Monday, June 10, 2024

The Soul of Wes Craven


“Finally, the Bible is written for the cult of Wes Craven! … The reason Wes Craven is often overlooked and taken for granted is because this book didn’t exist. Now it does, and we have no more excuses.”

- Grady Hendrix, author of Paperbacks from Hell and The Final Girl Support Group


Illuminating and touching, I learned even more about the man who changed my life by casting me as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street. This intimate, well-researched look into his life expands my appreciation of the maestro.”

- Heather Langenkamp, star of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare


“Startling, inspiring, and often moving, this titanic biography of Craven bursts open both how art can save us—and what we do to hamstring our finest artists.”

- Daniel Kraus, co-author of The Living Dead and The Shape of Water


“This book is the definitive account of Craven’s life and work, put together with passion, insight and intellect worthy of the master himself.”

- Andrew Kasch, co-director DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy


“With patience, dexterity and assiduous research, Joseph Maddrey excavates the heart and soul of a horror movie legend. The Soul of Wes Craven reveals unseen facets of the beloved director, and in the process uncovers a poet, a philosopher, a psychologist and one of horror’s great thinkers. This book bubbles with stunning revelations, fascinating connections, and new stories, never before told, about the life and times of this icon of terror.”

-  John Kenneth Muir, author of Wes Craven: The Art of Horror and creator of Enter the House Between


“As a screenwriter working with Wes Craven, I knew I had entered a magical world but I barely knew what a profound and remarkable man I was getting to know. Joseph Maddrey’s book allows us to discover the brilliance, the painful journey and the triumph of an extraordinary life. You will be as lucky to meet Wes in these pages as I was in real life.”

- Bruce Joel Rubin, screenwriter of Deadly Friend, Ghost, and Jacob’s Ladder


"The battle over the soul of Wes Craven goes to Joseph Maddrey, no contest. His comprehensive exploration of Craven's career leaves no nightmare unturned, offering up a humane portrait of a horror icon."

- Clay McLeod Chapman, author of What Kind of Mother and Ghost Eaters


“An inspiration for indie filmmakers of every genre. Maddrey chronicles Craven’s curious path from rebel college professor to horror film icon. The financial challenges, artistic compromises and unimaginable triumphs are wildly entertaining as Craven struggles to direct his way out of the grindhouse and into movie mainstream. “

- Peter Filardi, screenwriter of Flatliners and The Craft


"Those who think of Wes Craven mainly as the father of Freddy will undoubtedly be surprised by this compelling portrait of a complex, rarely satisfied artist, while hardcore Craven fans will be delighted by new revelations and keen insight. Joseph Maddrey's The Soul of Wes Craven is a vital, valuable addition to any library of definitive filmmaker biographies or horror movie studies."

- Lisa Morton, Bram Stoker Award-winning author and screenwriter


“Wes Craven was a filmmaker of golden talents. His trove is sinister, vivid of wit. Impeccably fraught. He was also charming, effortlessly astute; observant as a spy. The gifted Joseph Maddrey has brilliantly captured the magic of a filmic icon in his long overdue The Soul of Wes Craven.”

- Richard Christian Matheson, author of Created By and The Ritual of Illusion


“Overwhelmingly and understandably identified as a master of horror, Wes Craven was widely viewed as a filmmaker lurking behind a Halloween fright mask. With his incredibly detailed and engagingly written The Soul of Wes Craven, Joseph Maddrey brilliantly peers behind that mask to reveal the true face, heart and, yes, soul, of a deceptively complex and influential writer and director. Anyone seeking a comprehensive and genuine understanding of the life and work of Wesley Earl Craven from Cleveland, Ohio, will find this book as insightful and intriguing as it is invaluable.”

- Mark Dawidziak, author of A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe and Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone


“An incredible, insightful, and revelatory look at the life of a genre icon. Filled with fantastic stories, captivating new details, and plenty of heart, this is the love letter tapestry of a literary, philosophical, and spiritual life that Wes Craven—and every film lover—deserves.”

- Thommy Hutson, screenwriter of Scream: The Inside Story and Truth or Dare


Like its protagonist, the book is an intelligent and inspiring treat for genre fans and cinephiles alike. It’s got soul. And heart. And guts. But mostly, it’s entertaining as hell.

- John Esposito, screenwriter of Creepshow and Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Communing with Whitley Strieber

Recently, The Projection Booth guru Mike White invited me to participate in an episode about the film adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s book Communion. I agreed and started preparing in my typically geeky way—by reading six of Strieber’s Communion books. I also sought out interviews the author has given over the years, and took a lot of notes. When the day came to talk about Communion, I thought I was ready.


Actually, I was overwhelmed. I had too many thoughts swimming around in my head, and in the end, I’m afraid I didn’t do justice to Whitley Strieber.


What I’d hoped to do, as briefly as possible, was offer a thumbnail sketch of Strieber’s pre-Communion life, as he has presented it in his nonfiction books. Ever since the author’s transformative experience on December 26, 1985—recounted in Communion—Strieber has been striving to understand exactly what happened to him (and continues happening to him) and why. His recorded theories involve ghosts, aliens, missing time, time travel, mystical experience, repressed memory, and so much more.


To me, Strieber’s work is endlessly fascinating but also frustrating. It’ll be hard for me to summarize my take on his life and art, but I feel compelled to try. As a biographer, I am very interested in Strieber’s memories of his youth—many of which, he says, were buried in his subconscious mind for decades. Since 1985, as he has continued to explore the mystery of “The Visitors,” he has recovered more and more forgotten details of his early life… and the overall story of his life (and its relationship to his art) has become more and more complicated.


I think it might be interesting to present some of those details in a straightforward biographical chronology—something Whitley has not done, to my knowledge—and see if that provides any clarity.


The basic facts: Whitley was born in San Antonio, Texas, on June 13, 1945, to parents Karl and Mary Strieber. He was the second of three children living in an upper-middle class Catholic household at 630 Elizabeth Road in San Antonio. Whitley says his father was “an attorney, a real estate operator, and an oil man” (Winter 1985). Karl Strieber also reportedly served in the U.S. military during World War II, although the details of his service are unknown to me. Based on what the son writes about him, he seems to have been a somewhat aloof figure. Whitley’s mother, who came from a prominent San Antonio family, was a more nurturing presence in her son’s life. Among other things, she introduced her son to the work of Franz Kafka, a major influence on Whitley’s writing.


Another significant influence was Karl’s brother, Whitley’s uncle Edward Miles Strieber. According to the author, Uncle Ed was a military man who was somehow involved with the government’s investigation of the Roswell incident on July 8, 1947. I found a note in an Army Navy Journal—dated October 4, 1947—for “Capt. E.M. Strieber, Oak Ridge to Sp Wpns Project, Albuquerque, N. Mex.” This suggests that Uncle Ed was in the right place at the right time. Because of the purported connection to Roswell, Whitley has suggested that, for him, “contact is a family affair” (A New World 2019). His uncle’s memories of the Roswell investigation also served as inspiration for the 1989 novel Majestic.


Whitley’s earliest memories also date from the summer of 1947, when he was two years old. In Transformation (1988), the author remembers a strange vision of “big gray monkeys” and “a huge disk in the afternoon sky that looked to me like the moon.” The latter might have inspired his first short story, written at age six, “about the moon coming up” (Swaim 1984).


In a series of journals on his website, and later in his book Solving the Communion Enigma (2011), Whitley describes recovered memories from the age of three, involving a summer day camp where the young campers were indoctrinated into Stalinism. He also recalls being taken to nearby Randolph Air Force Base, where he had even more uncomfortable experiences. In a 2005 journal entry on his website, the author alludes to “an abusive situation of some kind, apparently involving certain experiments on children." In Solving the Communion Enigma, he writes, “I recall getting into what I thought was an elevator in a place where there were men in uniform, a place I believe to have been Randolph, but it became dead dark and I began to feel people touching me.” Later, he explains, “I was involved in a special education project at Randolph AFB that utilized something called a Skinner Box in enhanced learning experiments” (A New World 2019). Evidence of child abuse? Or something much more complicated?


The details (and the accuracy of the author’s memory) are unclear, but Whitley is certain about the long-term effect that these strange experiences had on his psyche, insisting that they “shattered the mirror of expectation for me, leaving me, like my wife and so many other people whose understanding of reality has been upended in childhood, open from then on to noticing what most people assume to be impossible and therefore do not see. Once the mirror of expectation is shattered, the door of perception is open, and there is something there, something alive, looking back at us from where the mirror once stood” (Solving the Communion Enigma 2011).


As an adult, Whitley Strieber has written many times about the relationship between trauma and transcendence. Whitley’s most haunting childhood memories—the ones he writes about in his books—are not just of traumatic events, but of seemingly supernatural experiences. The author, however, is uncomfortable with the term “supernatural.” In 2016, he co-authored an entire book (The Super Natural: A New Vision ofthe Unexplained) to help clarify his point of view, using Aldous Huxley’s concept of “doors of perception” as a philosophical foundation. Like Huxley, he believes that the human mind has reality-filters that can be removed, allowing us to perceive aspects of our natural world that are usually hidden and usually dismissed as “otherworldly.”


As a result of his early childhood experiences, Whitley writes, he has seen more of the world. In the summer of 1951 (or possibly 1952—dates vary from one account to another), the author says he entered a “secret school” run by beings that he now refers to as “The Visitors.” He describes his earliest memories of the school in Transformation, and at length in The Secret School (1996). His experience there culminated, he writes, with a prolonged, mysterious illness—an “immune system deficiency”—that nearly killed him. Once he recovered, his parents were reticent to talk about exactly what had happened. In Solving the Communion Enigma, he concludes, “I think that my parents eventually understood that whatever I was being made to endure was causing me harm, and got me out of the program.”


It is perhaps worth noting (as Whitley does in his book Breakthrough) that his mysterious illness took place around the same time as a major UFO flap over Washington D.C. Of course, it was also a time when science fiction movies about aliens and UFOs were big business in Hollywood. Whitley admits that he was a childhood fan of “flying saucer stories,” and that his “eyes were searching the heavens” every night (The Secret School). When he was 9, he says he and a friend witnessed “a huge object cross the sky” above them (Communion). That same year, he became “obsessed” with histories of ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. Standard stuff for an intelligent American “monster kid” of the day… and not surprising for a future sci-fi / horror writer.


The following years got weirder. In a 1985 interview, Whitley outlined a series of events that influenced his life between the ages of ten and fifteen. First, one of his uncles was murdered. After that, the uncle’s wife was somehow “burned in a fire from head to toe.” Then Whitley’s grandfather died suddenly from lung cancer and his father lost his vocal cords to throat cancer. Finally, his grandmother “nearly went crazy” (Winter 1985). He seems to believe that some kind of curse had befallen his family. Then, in the summer of 1956, Whitley says he went on a boat trip with his father and older sister, and “disappeared” from the boat for several hours. He doesn’t remember what happened to him, only that he was gone “but did not drown” (Transformation).


The following summer, Whitley went with his father and sister on another trip—this time, via train, to Madison, Wisconsin. On the way back, he suddenly fell ill again. In Communion, he writes about a feverish hallucination that has haunted him ever since—an experience “of hearing a wolf howling and seeing one on the roadside.” His vivid vision of the wolf—and equally vivid memory of the sound it made—generated “an immense lifelong interest in wolves” that inspired three novels: The Wolfen (1978), Wolf of Shadows (1985), and The Wild (1991).


Whitley’s series of strange childhood experiences culminated in the summer of 1958 with a fire in the Strieber family home. In Communion, he suggests that he himself caused the fire, the result of a failed attempt to build “an antigravity machine” in his bedroom, using “counter-rotating magnets.” According to the author, a childhood friend says Whitley told him, at the time, that “spacemen” provided the design—but Whitley says he doesn’t remember ever saying that.


Over the following years, Whitley’s horrors were relegated to page and screen. He discovered E.C. Comics and Franz Kafka, and wrote his first horror story at age 15. A high school teacher remembers that teenage Whitley was especially interested in the occult and haunted by the threat of nuclear war (Conroy 1988). Whitley himself says that during his high school years, he went through “all kinds of sexual upheaval,” but never had a date until he went to college, which “drove me more and more into myself” (Winter 1985). Apart from one “fragmentary memory” of “helping a group of children in a gray vaulted room” (mentioned in Transformation), the author’s teenage years are mostly a blank.


His story picks up again on August 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman started firing bullets from the top of the University of Texas tower in Austin, Texas. In more than one early interview, Whitley claimed he was on campus and witnessed the shooting. He recanted that claim in Communion, then later recanted his recanting in Transformation. Much has been made of Whitley’s unreliable memories surrounding this incident, so I won’t go into detail here, but I want to quote something Whitley said in a 1987 interview, when he was questioning his own memory, because I think his words highlight a central issue regarding his work. Whitley said,


“I’m very confused by that Charles Whitman memory. On the one hand, I have very vivid, graphic and specific memories of the incident, and on the other hand a good friend of mine tells me I wasn’t there. What’s important to note, though, is that I brought it up in my book. The revelation is an attempt to honestly explain what’s been happening to me. If I was trying to cover something up, would I bring up an inconsistency like that?” (Heaton 1987)


By the time he said this, Whitley was already wrestling with vivid, graphic and specific memories of a much harder-to-understand experience that had taken place on December 26, 1985. In writing Communion, he shared everything, because he was earnestly trying to understand what had happened—what was “real” and what wasn’t. His search for answers eventually pointed him back toward childhood, and also uncovered a series of perplexing memories from his young adult life.


In September 1967, Whitley started having experiences of intense-and-inexplicable dread, and periods of “missing time” (not unlike his experience on the boat in the summer of 1956). The following summer, while on break from film school in London, he disappeared for four to six weeks, somewhere in Europe. The only thing he remembers is a nurse forcing him to eat something “so bitter that it almost split my head apart,” although he doesn’t remember being sick or in a hospital (Communion).


In 1969, he moved to New York, married his wife Anne, and decided to write novels. Whitley says he wrote eight comedic novels between 1970 and 1977, none of which has ever been published. To pay the bills, he took a day job at an advertising agency. Around the same time, he and Anne also joined a meditation group associated with Russian mystic writer George Gurdjieff. Today, Whitley partly attributes his ability to communicate with “The Visitors” to a meditation practice learned through the Gurdjieff Foundation. In a 2009 journal entry posted on his website, he writes, “Prior to the December 1985 close encounter, I was deeply asleep. I had spent fifteen years intensely involved in the Gurdjieff Foundation, so I knew that what we consider a normal state is not really normal. It’s a state of sleep. We react, we do not act. The attention pours out into the world, and the inner being is left to starve. But I’d been working toward a more awakened state for a long time.”


In 1977, the doors of perception opened a little wider. Whitley says he had an experience in New York’s Central Park that prompted him to write his first horror novel, The Wolfen. A few years later, he claimed that he had started writing horror fiction because he wanted to do something “important.” He explained, “I believe that one of the most important functions of literature is to allow the reader to become an explorer in his own emotional world. To me, the best fiction allows me to learn about my own inner life as I read the story” (Winter 1983). He was essentially exploring his own inner life, and revisiting his earliest personal experiences, as he wrote.


In many of his nonfiction books, from Communion to The Super Natural, Whitley Strieber contextualizes his earliest horror novels—The Wolfen (1978), The Hunger (1981), Cat Magic (written in 1981 but not published until 1986), Black Magic (1982), and The Night Church (1983), plus a few short stories—as manifestations of repressed memories. In The Secret School, he writes, “I believe my whole body of work—my whole life—has been an unconscious effort to somehow overcome my fears and reach back to the secret school.”


In The Wolfen, one of his characters describes “a virtual alien intelligence right here at home.” Another character explains, “People used to call them werewolves. Now they don’t call them anything because they’ve gotten so damn good at covering their tracks that there are no legends left. But they’re here. They damn well are here.” Another one remembers a childhood encounter that took place one summer night when he was six or seven years old. Strieber writes, “He was asleep in his ground-floor bedroom. Something awakened him. Moonlight was streaming in the open window. And a monstrous animal was leaning in, poking its muzzle toward him, the face clear in the moonlight…” Was Whitley summoning his own early visions of “big gray monkeys” and “a huge disk in the afternoon sky that looked to me like the moon”?


In The Hunger, the author defines vampires as “another species, living right here all along.” When “majestic” vampire Miriam Blalock appears in all her glory, he writes, “The eyes were not pale gray at all, but shining, golden, piercingly bright. The skin was white and smooth as marble. There were no eyebrows, but the face was so noble, so much at peace that just seeing it made Sarah want to sob out the petty passions of her own humanity and have done with them forever.” When the vampire speaks, she promises, “You shall learn secrets.” Was Whitley remembering his otherworldly teacher from the secret school?


Secrets and mysteries abound in Cat Magic (which deals with the occult and the transformative power of death—the subject of Whitley’s most recent nonfiction books, especially The Afterlife Revolution), Black Magic (about psychic warfare), and The Night Church (which Whitley described in a 1983 Fangoria interview as “a new treatment of the idea of demons”). Then, at some point in the early 80s, Strieber had another epiphany. He explained to interviewer Douglas E. Winter that he no longer wanted to write horror novels as entertainment, because “time and history have caused what I used to think of as horrors to become—more and more—realities.” Now, he explained, a horror novel “ought to have significance politically, emotionally, culturally—and literary significance. It should have an impact far beyond entertainment, but be important on that level, too” (Winter 1985).


Whitley’s first experiment with the new approach to horror was the novel Warday, co-authored with his childhood friend Jim Kunetka. Written in a journalistic style, the novel follows the two authors through a dystopian future America that has been devastated by nuclear attacks. Strieber told Winter, “When you read Warday, you are reading me, as I understand myself, and perhaps even beyond that.” By vividly imagining himself in an alternate reality, the author says he experienced “a great breakthrough in consciousness. I found myself able to think and to feel in ways that I have never been able to think and feel before” (Winter 1985).


Warday was a bestseller, Strieber’s most successful book to date. So, naturally, he and Kunetka got to work on a followup. Nature’s End would take place in an equally bleak future, in a world devastated by the sudden effects of global warming. While working on the book in March of 1983, Whitley says he had another transformative experience, which he recounts briefly in Communion, and at greater length in The Secret School. In one moment, he explains, he was standing on the corner of La Guardia Place and Houston Street, surrounded by traffic, assaulted by noise. The next, he heard only the “clip-clop of horses,” and looked around to find himself in “old New York” with horse-drawn carriages on unpaved streets.


Whitley does not say he imagined this. He says he experienced it. The question is whether he was somehow able to use his mind and his imagination to transport himself to another time, or whether he simply losing his (admittedly tenuous) grip on reality and hallucinating.


A few months later, in December 1983, Whitley says he took another step into the unknown. One night, he woke up and saw an “apparitional” figure, “standing and looking down at me at about two-thirty in the morning.” The figure, wearing a cowl, locked eyes with his observer, then disappeared. When Whitley shared the details of this experience with journalist Ed Conroy, he said he didn’t think much of the experience until he noticed “a dramatic change in my work.” It was, he said, as if he’d been “inspired by a muse” (Conroy 1988).


After completing Nature’s End, Whitley began work on a book that he described in a mid-1980s interview as “something completely new,” his “big ‘breakthrough’ novel,” and “the best thing I’ve ever done.” By the time this quote was published, however, he had apparently scrapped the novel and begun working on something else (Wiater 1986). That “something else” was Communion—which prompts me to think of the old “something completely new” as a missing link between the docu-horror of Warday / Nature’s End and the nonfiction horror of Communion. That missing link was eventually published, in 1991, as The Wild.


The Wild is about Bob Duke, a despondent, middle-aged tech salesman—a native Texan, raised Catholic, happily married, father of one—who slowly transforms into a wolf. Essentially, it is Whitley Strieber’s version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and that connection is highlighted by the fact that Duke’s twelve-year-old son Kevin is obsessed with Kafka. The main character’s transformation is confusing and traumatizing for himself and for his wife Cindy, but it is also a door into a more awe-inspiring world. It is a gift. In a passage that seems to summarize his work as a whole, and which also explains my attraction to his work, Strieber writes:


Despite all the terror he had felt last night, the sense that the universe had ripped and he had been the one who fell through, there was also a sense of wonder. Once Kevin had commented that seeing even the most dreadful of supernatural manifestations, a disfigured ghost or a vampire, would make him happy because of everything else it implied about the persistence of the soul. Bob had not used the word “supernatural” in reference to his experience before, but it now occurred to him to do so.

He wished that he could impress Cindy with the seriousness of the situation. To do that, maybe he should express the wonder. For, despite everything, there was wonder. Even if it was all a complex, subtle dream, woven of lies and illusions, it was remarkable, ranking as a psychological phenomenon. And if there was any truth to it at all, any truth—

Good God.




Conroy, Ed. Report on Communion. 1988.

Everitt, David. “Whitley Strieber and The Hunger.” Fangoria #25. 1983.

Heaton, Michael. Interview with Whitley Strieber. San Francisco Examiner. March 5, 1987.

Strieber, Whitley. Breakthrough. 1995.

Strieber, Whitley. Communion. 1987.

Strieber, Whitley. The Hunger. 1981.

Strieber, Whitley. A New World. 2019.

Strieber, Whitley. The Secret School. 1996.

Strieber, Whitley. Solving the Communion Enigma. 2011.

Strieber, Whitley and Jeffrey Kripal. The Super Natural. 2017.

Strieber, Whitley. Transformation. 1988.

Strieber, Whitley. The Wild. 1991.

Strieber, Whitley. The Wolfen. 1978.

Swaim, Don. Interview with Whitley Strieber. April 6, 1984.

Wiater, Stanley. Interview with Whitley Strieber. Twilight Zone. August 1986.

Winter. Douglas E. “New Wave Gothicism and Spiritual Panic.” Shadowings. June/July 1983.

Winter, Douglas E. Faces of Fear. 1985.