Wes Craven meant a lot of things to a lot of people. I have spent the last week mourning his passing and reading obituary after obituary, part of me hoping that this was all some hoax; that Craven’s fight with brain cancer had not come to an inevitable end. Each obituary said and did largely the same thing, they talk about Craven’s humble beginnings and praise him for his (mostly) phenomenal oeuvre. There were a few standouts chief among them Edgar Wright’s moving tribute and, for me at least, Staci Sturrock’s piece for the Palm Beach Post. With so many obituaries out there, I feel confident that you, dear reader, can find all the information about Mr. Craven than you even knew you wanted. Instead, I’m going to attempt to send off Mr. Craven Irish Wake style, with some fond reminiscences and a shot of whiskey.
A memory: A few nights before Halloween, I sit in my room fiddling with my television outside my room my parents and their friends are having a costume party (my mother dressed as a black-eyed pea). At first there is static, and something just beyond the static. My hands work the rabbit ears that sit atop the television with the static-filled screen. There! An image resolves itself amidst the static snow storm. I see: a teenaged boy, wearing headphones and lying on top of his bed. His bedroom is cluttered, like mine, and he seems very comfortable with his television on his stomach and headphones resting snugly on his ears. Something reaches up through the bed, a hand with finger-knives attached to a long red arm. It pulls the young man, clad in a number 10 jersey, into the bed. The television, blankets, sheets and his screams are pulled down into bed. A shot of a girl screaming and then the blood. It pours lazily up from the hole in the bed. My mind, trying to comprehend what it is seeing: this is more blood than should be in a person, there can’t be that much blood in a person, why is there so much blood? My eyes are locked on the screen watching the blood fill up the ceiling. It was incomprehensible, amazing and horrifying and it blew my mind. I had never seen anything remotely like this before. I am at first transfixed, and then overwhelmed. Static fills the screen, the antennae slipping from my grasp as I try desperately to process what I had just seen.
This was my introduction to Wes Craven and to the Nightmare on Elm Street series. This was the moment that cemented me as a true horror fan, because I realized in that moment that I wanted that feeling, the feeling of revulsion that makes your skin crawl and turns quickly into the stomach-tickling thrill of fear at seeing something you can’t understand, back. I tried to get the picture back on the screen but it never returned that night, no matter how much tin foil I balled up on to the rabbit ears.
Now that I am older I recognize that Wes Craven was there, lurking in the background, of my whole life. I can remember making friends with a kid at the apartment complex where we lived for a while before moving into a house. His name was Anthony and the first time I came over house (age 6 or so), his dad had on Shocker. I was transfixed watching a man being chased through television channels until Anthony got bored and we went outside. At the age of 11 or so, my friend was convinced that Freddy was in his house and scared the beejeezus out of me and himself when he saw a stranger in his house (turned out to be his reflection in a mirror, but you can never tell…mirrors are tricky beings). I remember going with my friends to see Scream and having to sneak in because it was R rated and we were not old enough to get in. Totally worth it. I remember discovering The Serpent and the Rainbow after coming back from our first vacation to New Orleans. That movie is so much scarier when you know what’s going on, that it really is all based in a religion that many treat as pure fact. I can remember also seeing the People Under the Stairs at my friend’s house and his dad drunkenly trying to explain what a gimp suit was.
I also credit my love of grindhouse cinema to Mr. Craven. While in college, I found a copy of The Last House on the Left and a copy of I Spit on your Grave (Day of the Woman) at a store that sold VHS tapes. I brought them back to the dorm and watched them back to back. They were hard to watch, testing my resolve many times. In the end though, I ejected the tape (LHotL was second and that was the right choice) with the understanding that these films exist to do just that, test our resolve and to make us examine the darker side of life (also revenge). It seemed right that cinema should be able to do that, to tell great stories that exalt the highest highs and to shed light on the worm and insect filled earth under the rocks.
Wes Craven told stories that did all those things, and were a hell of a lot of fun (even his worst films are better than average). Throughout my formative years, and yours, Craven was there filling our lives with fear and minds with horrors that our brains would use to create some amazing nightmares and we owe him everything for that service. So thank you Mr. Craven, thank you for showing me fear and helping me to love it. Thank you for everything. We will see you in our dreams.