Let's talk about Jason Voorhees a little bit.
First off, I've come to the conclusion that Jason is a supernatural creature akin to a yūrei, the vengeful Japanese ghosts best known to American horror fans from the Ju-on and Ringu films. Now obviously Jason Voorhees is not a woman in white with long black hair in her face, but he fits all the other traits of the yūrei: he died violently, his death is directly tied to water, and he is the embodiment of an aimless wrath that cannot be stopped.
Second, I want to share my thoughts on why Jason kills. The motivation for his crimes have always been maddeningly vague and simplistic, but I believe that unlocking the reasons that Jason does what he does will add new insight into his story. As a passionate consumer of all things Voorhees, I’ll attempt to decipher the motivations that enable the hockey-masked goon.
Finally, I’m going to share a bit of a strange theory I’ve come to develop about the setting of the Friday the 13th films. There is something fundamentally wrong with Crystal Lake. It kills its young and traps its killers in an endless cycle of unsatisfied vengeance. I believe that Jason Voorhees is merely the perfect embodiment of the curse, but we see evidence of this theory in subtle ways over the course of the Friday the 13th mythology.
Now, bear in mind that I'm going to have to apply a little bit of head-canon here because the movies aren't exactly the product of a unified narrative vision. When all is said and done, these movies are just profit-minded slasher films that I take far too seriously.
They’re also some of my favorite stories of all time. They’re a campfire tale, an elemental American ghost story, a myth that had an impact far beyond its creator’s intentions and ambitions. Jason’s hockey mask has now become the cultural signifier for the horror genre. Tee-shirts, toys, and other Jason Voorhees collectibles are still being created at a staggering rate, and his fandom has only deepened as time goes on. While I suspect a big part of the appeal of these films are their cartoony storytelling and amateur acting, there’s another part of the fandom that takes Jason Voorhees and the carnage he creates far too seriously.
I am one of them.
The character of Jason Voorhees has become a sort of personal avatar of my dark side, in a way that’s not always healthy. We all have our monsters and we let them rampage for a bit before putting them away, but Jason has a hard time staying quiet in the weird little toy box of my brain. I hear him when I get drunk, I hear him when I feel sad or unloved, and I hear him when I feel disconnected from the world and the people around me. He doesn’t say anything – though I do distinctly hear that “ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma” soundtrack – but he empowers me. He says that, if the world discards you, then you can get angry. You can rage against the light and love and joy that you have been denied. You can tear it from others, so they know the pain that you live with.
If given the choice between being invisible and being a monster, there is a fierce black joy in choosing the latter.
These are not good ideas. In the end, Jason’s hatred leaves him drowned at the bottom of Crystal Lake. Anger is always a poison, but it’s one I can understand. I imagine it hurts terribly to be Jason Voorhees, but I don’t think he’s capable of being anything else.
When we talk about the things we love and the stories that move us, we’re actually talking about ourselves.
To the first point, there are two real tragedies that Jason Voorhees suffered: the first was his drowning in Crystal Lake and the second was after the death of his mother.
Fans of the Friday the 13th franchise tend to separate the evolution of Jason into Living-Jason (Friday 2-4) and Zombie-Jason (Jason Lives through to the remake). While post-Final Chapter Jason is unquestionably supernatural, the Jason of part 2-4 seems to be a living, breathing, and EXTREMELY resilient man. According to the narrative, this Jason did NOT drown in the lake, but somehow swam away, survived in the woods for a long period of time (and how a hydrocephalic child managed to pull THAT off raises a bunch more questions), and happened to watch his mother get decapitated after her murder spree, setting off the rest of the series.
This is where I deviate from the orthodox narrative. Jason ABSOLUTELY drowned in Camp Crystal Lake. He did not swim away, survive, and grow into a backwoods hillbilly slasher.
My big piece of evidence, aside from the sheer improbably of a child like Jason surviving on his own, is his first appearance at the end of the original Friday the 13th. The creature that launches himself out of the water toward Alice is covered in moss and lichen, his body blackened and deformed from years underwater. The boy that emerges from the lake is a dead THING, and that's what makes him so frightening. He’s a callback to the strange story Pamela Voorhees told to explain her rampage.
The classic yūrei death ALWAYS involves water. They fall down wells, slip into water towers, and die in rainstorms.
Sadako/Samara was pushed into the well by a parent and, while Kayako was sliced and bludgeoned to death, both her son and the family cat were drowned in a tub. Water always plays a part in the formation of the yūrei. It's because death by water invokes a sense of tragedy and melancholy, and it has very specific meaning to Japanese horror fans.
I'm going to paraphrase a section that I read in either "The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa" by Jerry White or "Japanese Horror Cinema" edited by Jay McRoy. In one of the books, the author explained that Japan is a 'wet' culture, as opposed to the 'dry' cultures of the west. The kanji for 'wet' and 'emotional' are the same thing, and Japanese culture favors a more intuitive communication than the west, which means that their horror stories tend to work on a much less rigid way than our own.
Ghosts in western narratives tend to have very specific rules and goals. They're either stuck in a loop, they're trying to be laid to rest, or they're attempting to fulfill a specific purpose. They are dangerous but can ultimately be reasoned with, escaped, or banished. Japanese ghosts, conversely, will never stop. They are unchecked rage personified. They die in or near water, which is a conduit for raw emotion, and are less trapped spirits than vengeance personified and run amok.
Jason HAD to have drowned in the water. His death spurred on her mother - probably due to the corrupting influence of Crystal Lake, which I'll address later – and when she died, Jason's spirit rose in a powerful body and a heart full of unchecked violence and hate.
Jason’s intelligence has largely fluctuated over the years. The first few movies, especially Friday II and III, paint him as a sort of backwoods hillbilly idiot, more Leatherface than Lector, while the later films portray him as either a Terminator (especially C.J. Graham’s portrayal in Jason Lives) or as an angry but otherwise normally intelligent killer. I think the roots of his anger stem from his developmental issues. Bear with me here as I’m covering material that can be difficult and I’m trying to articulate this with sensitivity.
While I was in college, I worked with a developmentally disabled guy at a coffee shop. He was very large and strong, but he struggled with some of the basic tasks around the shop. He usually had someone around to help him work through his assignments, but even then he would sometimes violently lose his temper and lash out at the people around him. When I saw him act out, I felt like his behavior was coming from a place of frustration. Usually something minor had gone wrong that he wasn’t able to fix or people were demanding too much of him too quickly. After witnessing my coworker’s struggle, I extrapolated my observations into Jason’s perspective.
Pretend you're alone in the woods after having been raised by a mother who was overprotective in an unhealthy way, people "invade your space" and you lash out to protect yourself, not entirely understanding the consequences of your actions.
That's who Jason is to me.
In the films, Jason kills to get revenge for his mother, who died trying to avenge him. He predominantly kills teenagers because, well, that's what's around in a slasher film. And he mostly goes after people with some connection to Crystal Lake.
One of the more interesting peculiarities is that Jason seems to favor killing people who have gotten close to his stalking grounds. In Jason Takes Manhattan he ignores or even actively avoids killing scores of New Yorkers in his pursuit of the survivors of the SS Lazarus, the ship full of teenagers on their graduating class trip that departed from Crystal Lake harbor. I have some theories on this behavior, which I’ll get into in the following segment about the Crystal Lake Curse.
It's also impossible to downplay the fact that sexuality plays a large role in the franchise, especially since anyone who has sex or gets nude on camera is sure to be killed immediately after. This is one of the more odious and regressive aspects of the series. I choose to believe this aspect is more of a lazy cliché than an actual puritanical mean streak, but the fact remains that even Jason's origins are tied to sex. He only died because the camp counselors were too busy having sex to do their jobs.
In all honesty, I believe there’s a strong sex = death thread in these movies because the Friday the 13th series is all about titillation and both sex and violence are titillating in their own ways. However, I once came across a discussion thread on the AV Club’s website where the commentator NakedSnake said that there may be a different set of values at play in the series use of punitive violence:
“For the most part, if you get into the backbone of most of the horror movies, it’s less about the sex and more about the responsibility. Laurie Strode of Halloween, for example, does her job. In fact, she not only does her job, she also picks up the extra responsibility of doing another person’s job so that person can go off and shirk her responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, within the context of the movie, that other person suffers a horrific punishment for her lapse in work ethic. Laurie is then rewarded for her idealized American work ethic by being able to successfully confront Michael Myers on several different occasions.
When Voorhees’ mother lays out her motivation at the end of Friday The 13th, almost everyone who listened to it glommed on to the sex the teenagers were having when her child drowned, so they believed the teenagers were being punished for the sex. But the reality is that the far more important part of her explanation is that “They weren’t watching my son.” Hence, in America, where refusing to work or fulfill your responsibilities is something to be punished, by shirking their jobs, the teenagers in question, (and by extension every teenager from that point forward by association) became worthy of their grisly fate.
Friday The 13th was a bit clumsier than Halloween in that it didn’t draw the clear distinctions between the “worthy” teenagers who did their jobs and fulfilled their responsibilities and the “unworthy” ones who shirked their responsibilities and didn’t do their jobs, but it’s still there—at least until the later installments of both series when each of the series lost its focus about what it was really supposed to be about.”
That doesn’t ignore the fact that the series in inexorably tied into the death of sexually active teens. The eros and thanatos urge, the twining of sexuality and death is part of the series. One could argue that Jason is the ultimate outsider, a character enacting dark urges because more positive ones would forever be denied him. Horror author Nancy A. Collins no doubt agreed, as she started her Jason vs. Leatherface comic book miniseries with Jason at the bottom of the lake, staring at his machete, compelled to hunt his victims because they could smile and laugh and love in the sunlight and he could do none of those things. The only succor he had was his hate, which kept him warm in the inky darkness of Crystal Lake.
As satisfying as that idea can be, and as much it ties into the romantic idea of the neglected child carving up campers in the woods, it's ultimately a far too complex of a motivator for Jason. The one time the movies really directly help us look at the world through his eyes is in his opening scene in Freddy vs. Jason, where one of his victims morphs into a litany of others, each extolling the sins of recklessness, selfishness, and irresponsibility that lead to their fatal meeting with Jason. The scene ends with the voice of his mother (or rather Freddy impersonating his mother) goading him onward towards more mayhem. When Jason goes off-leash, Freddy-as-Pamela later vents his rage on him, calling him a big dumb dog incapable of stopping. This suggests that there is very little conscious thought left in Jason Voorhees anymore. He's not longer a person, but a force of nature, an unchecked and indestructible emotion running loose in the world.
An unstoppable hate. A curse on Crystal Lake.
A death curse.
Jason Voorhees curse.
I believer that ultimately the curse on Crystal Lake isn't contained just in Pamela and Jason Voorhees. I believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with Crystal Lake itself. It is a place of tremendous pain, a place where sins are revisited and vengeance extends far past the original offender. I want to illustrate this theory by discussing Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning, the only Friday film featuring a killer in a hockey mask who wasn’t Jason Voorhees.
Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning is rightly considered an inferior Friday film. There's something uncomfortably sleazy about it. Characters are introduced and killed off moments later, and the film has an icky, predatory feel that comes from hiring a porn director who stripped the story down to the most garish components.
The film received the most notoriety for the fact that the killer in A New Beginning wasn't Jason himself. Instead, the man behind the blue-triangle mask was Roy Burns, the ambulance driver whose son was chopped up by a fellow troubled teen at the halfway house where the story takes place. The film is structured like a mystery, but Roy's obvious shock at the sight of the boy's corpse and his constant knowing appearances around the crime scenes project his guilt pretty clearly. He chases after and is eventually killed by Tommy Jarvis, the child who hacked Jason Voorhees to pieces in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, who seems to take up the mask and mantle of Jason Voorhees by the end of the movie.
I joined many Friday fans in dismissing A New Beginning until recently, when I realized that Roy Burns hadn't tried to become Jason Voorhees. Instead, he'd successfully become Pamela Voorhees.
I always felt that part of Pamela Voorhees's homicidal fury came from misplaced guilt. Sure, the counselors weren't watching her son, but she wasn't either. Obviously, it's impossible to keep an eye on your child ALL the time, but that kind of incandescent fury is a complicated thing. I think that Roy Burns must have felt the same thing when he looked at the butchered body of his son.
Both Pamela and Roy were single parents. Both were blue collar, serious types. Both had boys with special needs (Jason was deformed and hydrocephalic, Joey Burns had a childlike mind), and both died at the hands of bullies while in the care of young adults. After both murders, the grieving parents attacked anyone they felt to be responsible. The parallels run too close to be ignored. There is something at Crystal Lake that forces this kind of tragedy to repeat itself, where parents take their sorrow and hatred on the young, and the dead can rise to pursue their vengeance further.
There's a phenomenal Friday the 13th comic miniseries called Bad Lands, written by Ron Marz. It describes two parallel stories, one in the past and one in modern day Crystal Lake. The historical story features a Native American man whose family is murdered by fur trappers seeking shelter from a storm, and the modern story is about three young adults trapped in a sudden snowfall. Snow replaces water in both scenes, but both stories are fraught with tension and grief. Both stories end with the killer dragging the final victim into the waters of Crystal Lake, the poor victims realizing that they've trespassed in a corrupted place. The curse of Jason Voorhees can therefore be more accurately described as Crystal Lake Curse, a legacy of murder in shadowed woodland and moon-white faces peering through the trees.
I believe this explains why Jason predominantly goes after Crystal Lake residents. In Jason Takes Manhattan he has an entire city of potential victims, but he spends the rest of the film pursuing the handful of survivors from the SS Lazarus. Most of the New Yorkers he kills are simply people who get in his way or who try to harm his intended targets. He seems just as willing barrel past New Yorkers than engage them, including a scene of surprising self-awareness where he frightens off a trio of punk rock kids in Times Square by showing them his unmasked face.
So, if he's not simply taking a machete to all of New York, why does he go after these specific kids? I believe it's because they're connect to the Crystal Lake Curse as much as he is. Young people who set foot into Crystal Lake are all marked for death. He repeats this behavior in Jason X, primarily hunting the members of the scouting party that went planet side to retrieve his cryogenically-frozen body. If no one bearing that mark is immediately around him then he'll go to work on whoever is nearby (as seen in Freddy vs. Jason, though he was also under Freddy's influence), but otherwise he always prioritizes the youth of Crystal Lake.
It's tough to pin down exactly where this curse came from. Maybe it's the violent history of the place, as the Bad Lands comic suggests. Maybe it's the strange Lovecraftian elements that are hinted at in the mostly-ignored Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Either way, there is something horrible and self-repeating happening in that tiny lakeside town. Jason is simply the purest incarnation of its wrath, but it would have found a different host otherwise
Had Tommy Jarvis not dug up Jason's body, I can imagine Joey Burns rising from the dead to take up the mask and the machete.
A KILLER BURIED, BUT NOT DEAD
The dark truth about the horror genre is that the monsters are always the most compelling and most identifiable characters within their stories. They get the dark inversion of the hero narrative, where we get to vicariously experience their rampages before they're put down and order is restored again.
I believe that Jason Voorhees endured because, of all the 1980s serial killers, his backstory is the most tragic. Michael Myers is more of blank slate than a person, Leatherface is too feral and crazy, and Freddy Krueger - while more entertaining - is also the most mean-spirited. Jason is an outsider, a victim of bullying, the kid who wasn't allowed to participate, and the kid who missed his mother so much that he tried to rebuild her in his lonely woodland home. He is also the personification of the campfire ghost story, the dead thing whose anger can be understood but can't be reasoned with.
Hang around the Jason Voorhees fandom and you’ll see a lot of people strongly identify with Jason. He’s an easy character to project onto. Everyone feels isolated, rejected, and angry, and it’s not hard for those emotions to grow into a very dark and destructive rage. For me, part of growing up was learning to make peace with those feelings, but there was a long stretch of time when my darkest impulses needed an avatar. I know that probably makes me sound like some kind of embittered psycho, but I think we all connect to power images, even for the worst aspects of ourselves.
I love Jason and the Friday the 13th series, but part of getting healthy meant putting him back in the box. Even then, at the bottom of my soul, there’s a deep dark lake.
And he’s down there.