Before they became the accessory for rural cannibals, chainsaws were designed for medical surgery in the 19th century. After World War II, they were adopted by the lumber industry, making McCulloh Motors the most recognized producer of giant chainsaws in North America. These rigs were so big, they came on wheels and had to be operated by two people, but within a few years the technology greatly improved. By 1974, Leatherface was feasibly able swing one over his head, greeting the sunrise and haunting popular culture forever.
Because of their immediate association with Tobe Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an indisputable horror classic, chainsaws have been a fixture of the genre, spanning from Leatherface to Ash Williams to Dead Rising. But motorized saws are also a uniquely American trope; other nations who specialize in scares, like England and Japan, don’t carry the baggage of Westward expansion. Away from the bustle of cities, the ghosts of native genocides haunt the rural American wilds like boogeymen. No tools symbolize the expansion spirit greater than axes and saws, but their modern incarnations have become monstrous.
While in cinema, chainsaws have become a cliché, the lumber tool has found new life in the digital space of video games. Here’s a brief history of chainsaws in pop culture horror that, surprisingly, actually doesn’t begin with Leatherface.
1968, Dark of the Sun
Though not a horror film, Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun starring Rod Taylor was a gritty war movie set during and released just after the Congo Crisis of the mid-sixties. It featured some of the most gruesome torture scenes ever seen on film at the time, and among its most notable tools: the chainsaw.
1970, The Wizard of Gore
Arguably one of the first movies to use chainsaws in a horror setting, Herschell Godon Lewis’s splatter flick (forerunner genre to the post-9/11 torture porn) featured a deranged magician who performs gruesome illusions upon female volunteers, who later die sometime afterward in a similar fashion.
1972, The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven, who would later etch his own legacy in American horror, directed The Last House on the Left in 1972 that would try to seize its precedence on chainsaw-as-weapon, billing itself as “The original Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in subsequent rereleases.
1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Produced with a ragtag crew on a budget of $300,000, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has sliced its way to immortality. There’s a whole franchise full of sequels and reboots, but it’s Leatherface here in the ‘74 original that has terrified moviegoers for generations.
1981, The Evil Dead
Before Ash Williams would evolve into a time-traveling avenger, Bruce Campbell’s S-Mart employee was just a guy on a nice getaway with his girlfriend. Infamously, the whole thing spiraled into a nightmare, making Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead one of the most beloved horror films of all time. While the chainsaw would later become Ash’s signature in the later films, it was first introduced when Ash tries to slice Linda in half and can’t bring himself to, opting to bury her instead. That goes as well as you might think.
1982, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Atari video game)
The video game boom of the early ‘80s (pre-E.T.) saw a plethora of video game adaptations of movies, even ones that had been out for years. Case in point: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was banned from many retail stores alongside the more timely Halloween.
It’s tempting to make fun of a seemingly more naive time, but Texas Chain Saw Massacre for Atari may be one of the first games where such gruesome acts were digitized for anyone to control.
The revolutionary Doom, which basically invented the first-person shooter genre, infamously allows the player to wieldld chainsaw, which she can use against demons from hell. The chainsaw was such a unique aspect of the game that it was homaged in the (terrible) 2005 movie starring Karl Urban and Dwayne Johnson.
2001, Silent Hill 2
I almost didn’t want to mention this, since it’s an Easter egg you can obtain after you beat the game. But the chainsaw is such a memorable part of what is still one of the best games in the whole Silent Hill series.
Fresh from the ruckus of Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar unleashed Manhunt, a psychological survivor horror game that also reveled in violence. While the visuals were unimpressive even in 2003, the game became notorious, launching Flordia attorney Jack Thompson’s crusade on video games in the mid-2000s. I don’t think he played Manhunt, though. Even he has to admit the chainsaw execution is totally goofy.
2003, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Remake)
Not as good as the first, and it kicked off an unfortunate trend of ill-conceived remakes and sequels of confusing continuity spun from existing horror movie slashers.
2006, Dead Rising and Gears of War
2006 saw two major video games revel in whirring sawblades: Capcom’s Dead Rising, a zombie slasher homage to George Romero, and the Xbox 360-exclusive shooter Gears of War from Epic Game, which had a chainsaw on the game’s primary assault rifles. 2006 was a bloody good year.
A remake of the retro games that homaged horror flicks from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Splatterhouse allowed players to wield chainsaws when Rick Taylor rips it out of one of the game’s bosses.
2012, Texas Chainsaw 3D
I mean, I guess.
2015, Ash vs. the Evil Dead
Hail the king, baby. Bruce Campbell reprises his role in the only way he can in the Starz series that capitalizes on nostalgia but pushes forward into the next generation. And yeah, he’s still got the chainsaw.
Bethesda’s remake of Doom still has the chainsaw, and it’s still bloody great.