Eco-horror has boomed in recent years, with very specific indictments of consumerism and anthropocentric damage. The opening moments of 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre unexpectedly gift the viewer with profound ecological dread. Through symbolically connecting the rampant consumerism within our closed system to the persistent environmental degradation of post-war America, director Tobe Hooper posited a chaotic, environmentally bankrupt future via selective revelations of collapse and madness. Through the juxtaposition of the dismembered human body against the radio news of ecologic catastrophes, Hooper laid out the story to come, a sort of American landscape-as-body horror, where earth and flesh were violated by the faceless, consuming mob.
In recent years, I came to view The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s nascent minutes in a new light, I listened to the radio news more intently and watched the first moments with a new ecocritical interest. Like Sublime Horror’s Laura Kemmerer, who paid, “closer attention to the doomsday opening narrative on the radio detailing the tragedies of the world,” I realized the radio narration over the opening credits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre announced not just a local crime, but a national environmental horror. Seemingly antiquated by 21st century standards, the use of radio news establishes a distinct American lifestyle when the radio was a constant companion in the car, truck, or van. The radio is the background; nevertheless, it forwards strangeness, horror, and collapse.
In Survival Science: Crisis Disciplines and the Shock of the Environment in the 1970s, Michael Egan wrote, “The 1970s mark a global shift toward a bleaker future,” an idea broadcast loudly from Hooper’s opening frames. Hooper’s film was stimulated by several concepts, but it was a Christmas shopping experience that gave him gruesome inspiration- the hideous display of consumerism and capitalism gone mad. Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel needn’t look far afield for inspiration to flesh out their ominous opening monologue; it was in the everyday news.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. landscape and population were scarred and dying, even after the creation of the EPA and Clean Water Act. Car batteries, filled with lead-acid, could legally be burned in industrial incinerators.
The first evidence of the impacts of lead poisoning in children was discovered in El Paso, Texas, just two years before Hooper’s film. Acid rain fell on lands downwind of the Midwest’s pollution belching industries. The Missouri town of Times Beach was evacuated after the discovery of massive dioxin contamination. Smog choked most of America’s major cities, and the heavily polluted Cayuga River would catch fire over a dozen times. The same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Love Canal revealed its horrors when the first evidence of vast dumps of toxic pollutants emerged as multicolored chemically contaminated groundwater.
While the film opens with news and views of the gruesome grave robbing, Hooper’s fictional announcer pivots quickly to human ecological tragedies. “Oil storage units continue to burn out of control at the huge Texaco refinery near the Texas/Louisiana border. Three storage units exploded into flames during the night, killing at least three workers and injuring a dozen more,” the radio newscaster explains with dispassionate clarity. With forty-foot flames and smoke visible from 60 miles, Hooper’s imaginary conflagration was more real than fantasy. In 1970 and then again in 1975, two Philadelphia-area oil refineries caught fire and killed over a dozen and burned for days.
As the credits rolled backed by images of erupting sunspots, the drawling local newsreader continues, “Health officials in San Francisco reluctantly admit they may have a Cholera epidemic on their hands. Some forty cases of the highly infectious disease have been confirmed.” The urban cholera outbreak echoes the 1968 appearance of the highly infectious, and at the time unknown, Legionnaires Disease. Even a later radio weather report describes blistering heat in a calm, matter of fact, manner. Much of the film’s first half is peppered with audio glimpses into the despoliation of the world. Grave robbing, murder, and cannibalism were psychological shocks, but the pervasive horror which primed the pump was ecological.
As suggested and synthesized by its opening minutes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an interrogation of ecological collapse as a result of endless closed-loop consumption. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s opening articulates an unsaid public consciousness inextricably linked to the collapse of our consumptive and resource exploitation societies, and destruction of the environment. America by the 1970s was revealed as a Madison Avenue façade, a mask created to sell cars, ever-larger homes, and drink more Coca Cola to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”
Hooper’s opening ecological and societal collapse audio, as well as the necrotic art, reminds the viewer that horror, death, and abuse occur every minute of every day, whether by a deranged hand in a graveyard or in a burning Texas oil refinery. When the best two-plus minutes of eco-horror storytelling comes at the start of a seminal slasher film, we should sit up and take notice.