It began on the couch he defined by his heartbreak—hauled alone one winter during an unexpected move when yet another woman dumped him. It began long before my turn at the game of dumping him, kicking him out of my own home unexpectedly. He had not learned how to treat women better as he aged; his cruelty had sharpened like a pointed stick.
Did it start there? Or did it start at a birthday sleepover, in which I was allowed to pick out the movie at Blockbuster to celebrate my arrival in this world, undesired even at that young age? When my friend selected Children of the Corn 2 and I nodded eagerly, always so ready to please, my mother took a second look. Really? She asked. I was young, second, third, fourth grade. She shrugged, laying the problematic nature of this decision at my young feet.
While I have always been a people pleaser—someone who gave away her own gifted pajamas at her own birthday sleepover when asked, someone who let a man tell her how ugly she was only to come back begging for more—I was, before this, a spooky baby. I was born three days before Halloween under a Scorpio sun. I was born to a father who loved heavy metal and nazi zombie movies. I was always meant for darkness in all of its forms, and I grew up dreaming in vampire, in Bigfoot, in serial killer. Long before I was a people pleaser, I was a spooky pleaser.
Growing up as a baby goth, there were certain horror franchises that I respected so much I grew to fear them without even seeing them, although very few movies actually scared me in the long run. Besides my dark scorpio nature, I believe I have always been drawn to horror because I am someone who was generated through trauma and continues to develop amidst trauma. I would test myself growing up, sitting through Children of the Corn 2 and watching Chucky alone in my basement. I could be exposed to all types of terror without breaking, without even emoting. I was resolute in my resilience and I would brag about it to others, laughing off film titles. The Ring? Please, that didn’t scare me.
As I grew older, I consumed more and more, leaving little untouched. It got to the point that I wasn’t really lying—very few horror films scared me.
Yet, there were those chosen few that seemed so sacred I had not touched them. Funny Games? No problem! I was even tempted to write the name of a more extreme horror film to make sure you, my reader, take me really seriously. To make sure you understand that I am not playing around. I am Big and Bad and Nothing Scares Me, so when I was abused by the father who created more horror than any movie or by any number of boyfriends, an uncontrollable army of zombies, it doesn’t really matter because I am brave and numb and nothing can touch me. I burn so clean and bright.
But there are those films that I grew up respecting so deeply, feeding into their mythos, that I feared enough to avoid.
I first watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on my abusive boyfriend’s heartbreak couch. That’s where it all began.
The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy that befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty, and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day…
It is within this universe, defined by the mad and macabre, that some suggest the modern malefactor has his origins: massive, lumbering, obscured face yet still inherently male, wielded chainsaw, all that deafening noise, brought down on fragile flesh.
The original film depicts five deaths. Only two involve the titular weapon. In reality, the true weapon of the film is the sledgehammer—artifact of the old ways—of how men slaughtered cows before they were replaced with machines. The Sawyer brood is the symbol of American men who have been robbed of their livelihoods, who are now aimless and churning with violence. Where can all of this violence go? What can purposeless men do with all of their anger?
The creator of the film, Tobe Hooper, lists several influences, including the “lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things” as they were depicted on the news—he observed that the world was a brutal place, and his film would reflect this.
The majority of the actors were unknown Texans, selected to portray real people—to portray someone the viewer could know, or could even relate to. Due to the low budget, filming days could last up to 16 hours for a month in a row; the farmhouse was decorated in real blood, the copper odor suffocating the actors, especially the man who portrayed Leatherface, who was only given one mask that had to be worn day in and day out.
Hooper noted that, “everyone hated [him] by the end of production,” because each actor feared their only violent scenes in the film, and none walked away without some level of injury.
It began on the couch he defined by his heartbreak. He owned a DVD player and had a great movie collection. It was one of the things I had initially loved about him before I learned that there is likely a reason why several women have left a man before they reach a year together. He owned Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and he had scheduled it for our first spooky month together.
He asserted that he loved horror, but throughout our relationship, I came to find that his tastes were mundane. He didn’t like black and white classics from the fifties, unknown exploitation romps from the seventies, cheesy films with low production values from the eighties. Can someone truly consider themselves a spooky baby if they get no pleasure from watching Basket Case? I mean, really?
Perhaps one thing he loved more than horror and hurting women was planning things. He was an earth sign, so you may be able to attribute it to that; he was a man whose father had severe OCD, so you may be able to attribute it to that; he came from a cultural lineage of trauma and terror, so perhaps that’s why he enjoyed taking control. No matter the reason—and it was likely all three—he loved planning and had scheduled our October down to the minute. Each film was selected carefully, and they were decent for an initial Halloween together—I figured shit could get weird later on (spoiler alert: The movies didn’t.)
I looked forward to watching Texas Chainsaw. While I can’t remember that night very well (it was likely viewed through the foggy haze of liquor, his secret cocktail ingredient tripling the amount of booze, something he would do because he claimed my sober body and my cunt were boring), I can picture it like any of those early nights: I clutched his large bicep with both of my hands, and he liked that. This was when my double-fisted approach still thrilled him. This is when I still held some worth.
So there we were, likely drunk and on a run-down, budget couch from IKEA, watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I do know that I loved the physical quality of the film—give me anything 16 mm, anything gritty—I loved the way the shots were framed,and all that delicious screaming. If there is one thing that should be taken from this essay, it was that I discovered that Sally is the best screamer of any horror film. I say that with expertise, of course.
I can easily imagine the tension I stored in my body going into the film: the way my muscles tightened, the way I gripped his arm like a giddy school girl (despite him telling me, later on, that I wasn’t sexy because I was too old—that men are primarily attracted to teenagers). I was afraid.
But as the film went on, each of my muscles released like a blooming flower. I probably broke when Grandfather needed assistance while slaughtering someone: Something about the mask the actor wore likely led me to crack up, my laughter lining the night—especially if I was drunk. Then, the way Leatherface dances and dances at the end, moving the chainsaw like a baton—yes, I’m confident that by the end of it, I found the whole thing aesthetically pleasing and rather silly.
And I’m quite confident because we had only been dating for five months by that point, and I hadn’t learned my lesson yet—that while I was too old to be attractive, I was definitely too stupid to have anything valuable to say—that when I opened my mouth and told him how I had braced myself for the movie, how it had washed over me, how I had emerged wet with blood alongside the final girl, Sally, he would have rolled his eyes and made the snarky comments he usually did when I shared my feelings or inner experiences (Not another trauma?)
I smiled through the blood.
In 2020, true horror did not come to the world in the form of a faceless, unknowable, violent wave of masculinity; it came to the world in the form of a global pandemic. It came to the world shortly after he moved in with me. I found myself held captive by Covid, by a man who thought I was ugly and dumb, by my own trauma response to fawn instead of flee. I told no one about how he was treating me: I had ruined the reputation of previous men by complaining too much to friends. I kept my mouth shut and I wore my mask and I moved forward in the world, as everyone else did. I did my best to survive my home, which came to be a true haunted house: hands around my neck, insults rained down on my body while having sex—complete humiliation. I could find no relief from the poltergeist. Covid, an abusive work environment, an abusive home: I could not escape, I could not see other people. I was alone in a very small condo with a very small man who haunted my mind and body with his noisiness.
How can I describe how small I felt, what I was reduced to? What is it like to live with someone who you disclose personal things to, like a previous suicide attempt, and are only answered by being told not to use one of his guns because it would make him lose his pistol license? All while he wears his own form of mask—male progressiveness—and he just tells everyone you are the crazy one? And everyone believes him because he does so much good? And he gets very good at telling you that it is in fact you with the problem, that you are unsexy and stretch-marked out and that you should just relax and take it—it meaning his cock—and then punishing you when you do.
Terror, complete and endless terror, no relief
I have always loved October: fall, my birthday, Halloween. Despite being raised amongst explicit messages about my worthlessness and the fact that I was alone in the world and would only know terror, despite this worthlessness being reinforced by every man I would date: I have always defiantly relished my birthday.
Yes, I am that person who may celebrate for the whole month or the whole week; yes, someone I went to my second elementary school with and reconnected with when I returned to that school district years later knew my birthdate down to the day and time. When I acted surprised, she stated that I had always made a big deal about it.
I have always relished this month, this birthdate, this holiday, it is all mine despite what the world tells me—despite how my ex ruined my birthday tattoo and left me alone all night saying he was anxious, so he could go lay in bed and look at instagram models instead of watching a movie with his girlfriend–
it is all mine, deliciously mine
And yet, when I finally fled him, lurched out of the relationship with literal wounds on my wrists, when I was finally free, when October emerged six months later, when it could finally be mine, I was terrified.
He always planned everything down to the letter, and I always did whatever he wanted, and to be fair, it was often fun, but would I have gone to haunted houses in the middle of a pandemic and had people yell inches from my face? Likely not. And now that I was single? I definitely would not. And what was left for me, that hadn’t been tainted by the complete horror of that man? Would I skip Halloween altogether? Move on as if it had never been mine, as if the me before him and all of the others hadn’t existed, as if they had stolen everything from me?
If only I could be so clean and empty, if only I could burn so bright, if only I had easily broke down all that I am and packaged it and given it away, so everything, down to the consciousness of pain and existence could leave me, my bones barren and sun-bleached, my soul long ago departed
The first day of October arrived tentatively, a Saturday. I had no plans; I was still hiding out of fear of COVID-19 and my own pale face in the mirror. I knew I would watch a horror movie to honor the first day of spooky month. I opened the streaming service and moved to my favorite genre, folk horror. Simple enough. I wanted something classic, reliable, dependable—something I wouldn’t regret. Something that proved my tastes were good despite how he reacted the one time he let me plan Halloween—how I let him down so deeply—how everything about me, both body and mind, let him down so deeply.
Folk horror is a lot of things; it is in part a commentary on what occurs when urban people encroach on the countryside and discover a different culture–a culture that appears backwards—a culture that is often violent.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre stared back at me from the screen.
Who will survive and what will be left of them?
Leatherface is hunched over his chainsaw, in the midst of pulling the cord to get it going again, the teeth sharp and hungry. She waits for him on his hook, her mouth open in a dark scream.
What happened is true. Now the motion picture, that’s just as real.
Sally is in a gunny sack on the front seat of the proprietor’s pickup truck. She is screaming and sobbing and moving like an animal caught with her paw in a trap. The proprietor is laughing and laughing, watching the movement of her limbs against the burlap like a fetus stirring in the womb. His eyes light as he predicts the angles of her flesh through the fabric, stabs at her with a sharpened broom handle. Her shrieks are his pleasure. Her pain is met with his glee.
How could I tell you what it is like, to be trapped and unable to breathe?
Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her debut chapbook sing eternal is available through Bottlecap Press. Her online home is calliesblackstone.com. Additionally, you can check out her work in Grub Street’s Volume 72, which features her piece “My body as the subject of a series of sketches drawn by my non-artistic (unless abuse is an art) ex-boyfriend”