Following the story of Sally Hardesty, her brother Franklin, their friends Jerry and Pam, and Pam’s boyfriend Kirk, the audience is given a look into a day in the life of 5 flower children on a road trip across the state in hopes of visiting a home from Sally and Franklin’s childhood as well as investigating a recent grave robbing. These youngsters, living in an era before picking up strangers from the road was seen as dangerous, pick up a hitchhiker who turns violent, erratic, before being kicked out of the van. After a bit more of a drive, the “Van Family,” as they are often called, comes across an old house and later on, the Sawyer family residing just next door.
Taking place towards the end of the Vietnam War, the film acts as subtle commentary on the current socio-political climate as well as exploitation across several ideologies prevalent in American culture. Arguably, it is the emergence of disabled characters in cinema that acts as one of the most overlooked attributes of the film’s importance. Before 1974, mentally and physically handicapped individuals were few and far between on the silver screen, but THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE showcases a physically handicapped man and a family of seemingly mentally handicapped individuals. For those grateful enough to live without any sort of physical or mental handicaps, it can be difficult at times to understand or have the proper know-how in terms of existing around the disabled. TCM exploits the human’s tendency to treat those with physical handicaps with pity or condolences while greeting the mentally disabled with fear, hostility, and judgment.
The character of Franklin Hardesty is immediately pinpointed as the outcast of the “Van Family.” Surrounded by thin, conventionally attractive characters, Franklin is overweight, temperamental, and paralyzed from the waist down. Franklin is a black sheep and is treated as such. When the Van Family picks up the mysterious hitchhiker, Franklin is the first one to be mistreated. His inability to escape due to the confines of his chair causes the audience to feel a sense of sympathy for him and his condition. Individuals that are physically capable of escaping if placed in a similar scenario watch this scene without the levity of taking their ability to run away for granted. In later scenes, Franklin is shown struggling with entering the home due to the poor traction of the wheelchair, and needing the aid of Sally to push him through the forest in order to escape the dangers that lie ahead. Instead of feeling scared or worried for the well being of his character, audiences instead are geared to feel pity towards his situation.
Audiences know from the beginning that his wheelchair is going to be responsible for his demise, and because of that, we no longer fear for his safety but rather look down upon him for being doomed from the start. Unfortunately, this state of mind seems to be one that is frequently instilled within the human psyche, regardless of time period. Tobe Hooper utilizes Franklin’s condition to garner the notions and misconceptions that we as a society feel towards the handicapped. It’s not the act of examining these shortcomings but rather a needed reflection as a whole of why we view this as any reason to segregate this character from any other victim.
Comparatively, the Sawyer family is often attributed with some form of mental illness as a means to explain their murderous and cannibalistic tendencies. It is vital to mention that there is a strong possibility that the Sawyers are without any sort of mental disability at all. The progeny of the Sawyer family live as male descendants of a character known only as “Grandpa.” As the patriarch of the household, all of the men born into this family line have been raised from birth to be relentless killing machines. A life of manipulation, death, and destruction is the only way of life these individuals know. Without delving into far more rooted arguments of nature vs. nurture, let it be known that criminal actions do not equate mental illness. Whether or not the Sawyers were suffering from mental illness is irrelevant, because to the victims in the film, their actions are simply associated with those of “crazy” people and our victims react to them accordingly.
During the ‘dinner party,’ Sally screams in terror “You’re crazy,” something that audiences watching the films more than likely agreed with. This statement justifies the way the audience views the Sawyers. Mental disabilities are highly misunderstood and the actions they can cause those suffering to perform are often so different from that of “normal” society that it invokes an uncontrollable sense of fear and uneasiness in those that are without the mental disability. Sally makes her panicked assumption about the mental state of the Sawyer family in a traumatic situation. From the very beginning, the Van family treats those that behave even the slightest inkling outside of “normal” with hostility and cruelty. Is it that we as society value our physical capabilities over our mental capacities, or is it that we truly fear what the human mind is capable of causing the body to do? Regardless of the answer to this question, the ideology of the way society handles those with handicaps is reflected as clear as crystal in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.
Once Sally has escaped the traumatic events, she is shown in her final scenes in a state of manic laughter. Has she survived? Yes. But at what cost? Sally appears to have lost her mind in her quest for survival. While using racial slurs or derogatory language towards specific minority groups would be deemed improper in today’s film world, our views toward those suffering from physical and mental disabilities appear not to have changed. It may be difficult to grasp, but by simply taking a look back at THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, we as a society can be forced to look dead on at how slowly we’ve evolved in terms of sensitivity to the disabled.
*All Photos: THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) Dark Sky Films