Warning! These Films Contain Madness

In Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film (2005), Tony Magistrale identifies the “core concerns” of the horror genre: “Defining humanity in the face of monstrosity and the monstrous as it is defined within humanity.” The description is general enough to contain most horror film subgenres. It’s particularly useful in assessing films with human monsters that are isolated and incapable of socialization. Such monsters persistently threaten the communities beyond the confines of their homes. They’re particularly dangerous to outsiders unfamiliar with the conditions of their madness.

Two of the most indelible monsters of this sort are Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Leatherface of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Both somewhat inspired by the real life horror figure Ed Gein, Bates and Leatherface are movie characters around whom extensive media mythologies have formed in the years since their first onscreen appearances. In almost every case, such elaboration has done nothing to enhance the significance of their initial impact. If anything, the abundance of Freudian readings and reimagined social circumstances of the characters diminish their effectiveness as monsters. Attempts to humanize Bates and Leatherface risk bringing them too far out of the paradoxical isolation that fuels their monstrosity. The terror of Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is rooted in monsters that have suffered from degrees of isolation that are nonetheless necessary to protect the outside world from them.

Two recent horror films — Mark Tonderai’s The House at the End of the Street (2012) and John Lussenhop’s Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) — transform Bates and Leatherface into more rational characters whose psychoses and bad deeds are supposedly justified by their circumstances and/or successfully accommodated by those close to them. Both films fail to sustain horror, largely because they replace the complicating seeds of sympathy earned by the original characters’ troubled histories with uncritical compassion. These films attempt to situate mistreated monsters within, and/or reintroduce them into, patently cruel human communities. The plots become incoherent as a result of these changes, making misleading arguments for the containment and acceptance of madness.

In Psycho, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) meets Bates (Anthony Perkins) after experiencing the guilt and uncertainty of being on the lam. As she speaks with the maladjusted motel proprietor, Crane (who has briefly succumbed to lawlessness) becomes aware of being “trapped”. To the female protagonist and to the audience, Bates seems irrevocably damaged by his devotion to a sick and domineering mother. His trap, made worse by the motel’s isolation, has cut him off from outside interaction. The film features an alarming reversal when Bates kills Crane during her shower, illustrating that the young man is too far gone for human connection. Having lost his own identity to the mother he killed and become a murderer bound to that legacy, the fractured Bates cannot coexist with Crane. Though he serves as her reminder that she must correct course while redemption is still possible, her limited exposure to the young man proves fatal. That’s just who he is.

Though The House at the End of the Street is not an official remake of Psycho, its narrative nods to the Hitchcock film are so numerous that it may as well be. Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) meets Ryan (Max Thieriot) after experiencing the uncertainty of a broken home and being the new girl in town. As a result of her interactions with the parentless Ryan, Elissa becomes increasingly aware of her dysfunctional relationship with her mother. Ryan’s isolated and isolating house is the one at the end of the street. It is the place where he murdered both of his parents, who forced Ryan to take on his young sister’s identity after she died in a tragic accident several years earlier. Having assumed that childhood identity against his will and become a teenage murderer intent on reviving his sister so that he can become himself again, Ryan is basically a good guy. He’s just sensitive and misunderstood.

For a while The House at the End of the Street obscures certain truths about Ryan, eventually delivering them in series of anticlimactic twists whenever the film grows stale. While there are no cataclysmic reversals à la Psycho, the film’s sympathetic treatment of its monster is preposterous. Originally, the film is Elissa’s story, but attention quickly shifts to poor Ryan as neighbors speak ill of him, school bullies torment him, and Elissa’s mother interrogates him. As the never-subtle script repeatedly states, Ryan becomes Elissa’s “project”. She seeks to redeem him despite the many warnings that they should not be together.

It is in this way that The House at the End of the Street fundamentally departs from the template established by Psycho. Hitchcock and writer Joseph Stefano shift attention to Bates, but only because Crane is violently removed from the narrative by Bates’ own hands. Sure, the audience is kept in suspense a while longer about the nature of Bates’ complicity, but Crane’s death is an essential fact and source of horrific effect. Audience identification is redirected to an unbearable position (Bates) because our prior onscreen surrogate (Crane) is suddenly dead and buried.

That Elissa stays alive for the duration of The House at the End of the Street is not a problem. But the film is most disingenuous in framing the Elissa-Ryan relationship as one worth cheering on. Ryan’s unfortunate place within the social order around him motivates a current of compassion from Elissa and ostensibly from the audience as well. In one of the film’s early twists, Ryan’s reclusiveness is revealed to be the result of his continued caretaking of his unstable sister. He keeps her locked in a room under the basement in an effort to protect the neighborhood from her and to hide her from harm.

The neighbors constantly complain about how Ryan’s presence brings down their home values. Elissa’s mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) is portrayed as an uncaring woman whose hesitancy to allow her daughter to be alone with Ryan is to be taken as an insult. The privileged and popular teenagers at the high school take their frustrations out on Ryan’s car, body, and home. Conversely, a police officer who is largely ineffective at managing any of this growing disorder defends Ryan as a good kid who has had a “tough, tough life”. In one of the film’s most ridiculous lines of dialogue, the officer responds to the bully’s parents by saying “That animal’s name is Ryan”.

By the time David Loucka’s screenplay twists and turns to reveal Ryan as a murderer who “replaces” his sister by locking up unfortunate young women in his basement, the prevailing tone of sympathy is too well-established to view him as a monster in the tradition of Norman Bates. The film overplays injuries committed against him and underplays his injuries against others. Indeed, each revelation about his own villainy is matched by a present-day hurt committed against him by a community member or a flashback unveiling his parents’ prior abuse. The effect is to offset his wrongdoing. The House at the End of the Street is a feature-length illustration of the abuse excuse.

The House at the End of the Street (2012)

More egregious is Texas Chainsaw 3D, which reaches back to the concluding events of Hooper’s original film to reconstruct Leatherface as perpetually victimized. In the 1974 film, a group of young people travels to the homestead that belonged to some of their family members. One by one, they wander into a nearby house of horrors seemingly presided over by the lumbering, murderous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). As the number of young people dwindles, a conspiracy between a clan of cannibals becomes evident. Eventually, only Sally (Marilyn Burns) is left alive. She is forced to endure a torturous dinner with Leatherface and his family of slaughterers. In the context of this group, Leatherface is alternately an aggressor, a confused child, and a transvestite. After the “Grandpa” character is unable to fulfill his family’s desire that he kill Sally with a hammer, Sally escapes to the road and into the back of a truck. Leatherface chases her with his chainsaw. These events replay as a prologue to Texas Chainsaw 3D, providing the film with its single effective sequence of horror.

The film imagines a resulting clash between the law and the Sawyer family (the clan from the original film). In response to the murders of Sally’s friends, Sheriff Hooper (Thom Barry) arrives to the house and demands that Leatherface (now called “Jed Sawyer”) be handed over peacefully. The dialogue between Hooper and Jed’s family members is a précis for how the film will deal with Jed’s madness. Hooper insists, “No one’s turning a blind eye to this.” Drayton Sawyer, Jed’s father, says Jed was “protecting the house and family” and that the Sheriff “ain’t getting anybody in this family.” Inside the house, another family member tells Drayton to “Give’em the boy. He’s simple anyway,” to which Drayton again responds, “He’s family.”

Just before the family is able to hand him over, an angry mob forms outside the house and overrules the wish of Sheriff Hooper to deal with the situation peacefully. The mob, led by Burt Hartman (Paul Rae), is outraged over the butchering and intends to get revenge. Compared to the seething mob outside, the besieged family members inside the house look like calm characters protecting their home. Aside from a few strategically placed bones, gone is any trace of the cannibalistic monstrosity that was present in the earlier film and in the credit sequence just seconds prior.

Instantaneously, the family members are transformed into quiet folks reasonable enough to demand “a good lawyer” for their boy Jed. As if this sea change in characterization weren’t broad enough, the mob sets about slaughtering the Sawyer family. They shoot them and burn them and then proceed to pose with severed body parts for photos to appear in the local paper. One member of the mob finds a woman and infant who survived the mob-induced massacre. Rather than show any tenderness, he kicks the mother in the face, killing her. He takes the baby back to his wife.

This introductory sequence tells much about the plot that follows. The baby grows up to discover her destiny as a Sawyer, and her journey of self-discovery is one that justifies the monstrous deeds of her kin. The exaggerated hostility of the greater community necessitates that the Sawyer clan take care of its own, even if “its own” is Jed “Leatherface” Sawyer, who continues his unabated killing streak.

In the present day, Heather (Alexandra Daddario) receives a letter indicating that her grandmother has died. When she confronts her parents with the letter, they tell her she was adopted and her father adds, “You came from a shit heap. There, now you know. If I had half a mind I’d have left you there.” Of course Heather already knows she’s different. Both her bloody job at a grocery store meat department and her macabre hobby of making visual art with bones mark her as a natural descendant of the cannibal clan. Yet all of this behavior is normalized in the figure of Heather, who is gorgeous and has a boyfriend and a best friend. Despite her troubled bloodline and awful adoptive parents, Heather appears to be well-adjusted. She thinks the news of her grandmother will allow her to figure out where she fits. On a road trip to Texas that echoes the fateful journey of the 1974 film, she says of her grandmother, “I just learned about her yesterday, but family’s family.”

Thus, even when Heather discovers that her grandmother has been protecting Leatherface/Jed in her own basement, she is bound to side with her family. Having inherited the mansion, Heather is now also the object of the community’s hatred. Late in the film, after her boyfriend and other friends have been terrorized and/or killed by her cousin, Heather comes into convenient possession of police files that detail the slaughter of her real family. A lawyer provides her with an account of Jed as a “grown man but stunted, with emotions of a child . . . “The last time a girl got away, Jed lost his whole family. He’ll stay after you. He doesn’t know any better.” Though the lawyer thickly lays on the rationalization, the film is inconsistent with the characterization of Jed, as we see him cross out the faces of mob figures from the yellowed newspaper shortly after killing them in the present day. Thus, Leatherface is chopping bodies and taking names. He’s more methodical than hysterical.

Heather is bound and gagged by Hartman’s son in the slaughterhouse that fed her family’s madness. This becomes the site of her emotional bonding with Jed, who spares her when he realizes she is his cousin. Members of the former mob gather in the slaughterhouse, intending to deliver on the murderous justice they sought in the earlier shootout. Heather saves her cousin by pitchforking to death one of the men and then throwing Jed his chainsaw, exhorting him to “Do your thing, coz.” Sheriff Hooper allows Heather and Jed to kill Hartman. Heather walks Jed home and becomes his new protector. In a “playful” post-credits sequence, Heather’s adoptive parents arrive at her mansion to get their share of her inherited money. They are greeted by Jed with his chainsaw, lest the audience forget he has two loose ends to kill.

One way of looking at these films and the sympathy for their respective devils is to conclude that horror films have simply run out of fresh directions for canonical monsters. By making them social animals and/or explicitly sympathetic figures, the filmmakers try to wring out the last drop of significance from their personas. But by trying to account for and manage every facet of the characters’ monstrosity, the films (unintentionally?) remove the most horrific aspect of all, which the fear of not knowing how to deal with humans who have turned into monsters. This is a timeless theme that is in no short supply and knows no socioeconomic boundaries. It exists anywhere a family is trying in vain to contain madness.

In April 2013, The American Spectator’s Luca Gattoni-Celli wrote a short blog entry called “Forgetting Nancy Lanza”. Of Lanza, the mother of a young man who on December 14, 2012 murdered twenty children and seven adults (including Nancy), Gattoni-Celli observed:

“If anything, it appears Nancy Lanza offered the best hope of reaching her son. He was 20, an adult, not a teenager. He bears responsibility for what he did. And she bore the ultimate cost. Imagine her dismay as her own son opened fire. Imagine her last anguished moments. Imagine the sense of failure and regret she would have felt had she survived. Whether or not she is a sympathetic figure, Nancy Lanza is certainly a tragic one. She does not deserve to be forgotten in the same breath that gives her murderous progeny immortality.”

Nancy Lanza isn’t alive to provide an account of how she tried to intervene to prevent her son’s deterioration. There is evidence that she was well aware of her son’s condition but unsure of how to reach him.

Surviving parents of young killers have gone on the record to comment on their children’s actions. In Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (2012), Sue Klebold (mother of one of the Columbine High School killers) says “while every other mother in Littleton was praying that her child was safe, I had to pray that mine would die before he hurt anyone else.” In 2011, The Guardian published “My child, the murderer”, which was a discussion with three parents of children who had killed others. Though the stories differ in their specifics, they could all be summed up by a phrase one of the parents uses: “love and guilt”.

That state of conflict when love meets guilt creates a desire to accommodate abnormal behavior. Michael Lynch’s 1983 study “Accommodation Practices: Vernacular Treatments of Madness” outlines three practices families and social groups use to accommodate “troublemakers”, defined by Lynch “as persons who, for various reasons, could not be given full responsibility for maintaining normality.” Lynch identifies:

1. Practices which isolate the troublemaker within the group;

2. Practices which manipulate the troublemaker’s behavior, perception, and understanding; and

3. Practices which members use to influence how others react to the troublemaker.

Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre show no pretense of successful accommodation. The comparative isolation of their monsters is but a temporary arrangement made futile once outsiders enter their spaces. Yet all of these accommodation practices are present and validated to some degree in The House at the End of the Street and Texas Chainsaw 3D. Elissa and Heather believe that their accommodating efforts will fix or manage the monsters close to them, despite many signs to the contrary. That attitude is part of the films’ contradictory stance towards madness. The filmmakers want to unleash unhinged human monsters only to assert that they can be fully explained or contained.

In real life, there is evidence that these accommodating practices are useful in helping troubled individuals integrate into society. But what is the right approach for those individuals who appear to be so far gone that no integration is possible? There is no easy answer to that question. The horror film genre has historically been capable of investigating that quandary, of looking into the face of human monsters and viewing those countenances as beyond human. To paraphrase Aristotle, these are beasts that mistake themselves for gods. Contemporary movies like The House at the End of the Street and Texas Chainsaw 3D do more harm than good by suggesting that such killers are simply damaged products of imperfect societies.

Psycho (1960)