I tend to run behind on the movie front. In some cases, decades behind. I have never been a fan of slashers, although I did take a date to A Nightmare on Elm Street in the staid, dry town of Grove City while in college. We broke up shortly after. Still, I have a soft spot for “the classics,” and Friday the 13th has spun enough sequels to qualify. “Jason” is a household name for the heartless serial killer, and the movie is set in New Jersey. And it was hot outside and lazing on the couch trying not to stick to myself seemed about as much of a challenge as I could handle. Besides, a week from today is Friday the thirteenth. Now that I’ve finished with the excuses, here is a declarative sentence: I finally got around to watching Friday the 13th. After many other films I’ve seen, I have to say that it didn’t really qualify as scary. You know in advance that the counselors, by rote, must by killed in what are supposed to be shocking ways. Shadowy corners and rainy woods and aluminum canoes are to be avoided, if the movie and its successors have taught us anything. Nevertheless, the religion and scary film equation still applies. And a strange kind of throwback to an unexpected classic (the literal kind).
The religious element comes in the form of the stock crazy local named Ralph. Ralph warns the kids that they will die and says he’s been sent by God to warn them. Of course they don’t listen. If they had, there would have been no movie. As a child I was always offended by the caricature of the religious crazy, but I have come to see that this stock character is itself a symbol of fear. Although ubiquitously laughed off, the person passionately driven by religion is indeed a potential danger to society. In the days of my innocence we had little hard data upon which to hang such fears. In the post-9/11 world it seems there are far too many sky-hooks for that purpose. Some of those sky-hooks are a little closer to the ground, but they inspire fear nonetheless. I’ve known all along that one of the reasons I watch scary movies is to give myself some advance warning of what might go wrong. Not that it would help in any real way, but sometimes avoiding the shock by anticipating the worst seems like the only human thing to do.
What about the literal classic that I mentioned? Beowulf falls outside the Greco-Roman period, but is clearly a classic of English literature. (Spoiler alert for anyone even more behind the times than me—) The only thing scarier than Grendel was, of course, Grendel’s mom. So in Friday the 13th, the killing is done by Jason’s mom. Like Grendel, Jason dwells underwater and surfaces to pull down his victim(s). Like Grendel’s mother, Jason’s mother is decapitated by a sword (actually, a machete in the modern version), on the shore of the Crystal Lake. After the mother’s death the child (Jason/Grendel) is resurrected. Whether it was intentional or not, there is a lot going on here. The sacrificial mother is an inherently religious theme although many formal religions make it a male prerogative. The death of the mother brings the son back to life. I wonder how Christianity might have differed if instead of three male deities, there had been a divine mother. In such cases resurrection of the son comes only at a very steep price. Just like watching Friday the 13th on a hot summer night.