These are Crazy Times: An Apology (of Sorts) to Friday the 13th


I was riding my bike home from work last week when I was hit by a goddamn car. That’s a thing that happened. I’m totally fine. My bike is kind of messed up, but I think I can fix it. C’est la vie. But shit things are shitty, aren’t they?

Anyway, onward. After my recent review of the original Friday the 13th, I got an urge I never thought I would: the urge to watch the whole series. This is a complicated thing, believe it or not, and I see it as at least partly a function of the bizarre, awful times we’re all living through right now. Maybe I’m over thinking it; maybe I just wanted to face up to my childhood demons. Regardless, there’s a lot of baggage here what needs unpackin’.

A lot of it has nothing to do with silly ’80s (and ’90s) slashers. Right now a goddamn maniac is in the White House. Those of you outside the US may be tired of hearing about this. Let me assure you, you should not be. This is a situation with absolutely dire consequences for everyone, and if you’re tired of your Yank friends griping about politics, you’re woefully unprepared to face a world in which the US is controlled by an idiot puppet of another, largely hostile, hyper-conservative superpower.

“But Jeff, I came here for a smarmy review of a dumb horror movie.” Seriously, nothing is scarier than the reality we’re all facing right now. And not to make this all about me, or downplay the scale of this Trumptastrophe, but on top of the very real shitstorm that is American society, I’m at a new job in a new place thousands of miles away from my wife, and that sucks in a million ways. This isn’t a sob story, just a statement of fact. (I really like my new job, as it happens, but the rest of the situation is shit.)

All this negativity, as I’ve heard others say, is totally unsustainable. I’m nostalgic at the best of times; now, with things spiralling into uncharted depths of shit, I pretty much exist in a quantum state in which at any given moment I may or may not phase out of the present and back to some indeterminate point from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s. I am the Schrödinger’s cat of stupid Internet pop culture criticism and, like, time travel? It’s the only defense mechanism I have.

So, over the course of the past month or so, I’ve watched every film in the Friday the 13th franchise. (This despite my very real rage over the snake thing.) The only ones I didn’t watch this time were Freddy vs. Jason, which I saw in theaters and which seems to be kind of outside the main narrative (such as it is), and the 2009 remake, which I rented back in the day and also is shit. And while Rome is burning and our idiot puppet Nero tangos with Putin, I am happy and bewildered to report that Jason Voorhees has provided a hell of a lot more sincere entertainment than I ever imagined he could. On top of it all the whole franchise has a weird innocence that marks it, more clearly than anything, as a product of a pre-alternative facts era. (Obviously governments have always lied to their people, but right now we’re facing a level of idiocy previously unknown. Also, fuck everything.)

The thing I find so surprising is that these movies are not really horror in any appreciable sense, and they become less so as you progress through the series. They’re closer to comedy, and that requires a total recalibration of my thinking about them.

Now calm down, I’m not really arguing that we classify Friday the 13th as comedy. But it does seem to me that, with the exception of the very first film, there is very little attempt to elicit fear. There are tons of bad jokes, and often the punch lines are the kills. (Jason X, while stupid, is aiming for laughs almost from the beginning. Also, I actually kind of liked it.) Having realized this, I can say that, while none of the Friday the 13th films are good in any meaningful sense, they are all pretty enjoyable, cheesy, stupid movies that really help one to forget about the real-world horrors going on right now. They don’t even show you the gore! Nearly every kill throughout the whole series cuts away at what would be the gory moments, and all we see are the remnants of Jason’s victims (and even then we don’t see much). The only really gross scenes involve Jason himself and his many fake-out deaths, and those are so silly as to lose any gross-out power they may have had.

None of this is to say that the Friday the 13th films are actually funny. For the most part the jokes are groaningly cheesy. But in many instances they’re trying to be funny, and that makes all the difference. And the difference it makes comes down to how afraid I was of Jason Voorhees when I was a kid, and how little reason there actually was to be afraid of him. Now that I’ve viewed all of his films, I can almost see Jason as a Carrot Top-esque comedian, trying to get a laugh with the bodies of promiscuous teens as his dumb props. In only a couple of instances does he actually succeed, but I appreciate the attempt. A for effort, Jason!

In practical terms, watching the Friday the 13th series now did two things for me: it allowed me to exorcise some childhood demons (never mind that it was the source of the demons in the first place); and it helped me plunge headlong into a stupid, apolitical time, remembered vaguely from my own life but not critically examined until now, before the horror of identity politics had fully asserted itself. (Or at least, again, before I was aware of it.) These are not the drippy gore-fests I always assumed they were; they’re just silly, fun, horror-lite romps. And since the ’80s and early ’90s are already where I spend all my mental time these days, revisiting Jason’s escapades lined up pretty perfectly with the bad life decisions that structure my daily existence. Win-win!

PS: My favorite retro-kitsch blog Dinosaur Dracula recently released an episode of their “Purple Stuff Podcast” all about Friday the 13th. I haven’t listened to it yet, but now that I’m done with this post I plan to. You should too–everything Matt from DD does is great.

Retro Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

By weird coincidence I decided to rewatch the original Friday the 13th this week, well before I realized that this week would actually have a Friday the 13th. I’ve been wanting to get to this for quite a while now, for complicated reasons. I’m fairly sure I saw it for the first time back in high school. (Though almost certainly not before. As a child I was absolutely terrified of Jason.) At any rate, on this viewing I’d forgotten so many details that it was like seeing it for the first time.


Pictured: unrelenting horror.

One awful, awful thing serious fans may have already known about (I did not) is the snake scene. In a pointless bit of tepid mood-setting, a black snake slithers into one of the cabins, and the goofy teenagers freak out. One of them hacks it up with a machete, and as far as I can tell, the scene is real. I didn’t even remember this scene happening, but on this viewing, I thought it looked suspiciously realistic. It seems I was right. (That link is to another WordPress blog. With a cursory Google search I’m not able to turn up anything more authoritative than that, and I’m lazy, but it sure did look like they really killed that snake.) I don’t tolerate animal cruelty in any form, so after a few minutes of waffling I turned the movie off and resolved not to finish it. But several days later my resolve crumbled and I picked up where I’d left off. If they did murder that snake 37+ years ago, me not watching the movie now wasn’t going to bring it back.

I’m not certain why, but despite my avowed dislike of slashers and bloody horror in general, the Friday the 13th franchise has always held a weird fascination. I think it’s because it scared me so badly as a kid. I’ve probably already mentioned the sleepover when friends were watching one of the Friday films on TV and I was so scared that I had to leave the room. Another time, some years later, I had to go on some sort of “retreat” at a place called Summit Lake. I have virtually no memory of what we did there–I assume it was normal camp stuff like canoeing and weaving stupid things out of gimp–except that all the kids slept in a big cabin and one night some of the other children terrified me with stories of how Friday the 13th‘s Crystal Lake was actually Summit Lake, where the movie was filmed. (This, of course, was total hogwash–Crystal Lake is in New Jersey, not Maryland–but I didn’t know that at the time. I actually believed for years after that the movies were filmed there.) My most vivid memory of the whole trip is lying awake in my cot, convinced that Jason was going to appear and murder me.

Then there was the infamous NES game, with Jason decked out in his inexplicably purple jumpsuit. I played it with a friend and remember being scared by it too, not because the game itself was particularly scary, but just because it referenced the scariness of the movies. Jason really freaked me out, even in purple.

So it could be that I’ve wanted to address some childhood fears by actually watching some of the Friday films. (To this day the only ones I’ve seen all the way through are the first one, Jason Goes to Hell, and Freddy vs. Jason. And the trashy 2009 reboot, but that doesn’t count.) But my conscious reason for wanting to revisit the first film now was to confirm that Jason, the antagonist of the rest of the series, did in fact drown in Crystal Lake as a child. If Jason drowned, that means his eventual appearance in the series is as a revenant, an undead murder machine, rather than just a regular murder machine. (I know that by the later films this is established, but there seems to have been some doubt about it in earlier entries.) Regular murder machines are boring to me, but undead ones are neat. And while I still don’t care for extreme violence, something about the Friday series’ weird mythos appeals to me.

You probably know the story (such as it is). In the film’s present, Camp Crystal Lake is about to be reopened after some twenty years. It was closed following some mysterious murders. Now a group of teenagers, including Kevin Bacon, have been hired as counselors and are working to get the place back in shape, but one night a thunderstorm hits and an unknown assailant starts a-murdrin’.


This is my murdrin’ sweater.

The killer, as we all know by now, is Pamela Voorhees, whose young son Jason was left to drown decades earlier by some irresponsible horny counselors. Now she exacts revenge on, I guess, anybody who comes to Crystal Lake? Only not really, because other people come and go and don’t get killed, like Crazy Ralph and the derpy police officer. Pamela mentions at one point that it’s Jason’s birthday, so I guess that’s why she’s killing people now? Also it’s Friday the 13th, so. Plot.

Yes, there’s really not a lot of narrative here. Despite this, Friday the 13th isn’t exactly a terrible movie. It’s got a coherent, if superficial and somewhat stupid story, and does manage to create an atmosphere of weirdness and, if not dread, then at least futility. Like later films in the series–and like the slasher genre as a whole–the plot is really nothing more than a series of flimsy excuses for people to be cut off from their friends and slaughtered one by one, but it’s at least plausible that a bunch of young people would be hired on an ad-hoc basis to serve as counselors at a junky local camp. Normally the “five or six young people do stupid things in isolated places and get murdered” formula feels less organic. The acting and writing are on the bad side of the spectrum, but not nearly as bad as other genre films. (I’m thinking especially of a later entry in the series, I don’t know which, and a line about “Tony the wonder llama.” Jesus.)

I am happy to say that, according to the story as laid out in the first film, Jason absolutely did drown. Apparently they retconned this later, because when Jason does show up it’s as an adult, but at the beginning he was definitively dead. He drowned in 1957, and in 1958 his mother Pamela Voorhees committed the franchise’s first revenge-murders against some of the counselors. There’s no ambiguity here: we hear it all right from Pamela’s mouth. So whatever else he is, Jason Voorhees the hockey mask-wearing butcher is and always was undead. The ambiguous scene at the end where Jason leaps out of the lake to pull final girl Alice in seems to confirm this: he’s all rotty and gross. Whether this scene is a dream or not (and I’d argue that the film heavily implies that it isn’t), we still know Jason was dead.

Except, I guess, when he wasn’t? But then he was again? Something. Whatever.