On Chainsaws, and Massacres Taking a look at horror's most iconic weapon

We all know the moment well: You’re wandering through the final rooms of a haunted attraction, exit in sight. Maybe you smell the 2 stroke exhaust fumes before anything happens. Then suddenly, the deafening roar splits the air around you, and without even thinking, you’re running for safety.

“Chainsaw guy” is such a staple in commercial haunted attractions that you could call it the biggest cliche of the form. But it got this way because it simply works on such an elemental level. The ear piercing noise, the gasoline smell, the thought of this tool designed to rip apart wood possibly being applied to human flesh…

We can thank Tobe Hooper for putting that image into our heads. Only one person is actually murdered by a chainsaw in his most famous movie. As the Zombie Survival Guide points out, it’s a highly impractical weapon. Noisy, heavy, requires precious gas, prone to failed startups… and yet, the fear factor is so high many of us, faced with a split second decision to be chased by a maniac with a chainsaw or a maniac with a gun, would probably take the gun. 

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the chainsaw itself may have been a mere terrifier, but in the first sequel (1986) it’s virtually the main character. No longer just Leatherface’s preferred accessory – now the entire Sawyer family appears to worship chainsaws, going so far as to entomb the corpse of the family matriarch with one as a sort of shrine. The film culminates in a multi-chainsaw duel between Leatherface and the deranged sheriff played by Dennis Hopper.

Pieces, from 1981, took the chainsaw-wielding maniac concept and officially merged it with the whodunit slasher template. It’s got it all – first-person “killervision” POV, close-ups of chainsaws cutting through human flesh, and ham-fisted red herrings designed to obscure the identity of the killer. The trailer makes the rather bald-faced pronouncement that “you don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre”.

As horror cinema brushes up against mainstream culture in the form of slasher villains, features and traits inevitably get jumbled together in the minds of the non-horror hounds and the Halloween costume designers tasked with making a quick buck. Which one is Freddy? He’s the one with the hockey mask right? Isn’t Michael Myers a zombie? Which one has the machete? So is born the “chainsaw maniac” character found in the unlicensed section of the costume shop: generic hockey mask, mechanic’s jumpsuit lifted from Michael Myers, and of course, plastic chainsaw. In a rare case of art imitating life imitating art, this guy has even shown up in movies, usually in a comedic role when the story requires a generic slasher villain.

And of course, there’s this:

I’d be remiss not to mention possibly the most famous chainsaw operator in horror this side of Texas – Ash Williams, pulling the ripcord for the forces of good rather than evil. When his own hand becomes possessed in Evil Dead 2, he uses the chainsaw to perform a messy self-amputation, then later attaches the saw to the wrist stump as a permanent appendage. Groovy.

Chainsaws make so many appearances in so many horror movies it would be futile to attempt to compile a comprehensive accounting of all of them. It makes a rather memorable cameo in the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, when the surviving gang, fleeing in their makeshift zombie-proof bus, accidentally drops a running one with disastrous consequences. It’s lampshaded in Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis is deciding on a weapon to use at the pawn shop. He briefly considers a chainsaw before coming to his senses and going with the samurai sword. It’s lampshaded again in Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil when an oblivious Dale, innocently cutting firewood, is caught in a swarm of bees and starts to very much resemble an unhinged Leatherface to the crew of idiot teenagers.

Of course, few cinematic touchstones with this kind of cultural influence fail to make their way into the video game world. Particularly in the zombie game subgenre, chainsaws are fairly ubiquitous, from Dead Rising to Resident Evil 7, from Doom to Gears of War. And, um… Lollipop Chainsaw.

For further reading on notable appearances of chainsaws in horror films (and non-horror films), check out this list.

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