You have sex and you die. You smoke weed, you drink, guess what? You’re going to die. That is, by and large, the general takeaway of the Friday the 13th series. Amazingly, it’s a sentiment widely shared by both hardcore critics as well as die-hard fans of the franchise. It’s just generally accepted as “the way it is.” Of course, plenty of people do die mid-or-post-coitus, and there are always characters smoking pot—but at what point do they switch in the cultural mindset from being tropes to becoming guidelines?
When we would watch the Friday the 13th at sleepovers as kids, I would hear the same thing that I still hear from fans today when commenting on the movies. You expect the kids having sex to die because it’s what’s widely known about the franchise. But in every single movie there are all these other people who die and without missing a beat someone will say, “Well, wait, what did they do to deserve it?” What did Mrs. Jarvis do to deserve to die? Why did the poor banana-eating hitchhiker have it coming? I hear some variation of this virtually every single day and it’s never not baffling.
I’ve never understood that mentality because, first and foremost, Friday the 13th is a horror franchise. It’s not the Death Wish series. You’re not going in expecting a cut-and-dry revenge thriller where Jason takes care of business and the world is supposed to be a safer place by the end. The horror is rooted in the fact that these are innocent, young people who by and large don’t deserve to die. That’s why there’s a final girl. That’s why Jason gets defeated at the end.
Because when the films are actually doing a good job at crafting an interesting story, Jason is not the protagonist. Sure, there are some entries where it’s a little hard to root for anyone else. And just because he’s the villain doesn’t mean that there can’t be something cathartic in simply wanting to watch him do his thing. But at the end of the day, he’s not killing people because he’s judging their lifestyle choices.
He’s killing them because they’re there.
Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Leatherface are all designed with a bit of a targeting system built into their respective mythologies. Michael goes after the surviving members of his family. Freddy is targeting the children of the parents who burned him alive. Leatherface kills for food, luring people into his farmhouse at the behest of his cannibalistic family.
So if he’s not on a Holy Crusade – which, on paper, sounds very similar to the thing that Siskel and Ebert condemned him for way back when – why does Jason do it?
It’s not an easy question to answer, especially with this being such a long and convoluted franchise. At the end of the day, as a fan, I can only speak to the way I personally have begun to see the series over time. Jason Voorhees might be the tormented spirit of a drowned little boy, but he’s not seeking out camp counselors by and large. The camp is only even open in one of the films. He’s a territorial creature, sticking to the woods, the whole area surrounding Crystal Lake, and doing his best to keep it clear of people.
That’s why, when I think about it, I think that Jason Voorhees is purely and simply a force of nature. In the literal sense. Jason represents the natural world. As a boy who drowned in the lake and a man resurrected from the earth, he certainly fits the bill. It might seem like a stretch, but looking at the entire franchise as a whole, I don’t think that it is.
Most of these films are set at a camp that, as already listed above, isn’t even open. Whether metaphorical or literal, Jason is a spirit that’s fundamentally tied to the lake and the area surrounding it. He’s protective of the land. Jason isn’t keeping Crystal Lake free of sex and drugs; he’s keeping it free of people. It just so happens that most of the people coming in and screwing up his land are younger people. At the end of the day, that’s mostly due to the fact that teenagers are the target audience for these movies. They always have been. As the box office of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993) proved, they don’t want to watch people older than themselves subjected to this kind of story.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition with the carelessness and recklessness of youth as Jason merges into this decaying woodland spirit over time. He ages rapidly. If he truly died in the lake then he shouldn’t be a grown man in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), and if he didn’t truly die it’s just as strange to see his look change so drastically from film to film. And he looks older every single time. After a few entries, he began to look deader, more pulpy and rotting as well.
When you look at Jason’s relationship to the natural elements, this theory of him actually being a representation of natural forces starts to hold a bit more weight. In every single entry in the franchise, Jason’s presence is predicted by an oncoming storm. It happens in all of them. This extends not only to the suburban Elm Street in Freddy vs. Jason (2003), but even to Jason X (2001). That crew arrives in on the deserted wasteland that is Earth in the middle of a raging storm before they uncover Jason’s frozen body.
In Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986), it is literally the storm that brings Jason back to life. The thunder comes rolling in, the lightning strikes Jason’s corpse and he is immediately rejuvenated. Tommy tries to light a match to burn him, but the rain picks up and douses the match before he even gets a chance.
The elements are always on Jason’s side in these movies. And even though he might move away from his preferred territory from time to time, they stay on his side. It’s a raging storm that brings down the cruise ship in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) and mercifully forces the feature to deliver on the promise of the title by forcing its characters ashore.
There’s always been a sense of tragedy to Jason that you don’t see in characters like Freddy Krueger, who is malicious to his core. Jason was picked on, Jason was disabled, and Jason lived with an unstable mother who served as his only conduit to the outside world. He was a kid that nobody cared about or paid attention to, and through that neglect, through that disinterest in responsibility, he was left to drown.
In that respect, he is the perfect character to be this avatar of nature itself, targeting that same neglect. He’s killing people who are invading his territory, who aren’t paying attention to their surroundings and have absolutely no respect for the land they’ve come to, by and large. In that respect, you could lump the Friday the 13th series in with the likes of The Ruins (2008) or Prophecy (1979) because it essentially represents the same thing: Jason Voorhees is nature itself, pissed off and striking back, taking the fitting form of a slowly decomposing corpse.
In viewing Jason as this wandering spirit, he bears many similarities to the classic Native American legend of the Wendigo. In most legends, the Wendigo appears either as a monster with human characteristics or a spirit that has possessed a human body and filled them with destructive tendencies such as cannibalism and murder. Without apparent motive, the cursed individual will be driven to kill. Jason definitely fits the bill when it comes to murder, but doesn’t appear to have much history with cannibalism, although it is mentioned in a news report in Friday the 13th Part III (1983).
There is one other Native American nature spirit that bears strong similarities to Jason, however: the Chenoo. Also known as the Ice Giant, the Chenoo was originally a human being, but through an act of tragedy, such as murder, would become possessed by an evil spirit that turned their heart to ice. Thus transformed, they would be cursed to wander the forest in isolation. While Jason tends to favor summer time, he hails from roughly the same locations as the Chenoo legends. If the ice could be taken as metaphorical, Jason fits this profile fairly well.
While not a regionally accurate nor Native American spirit, the Tibetan myth of the Tulpa is also interesting to point out in discussing Jason Voorhees. This legend is centered on the idea of a story having an inherent power, the more it gets told, the more people believe it, until eventually it can take on physical life. Think of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) or Candyman (1992). It might seem out of place, but Jason is inherently a campfire story. In the context of the original film, he is dead. And it’s honestly incredibly alluring to think of him as a campfire tale that was told so often that one night it just stumbled into life.
Very little has actually been written about the background of Crystal Lake in the Friday the 13th films, although the comics have dived into it a little bit. When looking at Jason as, essentially, a physical representation of his home turf, I think it’s important to point out the 2008 comic miniseries “Bad Land.”
One of the only comics to feature pre-Jason flashbacks, it tells two concurrent stories: the first is about a group of fur trappers who find themselves stranded in a snowstorm in the Crystal Lake area in the 1800s. The second is a similar story about a present day snowstorm, obviously in the same area. This fascinating comic poses the question that it might actually be the area surrounding the lake itself that is inherently evil. That’s what makes this story fit so well with the idea of Jason being an embodiment of the forces of nature. The characters in both timelines in “Bad Land” are stranded in a snowstorm. The storm just builds, bringing Jason with it, and he wipes them out until finally the area is deserted once again. It’s not just that this land simply possesses people and causes them to do horrible things. No, it’s that horrible things happen at the lake and cause people to do horrible things in kind. That’s what incited Pamela Voorhees’ rampage and was the impetus for her son to pick up the machete in the first place.
In this way, Jason separates himself from other horror icons in that he may not always be depicted as outwardly malicious. He will kill almost indiscriminately, but he’s doing it because these people are coming into his territory, destroying his homeland even if not in explicit ways. He’s killing these invaders because he simply wants to be left alone. He just wants some peace and quiet. And if the Earth Itself one day decided to conjure up some massive tidal waves and take us out, I’m sure its own motives would not be too different.
Perhaps the best thing about the simplicity of the Friday the 13th franchise is that you can project so much onto it. People who want to read the series as an awkwardly moralistic cautionary tale will always be able to do so, but I think there’s room for other interpretations. And while it might at first seem strange to think of Jason as a force that represents the will and isolation of the natural world, I think there’s room for it, and there’s evidence to support it.