Confession: until the last few weeks, I’m pretty sure the only slasher I watched was Psycho. Does that count? It’s considered the original, right? Also, Scream. Which isn’t really a slasher so much as a commentary on the slasher genre. So, I saw these two very specific bookends of this supremely popular genre, and absolutely nothing in between. This would be an appropriate occasion to use literally, because I really, actually, had never watched any of the well-known slashers, but the word has been drained of meaning and I’d just sound like I was being hyperbolic.
Anyway, my knowledge of the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween films was absolutely zero. Which is impressive, if you think about it, in a certain way. It’s sort of like having never seen a Star Wars film. Horror movies are standard teenager fare, and basically everyone my age has some familiarity with these movies, which becomes especially apparent during the month of October. I, however, had a hair-trigger on my mighty nightmare-production machine, and watching “Rescue, 911” was enough to set it off. My parents shooed me away from scary movies more out of a sense of self-preservation than any concern that I’d be warped by the violence. They never forgot all the times I woke them in the early morning hours, having slept not a bit, asking if they could please, please unplug the refrigerator, because it was a threat to our safety, don’t you guys get it, the wiring in this house is ancient and if we don’t take precautions we are doomed. By the way, there should be a safety ladder in your room, you’ll thank me later when the refrigerator you refuse to unplug catches fire.
So, when I became besties with the horror filmmaker Erik Kristopher Myers, it was only a matter of time before my anxiety levels and the effectiveness of all that therapy were tested. I was going to have to strap in and expand my horror film education. Otherwise, how could I identify that this one scene from Exorcist 3 inspired the timing of the jump scare at the end of Butterfly Kisses?
We’ll have movie marathons, he said. It will be fun, he said. Particularly the part where we dissect the movies afterwards, he said. He had me at “critical analysis”.
So, the past few weeks we’ve been chilling on his couch (a prop from his first film, ROULETTE, by the way. Fact: filmmakers are way cooler than authors.) while he recovered from surgery, and watched these slashers everyone seems to love or hate. We began with the idyllic Camp Crystal Lake, where the rompings of Camp counselors were about to be interrupted by a streak of horrifying murders.
Confession 1: I was not expecting to gain a bit of enjoyment out of these films.
Confession 2: Holy shit, I have loved watching these films.
There’s something kind of pure about the first few Friday the 13th movies, an invisible energy broadcast by an independent film crew pulling something incredibly simple together with passion and popsicle sticks. The camera moves are simple, but challenging. The lighting is realistic, the setting lovely, the story unfolds with simple directness. The doomed teens are behaving exactly like a bunch of hormonal Camp counselors, rather than the overly stylized teens that seem to abound in more modern horror. Basically, watching the first Friday the 13th is like catching a breath of fresh air – which is a weird thing to say about a movie in which a bunch of kids are getting taken out one by one at the hands of a mystery serial killer, but true nonetheless.
The simplicity of the Friday concept also allows some really interesting things to come through that pretty clearly arise from the subconscious of the creators. In fact, if you watch the documentary for the first movie, the director confessed that Pam Vorhees’s vengeful rampage probably arises from his own feelings that his mother didn’t care about him much. She’s a maternal figure going way off the deep end to protect her child – an attractive image, perhaps, to someone whose own mother was absentee. Then of course there’s the oft-discussed morality tale embedded in all the Friday movies, which basically sends teens the message “have sex, do drugs, and you die!” I think it’s a little less obvious in the first two films, but gets more blatant (in a very self-conscious way) as you get into Number 5 or so.
Oh, but for me, it was the windows. Yes, people, the windows. It’s a thing. Don’t believe me? Then let’s go.
First, watch Friday the 13th again. The first one. Perhaps this is a budget thing, or a location thing, but once the lights go down on Camp Crystal Lake, the big glassy black portals to the outside become incredibly obvious. This Boy Scout Camp appears to be almost nothing but windows interrupting brief stretches of wooden wall. It gives the movie a distinctive look that will transport you right back to whatever summer camp your parents used to shuttle you off to, hoping you’d get fresh air and be out of their hair for a while. They are dark, and threatening, and so incredibly fragile.
But, windows aren’t meant to be passageways. After all, that’s what doors are for. No, a window is there to make the outside world visible, while still preventing anyone or anything from crossing the boundary. The outside stays in, the inside stays out. Sometimes windows even come to represent the boundaries that trap people in their worlds. Look at the Lady of Shallot, gazing out from her tower but unable to leave it. Madame Bovary, who gazes out of her little pocket universes at worlds she longs to touch, but cannot. And yes, it’s very often ladies who gaze out through clear glass on a world that remains unreachable. The windows, as much as they are for security, also keep you confined. And when those boundaries are broken, when windows are opened, letting people go where they should not, disaster often follows. Just ask Catherine and Heathcliff.
Friday the 13th’s first Final Girl, Alice, is pretty appropriate considering all these images of women viewing a world through windows. Alice is a little bit aloof from her fellow counselors. In fact, when first we meet her, she is simultaneously hard at work helping get the camp together, and uncertain about whether or not she will stay. She’s there with her fellow teens, and she goes along with the fun, but she’s not much of an instigator. She doesn’t roll her eyes or try to reign in the shenanigans. She watches, does what needs done, and seems to move with a graceful caution from moment to moment.
And then her friends start getting murdered, before she, too, becomes a target. Alice fights like hell, running, hiding, and even striking out at her attacker.
There’s a really interesting moment when she’s hiding in the camp kitchen, terrified. Slowly, she relaxes, believing that danger has passed her by. She backs towards a wall, a window behind her. We know what’s coming, but nonetheless we let our guard down. All is quiet.
Then the glass behind her shatters, and a figure comes hurtling through. Pam Vorhees, in defiance of the boundary that a window should be, has thrown one of Alice’s dead friends through what ought to have been a barrier. Death is coming for Alice. The world is coming for her whether she likes it or not. And Jason’s mother is going to get revenge, even if society objects. The window, this glass that ought to hold her back, means nothing in the face of her maternal rage.
It’s an incredibly striking moment, to me, and one that feels like it’s so much more than a chilling scare. Particularly when shortly after this, both women end up in a show-down outside, on the sandy shores of Crystal Lake. This should be the realm of Pam Vorhees – she, after all, has been living outside the lines for a long time. That window wasn’t the first she shattered. For Alice, this realm is all new. Her safe world was encroached on only moments ago. And yet, it’s Alice who wins. The young, single woman, who spent most of the movie watching, aloof, behind glass, who was forced out into the world by a crazed maternal figure, finds herself capable.
(The fact that she survives by destroying the maternal figure is probably a topic for another post entirely. You guys, Friday movies are complicated.)
This destruction of boundaries continues in the second iteration of Friday, at a similar time and in such a similar way that it becomes a striking repeated image. This time, the Final Girl is fan favorite Ginny. She’s done psychoanalysis of the mythic figure of Jason, a man who saw his mother murdered, who is also maybe a zombie? Upon finding herself in Jason’s shrine to his mother, she throws on Pam’s old sweater, and pretends to be Mrs. Vorhees. This desperate survival tactic works, giving Ginny an opening to put a machete deep into Jason’s shoulder.
This violation of Jason’s sense of the world does not go unpunished. Ginny and her boyfriend Paul flee from Jason’s shack, thinking that they’ve killed the murderer. Ginny welcomes back Muffin, the shi-tzu we all thought was eviscerated earlier in the movie. And this time, we’re pretty sure that Jason is dead. They’re totally safe.
There’s that little concern, though, about the fact that Ginny is backed against a window, which we know from past experience is not the safe place it seems to be.
And of course, in one of his more spectacular stunts, Jason bursts through the glass. Whereas Pam Vorhees was the one who pulled Alice out of her safe-seeming world, this time it was Ginny who broke the boundary. She entered Jason’s home, and took on the mantle of his mother before trying to kill him. The death that breaks through the window, seeking her, should not have been unexpected. Once you’ve entered the world beyond the window, you can never go back.