Oh The Horror Of It All
Wes Craven on human behavior, Sophocles, and westerns
Published December 16, 1999 in Dirt

Since his 1972 nil-budget classic Last House on the Left, Wes Craven has been America's premier chronicler of radical family dysfunction (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and media mind manipulation (Shocker). Unfortunately, Craven's Scream, which has earned approximately $174 million to date, inaugurated the recent, hideous spate of smart-ass slasher films like I Know What You Did Last Summer. Nobody's perfect.

See also...
... by Ian Grey
... in the Dirt section
... from December 16, 1999

Craven's latest release may have been the sentimental Music of the Heart starring Meryl Streep, but the ex-humanities professor can't go very long without talking horror.

GETTINGIT: Are your films just carefree scares, or is there subtext with the gore?

WES CRAVEN: Certain films -- The People Under the Stairs and The Hills Have Eyes, as a matter of fact -- have quite specific political or social subtexts. I think all my films have some sort of a social or psychological and even, if you will, spiritual subtext. For instance, A Nightmare on Elm Street was very much, in my mind, laid out in levels of consciousness as postulated by Gurdjieff. [Laughs] It gives a structure to the films that makes them resonate on deeper levels. When you go off the grids of rational behavior or rational storytelling you're in the area of horror.

GI: Does horror have a function beyond just scaring the pants off our collective selves?

WC: Certainly! In an age when we say that all frontiers have been explored except for space, the frontiers of human consciousness, the wellsprings of human erratic behavior, irrational behavior, and dark behavior, and evil, and cruelty, those things we really don't understand very well at all.

We always think we can legislate a democracy and things will run according to reasonable and conscious behavior -- there won't be human rights violations, for example. And we often find that it all suddenly goes right out the window because of -- we don't know what.

GI: Do your films point fingers to the designated scumbags of society?

WC: Yes. For years and years we've just ignored the people falling through the cracks and instead talked about the American suburban dream. Ultimately, [horror] is cathartic and ancient. I don't know if, when Sophocles wrote Oedipus, people were criticizing him for encouraging kids to gouge their eyes out and sleep with their mothers! You have to give the mass of kids more credit than that. There's also the very distinct possibility that any sort of person could use the movies as an alibi, an excuse. We talk about that explicitly in Scream 2. The impulse is there -- I don't think films make it happen. We're creatures walking around in very soft skins that can be easily penetrated. All the rest will just fly out the window at that point. There is that sense of relief, of almost cheering for the fact that somebody will show blood or unmitigated evil -- somebody who enjoys being evil and is smart.

And also, I think it gives a hero or heroine [or audience] who stands up to that a sense that if you're confronted with that sort of thing, you can conceivably survive -- if you're smart, if you improvise and stick to a perception of what's really going on -- as opposed to what they are telling you. Nightmare was filled with parents saying, "Just sleep! Close your eyes and sleep and everything will be fine!"

GI: So what is the deal with kids today?

WC: I think there has been a real sense -- especially among young people -- of having outlived the entire concept of the God of the Western World, and that is a very lonely feeling when you think you are truly, truly alone in the universe. Then they have to go back and sort of rummage through the dustbins of other religions to try to put together something that means something.

You have skin piercings, tattoos, and all the urban primitives trying to sense the spiritual and the valid. I think that in some sense, horror films can deal with that. We've certainly drawn to the end of the adult serial killer thing, but what Scream was talking about was the idea that the person behind the mask is the kid who sits next to you at school, which is becoming more of a reality.

GI: Scream is on its third installment. Are you bored?

WC: I think it's fun! I don't think it's such a deconstruction of the horror genre as everybody makes it out to be. From Nightmare 7 [a.k.a. Wes Craven's New Nightmare], when I started looking behind the scene, so to speak, it was sort of an inevitable extension of that idea of, "Why make films where people are living in an imaginary world?" (Where they talk about imaginary TV programs or imaginary movies.) Why not talk about what kids talk about?

I think kids are raised in an imaginary media landscape. Again, that's why I think genre films are very attractive -- in a sense that's why gangsta rap and white kids dressing up like black ghetto kids is attractive. People think that they need a sense of authenticity, that they're really experiencing the nitty-gritty. Fight Club is a current example of that.

GI: Are you interested in other genres?

WC: Westerns are trying to come back! [Puts on cowpoke accent] I have a hankerin' to make one m'self. [Drops accent] There's a lot of richness there. The whole American concept of conquering nature, of conquering the frontier, dealing with "the savage."

GI: Why do I have a feeling that if you made a western, white people wouldn't come off too well?

WC: Nobody would come out untainted!

GI: So what do you think we're all freaking out about as the millennium approaches?

WC: For one thing, I think there's almost a longing for something spiritual. The Sixth Sense has that, The Blair Witch Project -- both films are about the ineffable, as opposed to the despicable, the Freddy or Jason or whatever.

But there is that longing for a spiritual presence that will guide us through this millennial change -- Touched by an Angel, to cite a television example. Practically every mail order catalog is chock full of angels.

I just saw Laurie Anderson perform a depiction of Moby Dick, and there's a line in it that she reads -- I wasn't clear if it was her line or from Melville -- but it says, "What is a man when he outlives his God?"

Ian Grey's work has been featured in City Paper, Time Out, Icon, and Fangoria. He is the author of Sex, Stupidity and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry. He is currently at work on an epic novel dealing with sex, pop music, family, and murder, based upon two lines from a mediocre Depeche Mode song.