Everyone knows the story of Camp Crystal Lake. But could it be that beneath the surface of this seminal slasher there are deeper themes of grief, loss and trauma? Tim Coleman makes the case…
The original Friday the 13th, famously, doesn’t feature Jason Vorhees: unless one’s counting the final jump-scare which may / may not be a dream sequence. No, as Ghostface intones in the opening moments of Wes Craven’s Scream some 16 years later, Mrs Vorhees was the killer in the original film, her be-hockey-masked son not turning up until the sequels.
The film is also famous for effectively firing the starting pistol on the 80s slasher boom. It’s true that the origins of stalk-n-slash movies go back further (particularly to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and its spiritual successor, Carpenter’s Halloween) but it was Friday which took the formula and weaponised it into box office gold: director Sean S. Cunningham literally took out a trade ad with the title before he even had a concept, much less a script, only making the film when the response was so enthusiastic that he became persuaded this was a viable financial enterprise. And viable it was: Friday would go on to spawn 9 sequels, a cross-over and a reboot, becoming the defining entry in the “summer camp” horror movie with its iconography still reverberating through pop culture to this day.
But for a film which admittedly was conceived with such mercenary intentions, and explicitly takes its progenitors and amps them up for greater thrills – more sex; more gore – could it be that there is something deeper lurking beneath the surface of Crystal Lake, apart from an undead zombie child?
Horror is no stranger to the topic of grief. Indeed “darker” human emotions – be it fear, abjection, neurosis – are the thematic staples of the genre, and though audiences have become familiar with these in “elevated” entries which explicitly wrangle with the real-world implications for these realities – such as Ari Aster’s Midsommar or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook – they too haunt more traditionally “grindhouse” fare, and though their treatment may not always be tactful (it is difficult to defend, for example, tropes of “madness” in even lauded titles such as Psycho) they nevertheless create a safe-space to consider representations of those parts of human life which many would rather ignore.
In Mrs Pamela Vorhees then – a hithertoo unseen character who appears in the final reel of the original Friday the 13th – we have an oddly compelling villain who also acts as an emblem of familial trauma. Narratively of course her introduction is a cheat – the audience have not seen her before, and therefore have no hope of predicting that she is the killer – but when she faces down final girl Alice (Adrienne King) she explains that in ’57 her son Jason drowned in Crystal Lake, in part because the counsellors who were supposed to be caring for him were off having sex. A brief flashback scene – and, with greater clarity, that closing dream/jump-scare – reveal Jason is disfigured, and one might infer severely disabled. It’s true that physical disfigurement is a lazy and oft-repeated trope frequently used to code villainy and evil, but taken on face value – that Jason was a child with profound needs who died via neglect – it’s difficult to not re-interpret the rest of the film through this lens of motherly grief.
Take the opening scene, for instance. Set in ’58 – a year after Jason’s apparent death – the sequence follows the killer’s POV, riffing on Halloween, as an unseen assailant (Mrs Vorhees) murders two lusty teens who sneak away from a Biblical sing-song to roll in the hay. On first viewing this was all surface level convention – sex and death, orbiting one another as they so often do in horror films. Now though with the additional information that this was not only vengeance, but also a howl of pain by a grieving mother on an indifferent world, there’s a deeper texture to the violence: her son’s life was felt to be less important than temporary pleasure, and just as that caused her irrevocable agony so too shall she deliver that pain onto the world; not just in the immediate murder of these two teens, but by extension the loss Mrs Vorhees will make their parents feel also.
It’s worth here taking a moment to say that when we talk about “parents”, in Friday the 13th we’re really talking about mothers. “Mr” Vorhees is never mentioned, and may not have ever existed in any meaningful way: it’s unclear if Mrs Vorhees was ever married, though that she takes the nomenclature “Mrs” implies that this is perhaps likely. And though it’s not referenced in the text, and is therefore conjecture, one might infer that Jason’s disfiguring disability could have been a factor in why her husband abandoned them. In any event, she was left on her own to raise a child with profound additional needs without – it would appear – support. This in itself is another layer of loss, and problematises writing her off as just another “Crazy Woman”.
When Mrs Vorhees does finally turn up at Camp Crystal Lake then in those final moments she begins to tell the story of Jason’s death, before talking to herself in Jason’s voice as he urges her to kill again. As mentioned above, this could be read as ritualistic desire to continuously make the world suffer as she has suffered, particularly those who – even by association – are culpable for her grief. But it is also possible to transpose Mrs Vorhees experiences onto the Kubler-Ross grief curve as a way of decoding her pathology.
Writing in the 1960s, Kubler-Ross sought to chart the process through which people experience and process loss. Initially comprising of 5 stages (often called the “Five Stages of Grief”) she later expanded this to 7, represented broadly as the change curve seen below. To be sure: these stages are not meant to be a linear process, whereby one experiences a stage, completes it, and moves on. Grief is a fluid and intangible thing, and those experiencing loss will frequently journey back and forth throughout this process on any given day. Nevertheless it is useful – in broad strokes – as a guide to map a way through what can often feel like overwhelming and blinding pain, with the promise that some day – even if it’s years down the line – one might integrate the loss into their life, rather than be dominated by it.
Looking at the change curve, it is perhaps arguable that Mrs Vorhees has indeed successfully made it to the “Integration” stage, coming out of her experience as a “renewed individual” (albeit one suffering psychotic delusions and homicidal tendencies). However her delusional self-talk and rage perhaps suggest more that she is not renewed at all, but rather collapsed into a repetitive spin-cycle through the earlier stages of the process, oscillating between “Denial” (keeping Jason alive by verbalising instructions to herself) and “Frustration” (visible anger and violent acts). At best she demonstrates a maladapted grieving process which has kept her trapped, and unable to move on.
This sense of containment is mirrored visually when, in the closing moments of the beach scuffle, Alice snatches up a machete and rushes at Mrs Vorhees. The shot slows down and focuses on Mrs Vorhees screaming face – mirroring the use of slow-mo in the opening kill – before Alice decapitates her. This pairing of the opening and closing kills creates a kind of inclusio effect, capturing Mrs Vorhees – and her grief – inside.
One might suppose that this brings Mrs Vorhees’ grief to an end – released as she is into the arms of death – but as the aforementioned coda shows an undead Jason rise out of water and snatch at Alice – presumably now in reciprocal grief for his mother – there is a sense of the intergenerational passing on of unresolved trauma. Indeed when Alice awakes from her nightmare and is told that the police saw no boy, she looks dreamily into the mid-distance and whispers “Then he’s still down there”, a foreboding warning that the Vorhees’ trauma is still unresolved – Kubler-Ross uncompleted – and grief will rise out of the water like a sublimated creature than refuses to rest quiet.
A quick word about the sequels. In ways which require some narrative gymnastics, Jason appears as an adult in Friday the 13th: Part 2 (1981) to avenge his mother, killing Alice in the opening sequence before returning to Crystal Lake to dispatch a new round of teens. What’s interesting here though is the sense of grief being cyclical: Mrs Vorhees’ loss was unresolved and drove her to obsessively relive her trauma, inflicting it upon others in an act of pain and demand for empathy. Jason then too mirrors this, literally – as the closing scenes show – keeping his mother’s head on a shrine and, one imagines, by extension keeping his own pain fresh and alive.
In terms of the iconography of Jason over the subsequent films it’s interesting to note both his masks and choice of weapon. Masks are of course nothing unusual in a slasher film, but in the context of concealment already discussed – the hiding of Mrs Vorhees from the audience’s sight; of Jason below the water; of grief beneath the surface – Jason hiding his face is interesting: he simultaneously wants to remain hidden, yet relentlessly pursues people; to be unseen, and yet cause people to experience the same pain he has.
Similarly the use of the machete as his weapon of choice – something codified as the series progresses – is important, as this was the weapon which ended his mother’s life. As such it is possible to read Jason as suffering from the same maladaptive inability to fully process his loss and trauma too, dooming himself – and all who cross his path – to reliving the same experiences again and again without ever reaching a sense of resolution. Add to this the original point that Jason was a child with profound disabilities – who may have been abandoned by his father, or at very least neglected by those who should have cared for him – and it’s difficult to think of Jason as simply a hulking death-zombie slaughtering his way through an endless meat grinder of teenage bodies, but more as a figure of sympathy actualising his pain, painting in blood.
This article is part of our Slashanuary series. You can read more here, or catch our upcoming podcast episode about slasher films and how Wes Craven’s Scream reinvented the sub-genre.