The DVD release of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s latest cinema episode is probably driving the traffic to the post I did a while ago noting that the movies are not based on any Texas incidents (see “Based on a true story, except . . .). The original movie, in 1974, was billed as “based on a true story.” “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin,” the Narrator says opening the film.
The latest enfilmations apparently carry the same claim (I say apparently because I have never seen any of them through, and only a few snippets on television of any of them — I go by what I hear and see from others).
We have the testimony of the author of the original screenplay that it is fiction, loosely based on a famous case in Wisconsin which was also, very loosely, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the later, more horrifying Silence of the Lambs. Other internet sites say it’s fiction, such as Snopes.com (a favorite and very good hoax and error debunking site).
Still, the kids ask.
Why not turn this into a geography and/or history exercise? Kids need to know how historians and geographers know that what they say is accurate and truthful. Why not use this popular film as a jumping off point? How do we know any part of history is accurate? Let kids manipulate and investigate this question with an example that appeals to them.
Lesson plan suggestions: I cannot imagine any reason for actually showing the films in class — any of the films. Film information should be given by the teacher, or can be gathered from internet databases such as the Internet Movie Data Base, www.imdb.com. Most of the kids will have seen the film or be rather familiar with it, though girls less so than boys, in my experience.
Here are questions that students with active internet links or a good library could research, in order to form an opinion about whether it is likely that the movie is based on a Texas incident:
- Are there famous Texas cases that involve cannibalism?
- Are there famous Texas murder cases involving hitchhikers or groups of travelers?
- Are there famous Texas cases involving families of murderers?
- Is there a Hewitt, Texas?
- Is there a Travis County, Texas?
- Is Hewitt in Travis County?
- Would Hewitt be a likely spot for the events described in the movie? Why, or why not?
- What do those people most closely associated with the movies say about the underlying story upon which the movies are “based?”
On the basis of the answers to those questions, ask the students to form an opinion about the veracity of the movie — is it truly “based on a true story?”
Here are my comments on the questions.
1. Are there famous Texas cases that involve cannibalism?
Oh, my. No. You must be confusing Texas with Colorado. Early European explorers accused Texas natives of occasional cannibalism, but such charges are not well documented and are dismissed by most current historians.
And in any case, that would have been in the first half of the 16th century (Spanish explorers first came to Texas in 1519). No roads, no hitchhikers.
(Do any number of different Google or Yahoo! searches; they will come up with little referring to Texas and cannibalism.)
2. Are there famous Texas murder cases involving hitchhikers or groups of travelers?
Yes, and famous cases, too. Henry Lee Lucas confessed to a lot of murders, probably more than he could possibly have committed when they were all totalled. He was convicted of a 1979 murder of an unidentified hitchhiker, but other than the word “hitchhiker” few of the details match.
3. Are there famous Texas cases involving families of murderers?
None that I can find. I’ve tried various searches. If you find one, please let me know.
4. Is there a Hewitt, Texas?
Yes, indeed. Hewitt is just south of Waco, Texas, about two miles west of Interstate 35. See the map.
5. Is there a Travis County, Texas?
Travis County, Texas, is the home of Austin, the state’s capital. Travis is one of Texas’ five “supercounties,” counties large enough to need additional courts beyond those prescribed by the state constitution, and is in other ways quite large now, a major urban area. (The other supercounties are Dallas County, Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, Harris County, home to Houston, and Bexar County, home to San Antonio. By the way, Bexar is pronounced “Beyar.”)
6. Is Hewitt in Travis County?
Ah, here’s a rub. Hewitt, Texas, is in McLennan County, about 100 miles north of Austin, and 90 miles north of the Travis County line. If the movie sites Hewitt in Travis County, it’s off by a good distance.
7. Would Hewitt be a likely spot for the events described in the movie?
The quick answer is “no.” Why? Hewitt is a small town, but not that small — population of more than 11,000 in 2000. Nor is it so far off the beaten path. It’s only a few miles south of Waco, a largish college town (Baylor University), and Hewitt is barely a mile off of Interstate 35. I-35 was not always there, of course — but it was completed in the Waco area in 1972, a year before the alleged massacre. Hewitt is not isolated enough that such events could occur without television coverage. Hewitt is not far enough away from I-35 that anyone passing through would get off the freeway to have such an encounter.
Hewitt is unlikely to be a venue for such a story. Hewitt is too close to Waco to be really rural and isolated; Hewitt is just off a major freeway, not out on an isolated rural road. Hewitt is a small town, but not a tiny town.
8. What do those people most closely associated with the movies say about the underlying story upon which the movies are “based?”
Uniformly, the original director/screenwriter Toby Hoopes and others say that the story is fictional, very, very loosely based on the Wisconsin story of Ed Gein, as noted earlier (see the Snopes.com site for a good discussion, from which the following passages are quoted):
So, true story or not? Certainly there was no real family of cannibalistic chainsaw murderers slaughtering people in Texas, nor any actual series of chainsaw-related killings. Writer/director Tobe Hooper said the inspiration for the film came from his spotting a display of chainsaws while standing in the hardware section of a crowded store:
“I was in the Montgomery Ward’s out in Capital Plaza. I had been working on this other story for some months — about isolation, the woods, the darkness, and the unknown. It was around holiday season, and I found myself in the Ward’s hardware department, and I was still kind of percolating on this idea of isolation and such. And those big crowds have always gotten to me. There were just so many people to go through. And I was just standing there in front of an upright display of chainsaws. And the focus just racked from my eyeball to the people to the saws — and the idea popped. I said, “Ooh, I know how I could get out of this place fast — if I just start one of these things up and make that sound.” Of course I didn’t. That was just a fantasy.”
Hooper has also said that he based the character of Leatherface on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who robbed graves (his own mother’s supposedly among them), allegedly engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism, and murdered at least two women in the 1950s (one of whose corpses was found hanging naked — decapitated and disembowelled — in Gein’s residence).
Finally, had there been such a story, how could it possibly escape the headlines during the trial? The movie doesn’t show the arrest and trial of the murderers, as I understand it. So, either they have not been caught yet, and no one knows about it (including, of course, the scriptwriters and producers of the movies) , or the story would be — shall we say — bleeding all over local newspapers, and probably national newspapers, too. In contrast, Ed Gein has been the topic of a television documentary for the Biography Channel — it’s there, headlines and all. It’s not hard to find the truth about the inspiration for the movie scripts.
That we have to ask the questions, and then have to search to find any details at all, tells us that the story line is fictional. There are websites that document the sites where the original movie was shot, various sites within about a 100-mile radius of Austin, Texas, but in no way all in the same small town.
The final, and biggest reason we know that the Texas chainsaw massacre story is false is this: “Tejas” means “friendly,” and that’s the state’s nickname, the “Friendly State.” Friends don’t chase friends with chainsaws.
Now, did your students realize that they were doing history? Did they understand that they were asking questions historians ask about any event, and trying to determine the veracity of the account? No? Well, at least I hope they had some fun.
Post Script: The Storyteller in the 1974 original is portrayed by the late John Henry Faulk, the great civil libertarian, friend of the late Molly Ivins and Texas historian J. Frank Dobie, historian (M.A. from the University of Texas, with his thesis, “Ten Negro Sermons”) and the former New York radio personality who was blacklisted as a communist, and who sued successfully the people who operated the newsletter Red Channels that carried the blacklist. Faulk’s blacklisting and later lawsuit are documented well in the book and television movie, Fear on Trial. In a Texas history class, or in a study of the Cold War and the Red Scares, Faulk should be mentioned, if only because he was so entertaining. His later career, in movies like this one, as a humorist on the amazingly popular hayseed humor program “Hee Haw,” and as a campaigner for political freedom, make him a likely anchor for a little side trip on any of these issues.
Thanks for the update.
The “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remains fiction.
Just a update to let everyone know that me and my husband had the last name and middle name wrong and we found out who he really was. Yes he was a serial killer and yes we survived. The car and pretty much everything else was right. At least he won’t ever hurt anyone else ever again. He is dead now so I can rest easy knowing that me and my family are safe.
Do you remember which town that police station was in?
The guy said his name was Michael Allen Michelob and he was driving a stolen red camero style sports car. He said he stole it from a guy in Louisiana and that he had killed the guy and several others in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma and that his mom lived in midland TX. It was July of 1984. We made statements at the police station.
Any way we can confirm any of these claims?
I’m not finding information on a Texas hitchhiker murderer, at least no one who killed enough to be called a mass murderer or serial killer (See the Wikipedia list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_serial_killers_in_the_United_States )
Town the hospital was in? Any newspaper clips? Any documentation to verify?
No I am not the singer.
This is Jessie Padgett and Margo Padgett. I don’t know what hospital it was. Margo Smith was the name she used because of family problems with her adopted parents and there was a dan Padgett and Stanley Westfall that were there as well as me and Margo.
Fascinating story, Mr. Padgett.
What town in Texas was the hospital in?
Which Jessie Padgett are you? Not the singer, right?
By the way, just to let everyone know, I am still with my wife Margo and we have 2 grown sons now. We sure don’t hitchhike anymore.
I am the 2nd survivor of the cross country serial killer, male prostitute, known only to me and the few lucky ones that lived, as Michael Alan Michelobe. His mother lived in Midland, Odessa Texas at the time. I was in the car when he was pulled over after a high speed chase. My wife Margo that was 8 months pregnant at the time was also with us. A Texas state trooper pulled up beside us and pointed a gun at me and my wife and I pushed my wife into the floorboard of the 80’s model camaro that he was driving and we were doing over 100 mph. He looked at me and my wife and said that if he pulled over then he would never get out of jail. My wife went into what we thought was real and early labor and Michael pulled over. There was a coat laying in the drivers seat and when the coat was removed the whole drivers seat was soaked in blood. He said it came from a girl that he had picked up hitchhiking the night before. He had a small automatic pistol and the cops seemed to know who he was right away. My wife and me were taken to the local hospital and then to the police station to fill out statements. We were then released and taken to the freeway to catch another ride hitchhiking. We asked the cop what the guy had done and all he would tell us was that he was a killer that had been prostituting in Lousiana and that he had been traveling in a stolen car of a guy that he had killed and that he had been on a cross country killing spree. We never heard anymore about the guy and no one seems to know anything. This was around june or july of 1984. (cover up or what?)….
karankawa (cannibals) Matagorda bay, Texas. just thought i would add that
Thanks, CW. I’ll see what I can find on that hitchhiker case.
I forgot to put this in my previous post just now. No there is no chainsaw massacre in Travis county or Austin. I looked while I was a deputy for Travis county. People have been attacked in fights and what not with about everything imaginable! But as far as a canibal family living there and running amuck, it didn’t happen!
There was a hitchiker type murder in Travis county. But it was not the hitchhiker that was murdered, it was a VW car salesman. I’m a former Deputy Sheriff of Travis county. We had in custody in the early 1980’s a man that hitchhiked across country, he went to the VW dealership in Austin, and asked to try out a van. I can’t remember the suspects name, but the salesman was murdered. To the best of my recollection the salesman was dismembered, disembowelled and the van stolen by the suspect. The suspect was also as recall it, what they call now a person of interest in several other murders across the country for the previous past 20 years or so from that time. He was suspected of hitchhiking then killing who ever picked him up and stealing their vehicle. This was all around the time I was hired and the man was already in custody. I did ask the psycihatrist that interviewed him about him. He said that was the most dangerous man he had ever seen or interviewed, worse than Manson! Because this guy comes off normal just like everybody else, that you could tell Manson was crazy and to beware of him! I don’t know what depatment originally arrested him, APD, DPS or the TCSO, but you should be able to look him up with no problems at one of those departments and court records, in the early 80’s, probably 1981 or 1982. The reason I say 81 or 82 is because I bought a truck from that dealership in 1982, and thought it odd that the salesman, did not go on the demo ride with me, stated it was against policy. All the other dealerships I had shopped at, the salesman had ridden with me to give a sales pitch for their truck. At the time I didn’t know that was the dealership that had a saleman murdered. If you decide to look this up if I have the years above wrong its not by much, its been awhile I’m confident you will find it between 1980 and 1984. There were other interesting cases around that time period, not that murder is good by any means, but since they have occured it makes interesting research and reading.
Who are you accusing of not doing research, Nonya?
I personally have met Tobe Hooper, he got the idea for the movie from reading about Ed Gein, this is common knowledge, it’s amazing how you did not do your reseach… Ed Gein has been the inspiration for many horror movies.
The family’s name in the remake is Hewitt (original family name is Sawyer). They did not live it Hewitt. They did live in Travis County but not Hewitt. If you listen to Leatherface’s un-biological mother yell at Erin (Jessica Biel) she calls her son Thomas Brown Hewitt.
Whoa, nice story. I just now clicked a link to your site and am already a fan. :P
Do you spam a post from Stihl Chainsaws on this thread?
Great blog. Looking forward to reading more! thanks!
[…] Number of websites that discuss the possibility that the movie “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was set in Hewitt: 2 (here and here.) […]
History, when told and taught right is a very powerful and helpful to the grouth of society and individuals. Keep up the good work.
I’m so intrigued with sophisticated murders
There were a few Indian/settler massacres in early Texas — the Muncey Massacre you mention above, as well as the Warren Wagon Train Massacre. Here’s more info:
Warren Wagon Train Massacre
But, these Indian massacres back in the pioneering days bear little resemblance to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
An interesting family of killers was in earlier American History as well, although they were in Kansas — the “Bloody Benders“.
Congratulations, Leana Jo H.! You’ve identified a mostly true story!
Here’s the Wikipedia entry on this Joe Ball (not the footballer nor the U.S. senator):
And, here’s a more detailed account based on the Texas Monthly story.
Best: Here’s the Texas Monthly story from July 2002, by Michael Hall. Free registration is required to get the whole story — but Texas Monthly is so loaded with great stuff, you’ll probably keep coming back — just for the Willie Nelson stories if nothing else.
When I was a kid, growing up in southeast Texas, it became a famous Urban Legend that this really happened. When I was a kid, it was said that after the movie came out a lot of people in southeast Texas believed it actually happened.
I was like 17 when I found out that somethingl like this NEVER did happen. It was “loosely” based on Edward Gein, the cannibal-murderer in Wisconsin in the 1950’s.
And there was a story about a man named Joe Ball who had a bar that had pet alligators in the back of it. And then his barmaids and waitresses mysteriously disappeared. Some of the remains were found in the alligator pit that he kept back of the bar, outside somewhere. The officials killed him in a gun battle or something to that effect. This happened around the Elmendourf (I think I spelled it right, I don’t know??), Texas area.
The story was (very loosely) based on the case of Ed Gein but happened in Wisconsin, not Texas.
yes the texas chainsaw was real i asked my boyfriend mom and i also asked all of my family members and i asked my aunts bestfriend dad girlfriend who happens to live in waco, texas.. so yes it did happen back in the day and it is true belive what u want to though.. and no the movies that the made on it where not made or thought of because of that ed dude in wiscon
There were several unsolved and unpublished crimes and murder sprees in Texas back in the 70″s and 80″s I know this for a fact because I am a surviver of one such attack. Midland/Odessa Texas 1984 Michael Michelobe serial killer prostitute murders people from Lousiana to texas before being captured and made to vanish because he was a political persons son. I was in the car when he was brought down and caught.
[…] Which movies have been left off the lists, other than all of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies? […]
Henry Lee Lucas did not kill hundreds of people. It was a hoax by the Texas Rangers to clear unsolved murder cases.
Which college in Plano? Is it a Texas Historical Society marker? They are available on-line. What did you find on Google?
This is the text of a marker that I found — is this the one you’re referring to?
There may not be a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, but there was a massacre in Texas none the less. It was in Plano Texas, and I do not mean the heroin massacres. It was a family named Muncey. There is a historical marker outside the collage that talks about it. I also looked it up on google so I could make sure that my info was correct.
[…] Based on a true story — except, not Texas. Not a chainsaw. Not a massacre. Nota bene: Be sure to see update, here. […]