Any horror fan worth their weight in red-dyed Karo syrup knows the name of Wes Craven. The late horror master managed to change the face of horror three decades in a row. In 1972, he took the genre to a new, raw plane with a low-budget, exploitation-flavored remake of Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING called LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. In 1984, he introduced modern horror to an existential dream monster named Freddy Kruger with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET which launched a hugely popular series of films. In the 1990s, he brought popularity back to a flagging genre with SCREAM, one of the first films wherein the characters seemed to openly recognize the genre in which they existed. Even if Craven had directed no other films, he would still be notable for these contributions alone.
When looking at Craven’s career as a whole, one finds different, less horrific elements at play. Most of his films are horror films (MUSIC OF THE HEART notably notwithstanding), but Craven was never a gorehound or a sadist. He wasn’t in the game to depict violence. Craven was always a little more philosophical, interested in big ideas, morals, and broad. Craven holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy from John Hopkins University. He’s done the reading, and he’s a deep thinker.
With this in mind, I recently revisited Craven’s short-lived TV series NIGHTMARE CAFÉ, which ran for a scant six episodes back in 1992. I talked about the show at length on CANCELED TOO SOON, a podcast I co-host. The show was meant to be an anthology series centered around a magically teleporting all-night diner run by a demon-ish figure played by Robert Englund and staffed by two hapless ghosts who could help ailing customers with eerie powers. NIGHTMARE CAFÉ, during production, turned from an anthology show into a series about the two employee ghosts and their ongoing need to redeem all of their past sins. They were able to revisit those who wronged them and sort things out.
I began to think that, even though many of Craven’s films are bloody and violent, they are almost unilaterally about moral redemption. Most of his films seem to open with characters who have been morally stained, and who will eventually find a way to wash off that stain. And where did that stain come from? In Craven’s mind, it comes from the sins of the parents. In a way, Craven spent his career exploring the notion of Original Sin. People, he felt, were born corrupted, and life was a means to absolve yourself. Craven always told very moral stories.
To start: Craven, it seems, was an existentialist. Many of him films dealt with “big” questions about the nature of reality, and one needs look no further than A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to see this. Here was a film about a creature that only lived in dreams, and for the young protagonists, a dream was the same as reality. These fun nature-of-reality questions are the bedrock of any Philosophy 101 course, and one of the central questions of many great minds over the millennia is “How can I be sure what’s real?” Craven takes on the classical Cartesian DISCOURSE OF METHOD answer to that: You know you exist because you are thinking. Cogito ergo sum.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW also dealt with a weird mid-point in existence. RAINBOW is about voodoo practices, and a large plot point is about how the protagonist is more or less “killed” and made to be a zombie. This is based on actual known rituals. DEADLY FRIEND is about how a dead girl is resurrected, halfway between life and death. SHOCKER is about an executed criminal whose evil is not destroyed. He’s not only in limbo, but his evil has stained the world. In Craven’s vision, we exist in a midpoint, and fully perceiving reality is not possible, but we do know that ancient evils exist, and we, as luminous beings, can fight it. Or rather, children can fight it. Parents have to do the dirty work first.
In his earlier films, these questions of evil were a little more grounded. Taking his moral cues from THE VIRGIN SPRING, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT tells the story of a pair of young women who are kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a group of evil criminals. The girls deserved none of this and were clearly innocent victims. While the film is ultimately about how the parents get revenge on the killers, like Bergman’s classic, it looks at the story from a moral perspective. Revenge is never seen as cathartic or clean. This is a messy, horrible thing, and revenge shows a sort of moral corruption. Parents, we learn early in Craven’s career, are the one’s with the power to wield violence. The young live in their echo.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is also about the sins of the parents. Although it’s not depicted on screen, we learn late in the film that Freddy Krueger was violently killed by a large group of local parents. Krueger was victimizing and killing children – innocents – and, like in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, the parents were the only ones with the moral bankruptcy to murder the murderer. But that violence was not the end of it. That violence eventually was visited on the parent’s surviving children in their dreams. Freddy was not just some random force of chaos. Freddy was created by your parents’ hate. Even if their violence was righteous, it was wrong. Now the kids have to figure out what that evil is, and use their own language and idiom to fight it.
SCREAM, while an existential riff on the tropes of horror movies – and a clever one at that – is much more than an intellectual exercise. Sidney Prescott’s mother – never seen in any of the films – is a central player in the motivation of the killers. Mrs. Prescott slept around a lot several years ago and ended up breaking up several homes. And while she is not ever talked about as a “villain” (other than through the lips of killers), she’s still an instigator of a great deal of intergenerational angst. The kids don’t understand the parents well; they’re absent a lot. As such, they are now the ones inheriting the frustration. They are the ones who need to finally put an end to this.
Even the lackluster MY SOUL TO TAKE is a story of intergenerational violence. The story involves a serial killer who may have had multiple personalities. The night he died, each personality was scattered out into the world, and each one became a newborn child. There is a scrap of evil from the previous generation that is now literally transmigrating into a new one. The plot is about how a group of young people must suss out who is the direct reincarnation of the killer and which of them may have been corrupted.
Craven likely got his interest in existentialism from his philosophical studies, but what sparked Craven’s interest in intergenerational violence? Perhaps it’s because Craven was born in 1939. He’s old enough to have seen World War II first hand as a child and to witness the aftermath of that horrible conflict. The 1950s are often seen as a economically booming, largely idealistic time for America, but are just as often seen as a hotbed of social repression, hate, and suburban discomfort. Craven watched the children of the 1950s – the Baby Boomers – grow up in this cauldron of optimistic angst. He likely saw The Greatest Generation – to which he may technically belong – morally compromised by their involvement in the War. In Craven’s mind, there seemed to be nothing noble about fighting in WWII, and the dropping of The Bomb was the final horrid act of a violent nation. When the War ended, and everyone tried to get “back to normal,” there was a stain on the soul of the elders. They committed all that violence.
Then, when their children began to grow up, they began experiencing confusion, unable navigate the divide between the moral cleanliness they were being fed and the lingering half-knowledge of the violence that came before. The kids were living the sins of their parents.
I have never heard Craven talk about WWII, or his views of young people in any generation, but we are able to glean a lot from his films. He clearly felt that reality was something that was mutable, but that was just his personal intellectual thrill. More than that, he felt that children were innocents, and that angst was something that was directly inherited. Adults can harm kids. Luckily, kids – Craven optimistically demonstrates – are capable, smart, moral beings with the power to realize and undo that evil. Indeed, in Craven’s eyes, anyone can be redeemed. No sin is so great that we cannot survive.
He was hopeful. Darkness exists, and evil can infect, but ultimately, the light wins out. By learning, by fighting, by telling stories, by staying aware of a previous generation’s evils, by staying aware, we can fight.