LOS ANGELES (RNS)-- Kicking off a film festival ironically searching for faith in movies meant to inspire shrieks of terror, horror-film guru Wes Craven 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's New Nightmare," the director's appearance launched the City of the Angels Film Festival last weekend (Oct. 27-28) at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles.

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

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. He attended one of the nation's best-known evangelical Christian institutions, Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Ill., before earning a master's degree in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. Before making movies, he taught college.

Craven recalled his Wheaton years as a period of both searching and rebellion. "I really frankly was in trouble a lot," he said, explaining that he and about a dozen classmates, while considering themselves Christians, chafed under the college's restrictive interpretation of the faith.

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

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

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

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

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

Asked if he considered himself a religious person now, Craven responded, "I don't do anything in an organized way." Rather, he has come to see filmmaking as the most significant way to express his beliefs and longings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig Detweiler, City of the Angels co-producer, underscored the relevance of Craven's filmmaking for people of faith. "Wes Craven comes from a faith background. He understands Christianity, he understands conservative Christianity," Detweiler said. "He has first-hand experience of what the majority of people of faith in America have experienced and believe."

Craven "was created by the church of the 1950s," Detweiler said. "I think a film like `Nightmare on Elm Street' is a critique of a certain sanitized vision of America that he undoubtedly believes was less than honest."

Detweiler added, "if we're afraid of Freddy Krueger, then we don't stand a chance of dealing with the real everyday fears of what's going on in Afghanistan, what happened Sept. 11 ... what happened in Rwanda, what happened in Vietnam."

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