Every year around Halloween, I rent a bunch of horror movies from the 70s and 80s and watch them over a couple of days. Typically, this includes at least one Friday the 13th movie, and this year was no exception.
It’s my favorite horror series, and I’m not always sure why. Largely nostalgia, I suppose; my mom was always pretty indulgent with letting me watch R-rated movies as a child, so I think by the time I was about 12 I had seen all the movies up to that date. It’s certainly not about quality; I like Friday the 13th more, but I have to admit that the original Halloween is a much better movie. I have to say that the music is quite good, especially in the early ones – the scratchy strings and of course, the ch-ch-ch ha-ha-ha (or, for you purists, ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma) “breathing” motif (but there again, Halloween’s legendary score has it beat).
So it’s got to be Jason Voorhees, then. Wielder of the machete, wearer of the goalie mask. No surprise; he’s the central figure and, let’s be fair, semi-protagonist of the franchise. But here’s the thing:
Jason makes no sense.
There’s no proper explanation for him. He was a deformed and possibly developmentally disabled child who apparently drowned in Crystal Lake, but it turns out he didn’t, or maybe he did and came back from the dead somehow. He’s not really a zombie, but he is undead; but even before he became truly supernatural when he was killed in Part IV and rose from the grave in Part VI, he was able to take crazy amounts of punishment. In Part VIII he gets hit with toxic waste and somehow reverts back to a little boy, which is ignored in Jason Goes To Hell, in which he’s a magical, body-hopping creature. Which, in turn, is ignored in Jason X where they talk about him having regenerative properties like Wolverine.
And fans wondered why the recent Friday the 13th remake/reboot didn’t do a Batman Begins/Casino Royale and delve into the character of Jason? Take a look at that previous paragraph and tell me how the hell you would do that. He’s not a character, he’s a big scary guy who walks around killing whoever he comes upon. Jason is a gimmick – and I say that as someone who loves Jason. A good gimmick is still a gimmick, and Jason as a horror icon owes everything – everything – to being a fantastic visual; there’s no reason in the story or thematically why he should be wearing a hockey mask, but it works to create a haunting image.
But I watched His Name Was Jason, a fairly fluffy documentary about the film series, and most of the cast and crew involved tried to offer up some kind of justification for Jason. It’s to be expected – this was made by fans, for fans, so they had to say something that sounded deep and worthy other than “because he looks cool.”
So most of what they say revolved around the idea of Jason getting revenge for being tormented as a child for being different and being left to drown by inattentive camp counselors; someone on the DVD said he was both the killer and the victim. But I really don’t have any sympathy for this brutal killing machine. And yes, a lot of the people he kills in the movies “have it coming” in the logic of the film – there’s the mean jock, the trampy brunette, the annoying stoner, and so on – but in the real world, I should hope nobody looks upon those things as being punishable by death.
And yet, I think we’re on the right track there. Because these are kids who, to borrow a phrase from Philip K Dick, were punished too much for what they did. Much has been made about the conservative tone of these movies in which sex and drugs = death, but it’s not like there isn’t some real-world precedent for that. If you have unprotected sex, there are possible repercussions – unwanted pregnancy or disease, and if there’s disease, then possibly death. If you smoke, you run the risk of developing health problems and, again, possibly death. You drink too much, there’s health problems there too, or you could run your car into a tree.
Basically, the world can punish you for wanting to have a little fun.
Someone else in the DVD described the “teens go into the woods without adult supervision” plotline as “ritualized,” and that’s dead-on, because it is a ritual. You might ask why people keep going to Crystal Lake if there’s a chance you could get your head split in half with a machete. But then people do all the things mentioned in the previous paragraph when there’s also a chance that bad things will happen as a result. Always have, always will, and I’m certainly in no position to judge anyone. Sometimes you get away with it. Sometimes you don’t. It’s random and senseless and unfair and brutal.
And that’s why Jason is the perfect vehicle for this metaphor, and why I think these movies resonate with people, whether consciously or unconsciously. Because a complex character would muddy it up too much. Jason is Fate, Jason is Consequence, and those things do not really operate with any rhyme or reason. Why does Jason wear a hockey mask? Why does he keep coming back from the dead? Why do bad things happen to good people? Sometimes they just do.
And that’s what Friday the 13th really means, Charlie Brown.