The wonderful confluence of the Earth’s rotation and the calendar has brought us to have a Friday the 13th in October. We got the scariest day in the scariest month and that is something special. It would be foolhardy to not take this opportunity to talk about about the horror franchise that bears the day’s name. You all know Friday the 13th right? The wonderful story in which a hulking and seemingly invincible killer murders teenagers at a summer camp and, over the course of the first four films, comes of age and reckons with his own identity.
Whoa, hold on, that doesn’t sound like the Jason Voorhees I know. Well it’s all in there, folks. Don’t just take my word for it. Each film in the first four can be drawn to a specific stage of psychosocial development as outlined by psychologist Erik Erikson, who defines the stages of development through outcomes. If one succeeds in the outcome of a stage, they will have a healthy personality. If they fail to do so, not so much. A special shout out to my wife, a fellow horror fan and mental health professional, who explained all this stuff to me. The first four Friday the 13th films show Jason’s journey from a young child to a fully formed adult.
SPOILER ALERT! For those of you that have not seen the first Friday film, it may surprise you to know that Jason is not the killer. It is, in fact, his mother, Pamela Voorhees. Good ol’ Pam goes on a murderous rampage to avenge the death of her son. Poor little Jason drowned at Camp Crystal Lake because the counselors were too busy makin’ whoopie to give a crap. Jason was a helpless child, and now it’s his mommy’s job to take out the trash.
This relates to Erikson’s first stage of development known as the “Trust vs. Mistrust”. This stage is very much based upon the reliability of the child’s caregiver. If the child can trust the caregiver, development will be healthy, if not, the child will experience fear growing up. Mrs. Voorhees, while a murderous psychopath, shows to be a caregiver that the young child can trust. She is relentless in the care of her son, and she will stop at nothing until he is avenged. At the films conclusion, Jason demonstrates the beginnings of his own autonomy by jumping out of the lake at the film’s end. This allows the franchise to keep Jason alive and growing for the remainder of the films.
Friday the 13th Part Two takes Jason to the next stage of development which is known as “Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt”. This stage is marked by increasing independence and support from the caregiver. If this stage is failed, the child will experience fear at their own autonomy. Jason experiences both success and failure at this stage to varying degrees. This film marks the first time that Jason becomes the murderer we all know and love. He doesn’t look as badass as he does later on; he dons a burlap sack instead of his traditional hockey mask.
This is why mom didn't let you dress yourself in Kindergarten
Despite the lack of badassery, Jason is pretty independent in this film. He leaves his dwelling and is able to kill on his own. He even adds some creativity to his kills by lying in wait in a bed for his victim. In this respect, Jason succeeds in asserting his autonomy.
However, Jason is still shown to be far too attached to his caregiver. Jason may be his own person, but he still has a weird little mommy shrine in his room, complete with her disembodied head. In this way, his mother becomes almost godlike, always watching and holding authority over Jason. There is a part of him that still needs her to function and she is still the driving force behind his life. This proves to be his downfall at the end of the film when the the final girl masquerades as his mother. This throws Jason off balance, allowing him to be defeated. Like a child, Jason exhibits some autonomy, but is still very much enmeshed with his parental unit.
Part 3 shows Jason really hitting his stride. We skip a few stages of Eriksonian development and jump right to “Identity vs. Role Confusion”. This is the stage where one really starts to form their own identity. Jason becomes the Jason we all know and fear in this chapter. This is where he gets his trademark hockey mask, becoming a truly terrifying force. The film is even in 3D, which allows Jason to transcend his restrictive confines in a literal sense (boom). Friday the 13th Part 3 not only shows Jason becoming himself, but is arguably where the series finds itself as well. It is the first of the films to tonally find what the series is about. The kills get ridiculous, the teengers get dumber, and Jason becomes the one we root for. Part 3 shows Jason finding and assuming his role as a horror icon.
Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter brings Jason to the end of his life. I know there are many more films after this, but this is the end of Jason’s first life, before his consciousness assumes the form of a worm and such.
The stage of development that corresponds with this film is the final one in Erikson’s perspective. “Ego Integrity vs Despair” is the stage in which an older person looks back on their life and evaluates it.
This is the stage in which Jason completely fails. At the end of the film, a young boy, Tommy Jarvis, makes himself look like a young Jason.
When Jason sees this, he stops his murderous rampage and becomes stunned, He is unable to reckon with the manifestation of his past. Jason never dealt with his childhood pain, and the sight of his younger self is too much for him to process. He is taken off guard enough by this to be subdued and to take his “final breath”. When looking back on his life, Jason is overwhelmed with despair. This despair brings about his downfall and results in failure at this stage of development.
When we watch the Friday the 13th series, we are not watching big dumb slasher movies. Well, not only. We are also watching a horror cinema god be born, grow up, and die in a way that is near tragic. Using Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development, these films present a coming of age story that changes the way you see an American icon.