Jason Voorhees is the Hero America Deserves

This is my thirteenth article for International Policy Digest. I used to be a little paranoid about the number 13, avoiding it whenever possible. Now, I associate it with one of my favorite pop-culture icons, and one who, though long-dormant, I hope can make an all-American comeback: Jason Voorhees, the central figure in the iconic slasher-horror series, Friday the 13th.

I first watched the first two installments (which remain my two favorites) when I was maybe 18 or 19. The first Friday the 13th (1980) is pretty simple and straightforward: someone or something is haunting Camp Crystal Lake, killing camp counselors left and right. Deliberately invoking John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), right down to naming the movie after a spooky holiday, the film is more-or-less what you’d expect: quick kills, scary thrills, and yup, even an appearance by a young Kevin Bacon. But everything changes with the ending: the killer is revealed to not be Jason, but rather his mother, Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer, who once claimed “what a piece of shit, nobody is ever going to see this thing” in reference to the film). Pamela seeks vengeance on the summer camp because its counselors seemingly let her son Jason drown more than 2 decades ago. Camp counselor and “final girl” (a term in horror fandom for the last woman alive to confront the bad guy) Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) decapitates Pamela, and floats on a canoe on the lake, waiting to be rescued…when Jason himself is finally revealed, jumping out of the water to kill her. When she wakes up in the hospital, she was told there was no sign of Jason, prompting many sequels. This was the last movie I saw at my beloved Library of Congress Packard Campus in Culpeper, VA before lockdown, and perhaps that contributes to the mostly-sentimental (though it isn’t without its flaws) view I have of the film.

The film’s direct successor, Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) also pays homage to then-recent horror movies, this time 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Jason himself is now the primary villain in this movie, but his look is very much inspired by the villain of that movie. No iconic hockey mask just yet (he instead wears a cloth sack over his head), but Jason continues the murder spree at Camp Crystal Lake much like his mother before him. Speaking of his mother, Friday the 13th Part 2 might just be the most Oedipal horror movie since Psycho. This time, “final girl” Ginny Field (Amy Steel) dresses up as and uses the decapitated head of Pamela Voorhees in order to trick her son into not killing her. Mind you, Jason had placed his mother’s head on some kind of altar. Morbid, right? Freud himself would’ve been fascinated.

Years later, I watched both Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982) and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) with my cousin during a family vacation, and because of that, they sort of blend together. Jason finally gets his iconic hockey mask in Part 3, and the movie is a little bit more in-your-face because it was filmed for 3-D. Jason is seemingly killed at the end of The Final Chapter (which, despite its name, it’s most certainly not) by a boy named Tommy Jarvis, played by a young Corey Feldman right before his star-making turns in The Goonies and Stand By Me. The movie also features a young Crispin Glover on the cusp of starring in Back to the Future.

Last summer, most of the rest of the series was on Amazon Prime, so I decided to binge them. There was a dip in quality starting out the gate with Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985), which serves mostly as an excuse to show characters naked or doing drugs, reflecting the infamous off-screen rampant drug usage by the cast and crew. One of the suspects in the most recent murders is a now-teenaged Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd). But the killer is eventually revealed to not be Jason, but rather a Jason-inspired copycat. This dynamic was fixed in the subsequent movie, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), in which Tommy Jarvis, now played by Thom Matthews, accidentally resurrects Jason thanks to a lightning strike into a metal stake through his heart. Yup, it really is that goofy! But Part VI brings back Jason, and thus, some of the charm that had faded without him. It’s also very 80s, which I love, featuring songs by Alice Cooper (“He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)” and “Teenage Frankenstein”) and Felony (“I’m No Animal”) that are indicative of the era.

The standout entry outside of the first two for me is easily Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988). In it, a telekinetic teenage girl named Tina Shepherd (Lar Park Lincoln) accidentally resurrects Jason, and must use her special gifts to stop him. It’s a movie that was pitched as “Carrie vs. Jason,” but comes off a little bit more like “Alex Mack vs. Jason” to my 90s-kid sensibilities. Yet, Lincoln’s Tina helps ground the movie, giving it stakes and emotional investment not seen since the first few entries. For once, Jason has a nemesis who is a viable threat to him, and the movie is surprisingly empowering as far as the character of Tina is concerned. Plus, it might have my favorite on-screen death, involving a sleeping bag, of the entire series. It was the most pleasant discovery of my series-binge last summer.

Then there are the later entries. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) should’ve been named Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Spends Most of the Movie on a Boat, and Eventually Spends a Few Minutes in Manhattan. That highlights the problem with the movie: it has very typical Friday the 13th scares, but most of it takes place on a boat, despite the titular claim to bring the action to the Big Apple. Fans of the series are eternally questioning how this boat got out of Crystal Lake (which is, ya know, a lake) into the Atlantic Ocean. Jason Takes Manhattan feels more rushed and unfocused than its predecessors, but is still entertaining to watch (especially, as I learned recently, if you’re playing a drinking game during it). Plus, I love its corny 80s theme song, “The Darkest Side of the Night” by Metropolis.

The worst entry in the series is easily the ninth installment, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), so named because the producers couldn’t get the rights to the Friday the 13th name. While I love the beginning in which Jason is obliterated by gunfire and explosions, the conceit becomes that Jason is now a demonic parasite nicknamed “Hellbaby” (just go with it) that can transfer between bodies (just go with it), and only Jason’s last blood relatives can kill him with a special magic blade (just go with it) in order to purge Jason’s spirit from the world. It’s easy to see why the franchise took a long gap after this movie. For example, I would have loved to have seen more of the bounty hunter character Creighton Duke (Steven Williams, of 21 Jump Street and X-Files fame), he seemed really intriguing, only for him to be sidelined to make way for more schlock. The only thing that kept in the minds of fans was an ending shot of Freddy Krueger’s gloved hand reaching up to take Jason’s mask down to Hell.

Easily the goofiest installment is Jason X (2002), humorously subtitled Jason Goes to Space by fans. And that about sums it up: after being cryogenically frozen, Jason’s body is preserved and taken aboard a spaceship visiting an abandoned Earth in the year 2455. Once Jason is unfrozen, he begins his typical killing spree on board the spaceship. While he is defeated by a deadly android (Lisa Ryder), he is eventually brought back to life by nanotechnology, turning him into the even more powerful Über-Jason. Jason X is ridiculously stupid, but it also seems to have full self-awareness of what it is and its tongue somewhat in its cheek. This is particularly apparent around the point when Über-Jason enters a holodeck that conjures up the old Camp Crystal Lake location, where holographic topless girls taunt him by literally saying things like “do you wanna smoke some pot?” and “we love premarital sex!” Jason X is actually the last movie I saw at my beloved Alamo Drafthouse before the coronavirus lockdown, and while I might have preferred a classic, I don’t disparage that fact (even if I’m anxious to eventually see something else there).

And then there’s Freddy vs. Jason (2003), the culmination fight between the two horror icons as teased at the end of Jason Goes to Hell that I watched in order to treat myself and enjoy a “turn-off-my-brain” movie during a difficult week in quarantine. The plot is little more than an excuse to merge the two franchises’ respective mythologies together, and really, if you’re going to pick up a movie called Freddy vs. Jason, you basically already know what’s in store. It’s entertaining, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you much about it beyond that. I barely remember anything in it that didn’t involve Freddy, Jason, or their titular fight.

There has not been an installment since 2009’s reboot simply called Friday the 13th (which, like many horror remakes/reboots, just comes off as bland, generic, and ultimately pretty forgettable). Last I heard, a new installment was going to be produced by series-superfan…LeBron James? It’s a shame that there doesn’t seem to be any momentum on a new Friday the 13th project, because the series next installment would be, of course, number 13. We are also now currently in the longest gap between entries in the series. Part of the reason it feels so hard to bring Jason into the 21st century is that he feels so tied to a specific time in history. There is this idea that Jason represented the 80s and Reagan-era morality, i.e. “don’t smoke, drink, or have sex, young people, or Jason’s gonna get you!” This is despite the fact that, when it was first being released, the series was a target for many on the religious right and in evangelical Christian circles. But I never believed that was the case entirely, rather I think the idea is that Jason preys on people when they’re at their most vulnerable. Rather than preying on competent adults, Jason typically targets oblivious teenaged camp counselors, which makes him a frightful figure if you first encounter him when you’re around the same age as his victims, like I did.

Tracking the evolution of the series is even more interesting. Here was a low-budget slasher about a mother craving lethal vengeance that then refocuses on the Jason character in the sequels, only to later shift to become immersed in supernatural elements (there’s an argument as to whether or not Jason qualifies as a zombie after his resurrection in Part VI) and eventually devolves into the bamboozling, convoluted storyline of Jason Goes to Hell, the self-satire of Jason X, and the Michael Bay-produced late-2000s silliness of the reboot.

But there are things that make Jason stand out, even among his fellow 80s-slasher brethren like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Pinhead. Truthfully, I prefer Jason because he doesn’t talk, and therefore you project your own fears onto him. In contrast, Freddy Krueger’s puns and jokes become repetitive and tiresome, and I’m thoroughly uncomfortable with how many times he refers to his victims as “bitch” (which was hilariously skewed in the character of “Scary Terry” from Rick & Morty). Jason has the most in common with the slasher-genre progenitor character, Halloween’s Michael Myers. However, unlike Myers, who is always framed in terms of being fully deranged and evil, but ultimately still human, Jason’s arc eventually has him become a literal monster, something that doesn’t even resemble and is completely detached from humanity. Jason is silent, mysterious, and kills completely non-discriminatorily. Wouldn’t that make him a perfect metaphor for the moment, a killer akin to the coronavirus itself? Whoever is responsible for the next installment could choose to make Jason somehow indicative of current COVID-related fears, a true opportunity to move the series in a new direction. After all, Jason was way ahead the rest of us on extolling the virtues of constantly wearing a mask while outside or around other people…

Because the franchise has not been getting new installments, a lot of people tend to approach it as a singular, now-concluded thing. Many YouTubers and podcasters tend to talk about the series as a whole, and rank their favorite installments accordingly. This has allowed it to stay alive in the minds of fans, as have projects like Crystal Lake Memories, originally a book that was later adapted into a fantastic, extensive documentary narrated by Corey Feldman that clocks in at nearly 7 hours and goes in-depth into the development and production of each installment of the series. Actors that have portrayed Jason, most famously Kane Hodder (who played the role from 1988 to 2002), are some of the folk heroes on the convention circuit. The series is even getting a deluxe, 16-disc collected edition on Blu-Ray courtesy of the good people at Shout! Factory.

Whether it was concerned parents groups or critics who turned their noses up at the very concept (even my hero Roger Ebert couldn’t be bothered to care or pay any credence to the series whatsoever), who thought that we’d still be talking about Friday the 13th some forty years after the first installment came out? The success of the first Friday the 13th predicted the arrival of later micro-budgeted horror phenomenon, be it The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Paranormal Activity (2009). Other subsequent horror franchises, such as Saw, seem to emulate Friday the 13th’s ability to keep pumping out sequels for years on end. Jason’s kills, considered so gratuitous in the 80s, are relatively tame compared to what is on display in recent horror movies, particularly in the “torture porn” subgenre. Parents groups and religious organizations have mostly forgotten about the series, moving the focus of their ire onto things like violent video games and Fifty Shades of Grey. And critics are beginning to reassess the franchise as something important, maybe even valuable, in the landscape of the American horror film genre.

There is something truly uniquely American about the series, everything from the summer camp location to the frequently-slaughtered WASP-y suburban kids serve as a rebuke to classic images of Americana. The series seems intended to recall and skewer some of the classic American iconography of decades past, i.e. “what if there was a killer at Make-Out Point?” In so doing, Jason served as a counter-cultural hero for Gen X and generations to follow, an iconoclast who takes glee in chopping away at cultural pillars with his machete. For every Wet Hot American Summer, Salute Your Shorts, or Meatballs that celebrates the summer-camp tradition, there was Friday the 13th, waiting to live in the nightmares and campfire tales of children all around the world.

As mentioned, some of my last great experiences in theaters before lockdown included watching Friday the 13th movies, adding a sort of wistful nostalgia for the series as I quarantined. Occasionally (including as of publication), most of the series is available on Amazon Prime, and is well worth binging, especially if you haven’t seen any of them. The series (though some installments are more than others) is worth checking out, but not if you’re someone who is squeamish when it comes to horror. Most of them clock in at around 90 minutes and are easy to digest.
Everyone has the morally-dubious, famously-aggressive, psychotic antihero they gravitated towards during the quarantine. For many, it was Joe Exotic. For me, it was Jason Voorhees. While the 13th installment of his adventures might be indefinitely delayed, I’m hoping that a character who has been resurrected countless times still has at least one more left in him…

Personal ranking: I, II, VII, III, IV, VI, Jason X, Freddy vs. Jason, VIII, V, reboot, Jason Goes to Hell.