The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise has gifted spooky cinephiles with some of the best horror movies over the years, and introduced the world to the iconic masked serial killer Leatherface. However, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s background is darker than you’d originally think. While you can rest easy knowing that Leatherface is fictional, you may want to lock your doors after hearing about the true story of the real-life murderer that inspired his creation.
Directed by Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the first entry of the TCM franchise, tells the story of Sally Hardesty and her brother, who run out of gas while travelling with friends in Texas and are forced to stop at a creepy looking house in the middle of nowhere. In true horror movie fashion, the ominous home turns out to belong to a family of cannibals with a love for cold-blooded murder.
One of these killers is a chainsaw-wielding giant wearing a mask of human skin – Leatherface. As you can guess, a murder spree unfolds, however much to the cannibal’s dismay, Sally escapes the terrorising experience.
During a past DVD interview, Hooper said that the gory film was based on true events from the horrors he witnessed in newspapers during the Vietnam war and America’s Serial Killer Phenomenon that dominated media and public attention.
For those who don’t know, the Serial Killer Phenomenon refers to the “golden age of serial murder” throughout the 1970s to 2000 in the US, where the number of active serial killers were on the rise. The constant tragedy and loss of human life drove Hooper to research, and one prolific killer caught his attention who would later become the figure on which Leatherface was based —Ed Gein.
The true story of Ed Gein came to the public attention in 1957 when a hardware store owner in Wisconsin, named Bernice Worden, suddenly disappeared. According to newspaper archives from the ‘50s, all that was left in her store was an empty cash register and some bloodstains.
Thanks to a receipt, police tracked down Ed Gein, who would later become known as “Plainfield Ghoul”, and the killer who shocked the nation. Warning: things get gnarly from here on out, so faint of heart readers be warned.
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Searching his house, authorities discovered Worden’s body and several other disturbing sights that undoubtedly inspired Hooper’s brutal film. Furniture made out of human skin, bowls made out of human skulls, and clothing made from his victims’ bodies were among the horrors uncovered.
While the real Ed Gein differed from Leatherface —he didn’t wear his victims’ faces as a mask constantly —the obvious link between Leatherface and Gein can’t be denied: least of all their shared penchant of literally wearing their victims
However, we wouldn’t be doing our horror due diligence without pointing out some more ‘facts’ in the movie that can’t be attributed to the real killer. Firstly, Ed Gein never used a chainsaw – that particular weapon idea came to Hooper while he was at a hardware store.
Gein instead used a gun to carry out his crimes. He also didn’t eat all his victims like Leatherface —who, as we all know, is a cannibal with a taste for head cheese. So make no mistake: Leatherface is by no means a straight-up model of the famed serial killer.
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It’s also worth noting that Gein wasn’t the only serial killer that inspired Leatherface. Co-writer Kim Henkel clarified in a 2004 interview with Texas Monthly that ’70s serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley inspired the film too.
While Henley didn’t cause Leatherface to come to fruition, he did drive the character direction for the other cannibalistic family members, whose lack of empathy and humanity helped make the Texas Chainsaw Massacre all the more terrifying. So Gein can’t take all the credit for all our nightmares – just the majority of them.
In the end, Ed Gein also wasn’t free to kill again, unlike Leatherface, who has managed to evade the law for over five decades in his bloody franchise. Gein did get caught and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1957.
He was later committed to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane following his trial in 1968. Gein died at the age of 77 in 1984 at the Mendota Mental Health Institute. However, the memory of his crimes would live on in Hollywood for years to come.
Ed Gein has also inspired many horror movies besides Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He’s behind figures like Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Buffalo Bill in the Academy Award-winning thriller movie Silence of the Lambs. But his chilling legacy in the long-running cinematic franchise, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, truly stands out.
This true story about a disturbed man, while tragic, also led to Leatherface’s creation, one of the genre’s most iconic killers standing alongside the likes of Michael Myers from Halloween, and Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th.
Leatherface’s latest outing is in the 2022 movie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is available to watch on Netflix now.