We know the story. A group of would be camp counselors begin their summer of sex, drinking, and all around tomfoolery in a cabin in the woods, only to have their fun clipped short by a figure lurking through the trees. Then come the disappearances, the bodies, the blood. Before Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th was the source of endless parodies, rip-offs, and sequels, it was the terror of 1980 and it gave rise to a new subgenre in horror: the slasher film. Its predecessor Halloween may be more skillfully crafted, and its successor A Nightmare on Elm Street may be the most creative, but Friday the 13th has always been the most fun of those top tier 80’s horror franchises. Perhaps because it tapped into the teenage zeitgeist at the right time, perhaps because it takes so little risks with formula, or maybe because it gives audiences exactly what they came for. 35 years after its debut, Friday the 13th remains the most influential film in the slasher sub-genre because out of the aforementioned slasher films, it takes itself the least serious while having the most to offer.
I’ve made no secret of my love of horror films, slashers in particular, and the Friday the 13th franchise just so happens to be one of my favorites. I own every installment, watched them all multiple times, and yet it’s the first that’s the only truly frightening one, and not because it’s the original. I was in high school the first time I watched Friday the 13th, alone in the basement on Halloween night. Even then, I was aware that the film had a rather standard plot, the kill scenes weren’t particularly shocking (especially when later compared to subsequent entries in the series) and the dialogue was enjoyably laughable. But there was something about the movie that still sent a chill down my spine. Harry Manfredini’s iconic music helped (“ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”) but really what made the movie stick was Pamela. Jason may be the face of the series, and perhaps the first villain that audiences actually rooted for, but it’s Betsy Palmer’s grieving mother, Pamela, who gives weight to this opening installment.
A sweater-clad, matronly woman driven crazy by loss, out to punish teenagers for being teenagers, and gifted with impossible, brutish strength by way of stunt double, Pamela is a force of destruction ready to bring about change (“Kill her, Mommy! Kill her!”). All of Friday the 13th’s later scholarly readings (popularized by Wes Craven’s Scream) about the slasher genre as an allegory for the virtues of staying chaste and sober, stem from Pamela. John Carpenter’s Halloween can be attributed with the same thematic point, but it’s more meaningful and significant when the bearer of punishment comes from an aging woman rather than a faceless mental patient. In many ways, Friday the 13th is the first true callback to Hitchcock’s Psycho. Pamela Voorhees is the ultimate maternal figure, gone mad with rules, curfew, and the insistence of abstinence (“The counselors weren’t paying any attention… They were making love while that young boy drowned.”) She’s the quintessential 1960s mother. She’s Norma Bates set loose in the woods and given fantastic archery skills.
And yet for all of Pamela’s moral nagging, there’s no weight to her lesson, no denouement that allows the audience to breathe a sigh of relief with the knowledge that the nightmare is finally over because they have knowledge they didn’t before. Notions of responsibility are lopped off just as easily as Pamela’s head, sent rolling into the muck. Because at the end of the day, audiences from the 1980s onward don’t want the nagging mother figure there to give tough lessons. They want blood, boobs, and for the cycle to continue. It’s a franchise of bloodlust, driven by bloodlust. This is why Jason can come back again and again and again to continue his mother’s work and we love him for it. Ultimately, as a force of morality, Jason fails. Ok, yes, he can’t be that great of a moral force when he’s carving up nubile teens with machetes, but he’s never an adequate match for teenage freedom and loose morality. The faces of those campers may change–Kevin Bacon becomes some other, less-talented blonde guy, and virginal Alice becomes some other resourceful final girl, but at the end of the day, Jason is always after the same group of teens. It’s a testament to the truth that despite the advent of technology and the changing face of the world, teenagers have changed very little since the 80s, a fact that makes 2009’s Friday the 13th reboot a success because it’s really just a continuation of what’s come before.
As audience members, we reject the Pamelas, the only killer in the series who ever had the capability to end it, capping the franchise before it could begin. Instead, we accept the mentally challenged, Frankenstein monster because he’s fun and ultimately ineffectual in our modern age because he’s really just a child himself. By destroying adulthood in the form of Pamela Voorhees, we’re left to witness the repeated mistakes of adolescence. So when the final jump scare comes, and the only thing you can think is “holy shit, what just came out of the lake?” remember that it’s the birth of a cycle of immaturity. Sure it’s fun, but is there anything more terrifying than never progressing? While it surely wasn’t intentional, Friday the 13th and the parts that followed create a constant meta-narrative that exposes generation after generation that would rather be chased by a boogeyman than be reminded of the responsibilities that come with maturity. In terms of its influence, what’s true for Friday the 13th has become true for a lot of the horror genre. While there are still meaningful allegories in the genre, and lessons to be learned, horror films are mostly sequels and boogeymen, and myself, like many others, can’t turn away from the cycle because it’s entertaining and comfortable. It may be Blumhouse Productions output now, instead of holiday-based slashers, but horror is still primarily a genre more concerned with adolescent fun than creating actual deep-seated fears built on the reflection adulthood. So, after 35 years has a lesson been learned? Are we ready to take responsibility and watch that young boy before he drowns? Nope, because we’re all too distracted.