Culture

‘Kill her, Mommy! Kill her!’: A Queer Take on ‘Friday the 13th’

Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th (1980) © Paramount Pictures

Editor's Note:

Nick White is an Assistant Professor of English at Ohio State University. A native of Mississippi, he earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His short stories have been published in a variety of places, including The Kenyon Review, Guernica, Indiana Review, Day One, The Hopkins Review, and elsewhere.

Once, when I caught the chickenpox in the third grade, I spent a week home from school with my mother, and to pass the time together, as my scabs healed and my fever relented, we watched “Friday the 13th” and its many, many sequels. I was eight, the year was 1993, and the local Movie Gallery boasted every chapter of the horror movie franchise. We loved thrillers, my mother and I, and still do. Before watching this series, I was already well-versed in Hitchcock and Vincent Price. “Friday the 13th” was, however, our first foray into the graphic violence and large body count of the slasher flick. Throats were slit, skulls were bashed open, and we lounged on the couch, under a mountain of quilts, horrified, fascinated, and, frankly, a little in love with the spectacle unfolding before us.

The first installment, the original 1980 version, starring Betsy Palmer as the unhinged Mrs. Voorhees and a very young Kevin Bacon as one of the doomed camp counselors, would mark me in ways I wouldn’t fully understand until years later while I was writing my novel, How to Survive a Summer.  My novel’s plot centers on a summer at a conversion camp in Mississippi. As one might expect, things go horribly wrong, and the survivors of Camp Levi spend the rest of their lives dealing with the trauma and the shame of the experience. The novel opens when one of the survivors, Will, learns that a movie will soon be released based on what happened there.

The name of the movie is “Proud Flesh,” and it is a slasher flick, an homage to the “Friday the 13th” series with a more blatant queer twist. The killer in the woods wears a princess mask and offs people with rusty farm equipment—he’s also a survivor of the conversion camp, and so deranged by his “treatment” that when new people, with good intentions, arrive on the campgrounds to rehabilitate it, he views them as a threat, and thus the killing begins. There’s immediate controversy surrounding the movie. Queer activists are, at first, uneasy with and outraged over this film’s seemingly problematic depiction of the “crazy queer killer” that has so often marred many a scary movie in the past.

And they have good reason to worry. American slasher flicks have an especially bad track record when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. Often they reinforce norms and binaries and treat any evidence of queerness as further proof that someone is subhuman, a monster. Perhaps the most noticeable example remains Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” arguably the proto-slasher flick, creating a blueprint of horror that many films would follow in the decades to come. Norman Bates is driven to kill, the movie supposes, because the opposite sex both frightens and repels him. The lonely motel clerk wears his mother’s dresses and dons a dowdy wig before he butchers, which we don’t learn until the end of the movie. When the drag is revealed, it is supposed to be a telling signal to the audience that the man’s a psychopath.

Years later, in the early 1980s, the cult film “Sleepaway Camp” traffics in similar gender role transgressions. Here, the killer is a young transgender woman. Her “gender confusion” is as much a motive for her slayings as it is a reason for her to be reviled. The final shot that showcases her nude body, a kind of unmasking that is typical for the genre, is meant to horrify the audience not because she clutches a severed head, but because she has a penis. More sophisticated slasher flicks, such as Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” and Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” amplify these notions that a killer’s desire to maim and murder is explicitly bound up with these other “unnatural” longings to transgress traditional gender roles and/or heterosexuality.

At first glance, the movie in my novel seems to be a reification of these prejudices. But then, as more people see it, including the novel’s protagonist, the film is reconsidered. Queer audiences begin to suspect there could be more complex forces at play than they had originally suspected. I modeled this response, in part, on my own evolving reaction to “Friday the 13th”. Over the years, my critique of this slasher flick has gone from youthful fascination to harshly critical of its glorification of violence to something approaching a queer recasting.

For most of my twenties, I dismissed “Friday the 13th,” agreeing with Gene Siskel’s assessment of the film that once you removed the gruesome murder scenes, what you have leftover is essentially “an empty movie.” (In this same review, Siskel is so incensed by the movie’s violence that he even goes so far as to encourage his readers to write letters to the head of the production company that released it.) But, as I reacquainted myself with “Friday the 13th,” my position on it softened. I found myself queering the movie in ways I think it ultimately seems to be encouraging—whether it’s consciously or unconsciously— the audience to do. The movie franchise has become synonymous with Jason Voorhees, the machete-wielding, nonverbal attacker clad in hockey mask and ill-fitting overalls. The killer in the original movie, however, is infamously his mother, a key difference from the sequels that make this one an outlier both in style and effect from the rest of the installments.

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Adrienne King and Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th (1980) © Paramount Pictures

When Mrs. Voorhees emerges from the darkness, all smiling and chipper, she at first appears to be the remaining counselor Alice’s savior, a kindly matriarch arriving on the scene in the nick of time to set everything in order. But as Mrs. Voorhees’ mood darkens and the memories of her son’s drowning begin to surface in her speech, Alice (and the viewers) quickly learn that she is in the presence of unfettered rage. The choice to make an older woman, a mother still grieving her son’s death, as the killer appears to be a reverse of Norman Bates in “Psycho”yet where Hitchcock endeavors to alienate us from Bates’ insanity by the end, here, it seems, the movie’s allegiance is torn, even somewhat sympathetic to Mrs. Voorhees and her mad vengeance.

The effect of her being the killer is queerly destabilizing. For one, we cannot underestimate the import of having a woman be the architect and cause of such gruesomely creative murders. It’s a radical departure from other slasher flicks, like “Halloween,” which was released a few years before, where the killer is almost always male and perversely hellbent on punishing sexually-active teenagers. Since “Scream,” the idea that sexually active teens are more prone to dying in slasher flicks has been well-documented. In “Halloween,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and even the sequels to “Friday the 13th,” this trope is suggested, but exists as a kind of subtext. In “Friday the 13th,” sex—in particular, heteronormative sex—is the explicit motive for why these horny counselors have to die. The movie signals this in its opening scene, before the credits roll.

The prologue is not, interestingly enough, what we might think of as the inciting incident—the circumstances surrounding Jason’s drowning. Rather, the movie opens a year or so after his death on a night when two camp counselors slip away to have sex with one another. Taking a cue from “Halloween,” the audience is firmly rooted in the killer’s point of view during this scene as she stalks these two would-be lovers to an empty cabin, an aspect of camerawork that I use for the movie I describe in my novel. The murder of these lovers is significant, I think, because sheds light on Mrs. Voorhees’ character. We learn, at the end of the movie, that Jason’s death was caused because no one was watching him, because those left in charge of him were too busy fornicating.

The couple who she kills in the opening scene is not the couple whose carelessness led to Jason’s death, but just a couple in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so their death becomes symbolic. In fact, all of these deaths are symbolic because each counselor is killed not because of who they are individually, but because of what they represent. They are guilty, all of them, because they are complicit in a system that privileges them and their desires over everything else, even the life of a boy who was, as his mother put it, “special.” Seen through this lens, “Friday the 13th” becomes less of a slasher flick, per se. It becomes, instead, a bold revenge fantasy, an unsympathetic appraisal of one mother’s anger against the structures and the systems in place that failed her and her son. Though the movie doesn’t elaborate on what Mrs. Voorhees means when she refers to her son as “special,” I read him in that moment as queer inasmuch as he existed outside the parameters of straight culture.

And in re-watching the final moments of this movie, I found myself fascinated by other displays of queerness. Making the final battle scene between these two women offers a complex interplay of gender and performance. Their slapping and biting almost verges into camp; indeed, the ground here is fertile for drag interpretation, and I am sure it has been dutifully staged by queens already. While the campy possibilities of this catfight may be unintentional, I am not so sure that the androgyny of these women is. Both Mrs. Voorhees and Alice, in their short hairdos and slacks, seem to transcend the binary of male and female, embodying aspects of both genders. It’s this queerness on Alice’s part which ultimately I believe allows her to defeat Mrs. Voorhees. Still, when I was re-watching this final moment again, when Alice takes up a machete and unceremoniously slices off the head of Mrs. Voorhees, I found myself a little saddened by her death. This time, I had been rooting her.

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Adrienne King and Betsy Palmer in ‘Friday the 13th’ © Paramount Pictures

And perhaps this response says more about me than it does about the movie itself, but it did remind me of a moment twenty years ago, right after my mother and I had seen this movie for the first time. We sat in silence for a while, listening to the video rewind itself in the machine. There is something primal about the relationship between mother and child; perhaps this is only heightened when the child is, like me, queer. The year of the chickenpox, I was well acquainted with this powerful, almost supernatural bond. “Friday the 13th,” like all good horror films, takes something as lauded and as mythologized as maternal instinct and twists it.

At school, I was already being bullied and harassed for being a “sissy.” My mother had been my fierce protector from the world, but now I was reaching an age where she could no longer shield me from the horrors that awaited those who were different. I wonder if she knew this. I wonder if this explains why she had me watch this film at such an early age. I’d like to think so. And I couldn’t quite articulate it then, but I see now that I found a certain affinity with Jason, the boy who, at the close of the movie, rises from the lake to avenge his slain mother. What I recall most, though, is the silence, how my mother and I didn’t speak of the implications this movie had for our own lives. So, I didn’t ask my mother if she would have done the same for me: avenge my death. I didn’t need to. I already knew she would.