Gunnar Hansen was born in Reykjavik, Iceland on March 4, 1947, and he died this past weekend, on November 7, in his home in Northeast Harbor, Maine, from pancreatic cancer. In between those two dates he spent some of his formative years in Texas, where he worked as a bartender and a carpenter while attending the University of Texas at Austin. It was here where he tried out for an independent horror film being shot locally and, upon winning the role of Leatherface, the central figure within a demented family of cannibalistic killers, would begin the process of worming his way into not only a place at the table among the most recognizable and iconographic monsters in the annals of horror and pop culture in general, but also into 41 years’ worth of collective nightmares.
I speak, as I’m sure many who were in their early teens when The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released in 1974 do, from experience. Or, perhaps more accurately, from a strange sort of secondhand experience. At age 14 I was too young to see the movie, at least by MPAA standards, and even though nationally it was a big hit right out of the gate Tobe Hooper’s story of Husqvarna-fueled mayhem was a still too forbidding and grindhouse savage to warrant a booking at my Southern Oregon hometown movie house. No matter. I saw pictures and reviews in movie magazines, and the art from that terrifying one-sheet replicated in newspaper ads, which featured an unfortunate victim squirming on a meat hook while Hansen’s masked creation warmed up his favorite gas-powered implement of chaos in the foreground, and I heard the testimony of a couple of friends who had actually seen it when it played in a nearby town. It wasn’t long before I had a pretty solid notion of what the movie might be like, and I was tantalized by it. Sight unseen, I was scared by it too.
So much so that, not long after the movie’s status as something of a scandalous box-office hit had been cemented, I had a series of nightmares inspired not by the movie itself, of course, but by my mere imaginings of the unspeakable horrors it offered. I remember several night flights down wooded corridors, or even down the darkened streets of some of the rougher outlying neighborhoods in my town. Those dreamscape neighborhoods, full of run-down houses and darkened by overgrown trees and the shadows they cast, absent of any of the friendly faces I hoped would run out to my rescue, were familiar but also, of course, alien and threatening. Who knew what might be inside those houses? I couldn’t tell that this was a dream while I was in it. I could only register running in sweaty panic from a hulking figure who looked a lot like Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface as he separated from those shadows and headed toward me. Though I tried, I couldn’t run fast enough from this human monster who didn’t seem to be much slowed by his oversized frame or the weight of the power saw he was wielding. He just… kept… on… chasing… me… and… would… not… stop...
When I finally saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, in 1977 on a drive-in double feature re-release with the American cut of a 1973 giallo called Torso, I couldn’t help but notice how my nightmares seemed to so accurately anticipate the movie itself. But of course the reverse was more clearly true. I would only read later the observation written about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by critic Michael Goodman which has resonated with me probably more than anything ever written about the movie: “(The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) captures the syntax and structure of a nightmare with astonishing fidelity. The quality of the images, the texture of the sound, the illogic by which one incident follow another, all conform to the way we dream. What makes Chain Saw interesting is that since we are watching with our eyes open, it’s a nightmare from which we can’t wake up.” This I know is true, and if you’ve seen the movie you probably do too. And Gunnar Hansen has always been the one I’ve primarily thanked for that.
To offer gratitude and appreciation to a man for a lifetime of nightmares may seem perverse, but it’s what we horror fans do, both the discerning as well as the gluttonous, and for his one contribution to our unsettled consciousness (and unconsciousness) Hansen deserves our accolades. He was many things other than Leatherface in his 68 years, and in the time since he made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the blistering heat of a 1973 Austin summer and completed his UT graduate studies, he became a published poet, historian and, with the 2013 release of Chain Saw Confidential, a first-person account of the making of “the world’s most notorious horror movie,” a published author. (I reviewed the book in one of my first pieces for Fear of the Velvet Curtain.) The book is full of casual humor, off-handed observations and delicious detail regarding the filming of the movie which by all accounts, including Hansen’s, was a grueling and psychologically trying experience for all involved. Anyone interested in the movie and what it was like to not only play but to then live with the legacy of one of cinema’s most terrifying villains should read it.
But Chain Saw Confidential surprised me, much in the way that I suspect Hansen himself often surprised people. How could someone who could so convincingly embody such mindless evil be such a charming raconteur, such a genial presence, on the page and, according to those who knew him and had occasion to meet him, in real life? Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the creators of some of the most indelible horror imagery in the genre don’t match or otherwise resemble their vile, inexplicably monstrous creations, and in this Hansen was apparently no exception. Where my surprise registered—and had I known more about his literary background I might not have been so startled—was his facility, in Chain Saw Confidential, for plumbing some of the darker, more existential waters in search of meaning and understanding of the genre itself.
Whereas some who might have written about their experiences on films of this sort might have confined themselves to funny on-set anecdotes or dry rundowns of the production’s financial entanglements, Hansen went further. He examined not only the genre’s connection to precedents such as Gilgamesh, Homer, stories of werewolves and vampires of the Middle Ages, Freud, Jung, and the Gothic tradition of storytelling, but also some of the elements that truly fascinate all horror fans about a genre that, to those with no appreciation for it anyway, often seems so indefensible.
Near the end of Chain Saw Confidential Hansen registers disagreement with TCSM director Tobe Hooper’s assertion that the real monster, in his movie, in all movies, and in life itself, is death. And given the sad event of Hansen’s own passing this week, the response he offers to Hooper’s comment in his own book seems rich and reflective, but now also somehow poignant as well:
“The basic fear—the monster—within horror may be of death. But the horror goes beyond that. It can be existence itself. Or it can be more than death in some way—even the lack of death or maybe the idea of death, the infinitude after it. As told 4,000 years ago, it was the realization of the existence of death that horrified Gilgamesh… Whatever its elements, though, the horror movie is not, I think defined by its overt content—the supernatural, monsters, darkness, whatever—but by the viewer’s emotional reaction to what the movie creates… When horror works, you walk out of the theater feeling oppressed and empty, feeling as if you had glimpsed something you did not want to see… Terror is a kind of suspense or extreme fear. Horror, on the other hand, is about the larger meanings of what we are fearing.”
Those larger meanings may be argued and never settled, but in his own way, through his portrayal as Leatherface and as the author of Chain Saw Confidential, this actor and writer did his part to help illuminate them and spur the discussion forward, while giving us occasion to vicariously experience the horror and hysterical pleasure of a profound scare. Rest in peace, Gunnar Hansen.