Essays · Movies

The Religious Films of Horror Director Wes Craven

Horror director Wes Craven often addressed his religious upbringing onscreen where everyone could see.
Serpent And The Rainbow
Shout! Factory
By  · Published on September 3rd, 2015

Earlier this year, as part of a bachelor party for a college friend, I spent a weekend with a man recently removed from the Mormon faith. John had followed a path set for him before he was even born; he had gone on his mission, married a nice Mormon woman at a very young age, and did his best to ignore any doubts he might have had about the restrictions placed on his actions by his faith. Years later, John admitted that something was not right. When I met him, he was only recently removed from the church, divorced, and striking out on his own for perhaps the first time in his life. As a result, he was fascinated with every piece of pop culture and literature that most people take for granted. John read religiously — pun intended — and watched as many movies that he could get his hand on. No part of his life went unexamined.

With news this week of the tragic death of Wes Craven, I have found myself again thinking of my conversations with John. Every eulogy of Craven has made some small note of his religious upbringing, but most mention this fact in passing. Wes Craven grew up in a strict Baptist home; Wes Craven became one of the greatest horror filmmakers of all time. Two sentences presented as cause-and-effect – as if Craven’s entire career was simply a result of reversed childhood repression. And while Craven never tried to hide his own disillusionment with the Baptist faith, his own words — and his approach to Deadly Blessing and The Serpent and the Rainbow, two of his most overtly religious films — suggest a much more conflicted relationship with systems of belief.

Much has been written about the effect that Craven’s religious upbringing had on his career as a filmmaker. In interviews, Craven often discussed the fact that he was forbidden to watch any film or television while growing up; his first-ever movie was To Kill a Mockingbird, which he saw in college after sneaking away from the Wheaton College campus. This was a transformational experience for the young Craven. As he explained to The Guardian in 2007, “I said to myself, I could be expelled for seeing, oh, wait a minute, this film? That kind of did it for me and organized religion.” Understandably, then, Craven would demonstrate a fascination with all things taboo as he established himself as a filmmaker. His earliest films blend together violent death, mutilation, and sex in equal amounts, not things normally associated with a strict Baptist upbringing, but ways for a young Craven to explore the boundaries of his new career as an independent filmmaker.

It wasn’t long before his own religious preoccupation found its way into his horror films. In 1981, Craven would direct Deadly Blessing, a psycho-sexual thriller about a young married couple whose farmland borders a religious sect similar to the Amish. The Hittites lead a simple life, free of both technological advances and man’s baser instinct. They are also very strict in enforcing their moral code upon their youth. Over the course of the film, one young Hittite will be banned from the order for pursuing a college degree; another will be kicked out for acting upon his sexual urges with his arranged bride. For a while, we assume that the Hittites — lead by Ernest Borgnine’s fervent Isaiah Schmidt — will be the cause of the violent murders happening around the young couple’s homestead. Instead, we discover a completely different and possibly supernatural reason for the murder, suggesting that the Hittite might be justified in the limits of their faith.

Deadly Blessing isn’t the only film to uneasily side with the religious fringe. During publicity leading up to the film, Craven acknowledged that the production of The Serpent and the Rainbow went out of its way to show voodoo in a positive light. Serpent follows a young medical researcher as he tries to find the practical origin behind a so-called zombie powder. In a 1988 interview with the Vancouver Sun, Craven mentioned the need to rewrite the third act entirely, noting that it had “armies of zombies roaming the night, real B-movie stuff.” Instead, Craven and his writers reworked the ending to emphasize the positive aspects of the voodoo religion, even going so far as to have voodoo priests approve the script and bless the film crew. “The religion of voodoo does have its negative side,” Craven said in the interview, “but it also marries people, blesses their babies.” Rather than present voodoo as nothing more than an archaic collection of superstitions, Craven portrayed the religion as possessing true supernatural power over life and death. Whether this power is good or evil was entirely dependent upon the men wielding it.

This central conflict — repulsion and admiration of the devout in equal amounts — is woven into the fabric of each of Craven’s overtly religious films. If you have never been part of a community that believes in higher powers, it is easy to dismiss the technophobic ways of the Hittite or the mystical powers of the voodoo priests as being nonsensical, a fear-driven refusal to engage with modern society. But Craven did believe at one point — in a god, an afterlife, the existence of the human soul — and, as he told the Village Voice in 2014, “that way of looking at the world has never really left me.” Craven cannot help but present the trees as well as the forest in his religious horror. There are both good and evil men riddled throughout; neither film feels the need to entirely judge or condemn the devout. Each film even has a moment where the true believers rise up in defense of the agnostics. In Deadly Blessing, Hittite Melissa fends off the main character’s attacker with a kitchen knife; in The Serpent and the Rainbow, the researcher’s guide to the Haitian underworld defends him with his own use of voodoo powers.

What makes Deadly Blessing and The Serpent and the Rainbow such interesting films — and integral parts of any examination of Craven’s work — is the ways in which Craven refuses to take the cheap shots at his own upbringing. There is every opportunity for the filmmaker to scorch the earth, to present either group as incompetent or evil, but Craven has no interest in this. Instead, he is thoughtful, probing the strengths and weaknesses of each and refusing to throw out the good with the bad. And this is the other side of Craven brought out by those who loved his films: Craven the intellectual, the philosophy professor who kept teaching of structured myth long after his own religion had failed him. Like my friend John, Craven left no part of his life unexamined. The fact that he did it on screen, for all of us to see, is his lasting gift to those movie fans that loved him.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)