I usually avoid writing memorial pieces for fear that my unsolicited sorrow might come off presumptuous or exploitive, especially to those who knew the deceased. After all, I’ve never hung out with Wes Craven, or worked at his side, or even met the man (though I now wish I’d got the opportunity). Still, my heart sank when I read of his passing last Sunday, and I’ve now spent the better part of a week sorting out how I could best pay homage to an artist whose contribution to cinema has come to shape so much of my identity.
I don’t just mean as a cinephile or horror enthusiast, though Craven certainly earned his reputation as a master of suspense, having redefined the scary movie for two separate generations. If you love “dead teenager” flicks from the eighties, you owe your passion to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which established the template for every supernatural thriller you hold dear. If you prefer the “savvy slashers” of the nineties, you’ve got Scream (1996) to thank, a film that ushered postmodernism into the mainstream by skewering its own fan base.
A bold artist, Craven never stopped experimenting throughout his forty-year career. Haters will point out that the man’s body of work includes as many flops as instant classics. What they fail to notice, though, is that even his lesser films brim with innovation. Consider The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), which, despite mixed reviews, inspired The X-Files by juxtaposing chimerical spiritualism with scientific detachment. By the same token, Shocker (1989) may not work as a traditional slasher, but its schizophrenic narrative makes for an intriguing commentary on the MTV generation.
As one would expect from a former humanities professor, Craven approached scary movies from an intellectual standpoint, linking each of his nightmarish visions to real-life woes. The Last House on the Left (1972), for instance, uses familiar exploitation tropes to discuss the loss of humanity inherent to a vengeful justice system, whereas The People Under the Stairs (1991) encapsulates issues of race and income inequality still prevalent today. It’s upon making these connections that I fell in love with storytelling, and I can’t help but feel like I owe the writer-director for teaching me that even escapist entertainment should engage the world.
In fact, I based much of my career on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), which functions as a manifesto of sorts. I remember playing the film and its commentary track in a loop, intent on soaking up every lesson I could on the societal impact of fiction. Craven cared deeply about art empowering its audience, as exemplified by his only two ventures outside of thriller territory: Music of the Heart (1999), which tells of an educator enriching her students’ lives through music, and the fifteenth chapter of Paris, Je T’Aime (2006), wherein Oscar Wilde’s ghost counsels a lost fan. True, all his other movies center on sadistic monsters, but they’re defeated in the end by resourceful champions like Nancy, Sidney, and the oft neglected Lisa from Red Eye (2005).
The anti-horror activists that protested Craven’s work had it backwards, you see. They claimed to be protecting children from gruesome imagery, forgetting that the world was already a dark and scary place for a lot of us. For reasons that don’t belong in this piece, I grew up all too familiar with the notion that someone could come hurt me where I sleep. A Nightmare on Elm Street helped me understand that I wasn’t the disgusting freak Freddy Krueger but a survivor like Nancy. Statistically, I should’ve dropped out of school, struggled with substance abuse, and torpedoed all my relationships. None of that happened because I saw our heroine take back all the power she gave her boogeyman, thereby inspiring me to do the same.
Indeed, I may not have known Wes Craven the person, but Wes Craven the artist saved my life. As a pioneer of the horror genre, he gave me a community in lieu of a family; as a cerebral craftsman, he provided me with a lens through which to make sense of the world; and, as a hopeful humanist, he played an instrumental role in my survival. There are, of course, many more facets to the man, most of which I’ll never get to appreciate. For this reason, I don’t believe I’m entitled to mourn him in a traditional sense, but I still felt compelled to write these words, if only to express my eternal gratitude.
Thank you, Mr Craven, and may you rest in peace.