By: Evan McDevitt
As anyone who’s been to a horror trivia night (or seen SCREAM) can tell you, Jason Voorhees isn’t the killer in the original FRIDAY THE 13TH. But what if he isn’t the killer in any of them? There are a number of little things that never quite line up in the series, from retcons to drifting motivations, to the sudden addition of supernatural elements to what was originally a Halloween knock-off. I mean, Halloween also added supernatural elements in one of the timelines, but that’s another essay altogether. Point is, the movies just don’t… make sense.
Obviously, the reasonable answer to that is to say “they’re dumb popcorn horror, they don’t make sense because no one cares.” I am not a reasonable man and your Doylist arguments will not sway me. I will make it make sense, even if it means I have to search for threads and loose ends, even if it means watching Jason Goes to Hell: the Final Friday more than once. The following is what I’ve concluded.
So what do we know for sure? In the late 1950s, Pamela Voorhees lost her disabled son Jason in an accident at Camp Crystal Lake, which left her with a grudge against camp counselors. She then spent a bit over 20 years lingering around the lake, doing the odd murder or arson to keep the camp from opening back up, hearing her son’s voice in her head cheering her on. In 1979, one such rampage came to an end with her beheading by a young woman who then had a nightmare of an undead child Jason pulling her under the surface of Crystal Lake. We know it was a nightmare, because in the first 15 minutes of the sequel, she’s instead murdered by a burly adult Jason who looks like the world’s beefiest scarecrow.
Except… why do we think that’s Jason? Pamela’s entire motivation was her decades of grief. Nothing she does makes a bit of sense if her son is still alive and I simply refuse to accept the idea that she didn’t know he lived, because the wilds of New Jersey are no place for an eight year old. We just sort of come to the conclusion that he’s the mythical dead son because it’s seeing Pamela’s death that spurs him to kill and he doesn’t speak, so he never objects to the name. On a basic level, it just makes more sense that he’s not Jason at all, but rather some anonymous hick with exceptional timing.
“But wait,” you say, chest swelling with pride, “Jason is urged on by the voice of Pamela! How would he even know her voice? Why would it mean anything?” Well, if you have above-average critical reading skills, you’d know that I’m only acknowledging your point because I have a counter. Admittedly, this is where I head into the world of speculation, but that’s because this franchise makes it through exactly one movie before the lore becomes impenetrable. For instance, given that Part I is specifically and canonically set in 1979 and several explicit time skips happen, JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (released in 1989) takes place in approximately the year 2000. These movies simply do not care. But I care.
The real killer in the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise is a living urban legend. There is some force in or around Crystal Lake that wants fear, infamy, and a stack of dead bodies to make sure it gets those first two things. Jason’s death and Pamela’s grief were perfect, giving it years to mold a killer, though perhaps a woman who was at least in her mid-fifties and probably not taking care of herself wasn’t ideal. Fortunately, the idea of Jason is the legend that persists, so when the sack-headed meatbeast shows up, enough people just decide that he must be Jason that it becomes so. Other than that, it’s hard to see the curse itself at work for the next few movies, since it’s got an instrument of teen death that works just fine.
The problems arose when young Tommy Jarvis whacked back, killing “Jason” in a way that a) leaves a body, b) can’t be handwaved away as “not as bad as it looked,” and c) had multiple witnesses to tell the tale, adding to the legend. This brings us to the somewhat infamous Part V: A NEW BEGINNING, which has the one-off copycat Jason killer in Roy Burns. You might think that the curse would be using him to continue the story, to create the impression that Jason didn’t die after all, but the truth is in the movie’s B-plot. The now adult Tommy has been seeing visions of Jason, with Roy’s cosplay murder spree blurring the line between hallucination and reality. Tommy’s afraid that he’s no different from Jason and that he’ll be unable to stop himself from killing again. The twist ending of the film even has him somehow acquiring a hockey mask and knife from his hospital bed, apparently giving in to a Jason persona that’s emerged. So that’s where the curse was going, for there to be a next chapter to the myth itself, that Jason was so dark and horrible that even the one who defeated him for good was corrupted. Roy might have been under the influence of the curse, but he was really just there to keep Tommy on edge.
It didn’t work, mostly because Tommy already thought of himself as crazy, and one assumes that he came out of his fugue and went back to the mental hospital before he actually hurt anyone. However, the curse is a story, and “then he lived out his days in a mental hospital” is a decent ending to an EC horror comic, but it doesn’t put any more bodies in the ground. The curse, now desperate to keep the franchise going, decides that if Tommy isn’t going to be Jason’s successor, he’ll have to bring about his rebirth. In Part VI, Jason’s corpse climbs up out of his grave: a moment witnessed only by Tommy, another escaped mental patient, and the gravedigger — exactly the sort of people who populate urban legends.
All this is great news for the curse, since it no longer has to wrangle actual people; it just reacts to beliefs and keep on killing as the legend of Jason grows. It’s those beliefs that present the problem from here on out, though, since rather than just having to survive physical harm, Jason is now weak to… basically whatever people think will hurt him. Tommy spends all of Part VI assuming that Jason is after him personally, in spite of any evidence and abruptly decides in the last 20 minutes that Jason must be sealed away by trapping him under Crystal Lake, which then works despite him being shown swimming (or walking) in the lake several times before now.
This plan works well enough that this is where Jason spends a solid decade just being an urban legend in central New Jersey. It’s also noteworthy that the next two movies have Jason roused from the lake by psychic powers. In Part VII, by a young woman whose powers are obviously so linked to her beliefs that she gets Jason back in the lake by calling on her Stand, ⸢My Dad, Who I Feel Very Bad About Killing⸥. In both of these Parts, the final girls had a traumatic childhood incident on Crystal Lake where they were attacked by the presence of Jason, because the legend itself has become a weapon to be wielded by the curse. Of course, Jason also climbs out of the water to do some slashing in person, but it feels rote by this point — like repainting the deck, or you know, maintaining a copyright.
As a side note, this is the origin point for this whole essay; I realized that there’s no evidence that the Jason who comes out of the lake in Parts VII and VIII is the same one who went in the lake in VI. VIII is also the one where I first noticed someone telling a blatantly incorrect version of the Voorhees story, which the movie tellingly never bothers to correct. By this point, a decade of real-world time and about twice that much in-universe has passed — the details don’t matter and it’s up to the people living in the curse it to sketch in the rest. Which is also probably the best explanation for Part VIII’s ending, wherein Jason gets drenched in toxic waste and… reverts to a child form? Who is then… left in the sewers? To die? None of this is ever acknowledged again.
All that said, the absolute crown jewel of assumptions that immediately turn out to be true is JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY. Even by the lax, breezy standards I’ve been holding myself to here, I don’t know where to start with this fucking thing. Jason is an immortal spirit of evil slime! The slime body surfs! Only a Voorhees can kill him, but if the slime makes it into the body of a Voorhees with a uterus, he comes back to life! Also there are more Voorhees-es out there. There’s literally a character who exists to pull these facts out of the ether, with no effort made to explain where he learned them. The fact that at this point Jason has become both a celebrated local cryptid like the goddamn Mothman and the target of an FBI manhunt is probably to blame. The legend has grown too big to hold together anymore, too many people are telling it with conflicting ideas about what it all means. By the time he’s subject to history’s most one-sided game of Call of Duty, the curse has done actual damage to the fabric of reality.
So what does all this mean? Does it matter? Well, no — the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies are, in my opinion, the most shallow of all the major horror series. There are no major themes, no metaplot, nothing bigger than the large bad man and the violence he does. This reading pushes it a little closer to Cabin in the Woods, making the thinness of the premise into the point; it’s not a horror movie, it’s just one standard republic unit of horror. It’s a blank white can labeled “Scary Movie” being opened by Emilio Estevez. And that’s the point, because the actual story is happening behind the scenes. Jason might keep coming back over and over, but the real villain of the piece never even shows up on screen.
Also, the facility from JASON (the best one) where he gets found by future teens after 500 years is the ruin of the SCP Foundation, fuck you, prove me wrong.
Follow Evan on Twitter at @E_McDevitt.