She’s a Bad Mama Jama: A Dedication to Pamela Voorhees

Welcome to the ‘Women in Horror’ column. Every Wednesday, we highlight the work of women in the horror genre.

40 years ago, one of the most beloved and influential horror franchises of all time was born. The tale of the cursed Camp Crystal Lake, stalked by a machete-wielding murderer named Jason, has changed the genre in ways that are still being realized, with its’ many installments and reboots being genre-bending and fearlessly camp. Since its creation, the Friday the 13th franchise has curated 12 films, a plethora of video games, novels, comic books, and even a television series. It was the highest grossing horror franchise until 2018, and it was named one of the most influential film franchises of all time. More prominent than its accolades, however, is the insanity and unadulterated fun this film franchise exudes. The realistic practical effects tied in with the unrealistic kills makes for an exhilarating viewing experience. The intensity of running through the woods with the victims and each film ending with a jump-scare makes this franchise one of the most enjoyable of all time for all horror audiences.

“Name the killer in ‘Friday the 13th?'”

Scream (1996)
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema

However, the legacy of Friday the 13th is light when compared to that of Pamela Voorhees. As the mother of the famous Jason Voorhees, Ms. Voorhees birthed this franchise, literally and figuratively. 40 years ago, in the franchise’s first film, Pamela Voorhees watched her son drown as a result of the negligence of the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake. In a fit of vengeance, she kills the counselors and remains at the camp for years after – murdering anyone who dared to reopen it. After a night of blood and guts, she prepares to take her final victim – Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) – in the film’s climax. Before she had a chance, Alice decapitates Ms. Voorhees, and the film ends with an ominous jump-scare of a young Jason rising from the calm waters of Crystal Lake. This was far from the end of the story, however. Jason had survived his drowning and lived in the woods, alone, for years after. Like his mother, he falls into a psychological loop of revenge and murder for the total of 11 films. Even after her death, Pamela Voorhees looms over the Friday the 13th franchise. She haunts it like a ghost, watching her dark legacy carry on through her son.

When the first movie was released, the revelation of a female killer was astounding and virtually unheard of. Throughout the film, audiences watch from the murderer’s perspective as they brutally slice and slash away at vulnerable teens. Assuming you are watching a man, it’s a jarring experience when it is revealed that a middle-aged woman was behind all the blood and gore. In her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol J. Clover says this reveal was “the most dramatic case of pulling out the gender rug in horror film history.” She was unhinged, and she spoke to herself using her son’s voice. Her story is nuanced in many ways, as  she has no real backstory, only a motivation to kill. Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981) goes so far as to make Ms. Voorhees a tragic victim of trauma. She is a mother who wrongfully lost a son, and in a reverse-Norman Bates scenario, her psyche crumbled under the weight of her pain. She senselessly murders because she feels it is the only way to pay the toll on the price of loss. As a viewer, the only real emotional connection you have to the story is Pamela and her son. The writers never delve into the lives of the victims, leaving you with little sympathy for them.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema

Even though she stays dead after the first installment, the love of a mother and son drives the very core of the story. Pamela Voorhees is an icon in the horror genre, and she takes the dedication and fierceness of  motherhood to a whole new level. She also helped paved the way for the women after her, showing that women were just as terrifying as their male counterparts in the slasher subgenre – if not more. The story of Mrs. Voorhees shaped everything that came after her in the Friday the 13th franchise- from Jason’s homemade shrine of her decapitated head in Friday the 13th Part 2, the visions of her that he has throughout almost every installment, and even the use of her imagery  in the spin-off film Freddy vs. Jason (2003) to re-awaken Jason. She may be dead, but she will never be gone. There is no franchise without her. This is a dedication to Pamela Voorhees: the mother of slasher horror.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema