The slasher subgenre is one of the most emblematic film movements of the 1980s. Filled with mass murderers taking out hapless teens and adults through the most gruesome means possible, slasher horror movies satisfied the seemingly insatiable bloodlusts of audiences through numerous low budget franchises, primarily in the United States. And no cinematic killer was more purely emblematic of the genre’s simultaneously prudish and vulgar nature than Jason Voorhees – the unstoppable, hockey mask-loving killer at the center of the Friday the 13th film series.
Starring to various degrees in a total of 12 films across three decades, Jason’s heyday came in the ‘80s, where eight Friday the 13th films made their mark. The sheer volume is staggering, mostly thanks to the cheap production values and often assembly line-like nature of how these many sequels were thrown together year after year. But audiences ate it up, quickly turning the grotesque killer into an iconic monster along with fellow ‘80s slasher villains Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, both of whom starred in numerous sequels that played with the slasher subgenre’s format far more than the Friday franchise. While the films didn’t blaze any new trails, Jason’s fan-pleasing kills and the series’ commitment to fulfilling the tropes of the genre kept audiences coming back time and time again.
However, while audiences were drawn to the series’ often lascivious elements of sex, drugs, murder, and mayhem, the Friday the 13th series and Jason himself operated with a sort of crudely Protestant morality that reflected the message being put forward by then-President Ronald Reagan and much of mainstream American culture at the time. Those who engaged in premarital sex, smoked the wicked Mary Jane, drank before the legal age, or otherwise represented a lifestyle out of the mainstream were clearly marked for death in these myriad movies. By providing a steady stream of vicarious thrills for its audience, the horror series could appeal to the growing wave of counterculture and alternative lifestyles while still applying mainstream America’s moral judgments to such behaviors.
In doing so, the Friday the 13th series and Jason Voorhees himself became emblematic of the growing rift in mainstream American culture during the ‘80s. By the time the decade came to a close, Jason had outlived his relevance, even if the franchise kept going. But his vivid kills and oddly relevant violence remain coarsely potent today.
A Mama’s Boy Gone Wrong
What’s important to remember is that the Friday the 13th series actually began without Jason. The original 1980 film saw a group of Camp Crystal Lake counselors slowly picked off one by one by a mystery killer. At its finale, the killer is revealed to be Pamela Voorhees, mother of Jason, who is killing off everyone who would help reopen the camp years after the death of her son, a disabled young boy who drowned in the lake while the counselors were partying and having sex.
Pamela’s twistedly righteous murder spree targeted all who violated her moral code and left numerous bodies in her wake until good girl Alice Hardy killed her. Alice’s survival and morality are no coincidence, as her identity as the film’s “final girl” is a defining trait of both the Friday series and the slasher genre as a whole. The morally upright survive while those who partake in debaucherous activities have ensured themselves a grisly fate.
While Jason would make his debut in Part II, either due to never actually having drowned or being resurrected via convoluted supernatural means, the series debuted following the murders of a mother hell bent on killing teens and young adults as a consequence for their lewd acts. The ideas and themes would continue and be amplified through Jason himself, who would cut a swath through dozens of promiscuous, drug-using young adults in the decade to come. Originally debuting as a deformed hillbilly killer seeking revenge for the death of his mother, Jason would morph into an unstoppable monster that brought death to those who would violate Crystal Lake with promiscuity, drug use, and immorality.
Unlike many of his contemporary movie killers, Jason’s murders were often executed with a swiftness and efficiency. The mute Jason wouldn’t taunt his victim like Freddy or torturously stalk them like Michael Myers. Rather, the signature Friday the 13th kill is fast, sudden, and effective. It may not be flashy, but it certainly left an impression on audiences as efficient judgment upon those deemed guilty.
A Killer By and For the ‘80s
The ‘80s were a time when moral panic led to the demonizing of many subgroups, such the stigmatization of the LGBTQ community in the wake of the AIDS Crisis, The War on Drugs, or the association of heavy metal with satanic rituals. To a large degree, films like Friday the 13th capitalized on such paranoia, pedaling out gratuitous movies that incensed the so-called “morally upright” while luring in audiences who wanted something that breached taboos and satiated more base desires.
By perpetuating the murders that kept audiences coming back, Jason Voorhees could never be a figure embraced by conservatives of the time. But if those who decried drugs, premarital sex, and alcohol abuse had stopped to take a long hard look at the man behind the mask, they would have seen a character that took their morality and applied it in the most extreme means possible. Maybe they were among those secretly rooting Jason on from the back row of the theater.
While the rules for whom Jason killed wouldn’t strictly adhere to those who indulged in taboo behavior (being a teen or acting dumb was often good enough), immorality leading to death was a major theme in every Friday the 13th film. And while the relatively innocent were not always spared, a hard and fast rule was that anyone who acted in a depraved manner could never get away.
Although these moral rules applied to nearly every slasher film at the time (the genre was filled to the brim with movies during its heyday), none were as prolific as Jason. Inevitably, the masked killer would receive his comeuppance at the hands of the innocent final girl (or final guy, in the cases of returning hero Tommy Jarvis). In doing so, the film would restore a form of moral balance, killing the killer who killed those the film deemed as “deserving it.” By closing the loop, audiences could justify rooting for Jason to a degree by also rooting for his death. His seeming inability to die and his eventual literal zombie nature would mean that no death would last for long and the prolific killer would inevitably return to reinstigate the cycle.
The end of the ‘80s saw the end of Jason Voorhees to a large degree, as the awful Jason Goes to Hell in 1993 laid the character to rest until 2001’s future-set sci-fi schlock Jason X and the fan service Freddy vs Jason in 2003. With the 2009 reboot failing to launch any new films, Jason has largely lived on in non-film appearances, such as video games, comic books, and the memories of fans. And while the ever-lingering threat of another reboot means that Jason may yet again live on the big screen, it seems unlikely that a franchise that so potently took advantage of a decade’s morals and indulgences could ever reach the same popularity it once had.
Like Jason himself, it may be best if the Friday the 13th franchise be left at the bottom of Crystal Lake, ever lingering in the memory and ready to reach out and grab you when you least expect it.