Fear is personal. Whether it is heights or rats or failure, what frightens us is as varied as what makes us laugh or what we find beautiful. Taste matters. So do experience and culture. But just as some paintings are simply beautiful regardless of context, certain scares transcend the particular phobias of time and place. It’s the task of the horror movie director to create these enduring images, the ones that not only instantly frighten but endure, sticking in the subconscious and reappearing in dreams. No one has accomplished this as often or as long as Wes Craven. His influential movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and Scream have helped define the billion-dollar modern horror industry. His nightmares have become ours. And they were formed in childhood at a place where most great directors of scary movies found inspiration: at home. His father died when he was three, and the memory that stuck was one of his father’s boiling temper: “It was the first thing that scared me,” Craven says.
His widowed mother, Caroline Craven, ran their house in Cleveland like a totalitarian state: Information flow was closely monitored and order maintained through strict rules enforced by the threat of punishment—the eternal kind. A Baptist pessimist with a ninth-grade education, she had a sad, rigid mouth hardened after a lifetime of tough luck. Her anxiety found its expression in her constantly twirling thumbs. She never remarried or even dated but instead poured all her energy, love and moral rectitude into her children, including the delicate youngest child, Wes. Battling sin was a full-time job—it required vigilance. Suspicion swirled around that house. No cursing! No sex! Forget the movies! Disney cartoons were all that was permitted. His mother refused to talk about race or politics or anything unpleasant. The taboo subjects, particularly sex, obsessed the teenage Craven, who sometimes felt he was going to hell.
He struggled to play the good son, attending Wheaton College, a strict Christian school, at his mother’s insistence. But in his first year there, at the age of 19, he suffered a viral infection in his spine that temporarily paralyzed him from the chest down. He was hospitalized for two months, and in that time, his life changed. He started writing poetry and short stories, some with dark themes. He adored Kafka’s paranoid literary vision. While recuperating he met a redheaded nursing student, Bonnie Broecker, who shared his fundamentalist upbringing, and after he dropped out of Wheaton, they began dating and then got married. He later finished college, and after graduating from Johns Hopkins’s master’s program in philosophy in 1964, Craven, then in his mid-20s, found work as an assistant professor of literature, first in Pennsylvania and then in Potsdam, New York. Continuing to write stories and a novel, he told Bonnie that by the age of 30 he wanted to be on the cover of Time magazine.
Impatient with his career advancement, he increasingly experienced strain in his family life. As their family grew with the birth of one child and then another, so did the culture war simmering inside the marriage. Bonnie was ready for a settled life, while Craven, who now rejected the ideas of his childhood, was searching for something to replace them with, leading to confusion and depressive spells. “I had so much rage as a result of years of being made to be a good boy,” he says. “I think when you’re raised to live within such rigid confines of thought and conduct, you think you are terrible if you violate the rules. It makes you crazy. Or it makes you angry. I’m surprised I never climbed a tower and shot people.”
He moved his family to Brooklyn, hoping to sell his novel, Noah’s Ark: The Journals of a Mad Man, about a sensitive, troubled son of the caretaker at a New York cemetery. No publishers were interested. Money became tight, and his marriage unraveled. Craven moved out, sleeping on couches on the Lower East Side. He’d given up the old religion, but hell still seemed close at hand. He had lost his family, and his dreams appeared out of reach. But by the next spring, his life would turn around. It began with a porn film.
Advertised in newspapers and sold as a mainstream film, Together, which smuggled full-frontal nudity and soft-core action under the guise of an educational documentary about sex, featured a tagline that played on anxieties about the generation gap: “Look for yourself! Judge for yourself! See what your children can show you about love!” It was just the kind of sly provocation that Sean Cunningham loved.
Wearing an easy smile that telegraphed a gregarious personality, Cunningham would become a pioneering horror director in the 1980s with Friday the 13th. But in the summer of 1969, when he met Craven, he had just made the transition from working off Broadway to producing drive-in movies. This first collaboration—Cunningham produced and directed; Craven helped with the editing—launched careers that would dominate the horror genre in the following decades.
Cunningham was charismatic, confident and always hustling. He talked a great game. All he wanted to do was scrape up enough cash to make his movies. He sold Together, which starred Marilyn Chambers, the adult-movie star who eventually gained notoriety in Behind the Green Door, to Hallmark Releasing Group, one of the many small exploitation companies then littering the film landscape, providing a steady stream of smut and brutality to grind-house theaters. The crucial insight of their marketers was that you could get away with anything if you did it in the name of art. They booked Together in shopping malls and suburban complexes. Free screenings were held for local police and civic groups. It opened in August 1971 and ran for 31 weeks at the Rialto Theater in New York. By February of the next year, Together had proved that porn could go mainstream, setting the stage for the blockbuster success of Deep Throat. Cunningham’s goal was to do the same thing with horror, which at the time was considered by many cultural critics to be barely more reputable than pornography.
Seeing some talent in the college professor who helped in the editing room, Cunningham asked Craven to direct the next project. Craven told him he had hardly seen a horror movie, let alone knew how to direct one. “You were raised fundamentalist,” Cunningham assured him. “Use it!”
What Craven came up with became one of the most influential horror movies of all time, The Last House on the Left. It opened when the film industry was changing. Rules about obscenity and violence were in flux. The “midnight movie” was reaching a young audience that embraced underground and cult films. The flesh-eating zombie and the remote serial killer emerged as the new dominant movie monsters, the vampire and werewolf of their day. In the Vietnam era, a new emphasis on realism took hold in the genre long dominated by escapist fantasy, and movies became more graphic.
This cultural shift took place in the same transitional period when some of the most ambitious Hollywood movies were being made. Many of the adventurous mainstream directors who belong to what is known as the New Hollywood got their start in horror. Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Peter Bogdanovich refined their craft on low-budget scares before moving on to what most people in the movie business consider their more mature work. At the same time, another class of directors more committed to the genre was getting started. George Romero, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven reinvented the conventions of the horror film outside of Hollywood, while William Friedkin, Brian De Palma and Roman Polanski smuggled more prestige horror productions into the studio system. Never in the history of the movies had so much talent been put to work frightening audiences.
Not only did the movies during this period address the same questions, but their answers had enough in common that a cohesive form of the genre developed by the end of the 1970s, when Ron Rosenbaum described this school of scary movies in Harper’s magazine. He called it the “New Horror.” Horror, he argued, “seems ready to supplant sex and violence in the hierarchy of mass sensation-seeking.” The popular narrative about the rise of the mainstream studio directors of the New Hollywood is that through the strength of their ideas they defied the bottom line to make something personal. The success of New Horror also depends on the personal visions of a few artists, but the best films were not merely victories by art in its endless battle against commerce. The most formative horror movies, such as The Last House on the Left, were made under tight constraints. Film shoots were quick and budgets shoestring. Auteur analysis tells only part of the story, since the films were also products of compromise and dispute, stitching together spare parts while tweaking old conventions.
Wes Craven felt the forbidden in society needed to be explored, the sins of the father exposed. Cunningham wanted to see lots of blood—up to a point. Their clashing personalities were part of what made Last Housesuch a strange mongrel: a mix of canny marketing and confrontational art, exploitation and political statement.
The tension between the sadistic and the masochistic appeals of the movie was reflected in the divide between Cunningham and Craven. The producer saw Last House as an escape, an outlet for some dormant pain. But Craven, raised in an evangelical household, had a much deeper feel for the allure of self-sacrifice, of seeing abuse and brutality as transcendent. When people go to church, they are not merely escaping pain. They are brave enough to confront it, and that gives them a certain feeling of triumph. The trick was to find scares that could trigger a response from a secular audience looking for the experience of masochism, forcing them to confront the demons not only on-screen but also in themselves. The Last House on the Left challenged one of the most basic assumptions about the relationship between the audience and the filmmaker—namely, that people go to movies to enjoy themselves.
The story is a spin on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, hardly the usual source material for exploitation films. No director connoted European artistic seriousness as much as Bergman. Made only three years after his classic The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring is based on a medieval ballad about a virginal girl abducted in the woods on her way to church. She is raped and killed by three goatherds after her half sister invokes a pagan curse. Craven begins with the same story, but instead of going to church, the young girls head to a kind of secular church for young hipsters, a rock concert in the East Village. The band performing is called Bloodlust. Craven ups the ante on the violence by making the film less about assault than about a kind of beastly humiliation.
The killers don’t just rape the girl. They make her friend watch. Last House focuses on the faces of the victims with an unbearable realism. The killings in this film are not suspenseful or elegantly shot. They are amateurish, designed to maximize the most horrible primal fears. At one point, Krug, the gang leader, forces his victim to pee on herself. The next year a little girl does the same thing in The Exorcist, a movie that would reach (and upset) far more people. “I had sensed that it was one of the most humiliating things that happen to people,” Craven says. “There’s a really deep shame in peeing on yourself. To have someone make you do that, I knew it would be chilling, and when you do something like that, you are announcing, ‘This is not your parents’ Pontiac. This is about nastiness on a very deep level.’ ”
Cunningham says the in-your-face violence was a reaction to movies like Straw Dogs and Dirty Harry that use bloodshed to titillate. Precisely shot storms of bullets and blood are romantically choreographed to reveal a minimum of suffering. Not only are murders clean and quick, but they are accompanied by a variety of moral loopholes. Dustin Hoffman fights back against invaders, but he is standing up for his wife; Clint Eastwood’s vigilantism is at the expense of criminals.
Craven, by contrast, claims the graphic murders were a response to the media’s too delicate treatment of the Vietnam war. Because of the radicalism of the counterculture of the time, such themes were unavoidable. The Virgin Spring is a meditative movie, somber and discreet and littered with religious imagery. The father, yawning while his wife prays, seems barely interested in Christian religion. When he learns of the murder of his daughter, he questions his faith. He is redeemed in the final scene when he returns to the place of the original crime and promises to build a church. When a spring bubbles up over the dead girl, we witness Christian redemption.