What is the appeal of Jason Voorhees?
Frankly, it's hard to put into words. I've loved the character and the Friday the 13th movies since I was too young to be watching them, but as I've gotten older they're harder and harder to watch. It's summer time, after all, and as a big horror buff I start getting in the mood for Camp Crystal Lake shenanigans, but picking and choosing which movie to watch is complicated because most of them just aren't any good.
What I always return to, and the one I watched recently, is Part VI: Jason Lives. This is one of the few that could be said to be an actual movie movie, and not just a gore fest with porno flick level production values. What's funny, however, is that although JL has a solid story with fun dialogue, likable actors and characters, and a competent sense of direction and geography, what really puts it over the top is that it finally injects the series with a bit of subtext. That is to say, this is a Friday the 13th that is actually about something.
The horror genre is usually thought of as being low brow, and therefore doesn't always get the academic attention it deserves. Of course it depends on the movie, as horror is certainly a divisive genre with the likes of Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and even Silence of the Lambs (1991) achieving levels of critical success but the slasher genre in particular is viewed with a dismissive eye by most intellectuals. That's unfortunate, because the most fascinating, engaging, and lasting horror icons are the ones that go beyond the visceral and tap into something primal. The problem is, however, Jason Voorhes and his movies appear to be all surface and are, in many ways, happy accidents. So what were they tapping into back in the '80s that resulted in eight movies in a decade, and four more since then?
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Hellraiser (1987) all deal with stories, locales, and characters that are rewarding in thrills but more importantly in connotations. TCM deals with the perversity of cannibalism and the limits of the human body; Halloween is the false sense of security of the suburbs and the existential implications of earlier pagan practices; ANOES takes the infiltration of the suburbs even further by heightening the tensions between generations with the sins of the parents coming back to haunt the children; and Hellraiser tackles taboo while suggesting the Final Girl isn't really all that innocent.
Boiled down to their bases, the movies work because the antagonists mean something in their looks, their outfits and their weapons, and their actions. Leatherface is a butcher of humans, reducing them to just animals, with elements of gay panic in his drag; Michael's blank visage is the abyss while his butcher knife is a subversion of the suburban house wife's kitchen; Freddy's hat, Christmas sweater, and burnt skin are so contradictory as to create cognitive dissonance, while his glove is simultaneously animal and intimate; and Pinhead is so much bondage gear and self-mutilation while carrying himself with an air of regal majesty. How does Jason Voorhees compare?
The hockey mask. There's no real thematic reason for why it works, and yet it does. Does it harken back to warriors, or are the red markings like war paint? Barbara Creed, in her required reading The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, doesn't discuss Jason very much but does go into detail about the woods setting. Everything from Deliverance to Evil Dead to Cabin in the Woods suggests that not only is the trouble people encounter in this setting a personification of nature's wrath, but modern iterations of the old pilgrim fear of Native Americans that will rape and murder you if you venture too far away from civilization. So is Jason, with his machete that hints at the jungle, playing upon our collective tribal associations?
I'll let this simmer a little more because I'm going on too long. It's ironic, however, that now my favorite movies in the series are the ones that are really about the series (Jason Lives, Jason X, Freddy vs. Jason), with the meta ramped up and the self-awareness firmly in check. What's the appeal, however, of sitting down to watch, say, Part IV: The Final Chapter without any baggage or history? What makes Jason so appealing?
Edited by Bartleby_Scriven - 7/19/13 at 2:08am