Still Life with Chainsaw

Patrick Crerand


The problem with the hallway, Jim explains to me, is that it is too long.  We are both crouching behind an operating table strewn with rusted medical instruments and assorted gore: a disarticulated arm, embalmed brains in a jar, a hacksaw stuck halfway through a ribcage.  Jim has to speak up above the screams.  I am panting under the mask and only half-listening.  A cold layer of sweat builds between the latex and my skin. 

“When people get clogged up here in the middle,” he continues, “you have to use the chainsaw.”  He says this as if it is a given, one of Newton’s laws.  He nods behind me to my friend Gillies who flips a light switch.  The room goes dark.  Another switch clicks on and the strobes fire volleys of light at us from every corner. 

“It can get hairy,” Jim says, “but remember to prime the choke first, then hit the safety, and then pull the cord.”  As Jim speaks, he does all three.  In the stuttering light, sound bests sight so it seems the grinding burr of the saw’s engine starts before his hand touches the cord. 

Jim stands and raises the saw above his head, letting out a harrowing scream.  His eyes roll back like a shark’s, but I can’t tell if he’s deranged or bored.  He limps forward thrusting the blade into the walkway.  When he touches the blade to his leg, the phosphorescent specks of detergent glow on his dark jeans like some kind of alien blood.

“Don’t be afraid to buzz them a little,” Jim says.  “You can’t hurt them with the chain off.”  He cuts the engine and hands me the saw.  “Keep ‘em moving through the kill zone,” he says and limps past a disemboweled corpse in a wheel chair, tousling its matted hair.  Right before he disappears, his CB bleats, and a voice announces the front doors are unlocked.  He has five more grisly scenes to inspect before the first patrons come through that night, but the horror house is open.

Gillies and I crouch behind the operating table in a cloud of gas exhaust and go over our strategy.  We’ll both moan and draw them in closer.  Then I’ll spring out from behind a fake wall and unleash the saw.  Gillies will stay hidden and work the lights.  We are both seventeen, dressed in jeans, black shirts, and masks.  For the evening, we are floating volunteers, charged with scaring the hell out of whoever walks into our fake hospital holocaust.

Down the hall, I can hear the screams getting louder.  “Get ready,” Gillies says.  My pulse is roaring now in my ears.  It’s a Thursday, a school night.  Tomorrow morning in religion class, I will turn in a sheet with Jim’s signature on it, verifying we have completed part of my junior year service hours for our high school.  But tonight, I am a psycho killer surgeon waiting to chainsaw a group of unknowing patients.  I can hear their footfalls.  They’ve all paid their seven bucks.  They are hooting, screeching with anticipation as they enter the long hallway or kill zone.  They cannot wait to be slaughtered, but I couldn’t be more unsure of what I was about to do. 


Earlier in the break room, we flipped to see who would get saw duty and who would hide.  Even though I was pumped I won, I knew it wasn’t in me.  I had only been to one other haunted house in my life.  Ten years earlier, my father had taken my older sister and me to a haunted school bus.  We cowered behind him the entire time, eyes closed and screaming as we held onto his legs through a series of dark rooms.  He is a big man, my father, six feet-three and two-hundred fifty pounds.  I don’t think I was taller than his navel then, but I knocked him down four or five times that night.  Once, on a dark staircase covered in foam peanuts, we gang-tackled him right onto his butt and then kept tearing at him, begging him to shield us from the assortment of deranged ghouls in the room, burrowing under him and, when he wouldn’t let us under, weighing him down so he couldn’t get to his feet.  Finally, he screamed at us to let him go so he could stand.  Even the ghouls backed away, but instinct told us to hold on tighter.  At one point, I pulled so hard on his jeans’ belt loop that it ripped free.  I remember my father looking at the tear in his jeans with curiosity.  At first, he must have been surprised that we were not enjoying the haunted school bus as much as he was.  But as we approached the final corner, I think he was worried he had caused damage that couldn’t be healed by a quick pep talk on the ride home.

My father had always taken a special pride in scaring me.  I suspect now it was a way for him to toughen me for when I left home or maybe he simply liked to see my face contort, a morbid habit but one with a reliably entertaining outcome, like giving a baby a taste of a lemon.  Whatever the motivation, I never failed to deliver.  Afternoon episodes of Scooby Doo were enough to make me lace rosary beads around my fingers at night.  So when my father screamed down the laundry chute when I was folding socks alone in our basement or leaped from a corner wearing a decaying old man mask, there I was, screaming and shaking on cue.  One fall, he discovered I had seen A Nightmare on Elm Street to ill effect, and soon after, a series of letters came to the house with scratch marks on the front with a return address from a Mr. F. Krueger.  My mother, the original easy mark, sided with me, which only egged him on more. 

But in all this morbid fantasy there was a hint of reality.  My father had a real sixth sense.  As a child, I had watched his eyes water as he explained how his dead grandmother appeared to him in a dream and foretold of his own father’s later death by cancer.  Or the time he read a family friend’s palm and predicted correctly that she would be a widow twice over.  What complicated it even more is that he was a devout Catholic and an ordained deacon.  Every Sunday he stood on the altar and professed faith in a communion of dead saints and a mysterious Holy Ghost who controlled all that was seen and unseen.

For me, the blurring of what was known and what was possible always made for the most disturbing stories.  I wanted a clear switch to flip on when I needed to be afraid and flip off when I could relax.  My father never needed such a device.  He was as much at home in a haunted house as a funeral parlor.  He knew in the best stories, the monsters never wore masks.  And the knives they wielded cut away at reality itself until all that remained was a belief in some goodness far too ethereal to give me any consolation when something thumped in the darkness.

The final room of that haunted school bus was guarded by a Jason Voorhies look-alike, complete with green coveralls and blood-splattered goalie mask.  When I saw him standing by the corner, I froze and held onto my father.  My father kept pulling my sister and me out into the range of the blade before we pulled him back.  He wanted to barrel through Jason’s mask and saw.  My sister saw the logic of getting through quickly, but I would not move.  This went on for what seemed like ten minutes, maybe longer, as Jason taunted me, revving the saw.  Finally my father spoke through the noise.

“It’s okay,” he shouted to me and shrugged, stepping out into the blade’s range again.  “He can’t hurt you.” 

How could he know that? I wondered.  What secret knowledge did he share with Jason and the other freaks that made him so sure?  Before I could answer, I felt my father lurch sharply forward and drag me into range of Jason’s revving blade.

“Watch out,” he screamed as Jason buzzed the back of my jeans.  But I didn’t listen.  I closed my eyes and waited, paralyzed, until my father pulled me to the other side.


When the first face enters the horror house, I am so juiced with adrenaline that I run out to my mark before Gillies can trip the strobe, so I am left standing alone in a well lit horror scene, looking more like a lost lumberjack than a psychopath.  By the time strobes are flickering, I have my finger on the choke instead of the safety trigger, and I’m pulling the cord with all my strength to get the blade turning.  The first few women screech when they see the saw on the ground and hear its sputter, and I am smiling behind my mask as I pull the cord again, but still the blade only turns for a moment before it cuts out.  I pull again.  It stalls.  Again.  Nothing.  The strobes’ clicks mark the seconds.

There is a low railing that divides the main operating room scene from the kill zone walkway, and by now, a small crowd has gathered, fluorescent bodies gumming up the hallway as I try to get the saw started.  But it won’t start.  No matter how many times I pull, the engine never turns over.  The strobe light slows the awkwardness, breaking down the failure into framed snapshots. 

“Kill the lights,” I say to Gillies.  But the room is far too loud for my voice to carry.

“Ooh, so scary,” a woman says, strolling past the kill zone.  “A broken chainsaw.” 

Finally, I lift the saw from the ground and lurch at the few remaining stragglers, who mildly step back and then continue walking as if I am some simple robot whose wires only allow it to move so far.  I hear a few boos on my way back behind the operating table where Gillies hides.

“You need to get in there and swing that thing around,” Gillies says during a break.  "You got to go hard.  Come on.”  Gillies hits me on the shoulder.  “Be a killer.”

“Okay,” I say.

But each time a new group arrives, a familiar pattern of meekness emerges.  I jump up and struggle to get the chainsaw started.  Sometimes it works, but then I back off, never crossing the threshold into the kill zone to flush out the crowd.  Instead of slashing wildly like Jim showed me, I obey their screams for mercy.  I am the picture of tamed mayhem.  The crowds wander past at museum pace, as if I am little more than a dangerous statue.  Soon Jim is stopping by every ten minutes to ask what the hold up is.  I realize what Gillies won’t say.  The hold up is me.  I am the wish-fulfillment of my ten-year-old self: the incompetent monster, reducing all of his most frightening magic to nothing more than failed mechanics. 

The gas cloud makes my throat sore until I am hoarse.  As more stragglers sputter through, I cut the engine early and walk back to where Gillies is crouching and hide with him behind the table.

“Take it,” I say. 

Gillies nods and steps over the blade to pick up the handle.  The blade marks a line between us.  My hands still tingle from the motor’s vibration.  Gillies pulls the cord.  The idling engine’s low gurgle almost sounds like my father’s laugh.