Warning: This video contains shocking imagery, and so the faint of heart might want to gird themselves before Pressing Play.
[Complete script follows:]
We like to think we are in control, of our lives, of our
bodies, of our futures. If we work hard
and manage our lives, everything will turn out fine.
We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . until we lose
that fragile sense of control.
Illness, injury, the loss of a loved one: all of us have
experienced moments when we realize we have no control over things, when we are
That’s an uncomfortable place to be. But these experiences teach us that just
because we’re human, that doesn’t mean we’re special.
Art critic John Berger has said: “Animals are born, are
sentient, and are mortal. In these
things they resemble man.” In other
words, our most basic selves are animal. The horror movie reveals this, by showing us our mortality, stripping
away our arrogance.
Trapped. Tortured. Hunted. Slaughtered. This is the way of life, and death, for most animals. We’d like to forget this, but the horror film
never forgets. It reminds us that, like the over 50 billion animals killed
every year for human consumption, in the end, we are all meat.
The images of violence so abundant in modern horror movies
may seem prurient, mindless, sadistic. But
they also show us what we would otherwise turn away from: namely, the raw
material fact of our physical bodies, which, at the end of the day, are only so
Most of us believe that human beings are more than this, but
horror movies are not so sure.
Plot and dialogue are crucial to a great horror film, but
when it comes time to immerse the audience in fear, the only sound we hear is
And sometimes a string section.
To be without a voice is to be put in the place of animals:
No film better captures this feeling of brute powerlessness
than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When a band of twenty-somethings pick up a
hitcher in rural Texas, he tells them about an old slaughterhouse that has been
closed down. He tells them his family’s
always been in meat, a grotesque line that cuts several ways: First, for
generations this community was sustained by the local meat industry; Second,
like the rest of the community, the hitcher and his family are no more
important to big agriculture than the animals they slaughtered; and Third,
driven to madness, they now make meat out of anything that crosses their path,
animal or human, male or female.
This scene is arguably the most terrifying ever filmed. It exemplifies
the moral force of siding with the victim. Here we see a woman stripped of every last vestige of her humanity, her
very fear made an object of derision by her monstrous hosts.
Most striking is the camera’s concentration on her eyes. A
baby’s eyes tell a mother what it needs, what it feels; in a dog’s or cat’s
eyes we can tell if it is happy or sad, scared or confident. Eyes transcend the species barrier, but,
unfortunately, that isn’t going to help this victim.
And this is why horror movies bring us to these horrifying
places: so that we can’t ignore the appeal in a victim’s eyes. In horror we
bear witness to suffering. We recognize ourselves in the victims, and the
victims in ourselves.
This family has always been in meat. For the film’s most frightening antagonist,
known as Leatherface, this is literally true. He wears a mask made from the skin from a human victim. He is one of the most terrifying creations in
the history of cinema. Yet in this scene, unexpectedly, we feel a grudging
sense of sympathy with a monster we have already witnessed ruthlessly murdering
several hapless twenty-somethings. He is
like a guilty child, uncomfortable in his own skin. Underneath that mask we can imagine a being
stalled at a rudimentary stage of development, and made evil. But we can also recognize,
perhaps even relate to, his anguish.
Our protagonist has clearly been wounded by her experiences,
inside and out, and she can only laugh maniacally as the truck moves away at
the growing distance between herself and her erstwhile attacker. This distance, though, is only an illusion. Her
attacker’s dance of demented victory suggests a kinship between their warped
psychological states, and a reminder that monsters and victims, predator and
prey, are often two sides of the same being.
Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.