Sins of the Fathers: Religion in the Work of Wes Craven | Epiphany

Manor Vellum
25 min readApr 23, 2021

By Brian Keiper


Sins of the Fathers: Religion in the Work of Wes Craven | In the Beginning

Starting in 1984, Wes Craven’s career took a definite shift. In the ten intervening years between the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), his interests remain remarkably consistent. Several themes, particularly various forms of family, villains of extreme depravity, and various religious undercurrents carried over from his earliest films. But now instead of purely human villains and real-world settings (1982’s Swamp Thing excepted), he turned his attention to the blurring of various realities. He became less interested in what he called “consensus reality” and more interested in the hazy spaces between waking life and dreams, sobriety and hallucination, the truth and media distortions, and even life and death.

The religious imagery used in his films also shifted considerably from that of the Evangelical Protestantism he grew up with, to being far more Catholic in iconography. These films are filled with crucifixes, Virgin Mary angel-like characters, and flowing blood. There is also a great deal of hell imagery in these films, from Freddy Krueger’s boiler room to Paytraud’s dungeon lair in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) to the labyrinthine house filled with dark secret passages in The People Under the Stairs (1991). But these images are much more akin to the vision of Dante than twentieth-century Baptists.

Nine Circles of Hell based on ‘Inferno’ from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ (Italy c. 1420–1430).

The period ultimately became the most productive and varied of Craven’s entire career, but it started with the longest dry spell he would ever experience. Following the taxing shoot of Swamp Thing, he decided to take a break and focus on writing. Compared to his take on Last House (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), he had been paid well for Deadly Blessing (1981) and Swamp Thing and felt financially secure enough to dig into his passion project. It was a film about things that had always fascinated him — family structures, dreams, and the primal instincts of humanity both good and bad. He knew he had written something special and began shopping it around to studios. Unfortunately, no one agreed. Even his close friend Sean Cunningham, who had now found great success with the Friday the 13th franchise, was skeptical. “I was really concerned about the script for Nightmare — I just didn’t know if anybody would believe that dreams could interact with real life,” Cunningham later said.

Before long, Craven’s money ran out, and he found that he had waited too long. No one would hire him. He later joked that he would have made “Godzilla Goes to Paris” if it meant working. Instead, he wrote and directed The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, filmed in 1983 and released in 1985, a work he essentially disowned (I have become something of an apologist for this film. Though nowhere near the greatness of the original, it is a decent, though fairly typical, slasher film that is better than its reputation). In early 1984, he was also given the opportunity to make another television film, the bland but entertaining Invitation to Hell, starring Robert Urich and daytime idol Susan Lucci.

The only producer who believed in his passion project at all was the founder of a small distribution company in New York who had only made one film of their own to date. Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema put every penny and then some into making the film. Unbeknownst to anyone involved, Wes Craven was about to completely change the face of horror for the second time in his career.

If I Die Before I Wake…

The very premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street is rooted in the Biblical idea of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. The well-known, though often only partially quoted, passage is found in Exodus 20:5–6 (and a few other places in the books of Moses) and is linked to the second commandment of the famous ten. Following the warning to not make graven images, God says, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”(1) Craven deftly takes this idea and uses it to comment on American life and the continuing habit of each generation to sweep its national problems under the rug, leaving them to haunt the next.

Like George Romero, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter, Craven seems to indicate that the 60’s generation traded in their activism and political idealism for the Reagan version of the American dream of tract housing, picket fences, and upward mobility. Beneath this civil veneer (also a theme in Craven’s work) lay the festering corpses of issues waiting to rise again and destroy their children. Romero expressed this in Day of the Dead (1985), Hooper in Poltergeist (1982), and Carpenter in They Live (1988), all excellent films, but A Nightmare on Elm Street and the embodiment of those buried sins that is Freddy Krueger struck a chord that became so instantly iconic that it shook the very foundations of horror.

Craven on the set of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) with Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger).

Freddy is an extension and perfection of earlier Craven villains, particularly Krug from Last House, Jupiter from Hills, and the Incubus from Deadly Blessing. He is the essence of human depravity and the dark father, a character embedded deeply in Craven’s psyche. “I was very afraid of my father and I only have two or three memories and they’re all fear-based. That idea of the father figure that is threatening as opposed to protective is a very powerful figure to me, and that’s in a lot of my films.” This is very clear in Krug who hooks his own son on heroin to keep control over him and Jupiter who rules over his demented clan through fear. These elements, along with a memory of a derelict in a fedora and overcoat that scared him as a child, were coalesced into the ultimate distillation of evil. “I just felt that Freddy was the paradigm of the threatening adult. Freddy stood for the savage side of male adulthood. He was the ultimate bad father.”

Though the sequels would water the character down by making him “the bastard son of 100 maniacs,” creating an excuse for his evil, Craven’s original version is much darker: a human that preyed on innocents — molested them, tortured them, murdered them, and enjoyed every moment of it. Freddy relished in his evil acts so much that he found a way to continue them even after death, drawing his prey to himself and his boiler room in their dreams. The boiler room lair is something like a cross between the labyrinth that housed the Minotaur in Greek mythology and the Christian notion of Gehenna, the burning worm-infested place of eternal torment more commonly called Hell.

What Freddy does not count on is Nancy Thompson. Nancy is the personification of the warrior. As actress Heather Langenkamp has described, even Nancy’s pajamas are a kind of battle armor, a choice that also has religious roots. In a way, it is a representation of putting on the armor of God described in Ephesians chapter 6:10–20, a figurative covering of truth, righteousness, faith, and salvation. By putting on her battle armor, praying the “bedtime prayer” (ubiquitous in Craven’s films) as she lies down, and heading into Freddy’s territory, Nancy is facing the devil on his own turf. It has also been noted that the description of this armor in Ephesians has no back pieces, indicating that the spiritual warrior does not run from a battle. Neither does Nancy. And like the spiritual warrior described, Nancy’s battle is “not against flesh and blood,” but against a personification of a much greater evil. In running to the battle, Nancy completely redefined the “final girl” by being proactive rather than reactionary. Also, she is not saved at the last minute by an “adult savior” but learns how to overcome Freddy on her own from lessons along the journey. The adults, especially parents, fail miserably at every turn in the film.

Scenes from Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984).

Which brings us to another key image of the film — blood. Blood means several things in the context of this film, beyond the gore factor of a horror movie. First, there is much more of it in the death scenes of Tina and Glenn than would actually come from a single human being, drawing attention to a greater significance. Blood means family connections, life and the loss of it, and sacrifice. It is a key Christian symbol. In some contexts, it stains. In others, it cleanses. Family ties are the strongest blood symbol of the film. Most of the families in Nightmare are broken, ripped apart by Krueger’s acts of years before, and by the acts of the parents in taking justice into their own hands and taking a human life, no matter how loathsome. The parents in this film are very much like the Collingwoods of Last House, stained in blood after taking revenge on Krug and company. The blood may be washed from their hands, but the unseen stains remain. Nancy is determined not to allow the sins of her parents to be a curse on her.

The power of Nancy’s victory is that she discovers Freddy’s strength comes from fear. By deciding to no longer be afraid, Nancy overcomes his power. Unfortunately, this victory is undermined by the film’s tacked-on shock ending. “The ghost of Carrie haunts us all,” Craven noted on several occasions, referring to the famous jump scare ending of Brian DePalma’s great film. Originally, Nancy was to rejoin her friends in the car and simply drive off into the fog with the camera panning to the girls in white as they jump rope and chant the famous “one, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” rhyme. This ending would have kept Nancy’s victory intact while also leaving the audience on an unsettled and ambiguous note. It would also serve as a mirror to the early sequence in which Glenn’s car emerges from the fog near the school where the girls in white are first seen and the rhyme first heard. Craven’s career would be plagued by studio interference like this all the way up to Scream 4 (2011), but for me, this ending is the one that hurts the most, and damages, what is to me, Craven’s masterpiece.

Don’t Let Them Bury Me, I’m Not Dead

Following the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, several opportunities opened for Craven. He became a key director for the 1985 reboot of The Twilight Zone, helming some of the series’ most prestigious episodes, including “Shatterday” starring a young Bruce Willis and based on one of Harlan Ellison’s (the show’s creative consultant) best-known stories. He was given the opportunity to develop Deadly Friend (1986) for Warner Brothers, a film originally intended as a family film. Warner Brothers, however, wanted a bankable horror film that they could market as “from the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street” as well as a shock ending and a memorable gore scene involving a basketball, making for an extremely uneven film. More television work also came his way, including the movie-of-the-week, Chiller (1985), and even a film for The Wonderful World of Disney titled Casebusters (1986), clearly intended as the pilot for a series (Casebusters is currently streaming on Disney+ for the Craven completists out there).

The next film that made much of a splash, however, was the exploration of Haitian culture and the vodoun (voodoo) religion in The Serpent and the Rainbow, based on the book by anthropologist Wade Davis. It is also one of only three (if you include his 1975 pseudonymously directed The Fireworks Woman) of Craven films to deal directly with religion. Serpent is largely about the rituals surrounding death and the nature of the soul. In the beginning, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) believes that “the soul begins and ends with the brain.” By the end of the film, he isn’t so sure. It is about life and death, the mysterious area between them, and what lies beyond. The title itself refers to earth, the serpent, and heaven, the rainbow. Humanity exists between the two both physically and metaphysically. We are a people of lower demons and higher angels, a thousand shades of grey.

Craven (R) on the set of ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1984) with crew members.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a film filled with graves. It begins with Christoph (Conrad Roberts) being put into a coffin and buried. Dr. Alan is dragged underground in a hallucination he has while on an assignment in South America. In Haiti, he falls into an open grave and coffin as Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) begins revealing the process behind zombification to him. Later, Alan dreams that he is in a coffin that fills with blood. When he is poisoned with the zombie powder himself, Alan is buried. As he is being dug up by Christoph, his hand breaks through a cross in the coffin lid evoking Christ overcoming the power of his death by crucifixion in the Resurrection, in effect breaking the power of the cross.

It also beautifully articulates the debate about the compatibility of science and religion. For Dr. Alan, the fictional stand-in for Wade Davis, there is no compatibility. For Haitian doctor and devoted voodoo practitioner Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), “there is no conflict between my science and my faith.” She goes on to describe the Haitian concept of God. “You can give it whatever words you will, but in Haiti, our God is not just in His heaven. He’s in our bodies, our flesh.” The sequence that follows is one of the most beautiful in any Craven film as Duchamp takes Alan on a tour of Haitian vodoun, beginning with local churches where she tells him, “Haiti is 85% Catholic, but 110% voodoo. For us, Erzulie [the voodoo goddess of femininity] and the Virgin Mary are the same.” They then follow a pilgrimage of believers to a natural “cathedral,” a cave filled with waters that Marielle describes as having healing properties.

Serpent is one of the only American films to attempt to deal with vodoun as it really is. Craven worked closely with Wade Davis, who was able to connect the filmmaker with real practitioners of the religion and many of them appear in the film. Vodoun arose from a comingling of the ancient magic-based religions of African slaves in Haiti and the Catholic faith of their French masters. After the only successful slave revolt in world history, Haiti became an independent nation and this new expression of faith remained intact. Beyond the dolls, hexes, and zombies of earlier films, Serpent attempts to show the nuances of this complex religion, both the light and the dark.

Scenes from Craven’s ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1988).

In contrast to the beauty of the pilgrimage scene, The Serpent and the Rainbow features a demonic character in the form of warlord and black magic practitioner Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae). Like Freddy Krueger before him and Horace Pinker to come, Peytraud inhabits a subterranean lair where he keeps prisoners, tortures dissidents, and practices his dark arts among altars built from skulls and bones. Like Freddy, he even enters the thoughts of Dr. Alan in an attempt to destroy him.

Studio pressures led Craven to include more outright horror elements in Serpent, especially in the third act, than he originally intended. Alan works his way through a heightened, nightmare reality of Peytraud’s lair, which lands somewhere between Freddy’s boiler room and the hell dungeon of New Nightmare. The imagery of fire, the crucifixion-evoking torture chair that comes to life, and the altars of piled skulls are quite effective. The extending arms of the prisoners reaching out of their cells evoke further images from Nightmare on Elm Street. Perhaps the most effective horror image is the corpse bride with the snake protruding from its mouth. As discussed in part one, the snake remains an extremely powerful religious symbol and a regular image in Craven’s films.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

By 1988, Freddy Krueger had become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, worth millions. But the cash-strapped and desperate Craven had sold off his stake in the character to New Line back in 1984 for a relative pittance. It is clear that Shocker (1989) was an attempt to jumpstart and control a new franchise with a new villainous icon, Horace Pinker, played by Mitch Pileggi.

Shocker has a lot of big ideas going for it but because of that, it’s unfortunately unfocused and about twenty minutes too long. However, what the film does get right, it gets very right, even if it meanders in execution. The opening sequence of Pinker working in his shop is very reminiscent of Krueger building his glove in Nightmare and his dark maze of a lair was becoming a staple of Craven villains. In this case, the hellscape is one of televisions and media — the main political theme of Shocker. Like most of the films in this period of Craven’s work, it also blurs the lines between the waking world and dreams, filtering it through a media haze in the process.

Craven on the set of ‘Shocker’ (1989) with Mitch Pileggi (Horace Pinker) and Peter Berg (Jonathan Parker).

The religious themes come through in two main ways. First, the angelic character of Allison stands in stark contrast to the demonic Pinker, who possesses people in order to continue his murder spree. Allison has the power to exorcise Pinker from those he possesses through a necklace that Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) gave her before she was killed by Pinker. It is ultimately an expression of the power of love over hatred. Camille Cooper’s performance as Allison is earnest, making what could be seen as an overly sentimental element of the film ultimately work.

The far more powerful religious concept in the film is the theme of generational curses. The fundamentalist teaching of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children and teased in the subtext of A Nightmare on Elm Street is dealt with head-on in Shocker. The belief in generational curses is strangely common in certain sects of fundamentalist Christianity but rejected by the vast majority of mainline Christian denominations. This is a simplified explanation, but ultimately, generational curses are the belief that a person is cursed with the sins of their family line. If their father was a drunk, an abuser, or, as in the case of Shocker, a murderer, the child is destined to be as well. It is the passage from Exodus, quoted earlier in this article, taken to a wooden literal extreme. Craven explicitly rejects this doctrine in the film. Pinker reveals that he is Jonathan’s father as he is strapped into the electric chair and describes the night that Jonathan shot him in the knee after Pinker killed his mother. “Such a big gun just blastin’ away at your daddy with murder in your eyes. Like father, like son, huh?”

Scenes from Craven’s ‘Shocker’ (1989).

At the end of the film, after battling through multiple television scenarios, Jonathan traps Pinker and has the opportunity to kill him. Pinker even encourages him to do so. Instead, Jonathan throws his knife out the window. “It’s not my style,” he says. Pinker responds, “it is your style. You’re a chip off the old block, like it or not.” Jonathan then lays out Craven’s rejection of the generational curse dogma. “Maybe you were my father, but you know who my father is now? You know who’s responsible for me? Me. No one else.” Through this film and the one that followed, Craven seems to be exorcising the last repressive elements of his upbringing that lurked somewhere in his psyche, years after taking a different spiritual path.

See No Evil

Through an arrangement with Alive Films and Universal Pictures, Craven had a contract to produce five films with low budgets but complete creative control. He ultimately made two before Alive dissolved. The first was Shocker, which was reasonably successful, but not successful enough to launch the franchise that he hoped would rival A Nightmare on Elm Street. The second film is maybe the most Wes Craven of all Wes Craven films, The People Under the Stairs. It is the culmination of the kinds of themes that Craven had spent his entire career exploring: family, human depravity, the thin veneer of civility, blurring of realities, and more. Though its primary messages are political, there are plenty of religious underpinnings to discuss.

Craven on the set of ‘The People Under the Stairs’ (1989) with Wendy Robie (“Mommy”) and Everett McGill (“Daddy”).

As with the character of Allison in Shocker, there is an angelic element to Alice (A.J. Langer). In this case, however, she is not fully formed. She must learn her strength from Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams), the Black boy who breaks into the home of her parents, called “Man” (Everett McGill) and “Woman” (Wendy Robie) in the credits, but often referring to each other as “Daddy” and “Mommy.” Mommy describes Alice as “our little angel.” Alice (a reference to Alice in Wonderland to be sure) has been completely isolated from the outside world. She is unaware that other people even exist beyond the few that Man and Woman have captured and brought into the house. She has never seen a Black person before Fool and Leroy (Ving Rhames) enter the house. She is a complete innocent who has been instructed how to survive. “I do not see or hear or speak evil.” Alice is compassionate and makes dolls to “hold the souls of those who saw too much when they died.” Fool teaches her how to find the bravery she has within her to overcome the oppressive Mommy and Daddy who hold her captive. By the end, she becomes much more like the fierce and protective angels depicted in the Bible.

Mommy and Daddy represent the repressive, isolating, and judgmental element of Craven’s upbringing. Craven grew up fearing the wrath of God and the fires of hell, especially because he never experienced the kind of connection with Jesus described by the church as necessary for salvation. These characters expose the hypocrisy of those who profess a faith but in no way live it out. They kidnap, murder, torture, and abuse. One of the most horrifying scenes in the film is Mommy thrusting Alice into a scalding hot bath to clean the blood off her white dress. “It’s hot!” Alice screams. “The fires of hell are hotter!” Mommy screams back. Later in the film, the bedtime prayer is once again heard, but this time it concludes, “if I kill before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Their god is one of punishment and retribution, not of grace, acceptance, and compassion that Jesus described. Jesus himself called out people like Man and Woman in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” Their house is the hell lair of the film, filled with traps, pits, hidden passages, and prisoners they keep under the stairs. They are the Pharisees that oppress the people through fear, because of their greed, under the guise of righteousness.

Scenes from Craven’s ‘The People Under the Stairs’ (1991).

Like Krug, Weasel, and Sadie in The Last House on the Left, Mommy and Daddy put on the trappings of civility when necessary. They serve coffee and cookies to the police officers that come to the house to investigate an anonymous tip (from Fool) about child abuse. By the end of the film, we find out that they are “the tail end of the craziest family you ever heard of, every generation more insane than the one before it.” Mommy and Daddy do not have the sins of the fathers thrust upon them, they embrace them, indulging in the greed and malice of their forebears.

Unfortunately, Alive Films did not survive to produce future projects from Craven, but the two he did make with them are completely his vision. The People Under the Stairs is a great example of what Craven could do when given the space to create and the budget (though still a modest one to be sure) to see it through.

Meet Your Maker

In 1991, the same year as The People Under the Stairs, New Line Cinema killed Freddy Krueger. The Nightmare franchise had grown in popularity throughout the mid-’80s, with each successive sequel making more than the one before. That trend ended with the fifth installment, The Dream Child (1989), generally considered the worst in the original series. Bob Shaye had the presence of mind to go ahead and wrap up the series with just one more installment to give Freddy a proper sendoff. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) has its fans but is also a very long way from Craven’s original concept for the character. Sometime after the release of Freddy’s Dead, Craven got a call from Shaye who had heard over the years that Craven felt he had not been treated well by New Line. To his credit, Shaye agreed and wanted to make it right. He gave Craven retroactive shares in the films and merchandising. He also had one more proposal for Craven.

As the director later recalled, Shaye said, “look, we killed Freddy, we admit it. We said he was dead forever, but we thought maybe there’s one more film there.” Craven proceeded to watch all the sequels but couldn’t make any sense out of it and saw no way to proceed within the framework that had been built beyond the first film. He then began to think about how A Nightmare on Elm Street affected him and his career. He contacted Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund, who had played Nancy and Freddy, to hear how being in the film and the success of the sequels had impacted their lives as well, for better and for worse. After reminiscing, an idea for a new Nightmare film began to coalesce.

Craven on the set of ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (1994) with Heather Langenkamp.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is his most experimental film from a narrative standpoint. Being a student of literature, Craven surely would have been familiar with metafiction, particularly the works of writers like Italo Calvino and others who wrote fiction about, well…fiction. The metanarrative movement had appeared in movies in small ways but what Craven created in New Nightmare was a whole new level. After reading the script, Heather Langenkamp was concerned that it was too close to certain elements of her real-life and requested that Craven remove a few details, which he did. However, Langenkamp still allows herself to be quite vulnerable to many real-life events she had experienced including previously having a stalker (ironically because of her innocuous television show Just the Ten of Us [1988–1990] and not her involvement in the Nightmare movies) and having a family member in a psychiatric institution.

Another true element is that Langenkamp’s husband was and is a special effects artist. In fact, Craven originally wanted him to play himself in the movie, but he refused, stating that it would be a curse to do so. In the film, Heather’s husband (renamed Chase Porter and played by David Newsom) is killed by a dark entity that has inhabited the Freddy character. After Chase’s funeral, mother and son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), have a conversation about the most enduring questions of faith. Dylan asks Heather where his daddy is now. Heather answers, “Daddy’s in heaven. He’s with God now,” clearly uncertain if she really believes that to be true. Dylan goes on to ask if you need to die to see God. Heather answers, “I don’t think so. I think you have to pray. And reach out.” Then Dylan asks the hardest question of them all, the question that has created thousands of atheists and confounded thousands of theologians, “why does God let there be bad things?” The only answer that Heather has is the same answer many have had, “I honestly don’t know, honey.”

The next day, at the park, Heather speaks with her on and off-screen father figure John Saxon (who played Donald Thompson in the original Elm Street and Dream Warriors) on a bench as Dylan plays on the playground. John and Heather discuss the theme that had clearly been preoccupying Craven since the original Nightmare — generational curses. Heather reveals that a very close relative of hers died in an institution. John answers, “well if having a screwy family made a person crazy the whole world would be one big loony bin.” As the discussion goes on, Heather admits, “my worst fear [is] that whatever madness is in my family I have. That I’ve passed it on to Dylan.” As this conversation is happening, Dylan climbs a rocket-shaped jungle gym until he is standing on top of it and reaching to the sky, reaching out for God. He loses his footing and falls but Heather and John get to him just in time to break his fall. As all three are dazed, Dylan says, “God wouldn’t take me.” The scene is one of the most powerful in the film and proved very effective to Craven. “The park scene is, for me personally, one of the most moving scenes.” Perhaps remembering his own inability to experience God as a child, he went on. “It’s one of the more profound moments in humanity, you know, when one’s faith is contradicted by the events that happen.”

Later in the film, Heather meets with Wes Craven himself who explains that the script he’s writing is about an ancient evil entity that lives for “the murder of innocence.” The entity cannot be destroyed but can be held captive by stories. At one time, perhaps it was the cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, or the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.” For the past ten years, it has been held, like a genie in a bottle, as Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. “When the story dies, the evil is set free,” Craven warns. He tells Heather that he has also dreamed of a gatekeeper that the entity must get past in order to enter the real world — and it is her. As Nancy was in the original film, Heather is the spiritual warrior. In Ephesians 6:12, the Apostle Paul wrote these words: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (emphasis added). The passage goes on to describe the spiritual warriors' battle armor previously discussed.

Scenes from Craven’s ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (1994).

Heather does not ceremoniously don her “battle armor” pajamas as Nancy does in the original film; they simply appear as if she is being thrust into the role of warrior. She does, however, choose to go to the battlefield to face Freddy, as Nancy did, by taking the sleeping pills left for her like breadcrumbs by Dylan. Unlike Nancy, Heather takes a weapon with her into the dream world, a butcher knife, in a sense, her sword. Freddy’s lair is a mixture of the boiler room from the original film, with its blazing furnaces, and ancient Greek and Etruscan ruins. Engraved on the walls are the seven deadly sins, a detail that adds a layer of subtext to the relationship between Freddy and Nancy/Heather. The lair is also filled with snakes and eels. Dylan even cuts Freddy’s tongue, making it forked like a snake’s, a clear reference to Satan as he appears as a snake to tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden.

After being asked hundreds of times over the years about the effects that violence in movies, particularly horror films, has on people, New Nightmare is Craven’s honest exploration of these questions. He acknowledges that stories have power but ultimately comes down to the same place he has always come on the debate. To Craven, stories, literature, and movies actually hold evil at bay. They give viewers a safe way to confront and learn how to process fear. He described horror films as “boot camp for the psyche.” He went on to say, “the narrative form puts these fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears.” And elsewhere, “horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”

With New Nightmare, Craven was able to bring Freddy Krueger full circle. Though not a success upon its original release, it has grown to become one of the favorites of the series. Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp both name it as their personal favorite of the Nightmare series. Craven himself felt that it finally gave Freddy his due:

“When the first film opened, nobody knew what the hell it was. Once the film was out there, people began to realize that it was scary, but I still don’t think they understood how powerful the film and the message actually was. It wasn’t until years later that people realized that maybe the whole Freddy thing ought to be taken a bit more seriously and that the films represented a feeling that was actually out there. It was something that just built up over the years. People began to understand that what was going on with Freddy and the Nightmare films was, in a way, very real.”

The box-office showings of New Nightmare and his next film Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) starring Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett were disappointing, but Craven persisted. Though he had been trying to make something outside the horror genre for years, he had not yet been able to do so with any kind of impact. Because of this, it seems that around this time he finally embraced his typecasting and realized he had been able to explore the kinds of themes and he was most passionate about even if they were in stories he had not been drawn to originally. But even with this realization, the fact was that he hadn’t had a really big hit since the original Nightmare and was beginning to feel that his time for real success had passed. Commenting around the time of Vampire in Brooklyn he quipped, “who knows? I may end up getting rediscovered.” The following year, these words turned out to be prophetic.

Wes Craven was about to completely change the face of horror for an unprecedented third time. 🩸


(1) Scripture references are quoted from the English Standard Version translation of the Bible.


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

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. Dirs. Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch. 1428 Films. 2010

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 @Brianwaves42.

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