“You can depend on Jason.”
According to Deleuze, sadism is defined not so much by pain as by compulsive, premeditated, numbing repetition. If that’s so, the Friday the 13th box set makes even the monumentally boring Marquis himself look like a little girly man of tedium. The first movie is itself a mishmashed homage of repetitive gestures — Psycho, Halloween, Psycho, Halloween, walk into the woods alone, call out name of random companion, stab stab stab, repeat. By the time you’re into the third or fourth of the series, the self-cannibalization becomes so intense that the individual details of the plot are just a blur; whose tits are whose? Was that a machete or a pitchfork? Whatever . . . look up, blood drip, scream, knife up through the bunk — sudden noise, scream, oh it’s the cat, nice kitty, oh God no, bloody decapitation — he’s dead, thank God; hand twitch, head jolts up, here he comes again . . . it’s almost restful, in a meditative Zen kind of way. The solid mindless predictability of it — now that I’m not watching one or two of the movies a night, I do kind of miss them. In this ever-changing world in which we live in, Jason is rock solid. You can depend on Jason.
The regularity in these movies is, indeed, much of their charm — the enjoyment of seeing, in infinite iteration, the working out of the same immutable law. It’s something like the delight a small child might feel in watching a ball drop to the ground over and over again — or, perhaps more pointedly, the pleasure a judge might take in sentencing an endless stream of transgressors to pay for their crimes. For while Jason’s specific diegetic motivations waver through the series (is he taking revenge against counselors? against all teenagers? against those who come to Crystal Lake? humanity in general?), it’s always quite clear thematically that his function is to punish.
Jason originally drowned in Crystal Lake as a child because his counselors were having sex instead of behaving like good surrogate parents. And sure enough, in fine slasher-movie tradition, Jason is eager to exact retribution for sex, or indeed any hint of sexuality. Post-coital guys heading for a brewski and their honeys waiting in bed are in serious trouble, as are skinny-dippers, manly hunks who strip to the waist, or women who bend over in their panties. But the truth is that Jason is a good bit more open-minded than this suggests. He does punish sex, but he is just as eager to punish continence. The prom queen who doesn’t put out is punished for being a cock-tease; the nerd who gets shot down is punished for being a lame-ass; the girl who sleeps around is punished for that, and the girl who saves herself is punished for that. Sex doesn’t even have to enter into it; jocks are punished for their self-confidence; practical jokers are punished for being irritating; the girl who plays cock rock like a guy is punished for that, the weekend warriors who get beat at paintball by a woman are punished for that. Thugs and rapists are punished for being thugs and rapists, and goody-two-shoes are punished for being goody two-shoes.
In that vein, perhaps my favorite eye-for-an-eye moment in the whole series is one of the first; an idealistic counselor in the first movie is picked up on the road and starts nattering about how she’s always wanted to work with children. “I hate it when people call ’em ‘kids,'” she opines. Moments later she doesn’t care what they’re called because — her throat’s been slit! I guess your smarmy semantic quibbles look kind of silly now, don’t they, you vacuous little chit? Huh? Don’t they?! Maybe it’s just because I’ve worked as an educator for 15 years, but I can’t really describe how satisfying that sequence is. School reformers and earnest do-gooders of all kinds — put them to the scythe, Jason! Similarly, in part 5, when the porcine and infantilized hillbilly biker is riding his motorcycle around shrieking for his mother like a little whiny brat, and Jason finally, finally, finally chops his head off . . . I mean, who wouldn’t give the decapitator a high five — or at least cheer from a safe distance? If you’ve ever wished a parent would get their kid to just.shut.up. in a restaurant, I think you understand the impulse.
The point here is that, in these films, virtually everyone is always and already guilty, either of transgressing or of not measuring up. Jason is the Law, the monstrous enforcer of taboo, the big, faceless daddy-thing. The series as a whole couldn’t be much more explicit about this. Jason is constantly figured as surrogate parent, Everydad’s nether face. In Part 3, the female protagonist, Chris, first runs into Jason after she has had a giant blowout argument with her parents; in Part 4, the protagonist, Trish, is desperately hoping that her mom gets back together with her dad; in Parts 6 and 8, Jason is repeatedly linked or contrasted with overly strict father figures — who, inevitably, are eventually themselves disciplined by the real big daddy. And, most flagrantly, in Part 7, Tina, a psychic and telekinetic, tries to summon her dead father from where he drowned in the bottom of Crystal Lake. Of course, what she summons instead is Jason.
The slasher film, then, gives the viewer a chance to voyeuristically identify with the sadistic patriarchal enforcement of a pitiless law. And — feminist and Puritan caveats aside — that’s pretty entertaining, damn it. Still, the truth is that, if mean-spirited revenge narratives are really what you’re looking for, Jason probably isn’t exactly your daddy. Folks like Charles Bronson or Dirty Harry (who gets a passing shout-out in part 6) are much more righteous and satisfying, not to mention attractive, choices. Sure, Jason is tougher than all the guys and generally gets the girl, but as an icon of manliness, he’s kind of — well, rotting, isn’t he?
So what kind of viewer wants a moldering father figure, anyway? In her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover suggests that the answer is — a masochistic viewer. Clover argues that, contra the discussion above, the slasher film is not primarily sadistic, and the viewer does not primarily identify with the killer. Instead, she claims, slasher movie audiences identify with the plight of the victims. For Clover, the slasher audience is pleasurably involved in the extreme feelings of vulnerability and fear displayed by the male and especially by the female victims. Clover says, in other words, that the primarily male slasher audience members see themselves not as male big daddy wielders of the law, but as female or feminized subjects of the law. At the end of the film, when the female protagonist (or, occasionally in this series, the child protagonist) strikes back and kills the killer with her own pointy-edged weapon, the adolescent male viewer, along with her, experiences the triumph of gripping the phallus. For Clover, then, the slasher film is a kind of perverse, sublimated, self-flagellating coming-of-age story — David Copperfield with sharp implements and cross-dressing.
For Clover, the implications of the slasher are, therefore, at least potentially, positive. Men in slashers are identifying with women, and women are able to act in many instances as men, or to vacillate between feminine and masculine positions. As Clover says, “One is deeply reluctant to make progressive claims for a body of cinema as spectacularly nasty toward women as the slasher film is, but the fact is that the slasher does, in its own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations.” Clover speculatively links these adjustments to the feminist movement, higher divorce rates, etc., etc.
Wearisome detour into pop sociology aside (Jason never kills a sociologist, alas, but he does slaughter a therapist, which is perhaps close enough), Clover’s book is extremely smart, and there’s no doubt that she’s onto something. Slashers in general, and Friday the 13th in particular, are, just as Clover says, obsessed with slippages in gender and identity. One revealing sequence occurs in Part 5. A young couple has run into the woods to have sex. They are framed in the notorious slasher-point of view shot — wavery camera, sounds of heavy breathing, etc. Then the angle switches, and we see that the watcher is a wandering vagrant — who may or may not be a killer. The vagrant is clearly aroused . . . and then we learn that he isn’t the killer, because he gets stabbed. The voyeur is thus punished for his voyeurism — a voyeurism which he shares, and which stands in for the voyeurism of the audience, which has, like him, been watching the sex with some interest (the girl, Tina, has some of the most spectacular tits of the series). Shortly thereafter, the guy wanders off, leaving Jason to kill the girl, which he does by stabbing her eyes out with garden shears. When the boyfriend comes back, his eyes get put out too. The retribution that should be the viewer’s is, instead, inflicted upon the objects of the gaze. There’s crime and there’s fitting punishment, but the identity of perpetrator and victim are shuffled and mashed in a series of enjoyably suspenseful deferrals. The pleasure here is certainly in witnessing the primal scene and escaping punishment — but it is also in willfully and extravagantly suffering punishment for somebody else’s crime.
The clearest example of identity confusion, though, is Jason himself. On the one hand, as we’ve mentioned, Jason is a big daddy — a “motherfucker” as he’s called several times in the series. But, on the other hand, Jason is a little boy who maybe drowned, or maybe grew up alone and motherless. In Part 2, the female protagonist, Ginny, who is something of a child psychologist, sets Jason up for the kill by pretending to be his mother; in Part 8 the protagonist keeps seeing visions of the child Jason, and finally, at the end, the dead monster turns back into a little boy. Similarly, in Part 4, a boy named Tommy Jarvis shaves his head and pretends to be the deformed bald-headed child Jason once was. Faced with his younger self, Jason freezes, and Tommy and his sister kill him.
Clover suggests that this kind of bifurcation of the male father can be seen as undermining, or at least questioning, masculinity. It’s undeniably true that Jason’s status as masculine is questioned. But, then, Jason isn’t always masculine anyway — indeed, he isn’t always Jason. Many of the murders I’ve mentioned here weren’t committed by the supposed star slasher but by substitutes, or avatars. The would-be educator in the first film is killed by what we assume is a man, but at the end of the film we learn it’s a woman — Jason’s mother, in fact. The voyeur and the girl with the spectacular tits are murdered not by Jason but (we eventually learn) by a different hockey mask-wearing father, driven mad by the death of his son at the hands of another not-Jason, ax-wielding psycho. And, for that matter, virtually every single person in these films is mistaken for, or replaced by, the killer. One of the paradigmatic, endlessly repeated moments of the series is the scene where the hapless character calls for their friend or lover . . . and finds Jason instead. Or, alternately, the character looks around a corner, expecting the killer — and instead encounters a friend, or lover, or father.
Jason is, in other words, everybody, and nobody. He isn’t this person or that person; he’s a mask, a role. He’s a potential. This is perhaps clearest in Part 4 — not coincidentally the best film in the series. Tommy Jarvis is throughout the film set up as Jason’s potential replacement; after one of Jason’s kills, the camera cuts instantly to Jarvis, so that for a confused instant it seems that he is the murderer. Later, as we already mentioned, Tommy imitates Jason and then kills him — and not only kills him, but hacks at him and hacks at him after the monster is down, screaming “Die! Die!” In Part 5, Tommy returns as a traumatized adolescent, who it is implied, may himself become a killer — the last scene of the film shows him donning the hockey mask. (The set-up is squandered in Part 6, where Tommy reverts to being a typical heroic doofus . . . but such are sequels.)
All of which is to say, you can’t undermine masculinity by cutting it apart, or by pointing out that this or that person doesn’t measure up. Jason isn’t less of a man because he’s actually a child — or rather, he is less of a man, which is what masculinity is all about. Masculinity is always already bifurcated. On the one hand you have the Law — pitiless, perfect, unattainable. On the other hand, you have the implementer of the Law, the person the Law inhabits. That person is inevitably stunted, powerless, pitiful — feminized. The Law uses imperfect bodies, but that doesn’t make it less perfect. On the contrary, it merely emphasizes its disembodied perfection.
Thus the fact that the movies systematically ridicule fathers, boyfriends, and male rescuers — the fact that the hunky guys are constantly being castrated in hideously humiliating ways — often, for example, while they are going to or returning from the bathroom — doesn’t undermine masculinity. It’s how masculinity functions. In one scene in Part 5, for example, a man is attacked in an outhouse. As Jason plunges a sharpened phallic pole through the walls, the victim weeps and blubbers. Beside him, on the wall, half-visible graffiti declares “Be a Man!” Of course, he isn’t . . . and neither, for that matter, is his assailant, who is, after all, substituting a pole for a penis, and who is, moreover, engaged in a decidedly homoerotic assault. But the fact that neither monster nor victim is a manly man only reifies the law of the father. Nobody measures up; nobody is enough of a daddy. Even Jason himself must be systematically humiliated and violated, not in the name of revolution or re-gendering, but precisely in the name of the father. Castration, after all, is what the father does.
The Friday the 13th series, then, is not really about righteous revenge in a Dirty Harry mode; nor is it a coming-to-manhood. Instead, it seems to me, it’s more like Spider-Man or Superman; a fantasy of powerlessness/power in which the shuttling between identities provides the fluid, sadomasochistic charge. As a viewer, you get to be both the immutable law and the transgressor, the ravening father and the victimized child — or, as the case may be, the victimized woman. That’s the joy of masculinity; the compressed play of gender and identity sliding about in a secret ecstasy of bodies and pleasures, like worms slithering sensuously beneath a mask.