“I don’t wanna scare anyone, but I’m gonna give it to you straight about Jason…”
Well, I’d love to, but can anyone? There’s not a single bloodbather from the 80s slasher cycle whose backstory can match the inconsistency of Jason Voorhees’. When Friday the 13th flung itself onto the unsuspecting theatergoers of 1980, the man eventually behind the mask was nothing but a plot device. Pamela Voorhees, the debut film’s killer, needed a reason to go mowing some risqué counselors, and one was found in the idea of her poor son being killed by their negligence. If that kid can be utilized for a last-scene shocker, then hey, all the better, so an adolescent Jason sneaked a cameo into the first Friday film through the sole survivor’s post-traumatic dream sequence. But by Friday the 13th Part II, Jason took center stage from behind a burlap sack and has been brutally venting his mommy issues ever since. 35 years, eight other sequels, a Nightmare on Elm Street crossover flick, and a reboot later, and having moved from Paramount to New Line Cinema and back again, the big ugly butcher has been killed and resurrected more times than Frankenstein in the 40s and suffers from a severe case of narrative whiplash. I thought he was just a deformed kid, but by a few films in he’s getting revived by lightning and punching peoples’ heads off? Yikes! Maybe he works out between movies.
Buzz is abound that Jason’s next turn on the silver screen is going to be an origin of sorts, providing a fresh take on the familiar story of loss, vengeance, and sexually induced neglect. The big boy’s back beneath the Paramount banner, and Bloody-Disgusting reported that producer Brad Fuller said that the reboot is taking things all the way back to the beginning, but not retreading old ground: “it’s an origin that no one has seen before. Obviously Pamela’s there, but it’s a little bit different from what you’ve seen before.” So by 2017, viewers will get a brand new understanding of what makes Jason exactly who he is. That’s the thing, though – who is Jason? The answer has never been very clear.
I mean, yes: Jason Voorhees is the son of Elias and Pamela Voorhees (the former we might see in Fuller’s reboot) and he supposedly drowned as a kid at Camp Crystal Lake. The grief drove his mother to bloody revenge, and after she lost her head in the process, Jason went a-revenging and hasn’t stopped since. But there was a gradual shift in the original eleven films (Friday the 13th through Freddy vs. Jason) that took him from being a very strong, very resilient, and very ugly but still mortal man to an immortal, zombie-like, very very ugly monster capable of undeniably superhuman feats of strength and endurance. By Friday the 13th Part IV, the adult Jason has survived a lot of punishment, but nothing necessarily and damningly deadly. It’s not until the franchise’s fourth film that Jason gets gutted by a child playing machete Whack-a-Mole on his chest that Jason has officially run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible – he is an ex-slasher. That said, unless people were just going to have a lot of lethally clumsy accidents near his grave, Jason couldn’t stay a dead man if the franchise was going to continue. While Part V featured a copycat killer beneath the mask, Part VI begins with lightning reanimating Jason (again, like Frankenstein) and subsequent sequels go overboard with Jason’s durability. In Part VI, Jason suffers numerous gunshot wounds to the body and head before being chained to the bottom of Crystal Lake, where any mortal man would surely drown, but the fact that Part VI is only halfway through the franchise proves that by this point, Jason had clearly stopped being a mortal man.
There’s an element of improvisation and “rule of cool” for Jason’s character that isn’t as present in more simplistic fiends like Halloween’s The Shape, or in the absolutely bananas characterization and backstory found in all of the Halloween sequels’ Michael Myers (it’s, uh, a cult! Yeah, an evil cult!). In Halloween, The Shape has absolutely no backstory, which is scary because of how anonymous and inscrutable it is – and yes, that’s a very deliberate “it.” As the franchise dragged on, The Shape was identified as Michael Myers and an absurd amount of complicated and often poorly executed ideas had to be brought into play to explain his existence. That’s where Friday the 13th, for all of its absurdity, doesn’t falter: while making clear his motives and basic past, it makes the wise decision to not try too hard to explain Jason’s personal history or supernatural abilities. Impossible to explain details are glossed over because they’d take away from the urban legend quality of Jason. Why do some things kill him and others don’t? Just because. How did he spend his entire teenage and adult life lurking in the woods around Camp Crystal Lake without being found? He just did.
One may attribute the fluidity and inconsistency of Jason’s backstory to poor writing and sequel escalation, and that’s fair, but there’s something about the inherent nature of Jason Voorhees that combines with Friday the 13th’s premise and setting to just work – egregious plot holes and all – on a purposeful level. The Friday franchise makes no logical sense, and it doesn’t operate on strict continuity, because it’s not supposed to be something looked at too closely (cue the “duh!” from Paramount producers counting their easy money). Jason Voorhees isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. He’s not real; he’s a walking, not talking symbol of every scary story told by firelight at American summer camps, changing his backstory and power-set to suit the mood of whoever’s telling the tale. Listen to Paul recite the story of Jason as it exists at the beginning of Part II here – and I do mean listen to him recite. The way he delivers it (the character, not the actor) is very typical of campfire stories: coolly describe a historic spook with ties to the area…and get ‘em with the scare from an accomplice.
It seems so obvious, and yet so many people pick apart Friday the 13th and lambast it for being the prototypical example of a formulaic slasher. Practically, yeah, that is a very valid criticism, but thematically? Symbolically? If we allow ourselves to get a little meta, we have to admit that the Friday the 13th franchise is summed up entirely by that one scene. Paul doesn’t need to explain the nitty-gritty of how Jason survived in the woods like an adolescent Bear Grylls, he just needs to suggest that he foraged and scavenged, like he was feral, bestial. He doesn’t need to explain how Jason found his way to Alice’s house with absolutely zero information to go on, because it’s much more frightening to suggest that regardless, Jason managed to stalk the sole survivor of his mother’s rampage, find her, and kill her in her own home. The mystique is so integral to Jason because the second you plop down and say, “Oh, he looked her up in the Yellow Pages” or “She dropped her wallet and he recognized the address,” then you take away the alluring vagueness that’s integral to any great urban legend. Part II is hardly the only Friday film to feature a campfire story or ominous exposition either, and each time it gets more and more cryptic, diluted, filtered, and interpreted through different storytellers like a game of telephone. Even at the outset of the first Friday the 13th, the locals are rife with rumors about “cursed ground” at “Camp Blood.” Of course the franchise will evolve the same way local rumors and urban legends do: Jason’s a man, Jason’s a monster. He’s hard to kill, he’s unkillable, he’s a demonic force that possesses people, he’s all of those at once whenever he needs to be. Plus, is there really any reason why Jason needs to wear a hockey mask in every film after Part III when a burlap sack treated him fine in Part II, other than that the hockey mask is awesome as hell? It’s not like he had any particular attachment to it; it was stolen from Part III prankster and victim Shelly Finkelstein. It could easily be argued that Jason doesn’t even know what hockey is. However, “a man with a machete and a hockey mask” is so simple yet iconic, like the hook-handed prison escapee, that it stuck both with film audiences and within the franchise’s mythology as a wildly successful development.
Jason doesn’t follow any logic or rules except that he’s as scary as he needs to be and as strong as necessary. Paul’s creepy monologue above could easily be amended with details from the latter sequels. Even the more supernatural elements would fit perfectly into his story.
“But then, the clouds opened up, and a sudden bolt of lightning stuck the grave of Jason Voorhees…the sky rumbled and the earth shook as a pale hand punctured the ground before the tomb, followed by the unmistakable silhouette of a monster of a man…and now, everyone in Sussex County can hear it on the wind, like a whisper passed from tree to tree, like a secret told by the full moon at night to the murky surface of Crystal Lake…you can hear it, too, in the sound of heavy footsteps and the scraping of a cold, weathered machete against the ground…a screech, a hiss, a scream that says…Jason lives!”
Why does Jason come back to life in Part VI? The practical answer is because he sells. But the more fun answer is because someone still had a story to tell about it. The minds behind each new Friday the 13th movie are all like kids who’ve heard different versions of the same local legend: one generation of kids at Camp Crystal Lake may tell the story about how Jason Voorhees killed the girl who murdered his mother, and the next may speak of the grief-stricken killer that put on the mask himself, as a copycat. A few camps away, they may hear an even more exaggerated version of the story, like the time that he rose from the grave, or how he’s been spotted as far away as Manhattan, and the one kid who doesn’t take anything seriously might chime in with a story about how Jason’s been to space. It really does remind me of Nightmare on Elm Street, but in Jason’s case, rather than fear being what gives him strength and existence, superstition is what shapes and alters what’s already there. Sometimes he’s a masked man and sometimes he’s a zombie-like brute, but even as his history and character is revised by the fluidity of the Curse of Camp Blood, one thing never changes: Jason is.
There’s a thousand urban legends passed from campfire to campfire, and they’ve been no strangers to horror movies. However, to me, Jason isn’t just an urban legend in his native franchise, he’s a dynamic, ever-evolving specter that changes in the world of his film because the storytellers – the filmmakers – they’re telling it the way they’ve heard it. So why does this upcoming reboot being an “origin no one’s seen before” matter so much? Because the last time Jason was onscreen was in New Line Cinema’s 2009 reboot, which did its best to condense a whole franchise’s worth of mythology into one film for a new generation. Back home at Paramount, this new reboot smells like it won’t be a retelling, but a brand new Jason Voorhees story. Retooling his origin is the best possible move for a character so connected to what is a consistently inconsistent backstory – this is an opportunity for a kid from across the camp to wander by the fire and say, “Hey, you guys ever hear of Jason Voorhees, the masked maniac from Camp Crystal Lake? They say that he came back from the dead to avenge his mom after he drowned as a kid, but where I’m from, that’s not the whole story…”
And I don’t know about you, but I’m on the edge of my campfire seat.