Old Nightmares: On Childhood Influences, Horror, and Wes Craven

When I was very young, some time before the age of five, my father got me hooked on the old Universal Studios monster movies from the 1930s and 40s. My father would take me to Movie Gallery (now extinct) once a week or so and we’d pick out a new one to rent. Sometimes I wouldn’t want to pick out a new movie, but instead elect to renew the rental I already had for another week. This happened anytime we rented The Wolf Man, my personal favorite of the series.

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The movies were black and white, campy, and riddled with decades old special effects that anyone today would scoff and likely laugh at. But to four year old me, these movies were the greatest things around. I would rewatch them constantly.

I believed this to be the pinnacle of horror, and then at the age of five I saw It on television. This exposure to sheer and absolute terror was the fault of my mom, who saw nothing wrong with letting her five year old son watch a made-for-TV horror flick. See, my mom, who usually would flip out if I watched anything like that, thought that It just wasn’t scary, and wouldn’t bother me. She didn’t think it was inappropriate, either–the blood looks like paint, there’s no nudity, and for God’s sake, the monster in the movie is just a friggin clown… and most of important of all, we mustn’t forget, this was not a movie-movie! This was a TV-movie. Surely it was appropriate.

stephen-kings-it-pennywise

My mom could not have been more wrong. It left a permanent fucking scar on me. For those uninitiated, the movie is about a clown that eats kids. The clown, Pennywise, can transform into your greatest fear. In the movie, It’s the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc. It’s all your greatest fears in one. To a five year old who’s afraid of just about everything, we’re talking about the scariest being in existence.

For two years I was afraid to shower for fear of It opening up the drain and eating me:

Truth be told, sometimes I still am. That’s the thing with childhood horrors, I guess. Sixteen years later and sometimes I’ll have to turn the light on, because I’m afraid Pennywise might get me otherwise.

The thing my mom never understood about It, and why she thought the movie would be fine, was because my mother is an adult. The movie centers around a being eating children, and It gets away with this because adults can’t see It. They don’t believe in It and so It can’t harm them. In other words, parents can’t help. They don’t believe. My mom couldn’t understand why the movie terrified me–it’s because to her, there’s nothing to be afraid. But It unleashed on me the worst kind of terror. Not only might this killer clown haunt me, but no adult would know or believe me if I did.

That’s a helpless sort of fear that I thought couldn’t get any worse.

And then, at the age of seven, my father introduced me to Wes Craven.


As you’ve probably gathered, as a child I was obsessed with horror movies (nothing’s changed). I wanted to watch all of them, but I faced a seemingly insurmountable problem: my parents wouldn’t let me watch most of them! They were firm believers in the MPAA rating system, and wouldn’t let me watch anything rated R. Then a thing happened which wasn’t so great all around but was wonderful for my horror movie habits: my parents divorced.

This schism created a week with my responsible mom and a weekend with my very irresponsible dad. I knew, even at seven, that I’d be able to connive my dad into letting me watch whatever horror movies I wanted.

At the time, I was hung up on seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street. To be honest, I don’t remember why. Something about Freddy Kreuger just seized me and wouldn’t let go. I was obsessed with watching the movie, desperate to learn about the man with the burnt face and claw hand.

I nagged and nagged and nagged my dad to let me watch it for weeks, and finally, he relented. In his own words, he’d show me the movie to ease my curiosity and “teach me a lesson”–he was convinced good parenting meant giving me what I wanted and scaring the shit out of me so I’d never want to watch a scary movie again.

He picked the movie up on VHS and he sat me and my five year old sister, Nikki, down to watch it with him.

I can say, without exaggeration, that life was never really the same for me.

I’ll give my father this: his parenting idea worked with Nikki. To this day, she can’t watch horror movies. She has no desire. But it completely backfired with me. He didn’t satiate my curiosity, he made it larger!

Let me make myself perfectly clear: yes, A Nightmare on Elm Street scared the absolute living shit out of me. I had consistent nightmares for months. Occasionally, I still do.  But I fucking loved it.

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Wes Craven had given me the ultimate boogeyman, a monster even worse than Pennywise. In monster movies, you were safe when you slept. Not anymore. Now sleeping got you killed. Freddy Kreuger only killed you in your sleep…and you need to sleep. This was ten times worse than a monster that adults didn’t believe in, because even if they did, they couldn’t help you anyway! Freddy was in your dreams! He was inescapable.

Hey, do me a favor, and watch this short one minute scene starring Johnny Depp in his first movie role:

Yeah, so, that’s insane, and my seven year old brain practically imploded upon seeing it. Wes Craven cemented my love of horror over the course of 101 minutes. Craven’s movie led me to the novels of King, Koontz, and Matheson. And later, when I was older, allowed to watch such things, and more knowledgeable about movies, it brought me back to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and his other works. (Note: If you haven’t yet, you really should check out Craven’s underrated gem, The People Under the Stairs.)

As time went on, I thought Wes Craven had nothing new to show me in the horror genre. I went through Red Eye, My Soul to Take, New Nightmare, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left, among others. All of them, excellent. But none of them new, at least for me.

Somehow, I skipped the Scream franchise entirely, a mistake I rectified about three weeks ago. Something about the whole thing didn’t appeal to me on a peripheral level. But one night recently I was hanging out with my friends Andrew and Bryan and we were craving something good to watch on Netflix, and we stumbled upon Scream.

Over a decade after its release, Wes Craven changed horror for me again with Scream.

Here’s a clip from the opening, which I’ll go ahead and say is the greatest opening of any horror movie ever:

The Ghostface killer is an ingenious creation. He’s practically the worst killer of all time–he trips over furniture, he lets girls kick the shit out of him, etc. But this humanizes him and somehow makes him scarier. The knowledge that there’s a real person under that mask slashing away at everyone is scarier to me than an immortal monster. Maybe that’s an ideology that comes with age–things that might actually kill you, y’know?

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Anyway, Scream is a horror movie that’s talking about horror movies, specifically the overdone slasher genre. And then, a few years ago, Scream 4 was a horror movie reboot talking about horror movie reboots. The franchise as a whole is successful, I think. Taken individually, the third movie is kind of a bust. But Craven directed all four of them, putting his signature stamp on each. This is a man who understands horror and is in a great position to critique/discuss it.

I finished the franchise in about two days, rewatching the original three with my sisters before renting the fourth online. (Note: The original three are all available on Netflix, and I highly recommend them.)

It seemed I was wrong. Wes Craven was still showing me something new about my favorite genre.


This past Sunday, Wes Craven passed away, and I was absolutely devastated by the news. This is the man who solidified my love for the horror genre, and who guided me to and through much of the entertainment I absorbed for the past ten years of my life. Craven was instrumental in my evolution as a storyteller. He was, truly, an inspiration for me.

Beyond my own admiration for him, Craven was a legend in the horror industry. He redefined the horror genre not just once but three times throughout the decades, with The Last House on the Left in the 70s, A Nightmare on Elm Street in the 80s, and Scream in the 90s. Filmmakers looked up to him just as much as I did. He was an inspiration across the board.

I can say honestly that I would be a different man than I am today without that childhood viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street. For better or worse, I don’t really know. All I do know is it’s part of who I am, now.

So, thank you, Wes. Truly.

wescravenAugust 2, 1939–August 30, 2015

“A lot of life is dealing with your curse, dealing with the cards you were given that aren’t so nice. Does it make you into a monster, or can you temper it in some way, or accept it and go in some other direction?”

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