Wes Craven on Film, Fear and Faith

The horror film director says people watch scary movies "not to get scared, but to deal with terrors they already feel."

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LOS ANGELES (RNS)-- Kicking off a film festival ironically searching forfaith in movies meant to inspire shrieks of terror, horror-film guru WesCraven talked not only about his classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street,"but his own conservative Christian upbringing.

Sandwiched between the screening of "Elm Street" and "Wes Craven'sNew Nightmare," the director's appearance launched the City of theAngels Film Festival last weekend (Oct. 27-28) at the Directors Guild ofAmerica in Los Angeles.

Now in its eighth year, the festival screens classic Hollywood andforeign movies, then features filmmakers and theologians who unpack thefilms' religious meanings. The festival's theme for 2001 was "Touches ofEvil."

Creator of the claw-swinging cinematic bogeyman Freddy Krueger,filmmaker Craven has unmistakably evangelical Christian roots.

Born in Cleveland, Craven was raised in a conservative church where"we didn't smoke, drink, play cards, dance or go to movies," he said. Heattended one of the nation's best-known evangelical Christianinstitutions, Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Ill., before earning amaster's degree in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. Before makingmovies, he taught college.

Craven recalled his Wheaton years as a period of both searching andrebellion. "I really frankly was in trouble a lot," he said, explainingthat he and about a dozen classmates, while considering themselvesChristians, chafed under the college's restrictive interpretation of thefaith.

"We were ... threatened with everything from expelling to beingasked, `why don't you move to another school?'" Craven said. "Therewasn't an open dialogue of ideas."

The director remembered sneaking off to another town to see "To Killa Mockingbird" because the college prohibited students from going tomovies.

Besides bucking the rules, Craven recalled his internal struggles ashe began questioning the narrow approach to Christianity he had grown upwith and that Wheaton seemed to enforce.

"I was going through a very slow, but definite ...questioning of myown inner realities," he said.

The soul searching took different forms. Sometimes Craven toldhimself, "I am bad because I am rejecting the Holy Spirit of Christ."But at other times, the doubts served more positively as signs that heneeded to rethink reality.

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Asked if he considered himself a religious person now, Cravenresponded, "I don't do anything in an organized way." Rather, he hascome to see filmmaking as the most significant way to express hisbeliefs and longings.

Craven said he found something in the whole process of crafting afilm, from the business nuts-and-bolts to "wrestling with my innerdemons and inner glimpses of light," that was more satisfying andbeneficial than anything he could have done in traditional venues ofreligious service.

"I think that's ... the best approach to (the) spiritual ... I'mcapable of," he said.

And the filmmaker draws on religious and philosophical categories toanalyze the horror-film genre of which he is an acknowledged master.

"Horror films somehow come and confront" the dark, incomprehensibleside of humanity, Craven said. "They're very much like an inoculationagainst a deeper and darker and more frightening reality."

People go to horror movies, the director believes, not to getscared, but to deal with terrors they already feel. "That's why we haveconcepts of heaven and salvation, because there is a sense of beinglost, of being under threat. We are, at our very basic ... these veryfrail little vehicles that keep running around."

When an audience leaves a scary movie, Craven said, "something hasbeen released, something has been exorcised."

Craig Detweiler, City of the Angels co-producer, underscored therelevance of Craven's filmmaking for people of faith. "Wes Craven comesfrom a faith background. He understands Christianity, he understandsconservative Christianity," Detweiler said. "He has first-handexperience of what the majority of people of faith in America haveexperienced and believe."

Craven "was created by the church of the 1950s," Detweiler said. "Ithink a film like `Nightmare on Elm Street' is a critique of a certainsanitized vision of America that he undoubtedly believes was less thanhonest."

Detweiler added, "if we're afraid of Freddy Krueger, then we don'tstand a chance of dealing with the real everyday fears of what's goingon in Afghanistan, what happened Sept. 11 ... what happened in Rwanda,what happened in Vietnam."

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