America's hidden nightmares: Where did Wes Craven's haunting visions come from?

Does it really matter that the Rev. Billy Graham and Hollywood shock-master Wes Craven are both products of Wheaton College, one of America's most important and symbolic evangelical Protestant institutions of any kind?

Well, that depends. On one level -- as someone who has taught in Christian colleges -- I find it interesting that a school as good as Wheaton has not produced legions of excellent screenwriters, journalists, directors, popular musicians, etc. However, the school (and this is normal for the evangelical world) has produced many fine thinkers and scholars, along with armies of people who work in Christian magazines, Christian publishing, Christian video production, Christian public relations, etc.

In a lecture on faith and vocations linked to the creation of culture, I always ask my students to name 10 famous evangelical Hollywood film directors. Then I ask them to do the same with Catholic film directors (devout and struggling). It's not a fair fight.

But back to Craven. At the heart of his most famous work was an image of a monster created by the sins of PARENTS, coming back to slice and dice their CHILDREN, who are attacked while they are, as one critic put it, safe in the "womb" of sleep. And what are those things on the monster's fingers? Surgical curettes?

Craven insisted that the key to his success was an understanding of what Americans fear the most, the subjects that cause intense nightmares of guilt, pain, shame and terror. Children dying because of the sins of their parents? Now that's an interesting vision right after, oh, 1973 or so.

Thus, I was rather stunned that The Los Angeles Times obituary for Craven (1) does not even include a reference to his famous alma mater and (2) did so little to explore the creative urges of this particular superstar director. And the New York Times? Hold that thought.

Here's the key material from the Los Angeles Times piece:

For Craven, making a scary movie was far more than simply a matter of delivering cheap shocks. It was an exercise in societal catharsis, a foray into the audience's collective unconscious.
"I think the genre goes outside the boundaries of reality in many ways in order to get at some central truths and feelings that aren't served well by very factual states," he told The Times in 2010.
"Whether it be psychotic behavior or being possessed or being in a killing rage, whatever it is, these are things that are not part of our rational grid. ... Those things are primordial to the human species, the double curse of being aware of your own existence and being kind of alone in it. Genre films go to those areas, because we're talking about very raw human feelings and perceptions."

OK, I have some follow-up questions that I really would have wanted to ask about all of that, especially in light of his background. Speaking of which, this is what readers were told:

Craven was born in Cleveland on Aug. 2, 1939, and raised by strict Baptist parents who forbade him from watching movies. Earning a master's degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University, he seemed destined for a quiet life in academia. But while working as a humanities professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., Craven fell in love with film at the local art house theater and his life took a dramatic turn.
Radically shifting gears, Craven entered the film business, where he soon found himself writing and directing pornographic films under pseudonyms. Even as he made the transition to the somewhat more respectable horror genre, he maintained his appetite for pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable, even -- or perhaps especially -- if it meant inciting controversy.
Shot for just $90,000, "The Last House on the Left" -- the story of two teenage girls who are taken into the woods and tortured by a violent gang -- was censored in many countries for its extreme sadism and violence.

At the end of the piece, Craven is quoted -- this is kind of the thesis here -- as saying: "I think of horror movies as the disturbed dreams of a society."

In terms of its examination of key themes in Craven's work, the New York Times obituary overlapped quite a bit with the Los Angeles Times piece. However, it did mention the Wheaton connection -- in a strange and incomplete way.

Wesley Earl Craven was born Aug. 2, 1939, in Cleveland to Paul and Caroline Craven. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton and a master’s in philosophy from John Hopkins University and was a professor in Pennsylvania and New York for a short time. ...
In David Konow’s book “Reel Terror,” Mr. Craven said that horror movies had to get under people’s skin in ways they would not expect. He added: “Horror movies have to show us something that hasn’t been shown before so that the audience is completely taken aback. You see, it’s not just that people want to be scared; people are scared.”

Just "Wheaton," as opposed to "Wheaton College." Just "Wheaton," as opposed to "Billy Graham's alma mater." Fascinating.

Was anyone involved in the creation of these pieces intrigued with the radical zig and zag of this man's life and the impact it may have had on his highly profitable and popular pop art? Uh, apparently not.

The Chicago Tribune, in the big city near Wheaton, did run an "appreciation" of Craven under a headline that I am sure raised some eyebrows in Christian higher education: "Wes Craven, Wheaton College's most influential dreamer."

Let the debates begin on that one. Here is a sample from this essay by Michael Phillips. And hey, readers, did you find any NEWS pieces that explored similar territory?

The man in question was raised in a strict evangelical Christian household. "We didn’t smoke, drink, play cards, dance or go to movies," he told one interviewer.
From 1957 to 1963, prior to his Johns Hopkins graduate studies, Craven attended Wheaton College west of Chicago. He once risked explusion to see the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" in a nearby town. ...
At Wheaton, the future horror icon edited the literary magazine known as Kodon, and in 1962, he later recalled, "there were two stories, one about an unwed mother, the other about an interracial couple, that were not well received. After the second issue, (the administration) announced I had been derelict in my duty as editor and that Kodon would cease publication for the year. Our response was Brave Sons, a literary magazine produced off campus that went on for several issues, if I recall."
The Tribune interview went on to quote Robert Warburton, a retired Wheaton College professor of English literature, who said: "I was sympathetic to Craven and his friends because they were asking nothing more than the presence and dynamics of Christians in the modern arts. They wanted to know, 'Where are Christians in the arts? What is our role in film, theater, music and dance?' "

Perhaps some of the serious news reporting on this man's life, and now his death, could have explored that equation just a bit?

After all, that leads to an interesting question: Where are the superstar, culture-shaping film directors and writers from the world of Wheaton and similar institutions? Is this really a situation where only the "black sheep" see visions and tell stories to people sitting in a dream state in dark theaters?

Just asking.

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