Remembering Wes Craven: Principled Man of Fear
I love horror. Not real-life horror like disease and poverty, but fantasy-horror. My favorite holiday is Halloween, my favorite Disneyland attraction is The Haunted Mansion, and when I was a kid, I made my own haunted house ride, charging neighborhood kids twenty-five cents to pull them on a wagon past scary scenes I set up in my garage. But mostly, I loved watching watching Universal horror movies (my favorite was the Wolfman).
As I grew up, my tastes in horror became more sophisticated. When I went to the movies with my friends, we watched Friday the Thirteenth, Halloween, and all the other slasher films aimed at the teenage audience. But my favorite horror film of all was A Nightmare on Elmstreet, directed by Wes Craven, who passed away yesterday at the age of 76 after a losing battle with brain cancer.
A Nightmare on Elm Street contains many biographical elements, taking inspiration from director Wes Craven’s childhood. The basis of the film was inspired by several newspaper articles printed in the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s on a group of Khmer refugees, who, after fleeing to the United States from the results of American bombing in Cambodia, were suffering disturbing nightmares, after which they refused to sleep. Some of the men died in their sleep soon after. Medical authorities called the phenomenon Asian Death Syndrome.
The film’s villain, Freddy Krueger, draws heavily from Craven’s early life. One night, a young Craven saw an elderly man walking on the sidepath outside the window of his home. The man stopped to glance at a startled Craven, and then walked off. This served as the inspiration for Krueger. Initially, Fred Krueger was intended to be a child molester, but Craven eventually decided to characterize him as a child murderer to avoid being accused of exploiting a spate of highly publicized child molestation cases that occurred in California around the time of production of the film.
By Craven’s account, his own adolescent experiences led to the naming of Freddy Krueger. He had been bullied at school by a child named Fred Krueger, and named his villain accordingly. Craven strove to make Krueger different from other horror-film villains of the era. “A lot of the killers were wearing masks: Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason,” he recalled in 2014. “I wanted my villain to have a ‘mask,’ but be able to talk and taunt and threaten. So I thought of him being burned and scarred.” He also felt the killer should use something other than a knife, which was too common. “So I thought, How about a glove with steak knives?”
What I most enjoyed about the film was that it was in some ways a thinking person’s horror film. By having the villain, Freddy Krueger, invade his victims’ dreams, the film toyed with the audience’s perception by blurring the boundary between the real and the imaginary. The film itself preys on archetypal fears and imagery: the myth of the bogeyman, the vulnerability of a sleeping victim, and the power of the unconscious conjuring up the worst horrors imaginable.
A Nightmare On Elm Street is considered by many, including me, to be one of the best films of 1984, so imagine my delight when, twelve years later, I was meeting with film’s director about making a new horror project, but in my own creative medium, video games.
I was the Creative Director of a small game publisher called Cyberdreams, which specialized in working with famous names from the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror in adapting their works to video games. Previously, I had worked with writer Harlan Ellison in creating a game version of his classic short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream as well as artist H.R. Giger on using his macabre art as the inspiration for a game called Dark Seed. And now I was meeting with a master of film horror, Wes Craven.
Craven had approached us with a concept called Principles of Fear, which was about exploring the various causes of fear. The goal was to create an action-adventure game which encompasses all levels of human fear and conflict within a challenging game scenario. Although many games did justice in rendering ferocious combat, and others take great care in presenting a psychological challenge, few successfully combine both elements.
As Craven described his ideas across several meetings, I found him to be an extremely intelligent, erudite and charming man. He was also a master storyteller, in person as well as on-screen. I knew right away that working with him would be delight.
I contracted game developer Asylum Entertainment, whose credits included the military strategy adventure Allied General for SSI and SimFarm for Maxis, to develop the CD-ROM action-adventure. I also found working with Asylum and its president, Brett Durett, to be yet another delightful experience, as we worker together to turn Wes Craven’s insights on the essence of fear into a compelling three-dimensional game taking place in what was essentially a haunted house.
We had thought we had succeeded when we demonstrated an early prototype of the game at the 1997 Electronic Entertainment Expo when About Games awarded our game a Bronze Medal award for Best of E3 — Interactive Fiction.
Unfortunately, Wes became deeply involved in developing a new movie at this time, and we only had access to his manager, who apparently had little understanding of games or the process of making them. When I demonstrated our award-winning E3 demo to her, it did not meet whatever expectations she had about what the video game would be like. She insisted on canceling the project and we could not talk her out of it.
And so I woke up from our dream of working with Wes Craven with nothing to show for it but some good memories of our meetings with him. Now with his passing, I’ll never again have a chance to apply his Principles of Fear. Lost opportunities are one horror that I do not enjoy at all.