Sinister Summer: Friday the 13th Retrospective Review

Ch ch ch, ah ah ah. The sleepaway summer camp experience was forever changed in the summer of 1980 when a slasher slaughtered a bunch of horny teenagers along the shores of Crystal Lake. Spanning more than three decades and a dozen feature films (too bad it’s not a baker’s dozen, wink), the Friday the 13th franchise made us never look at a hockey mask in the same way after Part 3. This iconic franchise has also found its way back into the headlines with the legal battle over the rights to the Friday the 13th name between the original screenwriter Victor Miller and producer/director Sean S. Cunningham. I recently ran a Twitter poll to determine which is the crowd favorite in the series, and the majority of respondents voted for the original movie, followed by Jason Lives. Like the majority of the 80 respondents in the poll, the original is also my favorite, although it is not a “Jason” movie per se. Releasing in 1980, Friday the 13th helped shape the modern slasher along side Texas Chainsaw Massacre and HalloweenA Nightmare on Elm Street would arrive in 1984. With his trademark hockey mask and machete, very few have lived to tell the tale of their encounter with one of the most terrifying slashers to ever appear on the silver screen. His body count is in the triple digits! From screen to screen, Jason has gone from the cineplex to your TV and computer by way of interactive media. Unlike the campy-ness of Freddy or more focussed kills of Michael, Jason is by far the scariest of his iconic counterparts. My friend Dani is a diehard Jason girl, while I am Freddy and our friend Derek is Leatherface. Let’s take a stab at exploring why this franchise continues to be a favorite!

Variety! That is what you get with Jason as opposed to Michael. Although Leatherface and Michael began the teen slasher genre, it was Jason who revolutionized it by his variety of gruesome methods of killing his victims. Whereas Freddy, much like a cat, loves to toy with his victims before going in for the final kill, Jason is a death machine who wastes no time in taking out all those who stand in his way. Motivated by his death brought about by teenage lifeguards making love while he drown in the murky waters of Crystal Lake, Jason typically murders those who are engaging in promiscuous activities. Sometimes, he will throw you for a loop by taking out someone in a wheelchair or another passerby. He is relentless. And before universe crossovers were commonplace between franchises, Freddy vs Jason got together for a terrifyingly good time in 2003, and then again at Halloween Horror Nights in 2016. While installments 2–12 feature the mask-wearing (burlap sack followed by goalie mask) machete yielding hulking man, the first film features Mrs. Pamela Voorhees (Jason’s mom) as the killer. It’s because of this that the original film feels much different than the others. But it certainly inspired the rest of the franchise. Think of the first one as Hitchcock’s Psycho in reverse,  precisely how Norman thought it was happening. A killer mother who’s overprotective of her son. Although it’s not a “Jason” movie, it did lay the groundwork for the rest of the series and the ending of the film provides the haunting moment that gave birth to the lore and legend of Jason that would carry through the remainder of the films.

Keeping the identity of the killer a secret, until the very end of the film, sets this movie apart from its predecessors Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Jaws. Furthermore, Friday the 13th adds more gore, kills, and gruesome makeup effects that look cheesy today but were quite shocking, back in ’80, to up the ante against the competition. The news of the gruesome effects was so intriguing that horror fans turned out in masses to see the film. By all accounts the characters are not terribly memorable–we certainly don’t have a Laurie Strode–and the killer’s identity isn’t revealed long enough to truly form an opinion; but it’s that jump scare/twist at the end that gave birth to a mammoth of a franchise that has lasted for over thirty years on big and little screens alike.

The perspective of the killer. One of the most memorable elements from the original Friday the 13th is being in the shoes of our mysterious killer. Unlike other slashers that preceded, the identity is kept secret as I mention in the previous paragraph. But it’s HOW this is accomplished that still fascinates horror fans today. We are the killer, or at least, we see through the eyes of the slasher. By Miller writing this element into the screenplay, we are forced to see things from the killer’s perspective in order to relate to and empathize with the killer. Brilliant, really. Although we sometimes assume an objective position just before or during a kill, we spend enough time as the killer’s eyes that we begin to identify with the killer. Not only can we identify with the killer, but because the main characters are teenagers, and slasher horror films are particularly of interest to teens, teenagers can easily relate to the characters in the movie. Essentially, we have a perfect combination of relatability in this film. Audience members are forced, at times, to view characters and events from the killer’s perspective but many in the audience can and will concurrently identify with the main characters. A great way to scare the audience is to place them in a situation that is close enough to reality that the prospect of something similar happening is terrifying.

First appearing in Part II but not fully taking his iconic form until Part III, Jason Voorhees has endured as one of the most recognizable horror villains who still terrifies people today. Furthermore, he has evolved to represent various thematic symbols that provide ample opportunity for analyses and close readings. While Freddy’s motivation is clear–revenge, plain and simple but still solid–Jason’s motivation(s) is a bit more complex. His mother’s motivation is clear; much like Freddy, her motivation is revenge against the camp and those who represent the horny teenagers who allowed her son Jason to drown while “getting it on,” so to speak. Jason, on the other hand, demonstrates motivations that must reach beyond classic revenge. For starters, we cannot ignore his physiological deformities that undoubtedly affected his emotional and psychological health, predisposing him to atypical or abnormal behavior prior to his untimely drowning. Judging from the misty flashbacks in the original Friday the 13th while Mrs. Voorhees is delivering rushed exposition, we can gather from Jason’s shadowed body that he is likely afflicted with hydrocephalus, a condition that traps excess fluid in the cranial cavity that compresses the brain causing a significant loss of neural activity (essentially, born with brain damage). Beyond the internal problems from hydrocephalus, this abnormally developed cranium often causes the eyes to be widely spaced and the subject typically has an enlarged skull.

Now that we have established his cognitive and physiological disabilities, we can explore just how the aforementioned plus the persistent taunting, teasing, and physical abuse from the other campers in 1957 all formed the perfect storm to motivate Jason to be the unstoppable slasher we know today. If we follow the lore of the later films, we are prevued to Jason being forcibly thrown into the lake where he eventually drown while the camp counselors were engaging in the horizontal mamba. There is sufficient evidence from the cannon of Jason films that he likely suffers from schizophrenia. As many of us are aware, this emotionally and cognitively debilitating disease causes sufferers to hallucinate imagery and voices that are controlling their mind. Jason’s ability to communicate with his mother and Mrs. Voorhees’ ability to communicate with her son, is also evidence that the schizophrenia was passed from mother to son. In real life, this disease can be hereditary. So, it is not a far reaching plausible idea to hypothesize that Mrs. Voorhees passed her schizophrenia on to Jason. But unlike mother, Jason suffered from additional disabilities that increased the intensity of the cognitive disease.

Formerly known as multiple personality syndrome, dissociative identity disorder (DID) is another affliction that Jason demonstrates through his abnormal behavior. DID is a severe psychological disorder that fragments an individual’s personality into two or more distinct personalities (or identities) coexisting, switching from one to another. Think of it as two or more people inhabiting the same body. Although one can be predisposed to DID, as Jason likely was, this disorder is often brought on by repetitive childhood trauma (which Jason experienced). Perhaps sometimes “a cigar may only be a cigar” but in this case, a mask is more than a mask. The trademark hockey goalie mask! What is it? It’s a mechanism or tool that enables Jason to disconnect himself from the murders he commits. By wearing the mask, he figuratively dissociates himself from the gruesome murders. The wearing of the mask is a direct result of DID because the mind processes the mask as conduit through which to engage in abnormal behavior because the abnormal behavior cannot be reconciled against the true self. In a sense, the mask allows for active cognitive dissonance because the behavior is opposite of how the brain wants to process information or experiences. This dissociation with the violent behaviors, enables Jason to continue on his murderous campaigns without his conscience ever prompting him to question his choices. Without the mask, he is vulnerable and may even question what he is doing; but with the mask, he is a killing machine.

The setting of Friday the 13th is also something of note. Much like Hitchcock did with the privacy of one’s bathroom in Psycho, Miller set the events of the original at a summer camp in order to shock the mind because it’s an innocent place that is about to play host to something traumatic and uncanny. Kids and teenagers attend sleepaway summer camps every year. They are traditionally seen as places where you form platonic or romantic relationships with your fellow campers or counselors. They are places of innocence that get a violent treatment in this film. Unlike Psycho where we are not prevued to the violent past of the iconic location and thus proceed through the story with our guard down, we are immediately introduced to Camp Crystal Lake’s violent past between the opening scene and the townsfolk. So, we are primed to expect something macabre at the camp. This does one very important thing. The camp immediately possesses an eerie feel, a feeling of dread of what is about to happen. The once popular summer camp falls prey to something sinister that makes the grounds incredibly creepy. Loss of innocence can be read as a theme throughout the films because we have an innocent camp that is plunged into violence, camp counselors losing their virginity, or campers engaging in dangerous behaviors. When innocence is lost, that’s when the violence begins.

Violence and gore are commonplace today (perhaps to the detriment of horror films as it has become cliche), but back in 1980, most audiences were not expecting to see closeups of murderous acts, even after Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Despite the cheesy nature of the practical effects with blood bags and prosthetics, the violence in Friday the 13th was unexpected. In many ways, this film revolutionized the genre. But the F13 franchise didn’t start out with overstuffing itself with gore. The body count in the original is the least of the series, but it is certainly the favorite in the series by a moderately wide margin, according to my personal poll and other polls online. Therefore, we have to draw the conclusion that it’s not Jason’s kills or the gore that prompt audiences to like one over the other. If seeing Jason kill people was what audiences were looking for, then the original would not be the favorite. Now, don’t get me wrong, Jason has some pretty awesome kills and he’s fun to watch; however, don’t assume that it’s the kills or violence themselves that make a horror movie a favorite. Interestingly, the original is quite tame compared to the rest, but it’s still regarded as the crowd favorite.

If you follow the horror community on the Twittersphere or Blogosphere or even just caught the story in the news, you’ve likely heard of the fight over the rights to the Friday the 13th name between the original writer Victor Miller and Sean S. Cunningham. As to not complicate this story with the details, the long and short of it is the copyright on the Friday the 13th title is expiring soon, and according to “Mickey’s Law” (an unofficial name for what I am about to describe because it was started by the Walt Disney Company in order to continually retain the rights to Mickey), it is time for the rights to be renegotiated or the name and original plot fall into the public domain. That’s right. This iconic name Friday the 13th is on the verge of belonging to the public. Miller urges that he has the rights to the name because the title along with the story was his original concept. Cunningham argues that Miller’s screenplay was work-for-hire. Under work-for-hire, Cunningham retains the rights and is able to make decisions with it. This is a classic IP lawsuit. But one that has major implications. Essentially, Miller wants to be (and in my opinion, rightly so) compensated for using the names Friday the 13th and Jason in future films and interactive media. While he does not have the rights to Jason’s trademark look, he could own the name itself. This legal battle surfaced after the launch of the recent Friday the 13th video game, and caused the next installment in the long-running franchise to be put on hold. The decision will likely boil down to whether Miller was hired to write the original screenplay or he developed it himself then sold/optioned it to Cunningham.

It’s been 38 years since we were first introduced to Camp Crystal Lake, and the horror landscape was forever changed. Mrs. Voorhees and Jason have been terrifying audiences since before I was born, and will continue to cause you or your kids to think twice about going to summer camp. I think summer camp was made more fun because there is a little piece of you that thinks Jason could be lurking outside your cabin. I don’t always ch, ch, ch but when I do, I always ah, ah, ah.

Happy Friday the 13th!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Reimagining Halloween in the Parks this Year: the Mind of Horror v. the Eye of Terror

After taking break from posting last week, as it was a holiday, I am happy to provide you with another stimulating article once again on the themed entertainment industry! All week long, I have been thinking about what to write this week. I’ve covered some of the recently opened or previews of attractions and theme parks opening soon; but, I thought that I would take a slightly different approach this week. Over the last year, the United States and other countries have been experiencing a rise in violence. Whether that violence has (1) always been there, but because of the great mediation of society (a proliferation of media capturing devices and distribution outlets), we simply see it more often or (2) if there truly is a signifiant rise in mass violence compared to past decades, is not what I am here to discuss. I would, however, like to discuss the upcoming Halloween events in the parks this year, and specifically, how they might have to adapt or change as a result of the recent mass shootings.

HHN2016Already, Universal Orlando has alluded to the fact that it may be revisiting some of its offerings for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), and it would not surprise me if Busch Gardens Tampa Bay makes a similar decision with Howl-O-Scream (HOS), as both parks primarily draw from the Central Florida area and of course tourists still flock to the parks for the annual celebration of the macabre. The recent massacre at the Pulse Night Club will undoubtedly have an affect upon the planning and logistics of primarily HHN followed by HOS to a lesser extent. Since the horror film, and by extension the haunted house attraction (or scare zone) are both grounded in the same anthropological (inclusive of sociology) and psychological theories, there is definitely an opportunity to explore this area of themed entertainment. As Disney’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and SeaWorld’s Spook-tacular do not include glorified violence or death, I will not spend time analyzing how those events may change, because they are mostly benign. Suffice it to say, there will likely be some changes coming to HHN and HOS this year. What are those changes? Well, I am not prevued to those decisions; but can extrapolate from logic and theory what may happen in light of recent events in Orlando and beyond. It is important to note that both Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay mostly likely have to revisit some of the scare zones or houses this year but not implement changes that may have a negative affect upon drawing from guests outside the Central Florida area. Striking a balance between curtailing some of the violence in respect to those who died and still satisfying those who were not emotionally or psychologically impacted is the key.

HOS2016The events certainly still have to feel like Halloween but perhaps reimagining some of the offerings will aid in finding that delicate balance. It is entirely possible that many who have enjoyed going to HHN and HOS in the past may back off this year in an effort not to come face-to-face with violence as it has greatly impacted many people. Here’s an interesting question: does horror have to be violent? Yes and no. Some of the greatest horror movies of all time are not terribly violent at all, but the eye witnessing violent acts certainly creates terror in the minds and bodies of the audience (or park guest). Alfred Hitchcock once said, “there is no greater threat than an unopened door.” This is indicative of the master of suspense’s ability to generate the fear of something or someone that may not even be a threat. There is another Hitchcock quote (or, at least I believe it’s Hitch) to the effect of “greater is the fear that’s in the mind than on the screen” (if you know of this exact quote, please let me know). That being said, likewise, seeing Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, or Michael is equally terrifying because of the trademark violence they have displayed on the screen over the years. It is important to year-round or seasonally operating Halloween-themed attractions to include both the physical and psychological/emotional aspects of horror in order for the guests to have a dynamic and full experience facing that which terrifies them and from which guests would otherwise run away.

unheimlichThroughout history, from the fights in the Roman Coliseum to Michael Myers’ slaying of people in Halloween, audiences have been both entertained and repeatedly drawn to stories and shows that highlight horrific acts of violence or feelings of terror and anxiety. Perhaps there is a deep seeded reason as to why millions of people find entertainment value in horror films. This question has been tackled by many psychiatrists and psychologists, each has come up with a different explanation as to “why horror?” Most notably, famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud provided great insight into an explanation of why people find horror films fascinating in his essay on the Uncanny.  In his study on the uncanny, Freud takes on the literary imagination (this same literary analysis can and is used to analyze film and themed entertainment) by dividing his theory up into three sections. He first defines the concept of the uncanny, then performs an examination of the context required for understanding the experience of the uncanny, and finally explores the affects of the uncanny on the psyche through literature and fiction. Some of the running themes throughout his essay are loss of eyes, castration, the double-ego, and self-reflexivity. Through the framework laid out by Freud, scholars and film critics can explore the themes in horror film as it relates to the human subconscious; and for purposes of our discussion, the horror attraction.

Freud explains the realm of the uncanny as the place at which aesthetics and psychoanalysis merge, because it deals with a particular feeling or sensation combined with emotional impulses. The substances or manifestations of the uncanny are elements that are fearful and frightening. Proceeding with Freud’s definition of the uncanny being a class of frightening elements, plaguing the psyche, ushering an individual back to what is familiar (heimlich) and known (as opposed to what is unknown). Freud refers to the uncanny as that “which should have remained secret and hidden, but has come to the light.” Furthermore, he goes on to further describe the uncanny as the “mark of the return of the repressed.” The concept of the uncanny is a type of unwilling or mistaken exposure to something surprising, unexpected, or horrific. Freud claims that the source of the uncanny in literature is the recurrence of something long forgotten and repressed. However, not everything that returns from the psychic depths of repression is uncanny. The mere return of repressed feelings and experiences is not sufficient for the uncanny to occur. It requires something repressed having returned but represented by an unexpected and outside the realm of reality. This is easily accomplished in literature (and by extension, movies, theme park attractions, and plays) because fantasy is different from reality.

Just because something works as uncanny in a work of literature doesn’t mean it can work in real-life as well. During times of tragedy felt by an entire group of people or nation, the same concepts which work in literature and film may not work as well, for a period of time anyway, in themed entertainment. Within literature, if the author makes a pretense to realism, then he or she opens the door to supplying the story with the uncanny. Often times, the uncanny in literature and film is the projection of the psyche of the central character on another object or person combined with a warped view of the objective and subjective of a given situation. It’s like something within the fictional world creeps into the real world. Within the horror genre, there are many different stories or narratives that exist. And, each type of horror film tells its story in different ways; however, they are all concerned with getting the same emotional response from the “people out there in the dark,” as famously stated by Norma Desmond in the timeless film noir classic Sunset Blvd. Sometimes the audience will go on a journey into the crazed mind of a psychopathic serial killer or they may witness a supernatural monster terrorizing a small Bavarian village. In either case, Freud believes that the writers of horror, and by extension themed entertainment designers, are concerned with exposing the audience to “other” scenes. And, these “other” scenes are rooted in the subconscious.

eyeofhorrorMoreover, Carol Clover also provides insight into the fascination with the horror theme park attraction. After all, horror films and theme park attractions are mostly concerned with what you actually see. Horror attractions, much like their movie counterparts, are visual stories that are translated into experiential narratives. The Halloween themed attractions in the parks have to include different eyes. The three principle types of eyes used in horror attractions are the assaultive gaze (active, penetrating), reactive gaze (passive, penetrated, the most common in horror storytelling), and repeated gaze (masochism for characters and spectators alike). This is one reason why extreme closeups (ECU) of the eye are popular in horror films turned attractions. The eye is extremely symbolic in narratives driven by fear. The design of horror attractions and films is extremely fascinating because of the convergence of visual storytelling and engineering. It’s more than blood, gore, screams, and knives; there is almost a poetry behind it. A brilliantly insightful quote from Clover is, “Inasmuch as the vision of the subjective camera calls attention to what it cannot see–to dark corners and recesses of its vision … and what might be … just off-frame–it gives rise to the sense not of mastery but of vulnerability.” At the end of the day, both HHN and HOS highlight our vulnerability and prey on our fears of that which assaults the eye and should remain hidden.

corridorBut what about HHN and HOS this year? Looking to the past, and how Universal Orlando handled mass violence in society that had a profound impact on a group or whole culture of people may help shed light on what might be expected this year. During HHN XI (2001), Universal Creative pulled Eddie, the chainsaw wielding maniac with a complex and fascinating backstory, from the lineup after the attacks on 9/11/2001. It was decided that the mood of the United States was such that it would have been in poor taste to include such a violent icon in the theming. In addition to the removal of the HHN icon, most signs of blood, gore, and the glorification of violence were removed–even names of characters and zones were modified. Because of the recent deaths of nearly 50 people (some of whom were connected to the parks as employees, bloggers, or past performers), we might witness a similar reimagination of events at Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream this season. Hopefully, I have been able to open a discussion on how things could be reimagined at the annual Halloween events this year. An attraction can be equally terrifying even if there is no violence to be seen. However, the inclusion of cliche horror film violence is an integral part of the modern Halloween attraction experience. Even Carol Clover explores the importance of men, women, and chainsaws in horror storytelling. Perhaps the creative engineers and designers at the parks will look beyond what has typically been a staple of these events and embrace other avenues of terror that will still prompt screams. In all likelihood, we will probably see the dial turned back on the knives and guns during HHN and HOS but that certainly does not mean that the attractions will be any less terrifying. It’s entirely possible that the mind of horror will outweigh the eye of terror in the theming, planning, and design of HHN and HOS this year.