In Memoriam: A Tribute to Marilyn Burns, Our Greatest Final Girl

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by Jay of the Dead

Flying east on a plane at 37,000 feet, we’ve hit “a rough patch” of turbulence, and I can actually see fear on the faces of my fellow passengers. Oddly, these scared faces call to mind actress Marilyn Burns, who has been in my thoughts since her death two days ago in Houston, Texas. She was 65.

Marilyn Burns was the greatest scream queen the horror genre has ever known. Her debut performance as Sally Hardesty in Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) remains an unparalleled portrayal of profound terror, the kind of terror a real-life victim would feel if death were actually befalling her.

Something inside of me broke, and has never mended, after I first watched the infamous dinner scene with Sally, grandpa and his hammer. True horror is visible in Marilyn’s eyes. If a character has ever been tortured by terror, it is Marilyn Burns’s Sally Hardesty. More on her performance below, but first let me set the stage:

The story is well known. It was hot — July of 1973 — near Round Rock, Texas, where temperatures commonly reach 100 degrees or higher that time of year. There were dead animals on set that were procured from the local pound. Someone tried to treat them with formaldehyde, but it was done improperly. Their decaying bodies reeked. So, dead cats and dogs were burned, in hopes of eradicating the stench, but the odor of burning flesh made matters worse.

In a 2004 interview with Terror Trap.com, Marilyn said there was a rotting chicken head on that dinner table. It was also unsuccessfully treated in formaldehyde and grew exponentially more putrid and offensive under the heat of the lights. (Perhaps there was more than one reason “Chain Saw” was almost titled “Head Cheese.”)

Other unpleasantness pervaded that notorious set. The film’s participants had widespread doubt that there would ever be any compensation for this ordeal — and for good reason. The actors believed even less that the film would be released at all. But Marilyn believed.

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And for whatever reason, be it madness, greatness or mere cruelty, director Tobe Hooper and the other actors put Marilyn Burns through experiences that achieved verisimilitude to the point that they crossed the line into actuality. For instance, in the scene where Jim Siedow pokes Sally with a stick, black and blue bruises proved he wasn’t gentle. And in the scene where Gunnar Hansen slices Marilyn’s finger, the fake blood tube was clogging, so he decided to improvise and cut her finger, spilling her real blood. Though the fake hammer’s head was made of foam rubber, Marilyn said she could still feel the whacks of its steel handle. And Marilyn’s limp at the end of the movie is real, after having jumped through a sugar-glass window and off a seven-foot scaffolding.

All the stories above (and many others like them) set the stage for a perfectly horrifying muse — an inspiring backdrop for a heinous house of horrors. But when I consider what dark places Marilyn must have gone to, mentally, to sink to such depths, it makes me shudder to remember that she was only 24 years old and a relatively inexperienced actress. At least, nothing from her resume could have prepared her for this movie. I’m not an actor, but something tells me that submerging one’s self that deep into a role could literally be hazardous.

And though I have never heard Marilyn say such a thing, I am convinced as I watch “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” that she must have deluded her mind to believe that she had been abducted by monsters and was doing to die. I have no other explanation for what we see captured onscreen, palpable on her face — especially in her eyes — during this film.

My co-host Wolfman Josh disagrees when someone says actors are “brave” for giving a certain performance. He quickly retorts, “Firefighters are brave.” And I think Josh is right, but Marilyn is an exception. What she did in “Chain Saw” was genuinely brave.

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Her filmography isn’t prolific, per se, but Marilyn’s acting career spanned 40 years, with “Helter Skelter” (1976) and “Eaten Alive” (1977) meriting mention. “Future-Kill” (1985) — not so much. And as fans of hers, we’ll forget Marilyn’s brief association with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” (1994), as I’m sure she did. And with a tagline that reads, “Sinners 4 dinner,” I’m hopeful and anxious to see “Sacrament” (2014). But as this tribute suggests, her most notable and most important work is her role in “Chain Saw.”

When a horror actor’s performance of fear is so raw and convincing that it can conjure fear within the audience, as Marilyn’s does for me, then that actor has reached the zenith of his or her powers. A horror actor can do no more to honor the genre or to elevate the craft.

As we horror fans take the time this week to revisit Marilyn’s films and think about her work, I hope we will all recognize and revere our greatest Final Girl’s contribution to the genre. Marilyn raised the bar, and it has yet to be surpassed. She will be missed.

7 thoughts on “In Memoriam: A Tribute to Marilyn Burns, Our Greatest Final Girl

  1. A beautiful tribute Jay. Her acting in “Chainsaw” was vivid and a huge factor in the films cumulative ability to disturb. We’re with her in that movie, never thinking about her “acting” but instead feeling what it would be like if we were actually in such a situation ourselves. She just comes across as that real.

    • Well said, David. I totally agree. Thanks for reading my tribute and commenting. I think it’s easy for people to overlook a great performance because they’re too swept away by the scene to appreciate what’s occurring technically right before their eyes. So, thanks for celebrating Marilyn with me.
      — Jay of the Dead

  2. Agree, beautiful tribute. No matter how many times I see the movie, the sheer terror that she conveys is chilling. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  3. I made mention of this in the previous post but I truly believe that Ms. Burns performance in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of, if not the, most genuinely frightening performance ever put on film. She strikes such a chord with the viewers that makes it is easy to lose one’s self in the movie. Is this just a movie? Is this girl acting or experiencing these horrors for real? I’m not going to make the claim that Marilyn Burns was a great actress with a great career, but her performance in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the stuff that legends are made of. If ever a single performance can define a career, this is it.

    The Dude

    PS: And Jay…you’re put together a nice little article here. I know that you are very much time strapped with your other duties, but you should really try and find more time to write.

    D
    If one performance makes for a career,

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