[GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Alex Hall is a queer writer & dog walker living in Toronto, Ontario. She is the creator of @lezzie_borden, an Instagram account dedicated to queer womxn in horror. Her work has appeared in Room, Feels Zine, Dyke Queen, Underblong Journal & Gayly Dreadful. She has work forthcoming in a ‘zine dedicated to Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and the anthology ‘zine Neon Horror. She tweets @tinyspiritzies.]
Cosmic Chaos Reigns: Astro-Feminism in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) & The Love Witch (2016)
In May 2018, Anna Biller, writer and director of The Love Witch (2016), took to social media declaring her distaste for the slasher subgenre. Already a month into Saturn’s retrograde, the effects ricocheted across the film Twitter-sphere, resulting in an uptick in feminist discourse on the merits of female spectatorship and slashers. One of the films central to this discussion was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Despite never having seen it, Biller cited it as abhorrent and degrading to women. It’s no doubt a film that has from the onset proved controversial. But, more than that, women are constantly being asked to defend the value of their pleasures, and this felt particularly catastrophic coming from such an admired feminist filmmaker. At first glance, it’s easier to posit more differences than similarities when comparing The Love Witch and Chain Saw. Yet, to the contrary, after a closer examination and despite Biller’s comments, it becomes apparent that both films tread overlapping terrain through a similar focus on women’s agency, cosmic destiny, and their relationship to the occult.
In Chain Saw, Pam reads aloud from an astrology magazine, noting Saturn has entered retrograde, a condition “contrary or inharmonious to the regular direction of actual movement in the zodiac.” One is encouraged to embrace the contrary as a survival tactic in Chain Saw as nothing is what it appears to be during this disordered alignment of the universe. We feel the chaos of the cosmos before we know a malefic planet is entering retrograde. The film’s opening credits overlay images of a fiery sun spilling molten flares back into space. In Biller’s The Love Witch, a similar image is evoked as a young woman pours a red liquid from a large bulbous ladle. Her cauldron of bubbling wax spellbinds a mirroring effect to Chain Saw’s astral orb of oozing fire, both eventual harbingers of cosmic disharmony.
Hooper aligns the character of Franklin with the film’s other women, often positioning him as a queered, effeminate ‘other.’ As a result, his misfortune is undeniably heightened, forcing Franklin to become a particularly susceptible target for the cosmos. Just like his horoscope will predict, Franklin has been cursed to “have a disturbing and unpredictable day.” Notably, the first sacrificial ritual in Chain Saw is not his bloodletting in the van, but in our introduction to the ill-fated youth. Spooked by the velocity of a Mack truck, Franklin tumbles down a hill and out of his wheelchair, spilling a canister filled with his urine onto the parched soil. He now lies swallowed by the dry grass, wincing up into an unrelenting sun. He has unwittingly partaken in a bodily offering, an ominous commencement of his own death spell. It is through this ritual that Franklin has wielded an unsung agency over his own death, not yet able to harness it for his own survival. He has given the cosmos a taste of kismet and soon the fields of Texas will claim the rest of him. Much like Franklin, The Love Witch’s Elaine concocts a large witch bottle filled with her own fresh urine. She is preparing a mourning ritual for a deceased lover, the result of a love spell turned fatal. While burying the bottle in a freshly dug grave, like Franklin, her bodily sacrifice acts as a macabre offering and a symbol of cosmic fate gone awry.
“Everything means something, I guess” surmises a defeated Sally as the sun sets in Chain Saw. It takes its weakening influence as it lowers on the horizon for her to surrender to that day’s anarchic forces. It is this realization that will inevitably save her because, as we learn early on, Sally is a Capricorn ruled by the malefic Saturn. Many critics have argued that despite Hooper’s use of astrological symbolism, the characters are merely helpless victims of a universe unfolding without reason. But this is not actually so. In his essay, Hearths of Darkness, Tony Williams claims that Pam’s dependance on the occult is her denial “to explain rationally events, escaping into illusionary explanations,” while John Muir argues that “Hooper’s point is not that astrology is a credible and valuable tool, it is that life is totally random.” Denying Pam and Sally credibility in their beliefs is a way for male critics to trivialize feminized interests, like astrology, as “irrational,” therefore disempowering them further. But Williams and Muir are not the only ones dismissing Pam’s interest in astrology. Jerry and Pam’s boyfriend, Kirk, disparage and mock her as she protectively reads her friend’s horoscopes aloud. The men are too preoccupied in belittling her to realize that she is prophesying their doom. For Pam, the astrology books become vehicles of insight, instilling a heightened sense of caution and allowing her to remain the voice of reason in objecting to Jerry picking up a “weird-looking” hitchhiker. Jerry, of course, ignores her. Later, still honouring her instincts, Pam pleads with Kirk repeatedly to leave the Sawyer house. It’s his scepticism of her that leads him deeper inside, becoming the first victim to succumb to the fate Pam predicted. The men’s disavowal of her warnings is indicative of the destructive fall out that comes from dismissing women’s legitimacy.
Much like Pam and Sally, Elaine finds agency in witchcraft. Having saved her life following an abusive marriage, she claims it allows her to wield the power to fulfil all of her desires. Like Pam, she depends on occult texts in search of cosmic answers—in particular, a book of love spells and a tarot deck. Similar to the reverse effects of retrograde in Chain Saw, the love spells Elaine performs instead become harbingers of death, while her misreading of the tarot causes her, much like Kirk and Jerry, to ignore her astrological forewarning. During self-directed readings, Elaine repeatedly pulls the Three of Swords, a card symbolic of heartbreak and rejection. Through a fixation on this particular card, she inevitably ignores the others remaining in the spread, including The Tower (danger) and The Devil (addiction). Ironically, it is through this addiction to love that Elaine inevitably embodies her unseen fate, spearing her love through the heart; a literal recreation of the card she had hoped would save her from eventual the heartbreak.
Through lingering shots of the sun and moon, the tarot imagery in Chain Saw allows the audience to further predict the protagonist’s fate. It is as though we, the viewers, are receiving a fortune reading from Hooper as he repeatedly “pulls” the major arcana cards The Sun and The Moon. When read upright, The Sun is a benevolent omen but, due to the laws of retrograde, the sun is rarely viewed this way by the film’s characters. Whether it’s the upside-down armadillo (symbolizing protection when upright), Franklin sprawled in the reeds, the liquored man in the cemetery, or the gas station attendant craning his neck back to gawk, the sun connotes a perilous warning declaring the “direction and path ahead may appear clouded or distorted” (Rider-Waite).
Through a lens of lunar imagery, both films depict a coming-to-power for their heroines. In Chain Saw, the moon and the following day’s sun act in a sympathetic kinship with Sally, emerging as opposing forces to the malefic Saturn. The bright milky glow of the moon and the soft peachy sun illuminate paths for her through the harsh terrain of unruly brambles as she escapes the Sawyers. This symbiotic kinship is illustrated by Hooper from the onset through Sally’s golden, sun-scorched complexion and a wardrobe of cool, lunar hues: periwinkle and white. Later, through juxtaposing macro shots of the moon with Sally’s iris, an effect of celestial mirroring is further established as though she has been benevolently spellbound by the moon itself. Notably, Biller composes similar shots of Elaine’s pale blue powdered eyes to illustrate the strong, bewitching power she wields over her lovers during spells. And then later while being invoked into a satanic coven, Elaine lays nude, harnessing her power under a full moon’s efflorescence.
Hooper’s final lunar shot precedes Sally finally regaining consciousness. It is the moon conjuring her back into a cognizant state, aiding in her escape. When read upright, The Moon signifies “danger, deception & error” (Rider-Waite). This is a warning directed not at Sally, but at the Sawyers who not only fail to enact a successful slaughter of their final victim but who have been deceived to believe that to be her fate at all. It is the very essence of retrograde’s law of reversal that Sally would disrupt all expectations, wreaking havoc within the Sawyer family and destroying their fortuitous killing streak. Exhausted and traumatized but alert, she wails a terrified incantation of refusal before escaping a sledgehammer, a cursed pocket knife, and, finally, the chainsaw. Crashing through a window of the house she was destined to die in, we learn the moon has set and it is finally a new day. Sally has survived her astrological predictions and a new cosmic forecast has been reset. As Leatherface swings his chainsaw up at the pink sky, it is as though he is cursing the sun itself for its cosmic betrayal.
While both Biller and Hooper’s films end with their heroines fraught with emotional trauma, Sally defies our expectations, never becoming a true victim of the cosmos. Her ability to eventually accept the fate predicted by the stars allows her to harness that knowledge to her advantage as a means of escaping the harmful cycle of the astros. In contrast, Elaine is ultimately never given the opportunity by Biller to come to that same realization. Instead, she is seemingly trapped forever in her own tragically doomed repetition of destruction and cosmic denial.