10 ways Texas Chain Saw Massacre lied to you about historical events

The words "based on a true story" usually signify a very specific type of film. One that follows a historical individual on a hard but ultimately redemptive journey. One that features lots of artfully shot landscapes. One that usually debuts in Oscar season so conspicuously it might as well replace all the dialogue with actors whispering "I am a serious artist" over and over. However, there is one exception to this rule. It goes by the name of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Released in 1974, Texas Chain Saw is as close to Oscar bait as huffing glue is to fine dining. This horror movie features cannibalism. Murder. Messy dismemberment. Grave robbing. Torture. Based on the real-life activities of serial killer Ed Gein, it was so willfully perverse that, as the BBC noted, it was still banned in parts of Europe as late as 2001. Yet for all its madness, Texas Chain Saw Massacre couldn't come close to Gein's actual crimes. It may be based on history, but this is one case where history really is stranger — and far more gruesome — than fiction could ever hope to be. 

It didn't happen in Texas

If there was a competition for least geographically accurate biopic in history, Texas Chain Saw would win every single time. While the film takes place in Texas, the true story behind it happened over 600 miles away in the backwoods of rural Wisconsin. As his entry on Biography.com makes clear, not only did real-life Leatherface Ed Gein never set foot in Texas, he never really left his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin.

Gein was the sort of neighborhood weirdo your parents used to warn you about. He was always home. He lived with his mom. He spent his entire life in Plainfield doing odd jobs and generally acting kooky. When his mom died, he lived alone in her dilapidated house, surrounded by her possessions. The first major trip he took away from the tiny farming community in which he lived was when he went all the way to Waupun, Wisconsin … to be incarcerated at the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (via Den of Geek). The only way he could have been further from small town Texas is if he'd spent his life on the streets of Beijing.

Given all the above, you might be wondering why the film isn't called Wisconsin Chain Saw Massacre. For the answer, you should probably look to director Tobe Hooper's biography (via The Guardian): born in Texas. Raised in Texas. Studied in Texas. Made his first film in Texas. Gee, is anyone noticing a pattern here?

No chainsaws were involved

For a film called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, surprisingly few characters suffer chainsaw-related mishaps. One guy gets sliced and diced, one dead guy gets carved up … and that's it. The rest of the film's kill count involves meathooks, sledgehammer blows, and remarkably poor driving skills.

This is still a far higher chainsaw kill count than in real life. The total number of crimes Ed Gein committed with a chainsaw? Zero.

So where did the chainsaw part of Texas Chain Saw come from? Luckily, the internet already has the answer. As director Hooper once explained (quoted here via a Snopes article on the factual nature of the movie), he was visiting a hardware store during the holidays when he found himself in front of a display full of chainsaws. For the briefest moment, he had a daydream about grabbing one and slicing his way through the heaving crowds.  

Thankfully, Hooper was a guy who made films about maniac killers rather than being a maniac killer himself, so instead of revving one of those suckers up, he simply added the idea to the upcoming Ed Gein-inspired flick he'd been working on. Interestingly, it wasn't as completely gratuitous an addition as it sounds. Gein liked to carve up bodies, displaying the corpse of one victim naked, decapitated, and disemboweled in his barn. He just preferred to use knives instead of power saws.

It happened way earlier than the movie claims

At no point does Texas Chain Saw give a date for for its story. It just shows a hippy wagon full of hippies, dressed in hippy clothing and acting like the Summer of Love never ended. If the film ain't set when it was filmed, in the summer of 1973, the only explanation is it's set in an alternate universe where the '70s happened earlier than they did in our Earth Prime timeline.

For Ed Gein during his killing spree, all this hippy stuff — plus the characters' tech, like the '70s-era instant camera they use — would be as alien as Netflix, iPhones, and hipsters would have been to a killer operating in the world of 2000. Gein committed his first murder in 1954 and his last in 1957 (via History), 17 whole years before the events of Texas Chain Saw are seemingly set.

That date range bring us to another point. Gein's "massacre" took place over a number of years, not one sweltering summer's day, as the movie makes out. It didn't even take place in summer. It was December 8 when Gein killed his first victim, Mary Hogan, snatching her from a bar 6 miles from his home (as recounted at the time in the Chicago Tribune). His last victim, Beatrice Worden, was shot in her store on November 16. Man, it's almost like low-budget slasher movies prize other things above pinpoint historical accuracy.

The real family was all messed up, but they weren't all male

Most people who don't know the film think Texas Chain Saw is all about one guy: Leatherface, the power tool-loving dude who wears a mask of human skin. Horror fans know different. They know it's an ensemble piece, with a vampire-like brother, a perverted father, and a desiccated old bloodsucking grandpa rounding out Leatherface's family from hell. (You can see them all in the NSFW "dinner scene" above.)

This isn't too far off. Gein really did grow up surrounded by weirdos. But while the family of Texas Chain Saw was a seething collection of inbred Y chromosomes, Gein's biggest influence on his warped worldview came from a different gender direction. Meet Augusta Gein (nee Crafter), a woman so wacko she'd make The Simpsons' crazy cat lady look stable.

In their deep dive into the story behind Texas Chain Saw, movie website Den of Geek included a hair-raising look at Gein's horrific mother. Augusta Crafter was a hardcore religious fanatic who saw the world around her as festering in sin and filth. She was overbearing, controlling, judgmental, and the apple of her son's eye. She violently hated the other women of the town, condemning them as harlots and whores. When a stroke left her disabled, she spent the last years of her life clinging to her son like a demented, schizophrenia-inducing limpet.

Bad as Augusta was, she wasn't the only Gein weirdo. Father George was an alcoholic pushover, and brother Henry managed to die in mysterious circumstances — more on that later.

The real-life body count was pretty low

Five. That's the number of characters that die in Texas Chain Saw, and one of them is accidental. (Forty-three-year-old spoiler alert! The creepy hitchhiker gets hit by a truck.) That just qualifies it as a massacre by the FBI's definition, which requires four or more people to die in a short space of time (via Psychology Today), but it's a low body count by slasher movie standards. Ed Gein's death toll was even lower. The infamous "Plainfield Butcher" was only responsible for the deaths of two women: Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden.

It's what Gein did on the side that makes him so fascinating, and explains why his story caught Hooper's eye. After a final stroke killed his beloved mother, Gein went full Buffalo Bill. He locked up every room in their house except one, preserving their home exactly as it'd been when Augusta died. He started reading up on Nazi medical experiments and human anatomy, and developed a porn addiction. He began cross-dressing in his mother's clothes. After a couple years of this, something in him apparently snapped. Gein started digging up the corpses of women and turning them into furniture, as Den of Geek recounts in gory detail.

There are echoes of this in Texas Chain Saw. The very first shot is of a mutilated corpse tied to a grave (see video above). But while Leatherface and Co. were murderers who did some grave robbing on the side, Gein was a grave robber who graduated to murder.

There were no male victims

Slasher films and casual sexism go together like most exploitation genres and casual sexism. Texas Chain Saw is no different, with its endless shots of pretty young blonde girls being terrified and tortured (although an opposing view, such as this one from MoreHorror.com, says you can read the film as a covert feminist text). In one respect, though, the film is pretty equal opportunities. More men die than women, with two sisters biting the dust to the patriarchy's three. This is yet more artistic license — Ed Gein preyed exclusively on women.

Of the 15 corpses found dismembered on Ed Gein's farm, not a single one belonged to a male. As Snopes explained, although Gein would be linked to the disappearance of two men, no hard evidence surfaced that he harmed anyone but women. In another blow to Texas Chain Saw's already-dubious standing as an accurate historical document, none of those women were young, pretty, or photogenic. Gein selected victims and dug up corpses that reminded him of his mother: middle-aged and overweight. You know how detective shows are always throwing around the term modus operandi? Well, Gein's MO was killing only large, motherly women.

Still, there is speculation that Gein may have killed one male in his life. His brother Henry, who had taken to standing up to their mother, died while the two brothers were fighting a fire on their property. As Britannica.com explained, the details of Henry's death are suspicious at best.

There were no survivors

Texas Chain Saw advertised itself under the tagline "who will survive, and what will be left of them?" which implied that at least some of Leatherface's victims would survive the film. And one does. Final Girl Sally escapes, covered in blood and short on sanity, but, y'know, alive.

Real life is far crueler than fiction. For the women Gein encountered, there was no nail-biting escape, no speedy exit in a truck while their attacker threw a well-choreographed chainsaw tantrum. Those who encountered Gein never lived to tell the tale.

Both Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden met gruesome ends. Hogan was shot in the back of the head while closing up her bar and dragged back to Gein's farmhouse. There she was butchered, her face turned into a mask for Gein to wear, a gory detail that would later become part of Leatherface's costume. If anything, Worden's death was worse. Like Hogan, she was gunned down. Unlike Hogan, she was later found naked, hanging from the rafters of Gein's barn, her head cut off, her insides pulled out and her face stowed inside a bag.

As Harold Schechter implies in his book on Ed Gein, Deviant (reported here via Worth Books' summary version), some good at least came from Worden's death. Her son was a sheriff's deputy who had noticed Gein acting suspiciously around her store. The moment she went missing, he pointed the finger at Gein. Police went to investigate and walked into a nightmare.

It was even more messed-up than the movie makes out

If you haven't got a supernaturally strong stomach — the kind that can keep down a weekend's worth of moonshine, extra hot taco sauce and ill-advised Chipotle forays — you should probably skip this section. For a film so gleefully perverted, Texas Chain Saw is far less messed-up than it deserves to be. That may be because any accurate account of Gein's crimes would not only be banned, it'd likely end in the entire cast and crew getting arrested.

In the years before he was caught, Gein managed to chop up 15 women and decorate his house with their bodies. Just as in Texas Chain Saw, there was furniture made from human body parts. But Gein went even further than Leatherface and Co. An ABC News Australia article based on Harold Schechter's book Deviant has the full details.

Gein's house of horrors contained such deranged items as a belt buckled with human nipples, a box of noses, suits made from human flesh, skin lampshades with lips sewn onto them, bowls made from skulls, corsets and leggings made from dead women, a wastepaper basket made out of skin … the list goes on. Den of Geek even claims there was a box full of dried, shriveled female genitals stuffed under the bed.

Then there are Gein's demented confessions. He told police he liked to wear the flesh of dead women and dance around in the moonlight, a Tinder profile sentence that would probably make even Leatherface swipe left.

The real story had a happy-ish ending (sort of)

The golden rule of any slasher franchise is to keep bringing your killer back. Jason can rise from the grave, Jigsaw can keep killing through his apprentices, and Leatherface can return again and again to show us why we have an innate distrust of hillbillies with power tools. Over three sequels, one remake, a prequel of the remake, a 3-D sequel/reboot that didn't acknowledge the other sequels, and a 2017 prequel of the reboot, Leatherface has kept slicing and dicing.

As you've probably guessed, this is another case where reality and B-movies diverge. When Gein was caught, he didn't escape in some improbable manner to keep on killing. He didn't carve up other people in prison. And he didn't get in a chainsaw duel with Dennis Hopper, as Leatherface does in the so-bad-it's-bad Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (above), which also claims to be based on "real events." Gein's last victim was Beatrice Worden. After he was caught, Gein didn't kill again in the remaining 30-odd years of his life.

This is probably because of where Gein was for those remaining years. After his arrest in 1957, he was deemed unfit to stand trial and confined to psychiatric care (via Britannica). After being declared mentally competent in 1968 and tried for murder, he was found to have been insane when the killings took place and recommitted, this time to Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. He stayed there until his death in 1984.

The real Leatherface became a pop culture celebrity

Plenty of serial killers end their careers by becoming seriously (in)famous. Ed Gein was on a whole other level. Sure, guys like Ted Bundy may have a film or two to their names, but only Gein has inspired three stone-cold pop culture classics. One, obviously, was Texas Chain Saw. The others went by the names of Silence of the Lambs and Psycho.

Psycho was originally a book by pulp writer Robert Bloch. NPR described how Bloch lived in Wisconsin at the time of Gein's arrest and became fascinated by the serial-killing momma's boy. Elements of Gein's screwed-up family life were taken to make the character of Norman Bates, who Alfred Hitchcock put on the screen in 1960 — only three years after Gein was caught.

Things are less clear-cut with Silence of the Lambs (writer Robert Harris hasn't given an interview since 1976), but Rolling Stone has suggested the murderous Buffalo Bill was a mash-up of Gein, Bundy, and another serial killer named Gary Heidnik. At any rate, Bill has Gein's habits of dressing in the flesh of murdered women.

Then there are the other projects. In his lifetime, Gein was interviewed by legendary documentary maker Errol Morris. He so fascinated Werner Herzog that Herzog by his own admission once tried (and failed) to dig up Gein's mother's grave to see if she was still there. The most interesting part? Gein died in 1984, meaning he was probably aware of his legacy.