Wes Craven only found himself profoundly lonely.
"It was this experience," Craven recalled to his biographer, "of being the last one who doesn't feel it or doesn't get it or somehow Jesus can't find a comfortable place in his heart, you know? It was just a feeling of desolate loneliness or mixed with having rejected what had to be embraced."
Wes Craven died late last month at the age of 76. The director of "Nightmare on Elm Street," the "Scream" movies, and a long list of other films, Craven was considered the master of slasher movies, according to the New York Times. He was the "granddaddy" of that horror genre, according to the Washington Post.
Observers have frequently turned to the church of Craven's childhood to explain his dark vision of the world. Freddy Krueger, it has been suggested, is a specifically Baptist nightmare on Elm Street.
His childhood church -- Hough Avenue Baptist -- was part of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, a fundamentalist group that separated from theological liberalism of the Northern Baptists in 1932. It held to the fundamentals of Jesus' divinity and his redemptive death and literal resurrection, and the belief that the Bible was divinely inspired and factually accurate. The church was also committed to strict standards of behavior. Christians, it was believed, shouldn't drink or dance. They shouldn't watch movies. They were to be separate from the world around them.
Craven's father struggled with these practices. He had trouble drinking. He left the church after only a short time, then left the family, then died. According to Craven, he died at work in a factory in his 40s.
Craven's mother remained committed to the church, though. She raised her children in the fundamentalist faith. She raised them, she would have said, to fear God.
As Craven experienced it, there was a lot of fear in his childhood. He grew up very afraid of hell. In fact, he found it easier to accept the Baptist church's teachings about eternal damnation than he did its doctrines of salvation and sanctification.
"Hell was more believable than believing in Jesus," he said. "If you believed in Jesus, there was supposed to be an immediate presence and knowledge of him. Whereas with hell, you wouldn't know about it until you were dead."
There was also another layer of fear in Craven's childhood that was perhaps specific to fundamentalist Christians in the mid-20th century: There was a "fear of not getting it right," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "of not being on the right side of moral questions. Right off the bat, you're dealing with these ultimate issues of false and truth, life and death, sin and redemption, guilt and salvation."
For fundamentalists, the stakes of day-to-day life are very high. Even casual activities that people don't think about that much are seen as matters of ultimate importance. The same is true in the horror films popular in the late 20th century. The little things matter. As actor Jamie Kennedy explained in "Scream," there are very strict rules:
Jesus Christ! You don't know the rules?
There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one--you can never have sex. Sex equals death, OK? Number two--you can never drink or do drugs. No, the sin factor. It's a sin, it's an extension of number one.Craven frequently acknowledged the way his Baptist upbringing shaped his imagination. Still, he sometimes bristled when people made the connection between his films and the faith he gave up as a child. Terry Gross made that connection while interviewing Craven for National Public Radio in 1987 and Craven responded sarcastically.
"Oh, well that explains it all," he said.
He seems to have been reticent, at the very least, to blame religion for anything.
"I mean," he told Gross, "I don't want to defame any religion or religious posture, but it is one based on, you know, a view of the world that is very dark, very prescriptive--proscriptive--and, you know, can leave you with a tremendous sense of rage once you're out of it because you feel like you've been denied your youth, your joy."
Craven appears to have started to break out of fundamentalism at Wheaton College, a flagship institution of the evangelical movement. He attended the school from 1957 to 1963. He pushed back against the Christian culture. He published some controversial stories in a school's literary magazine and the administration suspended the publication. He went and saw movies. He saw "To Kill a Mockingbird" during his senior year, but went to another town to see the film so he wouldn't get in trouble.
It was at Wheaton that Craven began to pay attention to his nightmares -- writing them down in his notebooks.
It wasn't until the end of his short marriage that Craven completely broke from that Christian subculture, though. Craven got divorced in 1969. He quit teaching college at about the same time. In his early 30s, he turned to filmmaking, taking on an assortment of projects to get into the business. For a while he worked as a editor of pornographic movies.
The boy who had felt that Jesus couldn't find a comfortable place in his heart had now moved on to a different kind of life.
He directed his first solo project in 1972. It was a horror film that shocks and repels even fans of the genre, even today. It is about a mysterious group that raped and tortured women, called "Last House on the Left." Funded by drive-in owners, the $90,000 movie carried the tag line, "to avoid fainting, keep repeating 'it's only a movie ... it's only a movie.'"
Writing for PopMatter, Bill Gibron argues that "Last House on the Left" was significant for its strictly secular vision of horror. There was no otherworldly source of the dread that haunted the script. Horror was not caused by a supernatural interruption of normalcy; horror was what was normal. The scariest thing in this universe was people.
The theme would come up again. His next film, "The Hills Have Eyes," was about a family terrorized by cannibalistic mutants. "Deadly Blessing," Craven's 1981 film, featured a religious sect called the Hittites.
He would later say he never felt the need to deal with religion specifically in his movies. Craven's early filmography refutes the claim. The films don't condemn religion as such, but they stage stories about isolated, separatist groups with strange rituals and strict codes. Those groups are the source of the terror.
The anti-fundamentalist theme continued in Craven's work even as he started making mainstream movies. His first big hit was "Nightmare on Elm Street," starring a young Johnny Depp. It opened in 320 theaters in 1984 and earned $1.2 million its first weekend. The film eventually earned more than $25 million, started a franchise of films and established Craven as a master of the slasher genre.
The film's drama is religious, as Matthew Schmitz, editor of First Things, has noted.
"Religious imagery and moral themes combine to form a drama of endangered souls," Schmitz writes. "Two teens have sex and are visited with death. Two others don't when the girl refuses, but the boy, a tiny Johnny Depp, poutily says, 'morality sucks.' Too true: in fact, it sucks him into a pit and spits him up in a stream of blood ... Evil stalks the film's world, but grace is nowhere to be seen."
The stalking evil, critically, has a this-world origin.
As Gibron explains, "Not many people remember Freddy Krueger's original origins. He was a pervert, a child molester and murderer who used his pedophilic ploys to lure the innocent to their death. His ravaged body was the result of a populace in vigilante mode, a group of parents setting him on fire to set the scales of justice back in balance."
It was the town's religious sensibility that created the horror that terrorized the town.
Craven's later films were noted for being self aware. The characters in the "Scream" movies discuss horror films, dissecting the tropes and the unwritten rules of the genre and openly noting how their own situation fits the narrative structure of a horror film (which, in fact, they're in). The horror movie killer asks his victims about their favorite scary movie. Partly this is postmodernism played for laughs, but it also reveals another layer of horror.
The deeper horror of the films is the realization one's life is locked into rigid narrative structures, which operate according to severe rules. The horror of the characters in "Scream," in a sense, is not that different than the horror Craven felt when, as a child, he believed in hell but not in Jesus.
"When you're raised to be within such rigid confines of thought and conduct," he said, "it makes you crazy. Or it makes you angry."
This is one way in which Freddy Krueger is Baptist. But not uniquely Baptist. The rigid moralism that Craven found so repressive in a fundamentalist Christianity that wouldn't allow him to go see movies was also at the movies.
The nightmare, as it were, might have been on the specific "Elm Street" of his religious childhood. But, as the tag line for that movie noted, Every Town Has an Elm Street.