Texas Chain Saw wiping the van clean

The White House Horrors: Comparing Monsters-in-Chief

‘What happened is true.’ What we’re seeing today in presidential politics could not have happened without Watergate and it could not have happened without The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Author Martin Harris talks about his new book.

Greetings from America, Headpress readers! As you know, the U.S. presidential election is almost here. Anxious times, to be sure, but I want everyone to know we’re hanging in there even after being thoroughly traumatized by the campaign and other ill effects of our barbarous national politics.

I also want to tell you about my new book for Headpress, coming soon. It’s about how an American president came to be viewed as a monstrous villain to those he was elected to lead, his unprecedented corruption and criminality causing many to think of him as a crazed maniac seeking harm upon us all.

Sound familiar? No, it’s not about him. It’s about another, earlier president and how a classic horror film can be understood to provide a savagely cutting response to his villainy.

The book is called Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick: ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ as Political Satire. As the title indicates, I focus on the film’s political subtexts and how Chain Saw comments on American politics in a bitter, mocking way. In particular I explore director Tobe Hooper’s own insistence that his film was significantly inspired by the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced Richard Nixon to become the first and (so far) only U.S. president to resign from office.

Leatherface and Tricky Dick
Tricky Dick and Leatherface

A depraved cabal of co-conspirators

I show how the film’s story of a depraved cabal of co-conspirators terrorizing an unwitting group of victims in fact satirizes the parallel plight experienced by Americans horrified by their president and the ongoing damage he and his administration were inflicting while Chain Saw was conceived (late 1972), written (early 1973), shot (late summer 1973), edited (late 1973-early 1974), and released (fall 1974, less than two months after Nixon’s resignation).

The book is a deep dive, minute-by-minute analysis of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that comprehensively unpacks its many fascinating details. It also presents a thorough discussion of Nixon’s remarkable political career with the complicated Watergate story and all of its crazy, jaw-dropping twists and turns frequently front and center.

I don’t claim Chain Saw is a direct allegory of Watergate. But I do draw attention to dozens of ways the film alludes to the scandal. I also share more than a few connections between the film’s mask-wearing killer and the president whose infamous “Tricky Dick” persona was even then often caricatured in mask form.

My hope is those who are familiar with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will discover many new significances to help increase their enjoyment and understanding of the film. Meanwhile those with some knowledge of Nixon and Watergate should also learn much that is new to them, not just about what happened during the tumultuous two-plus years of the scandal but also about how Watergate was commented upon and criticized by the day’s popular culture.

In other words, Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick contributes to the ongoing argument that Chain Saw is much more than just another scary horror film, in my case highlighting how it works as an especially creative (and dark) political satire. Meanwhile, by explaining how a film featuring a chainsaw-wielding killer comments on contemporary politics, I’m also showing how Watergate and the perceived threat Nixon’s administration posed wasn’t just another political scandal, but a kind of real-life horror show.


Leatherface and Tricky Dick
Leatherface and Tricky Dick

Nightmare syntax

The book begins with a discussion of the “nightmare” of Watergate. That was a word used frequently at the time to describe the break-ins at the Democratic National Committee headquarters prior to the 1972 election and the unraveling efforts of Nixon and “all the president’s men” to hide the White House’s connection to the perpetrators. “Nightmare” is a word often evoked to describe the world of Chain Saw, too, of course, and the way the story “folds continuously back on itself” (as Hooper once said) according to a kind of “nightmare syntax” (as his co-writer Kim Henkel put it).

I’m trying to help the reader understand early on just how supremely unsettling Watergate was for Americans throughout 1973 and the first half of 1974. Not knowing how that story was going to end, many genuinely wondered not just of the Nixon administration but of the country as a whole “who will survive and what will be left of them?” (to repurpose Chain Saw’s famous tagline).

For several years I have taught a course on Richard Nixon in the American Studies program at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Whenever I mention either my class or Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick to anyone, the conversation almost always circles around to the current resident of the White House and the state of constant crisis we have experienced ever since he took office.

Once talk moves in that direction, a certain phrase often arises — “worse than Watergate.”

From there usually come attempts to itemize the current administration’s catalogue of offenses to show just how much they outpace Nixon’s “White House horrors.” It’s an exhausting list to try to compile, one on which the president actually having been impeached somehow appears so far down that ignominy isn’t even being mentioned as a campaign issue.

It’s undeniably the case that much like in 1973-74, Americans again find themselves in a similar kind of “nightmare” with an unhinged president at the center of it and similar worries about how we’ll ever find a way out. It’s also hard to deny that for many the situation seems worse now than it was then.

While I wouldn’t want to minimize the seriousness of our current dilemma, we have heard the “worse than Watergate” refrain many times before. After all, it has been applied to every single administration since Nixon’s.

One of the last remaining figures from Watergate, White House Counsel John Dean who famously flipped to reveal his own and others’ culpability, recently published an examination of the current administration’s threat to democracy. The title of Dean’s book includes a familiar word — Authoritarian Nightmare.

He might have wanted to, but Dean wasn’t able to call it Worse Than Watergate. He’d already used that title years ago for a book about George W. Bush.


Watergate Committee Meeting and Texas Chain Saw dinner table
The Committee Meeting Will Come to Order (Sam Ervin and Howard Baker; the Texas Chain Saw family)

Horror obscures horror

Present-day political horrors necessarily obscure our view of past ones, making it more challenging today to appreciate the nightmare of Watergate. That doesn’t make it any less worthwhile learning about how unsettling Watergate was, and to recognize the influence that episode still has upon how political scandals are experienced and judged.

In a similar way, latter-day horror films have caused some to forget just how shocking The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was to its initial audiences, even making it seem superficially “tame” by comparison. Films featuring ever increasing levels of gore and violence have come to form their own subgenres with names indicating their graphic content (“slasher,” “splatter,” “extreme,” “torture porn”). Meanwhile examples of “found footage” horror (not to mention the mainstreaming of real-life images of death) seem also to push well beyond Chain Saw’s pretense of historical veracity.

But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came first, establishing many of the techniques and strategies of audience manipulation exploited by these later titles.

What we’re seeing today in presidential politics could not have happened without Watergate. Similarly has the history of horror over recent decades been decidedly influenced by the achievement of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. My book hopefully encourages readers to agree on both counts, as well as to appreciate the incisive political commentary whirring through the film.  

Stay tuned for more news about Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick. Meanwhile, good luck to us all surviving the onslaught of the next week or two and beyond.

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