It’s one of the biggest mysteries about Friday the 13th (no, not how in God’s name did they ever decide to make eleven sequels): why didn’t they call it Mother’s Day? There’s only one passing reference to the date in the film, and that’s because writer/director/producer Sean S. Cunningham remembered at the last second that they hadn’t made mention of it anywhere in the script. (Cunningham had come up with the title and taken out full page ads in cinema-centric magazines without having any concept for a story, just to drum up pre-game buzz).
The whole thing revolves around a murderous mom who seeks vengeance for her son’s tragic death. That son, who would go on to become horror Highness Jason Voorhees, was never even supposed to be a main character, and deemed unworthy to be a sequel-ized successor to matriarch Pamela. But the film was so popular, there was no way Cunningham was going to miss out on the chance to capitalize on what he freely admitted was a rip-off of Halloween. And now, nearly forty years later, fright fans are well on their way to being treated to another installment of terrorized teens as Jason is set to take to the big screen again next year.
And of course we’re going.
After the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1976), you couldn’t swing a butcher knife in Hollywood without hitting a masked serial killer. And after dozens of the paper-thin madmen came and went, a plain-faced female character ended up springboarding a franchise that would roll, freight train-like, through film, books, television and merchandising for nearly four decades. And it still shows no signs of slowing down.
And it gave us Kevin Bacon—and more degrees of separation than Frigyes Karinthy could’ve calculated.
The film was Friday the 13th (1980), the brainchild of Sean S. Cunningham and was a deliberate attempt to imitate the scares of Halloween but with much more violence and gore. And it capitalized on the latter like no film before, thanks to the bloody kills engineered by makeup effects guru Tom Savini. The story was about as basic as it comes, but the final twists left audiences reeling and hungry for more.
A group of teenage counselors who’ve arrived at Camp Crystal Lake a week ahead of their campers are picked off, one by one, by an unseen killer with a penchant for brutally creative kills. The seemingly random murders continue until only one counselor, Alice (Adrienne King) is left. It’s then that we learn that the murderer is Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), a former camp employee, whose special needs son, Jason, drowned years earlier when counselors ignored him while having sex on a dock.
After a struggle, Alice kills Mrs. Voorhees and all seems well. And then, as she awakens, groggy and exhausted in a canoe on the lake, little zombified Jason jumps out of the water and wrestles her beneath the surface. Or does he? ‘Turns out that part was only a dream as Alice lay in her hospital bed, recovering from Mrs. Voorhees’ attack. But that single jump scare—arguably one of the best in horror history (even though it was itself a rip-off of the ending of Carrie) helped launch the seemingly unending legend of Jason Voorhees.
Despite its somewhat thin storyline, Friday the 13th became the standard for the new teenager stalking genre (for better or worse) and inspired dozens of imitators—just as its source material, Halloween, had. With each successive film, the kills got more extreme, the nudity more prevalent and the story more convoluted. But audiences didn’t seem to care; they kept coming back for more, year after year, anxious to see how Jason would punish the next crop of counselors.
If that first group of counselors had only listened. You see, just down the road from Camp Crystal Lake, in a little unnamed town, a village crier/idiot/weirdo affectionately known as Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) had tried to warn them all when they stopped off at a diner before venturing toward the camp. He retold the legend of Jason’s death and warned that the camp was cursed. But of course, none of the counselors listened to him (and he was offed in the first sequel, so thanks for nothing, Ralph).
Much like crazy Ralph, the oft-disregarded prophets of the Old Testament (Jeremiah and Isaiah especially) warned the Israelites of impending doom but no one wanted to listen. Because of their sinful tendencies, the Israelites continued to dip into paganism, hoping that idols and false gods would deliver prosperity. And as a result, many were struck down by opposing armies or thrust into captivity as a result. If the Israelites would’ve only listened, they would not only have prospered, they would’ve enjoyed divine fellowship—communion—with their Maker. Instead, they’d have to wait a few centuries to meet God in the flesh. Of course they’d listen to Him then…right? Turns out they weren’t much smarter than the kids at Crystal Lake.
Speaking of, think about it: if those Counselors would’ve heeded Crazy Ralph’s warnings, if they’d have just turned from their headstrong, debaucherous path, they might’ve made it. And we wouldn’t have had potentially thirteen sequels to survive.
But what fun would that be?