Marilyn Burns, an actress who became a horror movie icon with her starring role in the landmark 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has died at age 65 at her home in Houston, Texas. Burns was just 24 when she took the part of Sally Hardesty, the only survivor of the grisly “massacre” described in the movie’s memorable title.
A family member found Burns “unresponsive” in her home early Tuesday, her manager, Chris Roe, announced later in the day. No cause of death was specified.
Burns did not have a prolific career, appearing in just nine feature films in a 40-year span. Other than Texas Chainsaw Massacre she was perhaps best known for her role in the 1976 TV mini-series Helter Skelter, a dramatization of the 1971 trial of Charles Manson, whose “Manson Family” cult carried out the murders of movie star Sharon Tate and several others in August of 1969.
Marilyn Burns portrayed Manson family member Linda Kasabian, who testifies against the other Manson cult members.
But her legacy will always be defined by The Texas Chansaw Massacre, an independently produced film that eventually made $30 million at the box office on a budget reported to be as low as $93,000. The movie changed the face of horror cinema, spawning a generation of gory, low-budget films about deranged psychopaths who prey on teenagers and young people.
In many of the films that followed in the wake of Chainsaw Massacre, a lone female managed to survive the carnage that befell her friends. The archetypal character was essentially created by Marilyn Burns in the original Chainsaw Massacre film.
Years later, she made brief cameo appearances in two of the many Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes and sequels. In 1994 she appeared in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, then in 2013 she appeared — thanks to archival footage of her original Sally Hardesty character — in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D.
Looking back on her Texas Chainsaw Massacre experience 30 years later, she remembered a difficult production.
“Afterwards, I was just so grateful it was over,” she said in 2004. “I probably was the happiest girl alive. During it, I was 100 percent focused and I probably wasn’t a joy to be around. It was an interesting shoot for sure.”
The role immediately branded Marilyn Burns as a “scream queen,” an actress who specializes in horror roles. Her other films included the 1977 Eaten Alive and the 1985 Future-Kill.
If you aren’t easily scared or shocked, watch the performance by Marilyn Burns in the ending sequence of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, below.