Knifing the Darkness: Reflections on Wes Craven’s Legacy
“I couldn’t put together the concept that Jesus loves you, but if you don’t love him back, you’ll burn in hell forever. I worried, I’m rejecting the Holy Spirit, so I’m definitely going to burn in hell.” — Wes Craven, in an interview with The New York Times.
On Sunday, August 30, 2015, the horror community lost one of its most treasured directors, Wes Craven. Along with contemporaries like John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, Craven was an innovator who breathed new life into American horror cinema in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I will even be so bold as to claim that Craven was ahead of his contemporaries at just about every step of the way.
Craven was, unbeknownst to many, a Wheaton College alum as well as one of Wheaton’s literary magazine editors. He got his master’s degree at Johns Hopkins in 1964 and was an English professor before entering the world of film. Given his education, it’s not surprising that Craven had a knack for observing the times and making cinematic tone poems that struck a chord with audiences in each era.
His first film, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, made the audience question who was truly more deviant and depraved, the “bad guys” or the “good guys.” He made it impossible to tell the difference between the two, which summed up the American climate during a rather ambiguously “moral” war in Vietnam. 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, arguably his most well-known work, took the already worn out slasher sub-genre and gave it a metaphysical twist by making the killer inhabit dreams and the only way to stay alive not going to sleep.Wes Craven’s filmography shows that even though he didn’t understand the failed formulation of the Gospel according to the church he was raised in, he still understood humanity’s penchant for unholy acts and its need for mercy and grace in the midst of judgment.
Skip ahead to 1996’s Scream and here, Craven perfected the post-modern (meta-)horror that he teased in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare two years before. He both cleverly spoofed slasher tropes and made one of the all-time greatest slasher films ever. Even Scream 4 tread new ground with some witty post-post-modern hooks that completely made up for the second and third Scream installments, which had lost their knife’s edge and became exactly what they were meant to lampoon.
A string of challenging moral quandaries flow like rivers beneath Craven’s films. Yes, the murder and rape of Mari by Krug and his gang in The Last House on the Left is horrifying, but when Mari’s parents avenge her death, the audience starts to feel the unease of witnessing a type of justice that feels equally wrong. We begin to humanize the very people in the film that we had already demonized. The same holds for Freddy Krueger. We watch this slasher villain killing teenagers and we demonize him and yet, as the film progresses, we find out that he had been burned alive at the hands of the parents of the teenagers he was killing. It’s not that we condone his actions — either his pedophilia or his revenge — but Craven intentionally includes that story line so that it’s no longer easy for us to demonize him in light of the sin committed against him.
He even had an interesting grasp — probably better than any other horror director — on the issues of white privilege and the suppression of urban black communities back in 1991 with my personal favorite of his, The People Under the Stairs. He cared about all of his characters and the plight they found themselves in within his narratives.
The act of compelling the audience to empathize with those who have been dehumanized is an act of grace — an engendered mercy in the midst of deserved judgment. It’s something that people do not expect within the scope of horror cinema. And yet, Craven very seldom villainized his characters without showing their humanity, too.
Unfortunately, Christians often miss these subtle yet profound meanings in Craven’s films because they can’t get past the idea that the medium in which these truths are showcased isn’t the only message.
Yes, horror cinema has its moral failings. It can often be exploitative, violent, sexist, and racist. However, I am not convinced that other genres are not similarly affected by the multiple varieties of human sinfulness. The argument used against horror as a meaningful form of cinema and entertainment often revolves around a misapplication of Philippians 4:8. Much of the Christian criticism holds that there is little in horror that is noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable. But as Christians who refuse to burn their horror film collection alongside their secular records have pointed out, many of our fellow Christians forget the first and, I believe, primary adjective in that verse: true.
I hate to break it to you, folks, but there is evil out there. It comes from the “powers and principalities,” “the prince of the air,” and our own deceitful hearts. Evil, in all of its ugliness, horribleness, and darkness, is true. The late Wes Craven knew that and chose to make films about it, to bring it to life on celluloid before our very eyes.
It’s not unusual to find a legacy of strict fundamentalist Christianity in the lives of those in the horror film community. As the above quote from Craven shows, he struggled with the truths of the faith and its imperfect, sometimes stridently wrong, messengers. I wish I could say that Craven’s experience was the only one, but spend some time with horror fans on Twitter and podcasts and similar stories come tumbling out like dead corpses.
And yet, Wes Craven’s filmography shows that even though he didn’t understand the failed formulation of the Gospel according to the church he was raised in, he still understood humanity’s penchant for unholy acts and its need for mercy and grace in the midst of judgment. The heavy weight of conditionality on Wes’ need to “love [Jesus] back” is enough to break the back of any person that knows, deep down, their moral failings and feels like they are unlovable because of them.
Ironically, Wes Craven often got the Gospel better than its self-proclaimed gatekeepers do. There is evil from within and without and we are all capable — given the right contexts, personalities, physical/spiritual/mental brokenness, and genetics — of heinous things whose consequences can come back to haunt us. However, there is one who can break the vicious cycle and he not only cares for, cries with, and longs to restore the victim but also seeks to restore the villains, bad guys, and perpetrators that are looked down on most fiercely by society.
Unlike the church he grew up in, Wes Craven had a different answer for the question “Who did Jesus love?” A brief foray into his filmography offers a surprising answer to that question which Christians miss because they are too concerned with the packaging and not enough with the content that bleeds through Craven’s chosen genre. I think Craven’s answer would be: “Everyone.” Jesus loves everyone whether they turn from him or not. I don’t know where Craven was in his relationship with his Creator, but I do know that multitudes of horror fans, including myself, have learned that from the brilliant truth that shone through his films.
May you rest in peace, Wes.