Even the most charitable opinions of the Friday the 13th series write it off as an enjoyable camp with little substance. I don’t fault the series for this as Friday the 13th never aspired to be anything more than straightforward genre fun. In many ways, it has already exceeded that goal, still going strong after 40 years even with its relatively simple formula. I’m a big fan of this series for what it is, but also for what it could be, because written into the character of Jason is an untapped potential as frightening as it is tragic.
Jason Voorhees is a bona fide horror icon. His appearance is instantly recognizable even for those who have never seen the movies, and when you want to dispatch a gang of oversexed teens, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better expert in teenacide. Most entries in the series stick to these two traits when it comes to Jason. However, such portrayals do miss out on what for me is the most fascinating part of Jason’s character. Unlike most slasher villains, from the child-murdering Freddy Krueger to the emotionless psychopath Michael Myers, Jason’s story is an inherently tragic one.
This tragic core goes all the way back to the original film with Jason’s mother Pamela Voorhees, the series’ first killer. Pamela is an oft-overlooked element of the series, which is ironic since the events of that first film are what motivate Jason to kill in subsequent entries. After the supposed drowning of her son, Pamela viewed Camp Crystal Lake as an evil place and that all counsellors were culpable in Jason’s death. Though clearly insane, Pamela’s motives are somewhat sympathetic. Pamela’s killing spree was driven by grief, and in death, she passed that grief onto her son.
Most of the sequels treat Jason as a mindless killer, but this backstory has been the source of endless fascination for me. His life prior to the films is only hinted at throughout the series, with the first sequel perhaps elaborating on it the most. Friday the 13th Part 2 saw Jason’s debut at the killer. Part 2′s heroine Ginny Field, is one of the few people in the series to have some understanding of Jason as a person. In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, she speaks with her friends about Jason’s isolated childhood.
You know the only person who ever knew him was his mother? He never went to school so he never had any friends. I mean, she was everything to him.Ginny Field
It’s heavily hinted that Jason was ridiculed for his appearance, perhaps leading to one of the character’s defining traits. Kane Hodder, who played the character for four movies, states that Jason wears a mask because he’s ashamed of his face. I doubt very much the filmmakers thought very deeply about Jason’s motives for wearing a mask, but Hodder’s comment could allow one to view that hockey mask in a new light. Even when on a killing spree, Jason can’t bear it when people wince at his face. Pamela was perhaps the only person that didn’t show revulsion at his appearance. This would have isolated Jason further, and made her death all the more devastating.
Jason’s grief over his mother’s death is touched upon on occasion. Later on in Part 2, Ginny tricks Jason into believing she’s his mother s a distraction. It’s later used in Freddy vs. Jason when the Springwood Slasher seduces Jason with the image of his mother, only to suffer the rival killer’s wrath when the ruse is discovered. Even the oft maligned remake features a clever plot where Jason abducts rather that kills one of his teen targets due to her resemblance to a young Pamela Voorhees.
Perhaps the most powerful such moment occurs in the closing minutes of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. In this scene, young Tommy Jarvis, a horror fan with a love of special effects and makeup, uses those skills to disguise himself not as the late Pamela, but Jason himself as a child. Tommy uses this rouse to save his sister, and once he has the killer’s attention, asks Jason a question.
Remember me, Jason?Tommy Jarvis
To me, this scene is the heart of the Jason character. Confronted with his younger self, Jason becomes a passive giant, reaching out longingly to Tommy in a desperate attempt to achieve what he desires most. Caught in a never-ending cycle of grief and rage, all Jason wants is to be a little boy again. The tragic irony is his grief, which makes him suffer, may be the thing that keeps him alive.
Some of the earlier films have touched on some fascinating ideas with Jason’s grief. Following the events of Part 4, Tommy Jarvis becomes Jason’s chief rival. When Tommy attempts to burn Jason’s corpse in Part 6, he unwittingly unleashes the killer once more. Part 7 has a similar setup where young psychic Tina returns to Crystal Lake years after accidentally killing her father. In a fit of guilt, she attempts to resurrect her father, and unleashes Jason instead. In both films, it’s grief that brings Jason back from the dead, but this idea is used for little more than setup. Once Jason begins imaginatively carving his way through the cast, these ideas are all but forgotten.
For the sake of argument, imagine if Jason and the hero sharing a common grief is the catalyst for the film. Jason keeps coming back because he can’t let go of his pain. What if that’s what the hero must do in order to survive, thereby freeing themselves while Jason remains forever imprisoned? Some may throw their hands up and ask ‘so what? People come to a Jason movie for mindless genre fun, not depth.’ Rest assured, I love those elements as much as any fan of the series, and they should absolutely not be forgotten. You need not abandon a high body count and elaborate chase scene in order to bring just a little more depth to the table.
Jason’s unexpected return in Part 2 is often said to make no sense and has left fans trying to explain it for decades. Many theories have been proposed, from simple bad writing to Pamela using the Book of the Dead to bring him back. To me, the story is no more complicated than Jason just listening to his mother. Two of the most essential rules any parent teaches their child are don’t talk to strangers, and if you’re ever lost, stay put until you’re found. In my mind, that’s all it is. I imagine Jason managed to struggle to shore after his ill fate 1957 swim, and became lost. So he just did those two things for twenty-three years.
Perhaps the odd person caught fleeting glimpses of the deformed child on occasion, no doubt starting the Crystal Lake legend. Such tales might have generated stories of his ghost haunting the woods, which pushed an already grieving Pamela over the edge. In the years that followed Jason lived on, making a little home for himself in the woods. Maybe he was proud of that broken-down shack he built, and just couldn’t wait to show his mother how well he’d taken care of himself. Jason did what all good little boys are supposed to do, and lost everything as a result. Now he hates the world for it.
Imagine what a film about that would be like.
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