Sins of the Fathers: Religion in the Work of Wes Craven | Part 1 — In the Beginning
By Brian Keiper
In a 1982 interview with Alan Jones, Wes Craven noted, “They do say that you write about what you’re closest to and what you experienced first.” What Craven knew first was family turmoil, financial struggle, and a strict fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Craven often and openly dealt with the first two issues in his films, but rarely the third. Still, though he did not often deal directly with religion in his work, it is an undercurrent of much of it and a key to unlocking many of its depths.
Craven’s first memories were of his parents fighting. His father, Paul, left the family when Wes was very young and died of a heart attack at work about a year later. Paul was buried on Wes’s fourth birthday. During the struggles in their marriage, his parents were invited to and became involved with a church. His mother, Caroline, remained devout after her husband left her and their three children. The religious aspect of Craven’s upbringing is often cast in a very negative light, including by Craven himself, but in an interview for the AFI series The Directors, Craven gives a much less harsh perspective:
“It’s very hard to mention it in the general milieu of American thought without people thinking of it as something odd or extreme. But…that was our church and that was very much a second family. So, there was, in a sense about that church, a remarkable sense of stability and shelter. That was the positive side.”
The negative side, considering the career that he would eventually choose, was that, besides Disney films, he was not allowed to see movies; Hollywood films were considered to literally be the work of the devil. Despite this, young Wes became enthralled with film through the Bilten family,(1) close friends of Caroline Craven, who took him in during the day while she was at work. In filmed interviews, Craven’s eyes light up when he discusses Eddie Bilten, whom he described as a surrogate father. Eddie was an amateur photographer and showed Wes how to use an 8mm movie camera. He would also occasionally rent films, mostly newsreels, from the local camera shop for Wes to watch. This, as well as a few Disney films, made up Craven’s early film education.
Disney films should not be discounted as an influence on Craven’s later output. Many of the animated movies released by the studio during his childhood were filled with violence and religious iconography from their fairy tale source material. Images of witches, dragons, and devils appear in several early Disney films. Pinnochio (1940) alone is steeped in horror imagery such as when the boys transform into donkeys on Pleasure Island. Also, the sequences of Monstro the whale are extrapolated directly from the Biblical story of Jonah.
The other important artistic influence of his early years was the local library where he devoured as many books and stories as he could. At a young age, Wes read much of the works of Dostoyevsky, Poe, and Dickens — all of whom often worked with religious themes and imagery. The Western Canon itself is built largely upon images from the Bible and the ancient Greek and Roman myths to underscore its themes.
He decided early on that he wanted to become a writer and pursued this path at Wheaton College, and later Johns Hopkins, along with psychology. These two areas of study worked hand in hand as he began to find his voice. It was also in high school and college that he realized, “I failed to find Jesus, find redemption. I felt I was at fault. [I] had a very dark view of myself.” As he studied for his master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, he made the final move away from Christianity to a kind of non-institutional humanist spirituality that he carried with him for the remainder of his life. The transition from one form of faith to another would take time and struggle. I believe he wrestled with this change on various levels in his art for much of his career and it’s evident in the subtexts of many of his films.
After earning his master’s degree, he transitioned into a brief career as a university professor and taught English at Westminster College and taught humanities at Clarkson College of Technology. Thanks to an art-house theater near the Clarkson campus, the world of cinema was opened to him. He was particularly drawn to the films of Bergman, Buñuel, Fellini, and the new wave masters like Godard and Truffaut. He bought a 16mm camera and worked as an advisor for a student film club, which he enjoyed immensely. He was eventually faced with the choice from his department head to either get serious about getting his doctorate or be fired. He quit teaching to pursue his burgeoning passion for movies and filmmaking.
13 Acres of Earth Directly Over the Center of Hell
Wes Craven could hardly believe what he was hearing about his debut feature. Reports of vomiting and fainting during screenings flooded in from theaters. In at least one instance, a crowd had rushed the projection booth attempting to destroy the film. There was even word that a man had died of a heart attack during one exhibition. He knew he had made a tough film but was completely unaware it had that kind of power. Something about the film had held the mirror up to a society that did not like what it saw. Its reaction was anger, revulsion, and retaliation. Even Craven didn’t know at the time what it all meant. “I think I wrote it more not thinking about it than thinking about it,” he later said.
The Last House on the Left (1972) is without a doubt Craven’s most notorious film. Containing scenes of rape, disemboweling, suicide, oral emasculation, and general sadism, its depiction of violence remains one of the frankest and unflinching in film history. But even a film so “depraved” as this is colored by a great deal of religious thematic content, due in part to Craven’s personal upbringing, and in part to the nature of its source material.
Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) is a film largely about the medieval transition from paganism to Christianity in Sweden, explored through the lens of a folk ballad. The main beats of the plot are the same, but the execution and themes are quite different. It is easy to see why Craven would have been drawn to Bergman’s film. The great Swedish filmmaker had also been raised in a strict religious household and was experiencing a shift from being a person of traditional faith. The Virgin Spring is, at its heart, about that shift, but he would explore it in a much more personal way in his next three films, the so-called “Silence of God Trilogy:” Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963). Though the imagery found in Last House is less overtly religious than in The Virgin Spring, it is still very much present in two ways in particular — one visual, one thematic.
The visual motif found throughout Last House is baptism and cleansing in water. Craven’s Baptist upbringing focused on full immersion baptism in which the “sinner” is submerged entirely underwater and brought back up “cleansed” or “born again.” The symbolism in this tradition of baptism is that of death to the old self and resurrection to the new. This occurs throughout the film. In a sequence that elevates Last House above its reputation, following her rape by Krug, Mari stands and, in a daze, wanders to the edge of the lake. She can be heard speaking the bedtime prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep…” as the song “Now You’re All Alone” begins to play on the soundtrack. Krug, Weasel, and Sadie begin to look at each other and themselves with disgust, picking at the grass that has stuck to the blood on their hands in a vain attempt at self-cleansing. Mari (pronounced “Mary” in the film, undoubtedly a reference to the virgin mother of Jesus), walks into the lake as the trio follows. As she is about to submerge and cleanse herself, Krug cruelly shoots Mari, and she sinks below the surface of the lake. She will not emerge alive.
The trio is then seen washing the blood off their faces and bodies before turning up on the doorstep of John and Estelle Collingwood, Mari’s parents, where they partake in a kind of last supper, clothed in the accouterments of civil society. Their cleansing appears to be a ruse, but the remorse demonstrated in the previous scene leaves an actual redemption within the realm of possibility. Whether they are truly repentant remains up to each viewer, but the film implies that mere ritual does not save or redeem. It doesn’t take long for Krug and company to fall back into their dark tendencies.
The thematic motif has to do with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. To put it simply, it is the belief that all humans are completely and irredeemably evil and can do nothing good apart from God and the saving power of Jesus. Craven does not present this doctrine fully but there is a kind of variation on it. It is not so much that humans are not capable of good, but all are capable of unspeakable evil. The retaliation of John and Estelle Collingwood over the death of their daughter is an illustration of this. They do not merely kill the trio but take every ounce of their pain and anger and visit it sevenfold upon their daughter’s attackers. Weasel is emasculated by Mrs. Collingwood in the most brutal way imaginable. Sadie is thrown into a murky swimming pool, in another reference to baptism, and her throat is slashed. Krug is electrocuted by a booby trap set by John before being killed with a chain saw.
In The Virgin Spring, the vengeful father vows to build a church and a spring of freshwater begins to flow, implying his redemption for his acts of killing his daughter’s killers. As The Last House on the Left ends, there is no moment of cleansing for the Collingwoods. The police enter to find them covered in blood that will likely stain them for life and eternity.
The film is a dark and brutal reflection on violence, the Vietnam War, repression, and instinct. It stares into the darkest depths of human depravity and refuses to let us look away. It forces us to ask questions that we do not want to ask of ourselves.
“What if such a thing came into our lives, how would we cope with it? Would we have the strength? What emotional tools could we bring to it? Would we be able to pick up a gun or a bar of steel? What would we do to defend our children or our house? It raises very deep questions. And then of course, who would we be afterward, even if we succeeded? That’s the power of Last House.”
Silence and Desolation
The success of The Last House on the Left proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Craven’s first movie was a hit and caused quite a stir. It started the conversation that Craven hoped for: a discussion and debate about the portrayal of violence in media, particularly in relation to the Vietnam War and the kinds of images broadcast on the nightly news compared to what was being portrayed in movies. On the other hand, Craven and his producer Sean S. Cunningham became social pariahs. Craven often noted that people would get up and leave when they found out he had made the shocking and controversial picture. Like many filmmakers, he hoped that a successful movie would open opportunities to make different kinds of films and explore other interests. Instead, Last House would typecast Craven solely as a horror filmmaker for the rest of his career, a label he continuously attempted to remove from himself with little success. Reflecting on this many years after the fact, Craven said, “It [Last House] allowed me to be bad for the first time in my life, I think. And that brought a lot of power. Just unleashed it. And I had to force myself to go back to it for many years of my career. At a certain point, I embraced it.”
Ironically, before making Last House, Craven was not a horror fan and had only seen one horror film: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Having spent most of his film education in the art house, he was not prepared for the kind of audience reaction found in the grindhouse. But while viewing the film, he also realized that Romero was saying a great deal about subjects Craven was interested in, like the counterculture, the War, and race in America. “Something about these films…they just brought out an energy and an insight and a power…it was undeniable.”
Craven tried to sell a second film, decidedly outside of the horror genre, titled Mustang but was turned down time and again. Investors wanted another Last House; eventually, Craven gave in and wrote a second script, but on his own terms. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) covers similar themes to Last House but is more refined in every sense. It is very loosely based on the legend of the Sawney Bean family, a clan of cannibals in medieval Scotland that supposedly preyed on travelers that wandered into their territory. If this legend sounds familiar beyond Hills, it also bears a striking similarity to a film that was a great influence on Craven following the making of Last House: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Craven was completely enamored by the film and it greatly influenced his script and direction of Hills. Both movies also tap the rich vein of inspiration for horror that is the classic fairy tale. These films have a great deal in common with the dark and disturbing children’s stories collected by the Grimm Brothers, particularly “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel.”
From the very beginning, the Carter family is warned to “stay on the main road” because, figuratively, the Big Bad Wolf is out there. In this case, it is Jupiter and his clan — most of whom are named after pagan Roman deities: Mercury, Mars, and Pluto in addition to their leader. Jupiter is described as being born a giant, covered in hair, evocative of the Biblical personage Esau, who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of stew. Esau is described as the father of the Canaanites, the enemies of God’s chosen people, and bears the designation of the only person in scripture to be “hated” by God. Jupiter’s clan represents the savage, the un-civil. They are Krug and his “family” of Last House raised to the nth degree.
The Carters, on the other hand, are typical American lapsed Christians. The only member of the family who maintains any devotion to her faith is the matriarch Ethel, of which Craven said, “that mother was like my mother.” She warns her husband, Big Bob, to “watch your language, and your heart too.” Though she is referring to his physical heart, which cannot take the strain, there is a sense that she is warning him to watch his spiritual heart as well. She also calls the family to join in prayer before they split up to find help. Her daughter scoffs, “oh mother, for crying in a bucket.” But she responds, “just to ask the Lord to watch over us all. Is that too much to ask? Bob?” The family then stands in a huddle, arms over each other’s shoulders in a very fundamentalist Baptist way as Bob intones a rather rote prayer, “Heavenly Father, watch over us for the rest of this day. Keep us in Thy care in Jesus’ name. Amen,” including the archaic language of religion over faith.
A central symbol of the film is the two German Shepherds: Beauty and Beast. Not long after this prayer, Beauty runs off and is soon found by son Bobby not only dead but gutted, clearly by a human. Beauty represents civility. Beast represents primal nature. When Beauty is destroyed, all that remains is the Beast. And as the Carter family is pushed further and further over the edge by the savagery of Jupiter’s clan, the beauty and civility within them die, allowing the beast to emerge.
Again, we find the central theme of total depravity, but as with Last House, the depraved are also given room for goodness. Krug, Weasel, and Sadie express regret and disgust at their acts. This is not the case with Mars, Pluto, and Jupiter, but the character of Ruby represents the goodness in this family. She is quite literally a shining jewel in the midst of the unrelenting desolation of both her desert home and her savage family. That savagery is on fullest display in two scenes in particular. In one, Big Bob is crucified on a Joshua tree and set on fire. In this, the Roman names are appropriate. The brutal practice of crucifixion was invented by the Romans, and the historical persecution of Christians under Emperor Nero, who would set early Christians on fire to light his banquets, is well documented. The other is the brutal sacking of the trailer that results in the death of Doug’s wife Lynne (Dee Wallace) and the kidnapping of their baby.
Following this scene, Doug (Martin Speer) cries, “give me back my baby, my Catherine!” But he is left alone in the darkness. The camera is at a great distance as though he is completely alone, heard by no one and answered by no one — including God. There are several moments like this in The Hills Have Eyes. Sometimes they are being watched by the feral family from a distance, but there is also a sense in these shots that the Carters are utterly alone. All that surrounds them is harsh, unrelenting wilderness and, in an echo once again of the work of Ingmar Bergman, the unbearable silence of God.
In its original version, the last two sequences of the film were reversed with the film climaxing with the explosion of the trailer and the death of Jupiter. However, there is far greater power in the final version. When Doug pursues Mars among the rocks and searches for his child, we see the fragile veneer of civility strip away. Beast kills Pluto (Michael Berryman) savagely. Ruby uses a snake (another important Biblical symbol) to paralyze Mars and rescues baby Catherine from him. Finally, Doug stabs Mars with his own knife and the film ends on Doug’s face, which has become every bit as savage and uncivil as Mars, Pluto, or Jupiter. As the shot fades to red (rather than black), we are left with the realization of the fragility of our own morality if we were pushed to the edge.
Though The Hills Have Eyes differs greatly in plot, it is in many ways a much more polished thematic remake of The Last House on the Left. However, Craven’s skills both as a writer and director increased exponentially between the two films. Hills carries every bit of the power of the earlier film with far less gore, far more suspense, much stronger acting, much-improved camera work, editing, and score among other elements. Where Last House closed doors for him, Hills would open them, giving him opportunities for work on television and studio films. As with Last House, this would prove to be a double-edged sword.
Leaving the Way
Following The Hills Have Eyes, Craven’s entrée into studio filmmaking was opened to not just one, but three much larger scale opportunities. The first (and in some ways the best) was a television film originally aired as Stranger in Our House (1978), based on a young adult novel by Lois Duncan (who also penned the basis for 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer among others) and starring Linda Blair, best known for The Exorcist (1973). The film also received a limited theatrical release under the title Summer of Fear. Based on its success, Craven was given the opportunity to develop a minor DC Comics property for the screen — Swamp Thing (1982), a film that ultimately stalled Craven’s career for a time. During the long writing and development of Swamp Thing, Craven was presented with a property that seemed right up his alley, a film involving dreams (an abiding interest), the nature of belief, a fundamentalist sect, and the consequences of leaving it. Deadly Blessing (1981) would be one of only a few times that Craven would directly deal with religion. Though the result is a bit bland, especially compared to his first two features, it certainly has its moments, both of fright and of our subject of religious context.
The film involves a fundamentalist Christian sect called the Hittites that “make the Amish look like swingers” according to Lana, played by Sharon Stone. The film begins with the mysterious murder of a former member of the community, Jim, who was the first Hittite to go away to school in the city. When he returned with his fiancée Martha by his side, his father Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine) shunned him for “leaving the way.” After getting married, Jim and Martha continue to live on a farm on Hittite land. The angry sectarians call Martha “Incubus,” a sort of demon that they believe has possessed her to lure Jim away from the Hittites. When Jim is found dead, it is assumed, but cannot be proven, that a member of the Hittite sect has murdered him in an attempt to save his soul from the “evil” influence of Martha and the outside world.
Craven must have surely related to the character of Jim, and later, his brother John. As stated earlier, Craven’s involvement with the fundamentalist community of his youth was like being part of a second family. To leave it certainly would have been a difficult and even painful process. But he felt that to stay attached to a system of belief that he had not experienced and felt no connection to was far more damaging. In the film, though not overtly stated, Jim and Martha seem to still hold to a form of belief but express it in a different way. Craven as well continued to adhere to a form of humanist spirituality that would have surely offended the sensibilities of the extended family of his childhood.
In a key scene later in the film, Martha’s friend Vickey, asks Isaiah’s second son John to partake in an ultimate sin — to go to a movie with her. John’s fiancée, the devout Melissa, overhears. John promises to never speak to Vickey again and tells Melissa that he only wants to be with her. He also confesses that he is finding it difficult to wait to be with her until after their wedding. The linking of the two forbidden acts of going to a movie and pre-marital sex speaks to the heart of the kind of repression Craven experienced at a young age. Ultimately, this repression makes the forbidden fruit all the more tempting, drawing a parallel to one of the weapons of choice of the film’s killer: a snake.
The imagery of snakes in Craven’s films is curious and fascinating. They were clearly on his mind. As depicted in the third chapter of Genesis, the snake represents temptation and deception, but also desire. In Craven, they also have a sensual quality before turning deadly. The motif would begin even before the rattler used to paralyze Mars in The Hills Have Eyes with the pornographic film Craven made in a deal to get Hills made. Not only is The Fireworks Woman (1975) the first film Craven made that directly dealt with religion and repression within it, but he made it under the pseudonym (a form of deception in itself) Abe Snake. In Hills, Ruby uses the snake on Mars in an act of betrayal against her family. In Deadly Blessing, a snake is put into Martha’s bathtub in a scene that will look remarkably familiar to fans of Craven’s work. Later, strong snake imagery would return in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).
Deadly Blessing also puts into figurative terms what Last House and Hills expressed literally — the act of leaving the path. As mentioned before, in the fairy tales that infuse so much horror, staying on the path is a key theme and moral. Marion Crane in Psycho (1960) is Little Red Riding Hood who even encounters a wolf dressed as “grandma.” Franklin and Sally (and company) in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are Hansel and Gretel wandering into the strange home of a cannibal witch. In Last House, the girls encounter danger when they leave the safety of their world to score some illegal drugs from Junior who leads them to Krug. The Carters are warned to “stay on the main road” before they encounter Jupiter’s clan. In Deadly Blessing, “leaving the path” is far more symbolic. It means leaving the narrow confines of the strict belief system of the Hittites (or Craven’s own Baptist upbringing) and exploring belief in a far more complex manner.
The ending of the film is a strange element. According to Craven, “I did the ending as a send-up. It became quite apparent early on that having an ending with the girls just saying goodbye to each other wouldn’t be enough. To my astonishment, the producers gave in to my demand for a new ending, despite it being off-the-wall, to say the least.” This ending is an odd choice on Craven’s part, so much so that it is often assumed that it was forced upon him by his producers and the studio. Much of the film is a harsh criticism of the prison of inflexible religion and a Pharisaic, judgmentalism outlook on the world. The thesis of the film is that there is no Incubus — only human depravity. Craven, at the vehement opposition of the writers of the source material and script, added a “scary” ending to the movie in which the Incubus rises from beneath the floorboards and drags Martha to hell. It is an ending that completely undermines the entire point of the movie and vindicates the Hittites, who are set up as rigid and cruel villains throughout the film.
Deadly Blessing is flawed to be sure but does plant several important seeds for the future of Craven’s career. He proved that he could work both with promising newcomers like Stone and screen veterans like Borgnine. He was very capable of creating intense suspense sequences as illustrated by the terrifying barn and bathtub scenes. Maybe most important of all, he could create a reality-blurring dream sequence with indelible imagery. The description of the Incubus itself as “some sort of devil that seduces the faithful in his sleep” should cause a few goosebumps for any Craven fan. It was during this time that he began work on creating a version of the Incubus that would be far more potent than the one depicted in Deadly Blessing.
With these three films, Craven set the stage for his greatest triumphs and disappointments to come. The themes initiated in these movies would echo all the way to his final film in 2011, particularly family, repression, and the undercurrent of religion and spirituality. In a sense, it is more religion versus spirituality — the nature of dogma pitted against true belief in something greater than oneself, whatever form that may take. After the disappointing showing at the box office by both Deadly Blessing (though it did turn a small profit) and Swamp Thing, Craven would fall to the lowest point in his career. But his next major film would be, not only a personal masterpiece but an unprecedented second seismic shift in horror history from a burgeoning master. 🩸
(1) According to some sources, Eddie and Dorothy’s last name was Dalton.
Directors, The: The Films of Wes Craven. Robert J. Emery, dir., American Film Institute. 1999
Hutson, Thommy. Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, The Making of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Permuted Press, LLC. New York, NY. 2016
Still Standing: The Legacy of The Last House on the Left. (Interview with Wes Craven). MGM Home Entertainment. 2011
Wes Craven Interviews. Skelton, Shannon Blake, editor. The University Press of Mississippi. 2019
Wooley, John. Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ. 2011
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.
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