The Gas Station, on the outskirts of Bastrop, is a landmark for Texas Chainsaw Massacre fans.
The Gas Station, on the outskirts of Bastrop, is a landmark for Texas Chainsaw Massacre fans.
Brian Maschino

In the Heart of Texas, Leatherface Lives On, and the BBQ Is Damn Good

We Slaughter Barbecue isn’t easy to find. On the outskirts of Bastrop about 30 miles east of Austin, it sits off the side of state Highway 304 in what was once known as the Last Chance Gas Station. It was the only full-service gas station for miles around, and it had the unfortunate habit of running out of gas whenever outsiders wanted to fill up. It's also the last place many of them were seen before they were dished up as part of the Slaughter family's famous barbecue.

Over the years, the one-story building has housed a bar, a convenience store, a barbecue place and a resale shop known as Bilbo's Texas Landmark. It sat dilapidated and filled with junk for nearly a decade. Then horror movie fan Roy Rose and his wife, Lisa, purchased it a couple of years ago and restored it to its original glory as seen in Tobe Hooper's 1974 horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, including the same gas pumps, the same model of chairs and a replica of the Coke machine that appeared in the movie.

“We've been hoarding all that stuff for two or three years in a warehouse,” Lisa Rose says.

She says horror movie fans are quite familiar with the history behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre locations, and her husband, who's been a fan since childhood, found the former owner's phone number and called a few times to ask about the property. The owner wasn't ready to sell it until Roy’s 40th birthday in April 2015. The Roses packed up their belongings in Ohio and moved to Texas a few months later.

Since then, what's now called simply The Gas Station has been slinging smoked meat, selling horror movie paraphernalia and renting cabins and campsites to horror movie fans drawn to the site of the seminal slasher movie and the home of Leatherface. Many of them arrived in force earlier this month to attend the Cult Classic Convention at the Bastrop Convention and Exhibit Center.

They came from all over Texas and as far away as Australia to meet some of the original actors from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre film series, including Dallas' Ed Neal, who cemented his cult status as the cannibalistic hitchhiker Nubbins from Hooper's 1974 film.

“I've got this knife; it's a good knife,” is just one of his memorable lines from the movie. “My family's always been in meat!” and “The old way ... with a sledge! You see, that way's better. They die better that way,” are a couple of others.

Lisa Rose, who met her husband when she was 17, says the film's dark humor inspired him to become a fan and an avid collector of horror art, which he sells at their gas pipe businesses up in Cleveland and The Gas Station outside of Bastrop.

“You kind of feel sorry for Leatherface, too,” Rose says. “If you think about it, he's just trying to protect his family.”

What kid wouldn't want a Leatherface doll for Christmas?
What kid wouldn't want a Leatherface doll for Christmas?
Brian Maschino

Say hello to Leatherface

On a Saturday afternoon in early October, The Gas Station looked eerily similar to the mom-and-pop gas station from the opening of 1974's original film when Sally Hardesty and her brother Franklin, traveling with three friends, stopped to fuel up their old green van. They were on their way to investigate reports of vandalism and grave robbing at a Texas cemetery where the Hardestys' grandfather was buried. Instead, they found a serial killer known simply as Leatherface.

Raised in a family of cannibalistic rednecks, he was built like a giant, thick as a tree trunk and mentally disabled from inbreeding or ether fumes. Leatherface verbalized only in grunts and pig squeals. He wore a mask of dried human skin, swung a sledgehammer like a butcher killing swine and wielded a chainsaw, turning “a lumberjack’s tool into the stuff of nightmares and the blood-curdling scream into an art form,” as the Toronto Star wrote in 2003.

Leatherface has created a Texas legend, thanks to Hooper’s claim the movie was “inspired by a true story.” It seems just about anyone who hails from rural Texas has a family member who knew the real Leatherface and his family. My aunt used to tell a story about my uncle meeting the original killers on a creek bank and fishing with them.

“He didn't know they were doing those things until it hit the news,” she said.

The webmaster of one forum for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (there are several) has been trying since 1998 to debunk the myth that Leatherface was real.

“I have received numerous emails from people who are mad at me and call me every name in the book,” he wrote on his web page. “Why? I believe it's because they have never had the opportunity to understand what is really behind the movie. They have been told their entire lives by friends and family that the story is true.”

The Texas Prison Museum has a statement on its website, too: Leatherface never served time in a Texas penitentiary — although people do ask.

Leatherface was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein, a farmer suspected of killing at least two women between 1954 and 1957 in Plainfield, Wisconsin. Like Leatherface, Gein wore human skin, not only as a mask but also as suits of women's bodies. A grave robber and a necrophiliac, he nurtured an unhealthy obsession with his mother, who died and left him alone. He became known as the Butcher of Plainfield after police discovered the headless body of a hardware store cashier gutted like a pig and hanging from the ceiling of his farmhouse in November 1957.

Gein died of cancer and respiratory illness in 1984 at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Wisconsin. His story purportedly inspired writer Robert Bloch, whose novel Psycho was the basis of the Alfred Hitchcock film. Gein has also been cited as a source for the character Jame Gumb and his odd sewing habits in Silence of the Lambs.

Gunnar Hansen portrayed Leatherface in Hopper's original film. A poet and a graduate student at the University of Texas when he landed the part, Hansen claimed he found inspiration for Leatherface's mannerisms from children with special needs.

“Through an improbable series of events, on a sweaty summer afternoon, I found myself dancing on a Texas hilltop, spinning a chainsaw over my head, hell-bent on scaring the bejesus out of the director,” he wrote in his memoir, Chain Saw Confidential. “It had been a long trip getting to that hilltop, and it has been a long trip since.”

That trip included starring in another horror movie, 1977's The Demon Lover, then taking a break to write articles, books and film scripts before returning to film in 1988's Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. He appeared in two dozen other films, including 1995's Freakshow, 2004's Chainsaw Sally and 2006's Swarm of the Snakehead.

Hansen died of pancreatic cancer at age 68 in November 2015 at his home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. He was working on a new horror film called Death House at the time.

But other cast members from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre attended the Cult Classic Convention in Bastrop this month. Bill Johnson, who played Leatherface in 1986's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, was there and recalled Hansen as a “gentle giant who could turn into a roaring maniac” when provoked.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre memorabilia fills The Gas Station.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre memorabilia fills The Gas Station.
Brian Maschino

The barbecue man

Leatherface appears in a variety of chainsaw poses in framed pictures and posters hanging on The Gas Station walls. It feels almost like a memorial to the notorious serial killer and reaffirms The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's commercial relevance among horror fans, many of whom stood in line to order some of Slaughter's infamous barbecue. 

T-shirts, posters, action figures and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre merchandise aren’t the only collectibles on sale inside The Gas Station. A Chucky doll from the Child's Play series, as well as replicas of Jason Voorhees' machete from the Friday the 13th series and of Freddie Krueger's finger knives from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series are also available.

At one time, Ari Lehman, the actor who played Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th, was rumored to be a partner in The Gas Station, but he was never officially attached to it. The 1980 camping slasher flick must have made some kind of impression on the Roses, nevertheless, because four cabins filled with horror film swag can be rented overnight behind The Has Station, where picnic tables offer a perfect place to enjoy Slaughter barbecue as it was meant to be eaten: outside as the sunset illuminates the Texas horizon in yellow, orange and red.

This part of Texas is known for its barbecue. About 31 miles southwest of Bastrop sits Lockhart, a small town designated by the Legislature as the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Smitty's Market, Black's BBQ, R&G Bar-B-Que and other places in this part of the country offer old-fashioned Texas barbecue, but none offers the terror and disgust that flash through the mind while eating a sandwich from We Slaughter Barbecue.

In the movie, Leatherface's older brother Drayton Slaughter smoked the family's victims for barbecue that he sold at the gas station. He began winning “Best Texas Chili” awards in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

Ben Hughes doesn't smoke human meat at We Slaughter Barbecue inside The Gas Station. His meat comes from H-E-B, and he smokes it in an outside pit next to the station's small kitchen where he can usually be found when he's not standing behind his large smoker.

It's a monstrous contraption with two areas to cook the meat and a large smokestack where the fire burns. Atop the smoker are the words “Dedicated to Calvin W. Bilbo, 1953-2017.” He was the former cook and ran the joint for several years.

“He loved this place,” Hughes says. “When he passed, they passed it on to me.”

Hughes grew up in the Lockhart area, which he says explains his ability to cook mouth-watering barbecue. He'd been helping Bilbo long before the Roses took over The Gas Station and offered him a job.

He wears an apron like Leatherface and, in the right light, could be mistaken for the killer if he slipped on a mask of dried human skin and a mop-top wig. He'd been preparing barbecue nonstop since the Cult Classic Convention opened its doors on a Friday evening. He had to cook enough to sell at The Gas Station and the convention.

“I got to do the Wizard of Oz thing [at the convention],” he says. “I appeared and fans were like, 'Who the fuck are you?' I'm the cook. I just cooked your barbecue. Let me sign your shit.”

Ed Neal, an actor in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, talks with fans at the Bastrop convention.
Ed Neal, an actor in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, talks with fans at the Bastrop convention.
Brian Maschino

A movie town

Larry Vandiford sat inside The Gas Station with other horror fans, finishing up his plate of barbecue. A displaced Dallas resident, he traveled from his home in Austin to taste the barbecue and attend Bastrop's first horror convention because of its connection to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, which now includes eight movies, most recently 2017's Leatherface, a prequel to Hooper's original film. 

Since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Bastrop area has become a crossroads where rural Texas intersects with Hollywood. Several movies have been filmed in the area, including 1996's Courage Under Fire, 2004's The Alamo and 2010's Bernie. The Friday the 13th remake was also filmed partially in the area. On Pinterest, locals post pictures they've taken with movie stars like Mark Wahlberg, Jack Black and Zac Efron. They usually can be seen leaving places like Maxine's Cafe and The Gas Station.

“Some of the people who come through are cool, and some of them are douche bags,” Hughes says. “That's life. What are you going to do? You can't pick and choose who comes through, right?”

Vandiford is one of the cool people whose knowledge of the horror convention circuit brings to mind an older version of Dustin Henderson from Netflix's Stranger Things. He has been attending horror conventions since the early 2000s and has a book of headshots with autographs from many of the horror movie stars at the Cult Classic Convention. Some of those stars attending the convention included Lew Temple from The Walking Dead, Caroline Williams from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and, of course, Ed Neal from the original film.

Neal partnered with the Roses to host Bastrop's first horror convention. They met in 2006 at the Cinema Wasteland Movie and Memorabilia Expo in Strongsville, Ohio. Neal was one of the guests, and Roy Rose was a longtime horror fan and a successful business owner.

Rose's financial knowledge and Neal's 30-year history of attending horror conventions around the world, Neal says, seemed like a perfect combination for a successful horror convention and, as Vandiford pointed out, “There is a lot of money to be made because there is a lot of horror fans.”

“It's a real shot in the arm when you go to a convention,” Neal says. “There is always a brand-new audience for [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre]. One year, they're too young, and the next they're not.”

Vandiford first became a horror fan when he was child in the '90s. His mother was a big horror fan, and she introduced him to the genre slowly with more kid-friendly movies like 1976's Burnt Offerings and 1979's Salem's Lot. He discovered slasher flicks when he was a teenager, and he's seen hundreds since.

Larry Vandiford has been attending horror conventions since the early 2000s.
Larry Vandiford has been attending horror conventions since the early 2000s.
Brian Maschino

“Early on, it was the adrenaline rush of getting scared [that attracted me]: the slower-pace creepiness or the tense scare,” says Vandiford, who now watches foreign horror movies because they don't follow the Hollywood  movie formula. “Now that I've seen so many horror movies, I'm just trying to find a movie that will give me that feeling of dread and connection to the characters that I felt when I was a child.”

Vandiford liked that the convention felt low key, kind of laid-back like the Bastrop countryside. He didn't have to stand in line to chat with the stars. Neal and the Roses planned a smaller convention where stars such as Marc Price from 1986's heavy metal horror flick, Trick or Treat, or Sid Haig from Rob Zombie's 2003 directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, could mingle among convention attendees when they weren't selling autographs, which sold for $30 to $60 and sometimes more, depending on the star's cult status.

Sometimes the stars offering autographs weren't people but movie props. The hitchhiker Nubbins was killed in the first movie when a semi ran over him. Instead of burying him, his family kept his corpse around as if they could hear him speaking from beyond the grave. A fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre eventually bought the corpse prop and started taking it to horror conventions. He brought it to the Cult Classic Convention in Bastrop, putting the prop in a chair behind a table as if Nubbins planned to barter for autographs and photographs.

It worked, too. 

One of the stars wasn't part of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series but is related to an actor who was. Neal's daughter Heidi James attended to support her dad and promote her new TV series, Deadshot Girls, which is still in development. Inspired by Pilgrims, Elizabeth Gilbert's 1997 collection of short stories, it's about a female bull rider who gets visits from three cowgirl ghosts.

A fan takes a selfie with Ed Neal. Neal was instrumental in bringing a horror convention to Bastrop.
A fan takes a selfie with Ed Neal. Neal was instrumental in bringing a horror convention to Bastrop.
Brian Maschino

"Proud of my dad Ed Neal for organizing this convention for so many TCM fans," James wrote on Facebook. "Four decades later, his brilliant work still inspires filmmakers and fans alike."

John Dugan, who played Leatherface's grandfather, was asked during the Cult Classics Q&A session how the film franchise has affected his life. “I have a retirement now,” he replied. “This is my retirement: staying on the road the rest of my fucking life selling autographs.”

Vandiford wasn't planning to buy an autograph until he ran into Tiffany Shepis from 2006's Nightmare Man. Mesmerized by the object of desire in front of them in flesh and blood, fans rarely haggle over the autograph's price. Some of them will bring items for the stars to sign only to turn around and sell them on eBay for a higher price, Vandiford says.

He asked Shepis if he could take a photo with her, and he says he liked the fact that she did so without charging him for it. So when she told him, “I'd love to sell you an autograph,” he figured, why not? It was only $20, and he didn't have her autograph yet.

“She was very personable,” he says. “I do like when actors are approachable and seem to want to be there. Most folks at this convention seem to want to be there and enjoyed meeting the fans. It felt like the old horror conventions when they weren't widely attended.”

Neal says he's autographed action figures, posters and chainsaws with their teeth removed. Some fans ask him to sign their bodies and get tattoos over his signature.

“We always try to talk them out of it,” he says of the tattoos. “'What if two years from now Debbie Does Dallas becomes your favorite movie?'” he asks fans. “Your tastes change.”

Vandiford's taste hasn't changed much over the years, and he still found himself browsing the aisles of vendors selling all manner of horror-inspired gifts, including magazines like Gore and Fantasm, movie action figures and, the most unusual, dead things floating in formaldehyde. Every now and then, he'd send his wife a photo of a T-shirt he thought about buying for her since she couldn't attend the convention with him. She was staying home to care for their pug, Sophie.

Like other fans, Vandiford spoke with a few vendors as if they were old friends. It could be because of their shared passion for horror or the familiarity of the convention environment, which feels like home for those who grew up enjoying things that go bump in the night.

Some of the vendors were known in the Dallas music scene. Gwar's “Beefcake the Mighty” Casey Orr, for example, sold his horror-inspired art, including his cover to Rigor Mortis' 2016 album, Slaves to the Grave. Orr says he sold more prints of his art than ever before and a few originals by day two of the three-day event.

Vandiford, an old Gwar fan, didn't buy Orr's art but spoke with him for a few minutes about Mike “Blothar” Bishop, who took over as vocalist for Gwar when Dave Brockie died in 2014.

Vandiford drove to the convention Friday night to attend opening-night festivities. He met a few of the stars and spent most of his money on merchandise. He planned to attended a special screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but lost track of time. He showed up on time to go on a group walk with cast members to the iconic bridge from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a short distance from the convention, but the cast members didn't appear at the planned meeting place.

Instead, Vandiford joined the small group of fans who walked to the bridge anyway, one of whom was dressed as Leatherface.

“As we were going toward the bridge, people were honking and some came out of a packed bar to take photos with Leatherface,” he says.

Cook Ben Hughes (right) and Cory Young work in the kitchen at The Gas Station.
Cook Ben Hughes (right) and Cory Young work in the kitchen at The Gas Station.
Brian Maschino

Heartwarming horror In the kitchen of We Slaughter Barbecue, Ben Hughes stacked strips of chopped brisket on buttered buns and threw them into a microwave oven. The convention was nearly over on this Saturday evening, but fans were still arriving one, two, three at a time to watch the world premiere of Kill or Be Killed, a horror Western starring Justin Meeks, Paul McCarthy-Boyington, Gregory Kelly and Ed Neal, who plays a crazed traveling medicine salesman.

Hughes needed to set up the projector and make sure his laptop would play the DVD that Neal was bringing. The movie was supposed to start at 7:15 p.m., but he was behind a few tickets and running out of cooked meat.

“One of these days, I'll tell people that I actually cooked out here,” Hughes says. “They're going to be like, 'They make great barbecue,' and I'll be like, 'It's fucking Texas.'” 

Vandiford didn't order any barbecue on his second trip to The Gas Station. He walked behind the shop and waited for the movie to start with the rest of the convention attendees, who gathered around picnic tables and on the front porch of a cabin. He didn't plan to attend the VIP party at the Hampton Inn because he was heading home to Austin to take over doggie duties from his wife, who needed a break.

The meat smoker at We Slaughter Barbecue
The meat smoker at We Slaughter Barbecue
Brian Maschino

In the ballroom of the Hampton Inn, the VIP party was relaxed like the convention. The stars chatted like old friends at a reunion and mingled with some of the fans, but it lacked the ethereal feel of sitting outside under the stars as Neal's clean-shaven face appeared on a large projector screen.

Neal and the Roses say they're already planning the 2018 Cult Classics Convention because juggling everyone's schedule can be tough. A few major guests had to back out of this year's event because of scheduling conflicts, including Cherie Currie of the Runaways, who's now a chainsaw artist.

Basil Gogos, an 88-year-old illustrator who became famous for his movie monster portraits, also planned to attend but had a heart attack and died a few weeks before the event. There was a fundraiser to help his widow pay for his funeral because, like many of the horror stars who make the convention circuit, they depended on the money they made at conventions in the latter years of their lives.

Neal met quite a few fans like Vandiford, but the one who stood out the most was a father who brought his family to the convention even though he only had enough money to pay for two tickets.

“He went and sold part of his [horror] collection and made enough money to bring his whole family,” Neal says. “That just warms your heart. It's humbling.”

Catch Neal on Oct. 26 at the Texas Theatre for the screening of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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