Is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Based on a True Story?

The opening narration of director Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre bills the experience as being based on true events, so when audiences first saw it, they took this narration at face value and believed these crimes truly occurred. Even decades later, viewers still question the validity of the narrative and wonder if there's any truth behind the unsettling experience. In short, no, the events of the film aren't based on any actual encounter or any actual people, though the filmmakers did borrow elements from real-life figures to make the experience feel all the more disturbing.

Even though the film would ultimately feature chainsaws, cannibals, and masks made out of human skin, the original inspiration for filmmakers Hooper and Kim Henkel was a modern retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fable. Rather than being about two children who are captured by a witch, the aim was to feature a group of wayward coeds who encountered literal trolls. That idea would ultimately be abandoned in favor of the character of Leatherface and the cannibalistic Sawyer family.

One of the most infamous murderers in American history is Ed Gein, due in large part to the disturbing nature of his crimes. Apprehended in Wisconsin in 1957, Gein was ultimately tried for one murder and confessed to another. It wasn't so much these murders that gained him attention, rather that he had a history of digging up corpses and crafting trophies out of human remains. Additionally, Gein confessed to attempting to craft a suit made out of the remains of women that he could personally wear, in order to experience a closer connection to his deceased mother.

With Texas Chain Saw Massacre featuring a character who wears a mask made of his victims' skin, and the Sawyer home being full of trophies made from human remains, these are the most obvious ways in which elements of Gein's crimes were incorporated into the narrative. However, to say the entire film is based on Gein would be a bit of an exaggeration. Movies like Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs have also been said to have been influenced by Gein, with his disturbing actions serving as a real-world example of unsettling, fictional events in all of pop culture.

While it's hard to disassociate Gein's heinous crimes from what is depicted in the film, Hooper and Henkel had other influences in mind with some of the film's specifics. Hooper had previously admitted that a doctor he knew had confessed that, as a premed student, they were studying cadavers and, for Halloween, the student claimed to have turned the skin of a cadaver into a mask, thus igniting the idea of Leatherface's disguises.

Gein also isn't the only murderer whose crimes inspired the story, as Henkel has recounted that another influence was Elmer Wayne Henley Jr., who participated in a series of crimes known as the "Houston Mass Murders" in the early '70s. Henley was one of Dean Corll's accomplices, with the Houston Mass Murders consisting of at least 28 teen-aged boys having been raped, tortured, and murdered. 

Rather than the crimes themselves inspiring Henkel's work on the script, it was Henley's reaction to being apprehended that struck the writer.

"I saw some news report where Elmer Wayne was identifying bodies and their locations, and he was this skinny little ol' seventeen-year-old, and he kind of puffed out his chest and said, 'I did these crimes, and I'm gonna stand up and take it like a man,'" Henkel shared with Texas Monthly back in 2014. "Well, that struck me as interesting, that he had this conventional morality at that point. He wanted it known that, now that he was caught, he would do the right thing. So this kind of moral schizophrenia is something I tried to build into the characters."

Despite The Texas Chain Saw Massacre not being based on a true story, nor meaning to serve as a reflection of any specific individual, the filmmakers proved the adage that fact is often stranger than fiction, as what makes the film so effective is that it borrows a variety of elements from the real world to motivate the events of the experience. It's easy to see how a viewer could take the events as truth, though they can rest assured Leatherface is nothing more than a disturbing, chainsaw-wielding flight of fancy.