At the age of 12 I was attacked by a farmer. The farmer saw us as vermin and in a sense he was right. Each day after school my friend Carl and I would trespass on his land and climb up in his barn. We built camps in the hay, hurled the bales at each other and strolled out flushed and elated from a job well done. The first visit was great and the second was better. So we went back a third time and this was a mistake.
Beside the barn stood a concrete shed with a sliding steel door. The farmer hid himself in the shed and then tore back the door. He stormed into the yard like some yokel berserker; teeth bared, fists clenched. The soundtrack from those seconds plays in my ears to this day. The guillotine zing of the ripped metal door; the terrified yelp of the boy by my side.
At this point I would love to report that I stood and fought like a man, or at least held up my hands and talked my way out of trouble. Ho e-na, I jumped over a gate and ran away through a field – unhesitatingly leaving Carl (normally so much quicker and more resourceful than me) to be caught, knocked down and roughed up at his leisure. The next few hours passed in a blur of stern policemen, disgusted parents and cash reparations. Mischief costs and we had been caught red-handed. We paid out in pocket money for a few months or more.
Afterwards we were keen to frame this incident as a knockabout comedy – so much so that I came to believe it. Remember the funny thing that happened? The furious farmer and the slapstick pursuit? What a right old laugh we had that day. Then all at once I’m 17, half-cut on scotch and watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on a rented VHS. And all at once the farmer story isn’t funny any more, it’s a full-blown horror nightmare. It’s the most frightening thing I’ve experienced and I’ve been suppressing it for years.
Directed by Tobe Hooper on a budget of $300,000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the world’s great rustic horror film; the tale of a bunch of innocent kids who stumble upon a household of out-of-work slaughtermen and are then butchered like pigs, one after the other. Hooper’s film is nasty, brutish and short, spotlighting a strain of human savagery that feels as old as the hills. In the years since its release, back in the mid-1970s, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has often found itself touted as the template for every slasher movie that followed. This may be valid so far as it goes, yet it risks rather missing the wood for the trees. You might as well argue that were it not for the primal scream there would be no advertising jingles.
Pretty much everything about Chainsaw continues to scare me. The violence is indiscriminate; it erupts without warning. There is nothing to cling to, nobody to root for, and certainly no one we can realistically hope to reason with. Even the sight of the sunflowers is enough to give me the chills. Inside their pretty clapboard house, the film’s American monsters maintain a ghastly facade of nuclear respectability. They keep a pet hen in a canary cage, gather for formal family dinners and make totemic folk art out of feathers, bones and twine. But this home, crucially, is not tucked away in the forest. It sits on the main road, where the trucks rumble by. Hooper shows us that evil is banal and that it hides in plain sight. It is simply waiting for someone to blunder in down the hall.
All of these factors might be enough to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre my favourite (read: most terrifying) horror film of them all. But that still reckons without the pure glassy terror I felt on witnessing the first murder, when the mewling man-child Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) hits the kid with his mallet, drags him into a back room and rips the metal door shut. That door looked identical to the door on the shed. The sound that it made was exactly the same. And watching that scene, sitting drunk on the floor, Teenage Me was abruptly reconnected to Pre-Teen Me, trapped in the yard with yellow straw in my hair.
Teenage Me, ehlile, knew that there was nothing to fear. Our own version of Leatherface was merely a west country farmer, justifiably enraged by the pesky kids on his land. But Pre-Teen Me begged to differ. Pre-Teen Me saw the man as a monster; the beast in the shed sent by Satan to claim us. In that instant, in that barnyard, we had genuinely thought that our lives were in danger. I watched the rest of the movie as a quivering wreck.
Matsatsing ana, when people ask me how I first became interested in films, I offer horror movies as the gateway drug. Horror movies introduced me to the work of David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick and from there to Dario Argento, Georges Franju and the psychological depths of the European arthouse. And all this is true. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is different: it’s a bumbling childhood trauma, reconstructed with meat hooks and mallets. And perhaps that’s the thing about all childhood frights. You can jump the fence, run the field and pay your pocket money as forfeit. But you can never outpace them. You carry them on your back, right through to adulthood, and all that it takes is a film to remind you. That’s why The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still spooks me today. Proust had his madeleine, I have my sliding steel door.
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