On Its 40th Birthday, ‘Friday the 13th’ Warns of the Dangers of Unresolved Trauma

In the movie that started the slasher horror craze of the 1980s, Friday the 13th follows a traumatized mother Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) as she avenges the death-by-negligence of her special needs son Jason in 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake. Pamela murders the two counselors who failed to protect her son in cold blood as they shirk their duties once again for a chance to bone in an attic.

For years after the deaths, Pamela roams the camp and its surroundings, setting fires and poisoning the water in order for that haunted space to never be open to the public again. But by 1979, even her best machinations aren’t enough to keep Camp Blood closed, and she resorts to stalking and killing the new crop of camp counselors one by one until she is vanquished by our final girl Alice (Adrienne King).

If this doesn’t sound like the movie you remember, that’s because nobody talks about Friday the 13th from the perspective of its serial killer, Mrs. Pamela Voorhees (Jason and his machete don’t appear until the sequel), a profoundly damaged character brought to painful life by the inimitable Betsy Palmer.  

When well-established screen and stage actress Palmer agreed to do this gory slasher movie, she thought her performance was meant to be a campy soap-opera style since that was the order of genre films back in the day. But director Sean Cunningham gave her an interesting note to not play it over the top, but rather as if it were a dramatic role. Palmer was intrigued and dialed back her performance, ultimately giving us one of the most compelling serial murderers put to screen. Through Palmer, Pamela Voorhees becomes a complicated woman whose psychotic break is deeply rooted in multiple traumas, only some of which we know about. 

Watching Friday the 13th from Pamela’s perspective makes it an entirely different movie that asks a lot of questions, which actually add a great deal to the depth of the plot. For example, where was Jason’s father? Who was he? We never hear a peep about him. Does his absence have something to do with why Pamela and Jason were so closely bonded?

As I watched from Pamela’s point of view, I started filing through some different scenarios. Mrs. Voorhees really resents young people having sex, even aside from the accidental death of her son. Is it possible that Pamela had been assaulted as a young woman, resulting in a pregnancy, possibly explaining why she is so triggered by seeing other young folks in that act? Or was she simply bedded young, knocked up, and abandoned? Whatever the case was, something major happened to Pamela Voorhees that not only resulted in Jason, but also contributed to an eventual deep psychotic break after losing him.

The sad truth of the world is that women lose their children every day and don’t become serial-killing mass murderers. There is something profoundly damaged in Pamela Voorhees that suggests a much deeper and darker back story than the film presents on its surface. 

Through this alternative gaze, I also couldn’t help but notice that as Pamela moves through the beginning of the movie when we don’t see her, the first murders are all her attempts to stop people from going to the haunted Camp Crystal Lake. The dialogue is only presented from the side of the victims, so we don’t hear Pamela asking them (probably very politely) to not go to the camp, but we do hear the youngsters insisting on going, provoking her to stop them. It’s almost as if she wants to protect these kids like her son wasn’t protected, and when she can’t convince them not to go to camp her twisted brain shifts to murder as protection. Pamela is here for revenge, but I also started to think she might even be trying to save them from themselves, potentially because she herself had a trauma at a similar age. This is the twisted logic of an abuser, or someone who experienced a lot of abuse, or a terrible combination of both dynamics.

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When Pamela stalks Annie (Robbi Morgan) through the woods, it is a brutal chase. Picturing the perpetrator of such heinous acts as middle-aged Pamela Voorhees adds an entirely new level of horror. Pamela has trauma strength in her psychosis, and she is far scarier to imagine than her son ever would be in future installments. She’s also quite a tragic figure, so wrapped up in her pain and sadness that she turns to external violence.  

Also, as someone who didn’t grow up in American camp culture, it’s wild to me that someone so protective of her young son would entrust him to a group of teenagers and assume he’d be safe. In this regard, Pamela was a failed mother who likely internalized that terrible decision, contributing to her eventual psychotic break. The final girl Alice, as lead camp counselor, ends up being a failed surrogate mother to the other counselors as she is unable to protect them from Pamela Voorhees’s pure wrath. In the film’s final confrontation between Pamela and Alice, it’s mother versus surrogate mother, and even though Alice prevails, by the end she has extreme PTSD from killing a woman in self-defense. Worse, by the sequel the woman’s son stalks her to her home miles away and murders her in her safe place. Actual and symbolic motherhood go hand in severed hand with trauma in Friday the 13th

It’s truly remarkable that in all the many follow-ups of the Friday the 13th franchise, there has never been an origin story for Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, the original killer. The ambiguity of Pamela’s story is ripe for mining. She’s such a unique killer in slasher movie history — the first woman to pick up a weapon and start using it on unsuspecting youngsters. 

“His name was Jason,” Pamela Voorhees says. “I am Jason. Jason was my son. And today is his birthday.” For 21 years, Pamela was consumed by the grief of losing her son as well as the unknown and possibly traumatic circumstances that led to Jason’s birth in the first place, leaving her a single mother. Unable to process her grief or her trauma, Pamela’s mental illnesses descended into a pure psychosis that got at least a dozen innocent people killed.

On its 40th birthday, let’s use Friday the 13th as a cautionary tale about what happens when we let our sadness, grief, and trauma rot us from the inside out, instead of confronting and healing it. Don’t be like Pamela Voorhees, whose pain turned her into a mass murderer. Be like Jason and wear a mask. 

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