this mindset is embedded in the very DNA of the film. See, despite the movie’s title, Leatherface only kills one person with a chainsaw. He uses it to slice up Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother Franklin, but he disposes of his other three victims very differently. He kills Kirk and Jerry by bashing them over the head with a hammer, and he hangs Pam on a meat hook and stuffs her in a freezer.

Significantly, those deaths are all very reminiscent of the work that goes on in slaughterhouses. Meat hooks and freezers are obvious allusions to the Sawyer family business, but the hammers might require a bit of explanation. Before the five main characters pick up the hitchhiker, Franklin gives his friends a miniature lesson in the methods slaughterhouses use to kill their livestock, and he explains that they currently use guns that shoot retractable bolts into the animals’ heads.

Leatherface killing a man

However, before those machines were invented, slaughterhouse workers would simply bash the animals on the head with a hammer, and Franklin even tells his companions a few grisly details about this older method. He explains that the animals wouldn’t always die on the first hit. Instead, a lot of them simply started “squealing and freaking out,” so the workers would have to hit them multiple times to finally finish them off.

And when we view Leatherface’s use of a hammer in that light, it makes perfect sense. He kills Jerry and Kirk in the same way older slaughterhouse workers used to kill animals, and Kirk’s death in particular echoes Franklin’s words pretty clearly. It takes Leatherface multiple hits to finally kill the poor guy, and on the first blow, Kirk just falls to the ground squealing and seizing uncontrollably.

Human Dignity in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

So not only do the Sawyers talk about their excessive love for slaughterhouse work, but the deaths in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are also unmistakable allusions to the way that work is carried out. This combination creates a clear parallel between Leatherface’s victims and the animals we kill and eat every day, and that parallel shows us exactly why the Sawyers are so heinous.

It’s not just that they kill people. It’s not even just that they kill people and then eat them. Leatherface and his family are such revolting villains because they treat people like animals, and in a somewhat paradoxical way, this disturbing form of dehumanization highlights an important truth about human dignity–namely, that if it’s wrong to treat people this way, then our value and worth must exceed that of any animal. We must have a unique dignity simply by virtue of being human, so each and every one of us, regardless of our gender, ability level, race, sexual orientation, age, or any other quality we may (or may not) possess, deserves to be loved and respected.


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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong movie fan, and his favorite genres are horror, superheroes, and giant monsters. You can find him on Twitter @jpnunezhorror.

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