Using real human bones gave “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” a realistic feel, but it came at a pretty disgusting cost. “You needed a lot more light back then to shoot a film. So the lights would cook the [bones],” Hooper recalled. When asked if the set was smelly as a result, the director replied, “Oh, it was.”
An art department experiment contributed to the horrible smell on set. “Somebody thought about getting dead cats and dogs from the pound and using formaldehyde on them,” the actress Marilyn Burns recalled to Terror Trap. “Everybody agreed that was a terrible idea. So they had to decide they’d burn them and give them a burial.”
Between the cremation of animal corpses and human bones cooking under the lights, Burns felt that the olfactory assault suited the film’s ambiance. “The smell of burning flesh just enhanced the feeling around the movie,” she insisted. “It was awful.” The chicken head from the film’s iconic dinner scene created similar issues. “We just didn’t formaldehyde that right,” Burns admitted. “You know how chicken can smell … imagine that in the lights, under the heat.”
The dead weren’t the only ones contributing to the stench. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, was also a source of the smell. “Gunnar, of course, smelled so bad because he had on that costume,” Burns remembered. “He had to wear it for continuity … no one could wash it. He couldn’t stand himself after a while.”
Despite — or maybe because of — the unsettling on set conditions, “Texas Chain Saw” exceeded all expectations and became a massive success. It redefined horror and the cinematic rating system itself. With just a few bones and a chicken head, it changed everything. Diamonds are made under pressure, right?