Organized months before the terror strikes of September 11, the eighth annual City of the Angels Film Festival presciently chose "Touches of Evil" as its theme for 2001. The four-day event, founded as a response to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and cosponsored by Fuller Theological Seminary, has evolved into one of the nation's most ambitious efforts at Christian engagement with pop culture.

Besides Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Dracula 2000, the impressive roster for "Touches of Evil" included:

Roman Polanski's still compelling Rosemary's Baby (1968), a chilling tale of a woman giving birth to a child of Satan. John Frankenheimer's eerily relevant thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which a Korean War veteran is the pawn of his ruthless mother and his stepfather, a U.S. Senator. Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955), an ultimately inspiring portrayal of religious hypocrisy.

Appropriately enough, the headliner for this Halloween-week look at sinister cinema was Craven, a graduate of Wheaton College. Craven established himself in the 1970s and '80s as the leading purveyor of horror films.

He gave us the homicidal Nightmare on Elm Street and its six sequels featuring Freddy Krueger, a character based on a neighborhood bully from Craven's childhood. That Craven's mind is a fascinating mix of the carnal and philosophical is undeniable. Craven's re-marks about his troubled and un-satisfying time at Wheaton, and his declaration of agnosticism, was not the confession the festival audience seemed to expect.

Craven grew up as the fatherless child of a widow devoted to her General Association of Regular Baptists congregation. Craven credited what he considered the suffocating atmosphere of Wheaton and his fundamentalist childhood with spurring his creativity. Both drove him, he said, to search himself and the world around him for meaning and purpose. That quest eventually led him to take a master's degree in humanities from Johns Hopkins University and to begin teaching.

"In many ways a rigid upbringing gives a real kick start to your imagination," Craven said. "It preoccupies you with the major issues of being alive. It makes you ask ultimate questions all the time."

Facing Our Terrors

To his credit, Craven didn't flinch when challenged on the moral legitimacy of his vocation, even if his answers were unconvincing. To the charge of coarsening our society and glorifying gore, Craven said that something about the human constitution naturally draws us to such fare. He sees the roots of today's horror films in the gods and monsters of ancient mythology, simultaneously terrifying and riveting us, allowing us to purge our primal fears by confronting them in a controlled setting.

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For Craven, the attraction of horror is a sort of evolutionary mechanism, inoculating us against the potentially paralyzing vicissitudes of life. "Modern horror films, of which I'm admittedly a practitioner, are to me simply post-traumatic nightmares of a world that has seen more horror than it can handle alone," he said. "When we go into the theater, it's to have the terror of real life marshaled into some sort of order so it can be dealt with. The chaos is caged for a few hours in a graspable narrative."

This insight seems too facile and self-serving for someone who has journeyed from anonymous humanities professor to Hollywood millionaire, largely through graphic depictions of teenagers being murdered. Could it not be that, in manipulating our most persistent and fundamental fear—dying in inexpressible agony—the makers of slasher movies have found a way to make lucrative profits?

What Craven, and many evangelical Christian critics of Hollywood, miss is that the narrative context of cinematic violence and evil, more than its actual content, defines its moral nature and its effect on the human person. Violence or its threat in the necessary protection of human dignity or innocence—as when the protagonist of Manchurian Candidate shoots his ruthless mother and stepfather—may be legitimate and ethically instructive, reminding us of the preeminent value of human dignity.

But Freddy Krueger is a sadist who tortures and terrorizes his pretty young victims. Such portrayals of human suffering, void of any redemptive message or purpose, are only desensitizing voyeuristic thrills unworthy of true film craft. They certainly do not rise to the level of social service that Craven wants to claim for them.

Choosing Evil

Other discussions during the remaining three nights of the festival were a mixed bag of theologically astute observations and, in the wake of September 11, politically obtuse musings. Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi perceptively saw in M (1931)—the tale of a child murderer and his apprehension—a chilling exposition of the Christian themes of self-justification and evil as disordered desire. (The will, through thousands of bad choices, incrementally creates for one's self an abominable character.)

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But in the brilliant Manchurian Candidate, politically correct panelists saw not an example of a September 11-style "sleeper agent" but rather proof of what they called America's persistent habit of dehumanizing its enemies. One speaker even cautioned the audience not to now "demonize" Osama bin Laden—as though this aspirant to genocide had been getting a bad rap in the press.

But such boneheadedness was the exception. Perhaps the most penetrating discussion came from philosopher Dallas Willard, who presented an analysis of cinematic portrayals of Judas Iscariot. He critiqued both Hollywood's inability to see Jesus as intelligently controlling his own fate and American intellectual culture's commitment to locating human wrongdoing everywhere but where it first resides: in free human choice.

Indeed, the great value of this festival's films is that they place evil first in the individual will, not in social structures and institutions, as does the contemporary secular catechism. By doing this, they remind us that not only can evil be overcome by personal renewal, but that positive social change also is possible, albeit one by one, from the inside out.

Brad Stetson is associate professor of American Politics at Azusa Pacific University, and author of Living Victims, Stolen Lives: Parents of Murdered Children Speak to America, forthcoming from Baywood Publishing.

Related Elsewhere

The official site for the City of the Angels Film Festival has information on the eighth annual festival and its history.

The Internet Movie Database provides cast, crew, and plot information for films shown at the festival including: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dracula 2000, Rosemary's Baby, The Manchurian Candidate and The Night of the Hunter.

For a complete list of films from Wes Craven, see The Internet Movie Database. His official site has a list of interviews and current projects.

For more Christianity Today coverage of movies, see our Film section and our weekly Film Forum.

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