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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times: A Cultural History by Joseph Lanza review

To say that Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the cornerstones of modern horror is an understatement. What has been one of its enduring impacts, at least to me, is the sharp juxtaposition of what could be argued to be a family movie against almost casual brutality, tuning viewers in across the span of decades to a story of fear that feels timeless at its core.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times: A Cultural History book cover
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times certainly lives up to its name: in the book, author Joseph Lanza moves through the story of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while in each chapter providing a cultural snapshot of the world before and during the film’s production.

Though commentary is largely relevant – especially relating to cultural attitudes regarding hitchhiking, for example – this may be a book that is better geared for those who are not so familiar with the film, and those interested in the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s. (Horror trivia heads may be already very familiar with the facts about the movie that Lanza mentions.) Though using the movie’s story as a narrative frame was functional, there were also points where chapter topics felt somewhat disjointed.

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Lanza opens the book with an overview of America at the time, while moving focus to one of director Tobe Hooper’s earlier projects, Eggshells – a film that features a “cryptoembryonic-hyperelectric presence” that influences the hippies living in a house near the University of Texas campus. In retrospect, the synopsis for Eggshells reads almost like a spiritual prototype for Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Throughout the rest of the book, which covers haunting instances including the voice of a young boy who claims to have been stuck in a crashed truck with his dead father and had used the radio to call for help, Lanza delves into these instances and societal views, yielding up a rather robust argument for reading more into the movie’s meaning.

In looking at the bigger picture of the US in the 60s and 70s, Lanza draws the reader’s attention to several smaller scale, almost haunting instances. In one chapter, there is mention of the voice of a young boy haunting radio airwaves. The boy claims to have been stuck in a crashed truck with his dead father, and he had used the radio to call for help. Though the boy was never found and the calls for help never verified as real, this specific example is emblematic of Lanza’s own connection with the movie: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels so personal, so haunting (who wouldn’t want to help a young child in distress?), that something about the film rings as unnervingly true to the viewer.

For example, when I rewatched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before diving into the book, my takeaway was largely the horror of how these things could have happened to anyone at any time. After reading Lanza’s book, however, I paid closer attention to the doomsday opening narrative on the radio detailing the tragedies of the world. When discussing that segment, Lanza focuses on the haunting words of Charles Fort and attitudes toward conspiracy theories and astrology and the fears associated with extreme weather events, like solar flares. These beliefs and attitudes were arguably more prevalent in the 70s, though it could be said that they are on the rise again now.

Lanza’s writing style, which treats the material with journalistic flair, also makes for quick, light reading. While I understand some other criticisms about how the book wasn’t focused enough on the facts of the film, the entire work is focused on the mention of culture in the title. Lanza also does his due diligence in including some of the more interesting details of what filming conditions were like, and what impact the actors felt outside of the film.

Structural cohesion seemed to break down at certain times. The emphasis on exploring the legacy of certain serial killers comes to mind, as well as the exploration of Nixon’s presidency. Lanza’s choices do make sense and these things certainly merit mention, but the depth to which they’re explored makes for a difficult time bringing the reader back to centre.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times is an enjoyable read overall, especially for those without an existing grounding in the film’s background, but one that could have been more focused.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Its Terrifying Times: A Cultural History by Joseph Lanza is published by Skyhorse Publishing. Buy the book. Read more of our reviews of horror non-fiction books.

Laura Kemmerer is an editor living in Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @hpbookcraft.

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