Thursday, July 12, 2007

He was...well, he wasn't a good swimmer.

The following is my contribution to Final Girl's Friday the 13th Blog-a-Thon.

"No, what if there is some boy-beast running around Camp Crystal Lake? Let's try to think beyond the legend, put it in real terms. What would it be like today? Some sort of out-of-control psychopath? A frightened retard? A child trapped in a man's body?" - Amy Steel, Friday the 13th Part 2

It's often forgotten that Jason Voorhees is developmentally disabled; indeed, the above quote is the only direct reference to this fact in the ten-film series. This partly owes to the ways that the character changed over the course of a franchise that has little use for narrative coherence, but it's also indicative of the time that the original Friday the 13th was released. That film, and its immediate sequels, literalize the mindless man-child archetype (Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster and Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface are two predecessors) by confronting us with a villian whose monstrousness is largely defined by his disability. The original Friday the 13th is about our society's fear of the mentally retarded; this is just as evident in the films that don't reference this fact.

It wasn't until I began working with the developmentally disabled that I realized how negative attitudes towards the mentally challenged can go beyond simple mockery to actual fear and animosity. While some of my co-workers are wonderful, a number warned me in hushed tones to watch out for the ways that our clients would try to "manipulate" us. One day I was in the community with an autistic man who attempted to open the door of a parked car; the man inside the car began yelling at our client and informed me that I should "do something about that guy." Retardation makes people genuinely uncomfortable; this was even more true in 1980, less than 20 years after the concept of equal rights for the mentally disabled was introduced into the mainstream and before the developmentally disabled gained the right to equal health care. Residents of asylums and other demoralizing institutions were being released back into society, and people were suddenly confronted with a problem they had long been instructed to lock up and forget about.

The Goonies' Sloth was an attempt to counter negative stereotypes by presenting a physically deformed, brain-damaged man as a lovable E.T.-like figure; later in the decade, Rain Man and Life Goes On were influential in their positive portrayals of mentally challenged characters. But in 1980, there was still nothing unusual about a studio horror release that had as its villain the vengeful mother of a stereotypical mongoloid who appears at the film's end for one last scare. The killer in Friday the 13th is a woman whose disabled son drowned tragically because of the neglect of horny camp counselors (a character for whom the film extends no empathy). If one chooses to read the film as a morality piece - the dead teens punished for their preoccupation with sex, pot and the band Rush (probably) - then Jason is the dark side of the eternal child, pulling Adrienne King into the depths of Crystal Lake, away from adulthood and back to the womb.

The most potent incarnation of Jason is the John Merrick-esque sack-hooded woodsman we meet in Friday the 13th Part 2, his disguise reminding of the exploitation of the disabled and deformed in carnival freak shows. If Jason is out for revenge after the death of his mother (a scenario that doesn't really make any sense, but we'll ignore that for now), he's also assuming the monstrous role assigned to him. Jason's makeshift shack in the woods is a terrific touch, literalizing the theme of rural horror previously seen in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. But unlike those films, Jason wasn't born a villain - he was created, like Caliban, shoved to the fringes of society until he becomes the monster he's always been viewed as. It's a great, rich concept that Friday the 13th Part 2 doesn't do nearly enough with. Unfortunately, it's also the last time that the series even pays lip service to the idea of Jason as a flesh-and-blood character.

The dehumanization of Jason begins with the hockey mask, and reaches fruition with Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. After Jason was killed (suppsedly for good) in the previous film, the producers attempted to revive the franchise by replacing Jason with another mask-wearing killer that is revealed in the final minutes to be a completely different character. It was a cynical move (see also: Halloween III), and the filmmakers wisely chose to reinvent Jason as an undead golem for future films. Over the course of the series, Jason has been a demon's host, a genetically enhanced superbeing, and a worthy adversary for Freddy Kreuger - Jason is pure simulacrum, completely detached from his origins as a "frightened retard."

While this happens with most horror franchises - Freddy's wisecracks watering down his child-molesting backstory, for instance - Jason's evolution is particularly drastic. This has everything to do with the advent of political correctness - when Kelly Rowland calls Freddy a "faggot" in Freddy vs. Jason, the joke is her strange use of the word rather than a comment on Freddy's sexuality. Similarly, it's impossible to imagine a sympathetic protagonist calling Jason a "retard" today. An evil ubermensch Jason allows us to laugh and scream without feeling guilty, and I won't argue that it's a good thing that most people understand that, at the very least, there are some things you just don't say. But part of me misses "special" Jason, who could have only existed at a time when our scares were much thornier.


Pax Romano said...


Just stumbled upon this review of F13 and how it reflects our fears of the disabled. Brilliant, just brilliant.

I have been a social worker for 25 years and have worked with the developmentally disabled for all of those years- I am going to share your posting with some of my more "hip" co-workers.

Take care, and Happy New Year!

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It won't work in actual fact, that is what I suppose.

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Miss E said...

I find this fascinating, as I’m active on tumblr and Jason is often seen by the slasher fandom on there as innocent and even lovable. I think that’s a stereotype on its own-that the mentally disabled are harmless children. As someone who’s struggled with their own mental disorder since practically birth, it’s both frustrating and interesting to see this dichotomy play out. On the one hand, it’s lovely to see fans adore and enjoy a mentally disabled character meant to be a villain. On the other hand, they are unintentionally pushing him into another stereotype-less harmful perhaps but certainly no less frustrating. I hope we develop more mentally disabled characters who are complex and human in the future. I know for sure I’d love to see that kind of portrayal in media.