In a TED Talk from 2007, writer/director J. J. Abrams (Lost, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) explained the unlikely origins of his filmmaking philosophy: As a child, his grandfather had bought him a magic-store “mystery box”—a simple white cardboard container adorned with only a question mark, its contents (touted as $50 worth of magic for $15) sealed with packing tape—that remains unopened to this day; it serves as a totemic reminder to him “that mystery is the catalyst for imagination,” and that “there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.”
This is the story of how the late filmmaker Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) gifted me with my own “mystery box” of sorts.
About a year ago, Craven, an avian enthusiast and member of the Audubon California Board of Directors, had been writing an ongoing column for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine called “The Birds,” the latest installment of which was a short story about an unnamed protagonist who accepts an enigmatic invitation from a group of anthropomorphic birds—known as the Murmuration—to see “something special.” They trek into the night, up the harbor by boat, and through the forest on foot for an auroral, once-a-year optical illusion: a vista of the island as it was when nature birthed it, devoid of the modern settlements that eventually disrupted its agrestal harmony.
I left a response below the piece (the site has since undergone a redesign, and it appears none of the comments were ported over, alas) letting Wes know that his story reminded me of a solitary annual walk I take through the winter woods on the banks of the Hudson River not far from where I grew up, where it isn’t hard to imagine, under a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow (thanks to Paul Simon for that poetic turn of phrase), how the region must have appeared before the nearby roads were paved and the residential buildings erected—hell, before the Dutch arrived, even, when the Lenape roamed the sleepy, virgin landscape that later became the northwestern corner of the city of light and spire.
Lo and behold, a few days later, a personal e-mail from Wes appeared in my inbox:
“Thanks for the kind words, Sean. Glad to see someone got it. Each one of us have those places, I think, if even in his or her mind.”
That blew my mind! Freddy Krueger, Deadly Friend (a Saturday-afternoon staple on WPIX in New York in the eighties), and The People Under the Stairs had left me traumatized as a kid, after all. And when my wife and I walked out of the theater as the closing credits rolled on Scream, she turned to me and said: “We just saw a classic. They’ll still be talking about that twenty years from now.” She was right: Just this past summer, MTV turned it into a weekly series (we’ll argue the quality of this latest iteration on another occasion—perhaps). To have been graced with an e-mail from the man responsible for those cultural experiences was a true thrill.
As fate would have it, at the time Wes reached out to me (he signed his e-mail “Wes,” so I feel sanctioned in referring to him as such), I had been working on a blog post titled “Monster Mash: When It’s Too Long at the Party” about how “creature features” are not, despite their legacy of endless sequels, fundamentally franchisable, because once a monster’s motivation and countenance have been revealed to us, it becomes markedly less frightening. In the course of my research, I came across a documentary called Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy in which Wes was featured, and something he said really crystallized my thesis:
“The fact that they made Freddy more and more jokey took him farther and farther away from that child-molester thing that just kind of sticks to you in a way that maybe you don’t like.”
How about that? I’d written an 1,800-word essay on the subject, and Wes had encapsulated the entire argument in a single elegant sentence. I hate when that happens.
So, when I wrote Wes back to thank him for his note, I let him know that I had quoted him in my dissertation, and included a link on the off chance he cared enough to read it. I didn’t particularly imagine I’d hear from him again.
Yet the very next day I received this reply:
Glad you liked the new column, and thanks for the link to your article. Just read it and found it very interesting. Being successful in creating monsters ain’t easy, as I’m sure you know, and having to top yourself every time out after that is a bit of a pain. But it’s also a fun challenge. But if you can’t think of something better, someone else will do a sequel to your last success, whether you like it or not.
I was floored that he’d taken the time to read the piece and personally respond to it—I had a Wes Craven Exclusive! (How I wish he’d commented on the blog, but you take what you can get when you’re a Blogger of Things That Go Bump in the Night and a bona fide Master of Horror deigns to weigh in on something you’ve posted.) I wrote him back, told him how interesting it was to get his perspectives on the matter (this is the man, after all, who’d created one of the all-time great monsters of cinema), and signed off—I figured I’d keep it short and sweet and then shut my mouth while still on a high note.
But, he responded once again. And what he wrote has perplexed me ever since:
“We’re all just slouching towards Bethlehem…”
That’s it. Verbatim. Nothing led up to or away from it. We’re all just slouching towards Bethlehem. How fucking weird is that? Just deliciously weird…
The phrase itself probably rings familiar to you; it is an allusion to “The Second Coming,” a poem composed by William Butler Yeats in 1919 (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”), and later notably served as the title for a collection of essays by Joan Didion. It’s been the subject of critical analysis, as you might imagine, particularly with respect to its Christian symbolism and meditation on the end of days. The scholarly consensus seems to be that the poem’s true meaning is an enigma; certainly the oft-excerpted “Slouching towards Bethlehem” is a versatile piece of literary locution—a Rorschach that means whatever one reads into it.
It doesn’t surprise me that Wes was familiar with it: Early in his career, he was an English professor, and the bird imagery in “The Second Coming” may very well have appealed to him, subconsciously or otherwise. But, what the hell did he mean when he sent it as a response to my acknowledgment of his time and insights?
I don’t imagine there was any coded message intended or implied (other than perhaps a subtle cue that our conversation had run its course!). I’d also say it’s a stretch to conclude it had anything to do with monster-movie franchising (though a case could be made for that, but, again, that may say more about the versatility of the idiom). It could have just been a clever sign-off—something literary and vaguely sinister and perfectly in keeping with his artistic brand. Hell, it maybe—probably—meant nothing at all. But, in light of Wes’ death last month—and the revelation that he’d been privately battling brain cancer—perhaps he’d been coming to terms that very day with his own impending end times, and “We’re all just slouching towards Bethlehem…” somehow expressed whatever he may have been feeling?
Who knows? Like the numbers on J. J. Abrams’ Lost, “We’re all just slouching towards Bethlehem…” has no meaning per se other than to catalyze the active search for meaning—for purpose. It is a mystery box in the purest sense, better served not as a particular directive or decree, but rather a purposefully abstract reminder of an artist who brought an erudite approach and strong emphasis on both imagery and psychological credibility to the horror genre—something I strive to do with each supernatural story I tell—and took time out of his day, an act of generosity even more appreciated now in light of what a dwindling commodity it likely was to him at that point, to read my work and advise me to treat the act of creation, as it applies to monsters in particular, as a “fun challenge.”
Indeed. Oh, what rough beasts to be born yet…