Wes Craven faced his lapsed Baptist fears and exorcised personal demons through his work, but the man with the graduate degree from Johns Hopkins said his biggest victory was overcoming his anxiety around “The Master of Horror” label
By Katherine Monk
Wes Craven is dead, but his characters will haunt us forever. The master of cinematic Screams and A Nightmare on Elm Street passed away of brain cancer August 30 at the age of 76, but he leaves more than a scar on our collective subconscious thanks to the razor-fingered Freddy Krueger. Like many horror auteurs, Craven’s work forced us to experience the world differently: To feel fear, and in turn, to feel more alive.
“My films are about waking up… and no matter what you do, don’t fall asleep. The idea is to be here now; to live in the moment, and to understand what’s happening between yourself and the other,” Craven once told me in an interview.
It was over the phone, done when George W. Bush was in the White House and Justin Timberlake was bringing sexy back, so when he said “the other” he could have meant “the Other”—in that big, capital, philosophical way, because Craven was an academic with a masters degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.
He’d also studied psychology as an undergrad at Wheaton in Illinois. “I think I was looking for answers in books. I thought I could understand my own demons,” he said.
“My films are about waking up… and no matter what you do, don’t fall asleep. The idea is to be here now; to live in the moment, and to understand what’s happening between yourself and the other,
“After graduation, I had a job selling rare coins at a Baltimore department store, so when I was offered a job teaching, I said I would be there tomorrow. But the life of an academic would have been one of smart boredom. My real interest was writing. So I was sleepwalking toward this distant light.”
The words were Kafkaesque, the image of a small insect crawling blindly toward a lantern, and it was no accident. We were just talking about Franz Kafka being his big hero.
“I think about Kafka all the time. His prose is so wonderful in its ability to render the drudgery, and the horror, of the ordinary: The awful things waiting to happen. It reminds me a lot of my own films — and the world at large, especially now, in light of the current Bush administration and its ineptitude. You sort of feel like you’re on the Titanic and you can’t do anything to stop it hitting the iceberg.”
For his own part, Craven avoided any major collisions. After the lapsed Baptist realized he wouldn’t be able to find what he was looking for in any library, he took the glasses off the librarian: He turned to filmmaking, directing pornography under a variety of assumed names before finding his home in horror with Last House on the Left in 1972.
“I remember pulling out all the skeletons from my ex-fundamentalist closet when I first started writing and making movies. Without art, my life would have been intolerable… But I was a babe in the woods when I started. I didn’t know anything. But I did have a real desire to learn. It’s a very stimulating world, the film world, full of interesting people and dealing with complex subjects. It challenges mind and body.”
Craven said he liked the whole circus aspect of making movies, but writing alone is what gave him creative shivers. “There isn’t anyone helping you. You are by yourself with your thoughts, and that is where the terror comes from.”
Just close your eyes and imagine Freddy Krueger, the half-digested take on Edward Scissorhands stalking Elm Street, and you know Craven knew what he was talking about. He understood fear on several levels – and he was capable of weaving it all together to splatter in your face, and get under your skin at the same time. It’s the same reason why his Scream movies re-invented the whole genre: They recognized generational cynicism and slashed its throat with a snigger.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the question of what a so-called normal person does when confronted by violence? We think of ourselves as civilized and peaceful, but when faced with things we can’t understand, or do not know, we don’t always react in a civilized way. The idea is that in order to understand truth, and learn about what you don’t know, you must move past fear.”
Craven said he’d faced his own fears a few times over, even being labeled “The Master of Horror.”
“It’s not what I imagined for myself. But then again, it was my choice. My brother worked for the phone company, and he always had a job. I come from a blue-collar background and that was sort of what success looked like in Cleveland. All I can say is I’m glad I got out of Cleveland.”
Craven worked in Los Angeles for most of his career. His last film was Scream 4, which he directed in 2011 – regaining his crown as the king of the multi-million dollar franchise.
“I’ve had to put up with a lot of appropriation in my career. But I found it freed me to be innovative…. I think you have to keep learning, otherwise you might as well be dead,” he said.
“And I think the most interesting thing I’ve learned is that we have such a fear of the unknown and the unexpected, but the best things that have ever happened to me have been largely unplanned.”
Craven will be missed, but his characters will live on. Scream 10 will be dedicated to his memory and Freddy Krueger will never die, which is why the rest of us can thank Craven’s spirit for scaring us to death – if only to make us feel more alive.