Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: A Tribute to Wes Craven

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.

Master of Horror Wes Craven

Master of Horror Wes Craven

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.

A photo I took on December 29, 2012

A photo I took on December 29, 2012 in the Bronx, New York

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:

Sean –

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.

Wes

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…

7 Comments

  1. Enjoyed your article, Sean, and agrestal sent me to the dictionary!

    • Thanks, Leigh! The first thing my wife said to me this morning was this: “Read your article. ‘Agrestal’? There wasn’t another word for that?”

      Ah, well. Here’s hoping Wes, a former English professor, would’ve approved!

  2. I’ll never forget watching Music of the Heart (1999, starring Meryl Streep) and seeing in the credits that Wes Craven had directed it – the same Wes Craven who’d brought us Freddy. The movie really moved me, with my being a mentor, teacher and musician; and seeing that Craven had directed it really changed my perspective on him thereafter (I always thought he was great, but I saw a depth of person).

    Having substantial history and experience with branding, it never ceases to amaze me how many people really don’t understand the value of curiosity in grabbing attention and being memorable. I just taught a class in Boston yesterday, explaining this very thing to a group of young entrepreneurs. If you tell people everything, they will care about nothing you had to say. You have to leave them wondering in order to be memorable. Our brains are designed to scratch those mental itches where gaps are left.

    I do wonder if I might have some insight on the cryptic final message Wes wrote to you. I don’t believe it was a witty brush-off or end to the conversation. You admit in this post that you had him on a bit of a pedestal (idolized?), and it seems your communication with him made that point evident. You’ve noted that he had the ability to condense a message into few words. I wonder if that final message, if expanded to the mundane, might have looked something like this: “Hey, man, you’re a writer. I’m a writer. You work hard. I work hard. I just got some lucky breaks. You seem to be idolizing me and thanking me for ‘deigning’ to talk with you like just another schmoe like myself, but in my book, we’re both just two very human, fallable and mortal guys, doing what we do to the best of our ability. I’m no better than you, so please let me step down off this pedestal you’ve got me on. Let’s just be two guys talking shop.”

    That’s how I would have taken it, given my world view (as someone who has never had that “star-struck” gene, and is as comfortable talking with a homeless man as with the President).

    Of course, we’ll never know, as you pointed out. But maybe my take on things will add some new perspective to ponder.

    • Yes, Music of the Heart was really Craven’s only creative foray outside the horror/thriller genre for which he was known (and I’m sure that opportunity was only made possible on account of the two massive hits that preceded it: Scream and Scream 2). Our contemporary horror maestros, like Craven, Carpenter, and Romero, have never particularly earned mainstream Spielbergian respect, probably because they never ventured into more “respectable” filmmaking territory (either by choice or by circumstance). James Cameron, for instance, cut his teeth on genre fare like Piranha II, The Terminator (which is more of a low-budget exploitation flick than some might remember), and Aliens, but later earned industrial recognition (read: Oscars) for Titanic and Avatar. I’m glad Craven at least had the chance to make Music; from what I understand, it was a very personal film for him.

      Successful branding is absolutely predicated on a degree of intrigue, something that’s become a bit of a lost art in an era in which public figures get 24/7 media coverage (gone are the days in which celebrities actually maintained an aura of mystique), and, more to the point, social media has made everyone an aspiring celebrity, encouraging us to advertise the most minute, mundane, private details of our lives on the Internet. My screenwriting mentor, the great David Freeman, also teaches a workshop on branding, and illustrates how many of the same techniques used for storytelling can be applied to advertising.

      I absolutely think there’s something to your analysis of Wes’ final message to me! In his earlier note, he specifically wrote, “Being successful in creating monsters ain’t easy, as I’m sure you know,” as if to acknowledge me as a colleague of sorts rather than merely a fan. I think the very fact that he responded at all is evidence that he didn’t see himself as loftier than anyone; he appreciated, like any artist, that someone “got” the message he was trying to convey through his work. I’m not particularly star-struck myself — it’s just not something I’ve ever cared about, and, besides which, you run into a celebrity on an almost daily basis here in L.A. — but most of the creative folk I admire that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet have been grounded, humble people, willing and happy to engage.

      I wouldn’t say I idolized Wes (not to incite a semantic argument with you, Erik — merely a point of clarification!), but I certainly appreciate his contributions to the mosaic of my cultural experience, particularly with respect to Scream (which is still a flawless thriller all these years later). In terms of my own artistic role models, a notion I discussed in that Geddy Lee post from March, I would say John Carpenter has probably had more direct impact; my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is heavily influenced by the Carpenter films I loved as a kid, notably Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York. Overall, though, I tend to admire individual works of art (be them movies, books, albums) rather than profess devotion to the oeuvre of any artist in particular. (I’ll talk about some of my influences at greater length as I near publication on my books.)

      Anyway, your reading of “We’re all just slouching towards Bethlehem…” is far preferable to my brother-in-law’s spirit-deflating interpretation: “Maybe it was just his automatic e-mail signature?”

      • Nah, I don’t think your brother-in-law got that one right. Otherwise, you’d have seen it in your previous responses; and it’s not indicative of anything for which Wes Craven was known. I really do think it was his way of saying, “You and I are the same, just trying to create that perfect combination of stuff that makes people remember our monsters.”

  3. I enjoyed the post, Sean. Just browsing a bit on your site since you’re such a wonderful visitor to mine :-). How cool is that to have corresponded with Wes Craven beyond nicities. Those are memorable encounters and I love it that he left you that last line, requiring a bit of reflection and interpretation.

    • Thanks so much, Diana! You have a really wonderful blog that I was first inspired to visit when I heard our friend Erik Tyler discussing it during his YouTube interview with FacilitatingXYZ back in January.

      For a long time, I avoided social media — I just didn’t, as a Gen Xer, understand the point of it (when my wife first offered me a cell phone circa 2001, I shrugged it off on the naïve grounds that I couldn’t imagine needing one since I’d gotten by my entire life without such a thing) — but all that changed when I switched careers from screenwriting to novels, and I was advised to start building an “author platform.” The e-mail exchange with Wes was one of the first notable responses to come out of that effort, and it was an eye-opening lesson in the power of social media, something I hadn’t fully appreciated before then. Previously, I’d been relying upon agents and managers to facilitate professional connections and relationships, but the e-mail from Wes made me realize that I was laboring under an outmoded paradigm, and that those “gatekeepers” were now irrelevant: Who needs an agent to put you in touch with a writer/artist/filmmaker/publisher/etcetera when you can do that yourself, rather easily, through social media? Writers and filmmakers have made themselves available on the various digital platforms because they want to engage with fans and other professionals. So, why should I kiss the ring — and cough up 10% — to an agent who acts like my best pal when the winds of fortune are blowing in my direction, then doesn’t want to know me when I hit a dry spell? Thanks in part to Wes, I’ve come to love the new, do-it-yourself model of professional networking.

      And Wes hasn’t been the only artist whom I admire to reach out to me since I launched this blog: I wrote a profile on my favorite comic-book illustrator, the great Norm Breyfogle, and he found the piece on his own initiative and was kind enough to leave a comment. I also published an in-depth analysis of the four distinct incarnations of Rambo, and to my surprise and delight First Blood author David Morrell discovered the essay (again, without my prompting him) and endorsed it on his Facebook page. And media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus) gave my dissertation on postnarrativity the stamp of approval on his blog. As long as you’re browsing, Diana, if you’re interested in reading any of my “best-of” archival stuff (ha!), the Rambo study is one of the posts I’m most proud of.

      As for Wes, I was devastated to learn of his death last year. He was, I think it’s fair to say, my kind of people — a skilled, thoughtful filmmaker and writer (he was a published novelist, as well) who worked in (and elevated) one of the most unfairly maligned genres: horror. I really admired his intellectual approach to the genre, evident in such movies as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and the postmodern masterpiece Scream. I highly recommend viewing the original Scream with Wes’ audio commentary; I guarantee you’ll walk away with a greater appreciation for the applied artistry he brought to that classic chiller, better today than it was upon its release nearly twenty years ago. Though he is sadly no longer among us, Wes achieved what I think all artists strive for: immortality through his work.

Leave a Reply

© 2017 Sean P Carlin

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: