Over centuries, we are told, fire-and-brimstone preachers have perfected the art of exploiting our darkest fears—damnation, hell, torture, exposure, guilt, transmission—to pack the house and fill the coffers. Some of these hucksters may be more obviously fraudulent than others (Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry has nothing on James Joyce’s Fr. Arnall in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but in the end all these churchmen are out to turn a profit on darkness, bafflement, and hunger.
If this is so, it is hard to think of a better exemplar of the type than filmmaker Wes Craven, who died earlier this week at age 76. Raised in a conservative Baptist home and educated at Wheaton College, he would go on to make millions by putting the fear of—well, something—into viewers of movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream series.
Though Craven was vocal about his rejection of the faith he had been raised in, he was also always ready to acknowledge its influence on his work. The nightmares he brought to the big screen were based on the visions of hell in sermons he heard at his parents’ fundamentalist Baptist church. Yet Craven could never bring himself to believe—or at least not to believe in Jesus.
“Hell was more believable than believing in Jesus, oddly enough. If you believed in Jesus, there was supposed to be an immediate presence and knowledge of him. Whereas with hell, you wouldn’t know about it until you were dead,” Craven told his biographer John Wooley.
Unlike the many apostates that leave Christianity with a vague notion that God is nice and people ought to be, too, Craven held on to the darker parts of the faith. Like the anti-hero of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, he felt that “Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust.” He would tell his Wooley that these dark visions “had an immense impact on every facet of my life.”
Click here to read more.