friday the 13th
"And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."
-Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death
If you've heard one plot description for a Friday the 13th film, you've heard them all. Young people go to or near Camp Crystal Lake, don't take the warning seriously, and are slaughtered in a variety of ways. There is always one character who is a little more in tune with what's going on, and that character is the one who overcomes Jason and lives to see another day.
The formula might not be the most original, but for almost 40 years audiences have continued to embrace, and love it. John Carpenter's Halloween introduced the slasher genre to the world, but Friday the 13th perfected it.
The franchise started with a bang in 1980 and eventually made Jason Voorhees an American pop culture icon like Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola. But if you think Friday the 13th is just familiar territory, think again.
Breaking the rules
It's safe to say that character development isn't really the focus in the F13 franchise. However, it has consistently churned out like-able adversaries to face the inhuman force that is Jason. These "final girls" are essential to the formula, and are the engine that keeps the machine running. And while they do share some similar framework, they are hardly cookie-cutter. Each one has something special that makes them unique and draws the audience in.
It's common knowledge that if you want to survive a horror film, you don't have sex or do drugs, and that's why the "good girl" always survives. The violence has long been viewed as some kind of moral judgement on humanity. However, if you dig a little deeper you may find that the final girl being rewarded because she doesn't "sin" is a misconception. You see her with a boyfriend. You even see her taking the occasional drink or smoke. But the difference between her and her friends is that she's always thinking about the bigger picture. She's the one who hears the sound, who notices that things are off and who takes the time do something about it.
The final girl is rewarded not for being pure, but for being smart and strong.
The original camp counselors were having sex when Jason drowned, but he would be just as dead if they were playing checkers or having a Bible study. The bottom line is that they weren't paying attention, and this one little mistake quietly introduced death to Camp Crystal Lake.
In horror films, such an injustice requires retribution and the bringer of judgement is Pamela Voorhees, an unlikely slasher villain. Jason is the standout figurehead of the franchise, but Pamela Voorhees is the original killer who started it all. Her sweet, motherly charm set against rage-filled revenge creates unforgettable moments in the first film, and her spirit continues to permeate the entire series.
Of course it makes no narrative sense if you think about it too much, but the need for revenge that was born in Pamela Voorhees is passed on to Jason, who continues to seek justice against those who are like the original two who let him die.
Pride comes before the fall
If there is a lesson to be learned in the F13 franchise, it's that being too self-absorbed is unhealthy.
When you're young, you feel invincible. You have your whole life ahead of you, and death is very far away. No one ever listens to Crazy Ralph when he warns them about the "death curse" at Camp Blood, and they never think twice about strange noises or missing friends.
Of course they have plenty of time to live, and of course they know better than a creepy old man from the backwoods. This false sense of security makes the F13 characters quite vulnerable to the stalking of a unknown killer.
Like the revelers in Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, they are hidden away from the worries of the world, self-indulgent and blissfully ignorant to the dangers outside. But like just like Death in that story, Jason always shows up late to the party, coming to collect an unknown debt on those who least expect it.
More than a slasher
So next time you're watching Friday the 13th, maybe pay closer attention and dig a little deeper. I think you'll find that there is more to it than just stupid teenagers getting slaughtered. It's a fun franchise, but if horror has taught me anything it's that there is always a truth about humanity hidden somewhere inside.
Bonus: Read The Masque of the Red Death and picture the partygoers as teenagers, and Jason as Death.
Banner image | The Dance of Death, Frans Francken the Younger