People need heroes.
For many, their heroes are athletes or politicians, men or women who have accomplished superhuman feats, faced down insurmountable odds, or brought about great social change for the betterment of mankind. These heroes allow individuals to see themselves and the world in which they live in a better light: To see that people can enact change or overcome physical boundaries to do the impossible. For others, their heroes are more suspect: Gangsters and killers, individuals whose accomplishments are not so much about skill or perseverance but about conquest and acquisition of power. For the people who hero worship these figures, their devotion is a source of a different kind of empowerment, one which speaks to a more vulnerable part of the psyche. If I were that person, no one would ever hurt me. If people were afraid of me, they wouldn't take advantage of me. Behind this admiration there is often some source of fear, or exploitation, some terrible life event or events which made the person feel powerless, helpless, and led them to identify with someone who would never be victimized the same way.
It's a feeling I know very well. I identify with Jason Voorhees.
I've no desire to go into fantastic detail, but it will suffice to say that as a child I attended a Catholic school in the early 1990s and was able to experience the negative benefits of being placed in the care of an individual who worked with little to no oversight and had complete control over the minds--and, just as importantly, bodies-- of a group of eight-year-old children. Being a child, what I experienced never occurred to me as being wrong in the way that could get someone in trouble; it was terrifying, yes, and unpleasant, but so was going to the dentist; and this woman was a teacher, and therefore right in all she did. Still, without the conscious awareness of what had happened, the effects were still there, and I lived most of my childhood as a very frightened, very introverted boy.
I did not formally make the acquaintance of Jason Voorhees until I was somewhat older, but when I did, I realized that we had known one another for a long time. During my childhood years of uncertainty and terror, one of my only sources of solace was the neighborhood video store; this was Midwest America, and so that meant the rental place at the front of Schnucks grocery store. Schnucks' video store was a beautiful place in the late 80s and early 90s; you could find stuff there that it seemed like no one else carried, stuff you really wanted to see and stuff you could've gone your life without ever having heard of. It also had a video game section to rival Blockbuster's. Instead of Blockbuster's namby-pamby side-by-side NES boxes with the cartridge behind it, Schnucks had box on top of box on top of box, all crammed together in a wire-rack alcove that seemed like it belonged in a warehouse instead of at the front of a relatively upscale grocery store. Whenever my mother would go shopping, I'd spend the majority of the trip in the video store, and most of that time in the video game section. I hardly ever rented games, but I did love to read the back of the boxes; I was weird in that I sort of felt like most of what I could get out of the game I could get by reading the box, and that playing it would just be wasted time. Most of the games I saw I forgot as soon as I left the store. There was one, in particular, that stayed with me. A box with giant, electric letters over something that was both fascinating and terrifying. I didn't know if he was a man or a monster; whatever it was, I both wanted to know more about it and never see it again. The letters spelled out "Friday the 13th," and though I didn't know consciously what this meant or represented, I knew it was something terrifying, something horrific, something dark and mysterious. It was one of the only game boxes I never read the back of; and yet it stayed with me for years. Despite the horrific connotations of the image on the box and the name "Friday the 13th," there was something weirdly comforting about it. It was always there for me at the store, waiting for me to look at and pass up, like a maltreated pet anticipating the return of its' owner.
As I grew up, I experienced severe anxiety problems, and was very easily frightened. While my friends had grown up watching all of the wonderful horror movies that the 80s and 90s gave us, I had shied away from it, too crippled by own fear. I knew what fear was, what it meant to be in terror of someone hovering above you, holding all of the power in her hands, and I had no reason to watch a movie to experience that feeling. I decided to break myself of this in high school by intentionally exposing myself to as many horror movies and as much horror pop culture as possible. If I watched enough, heard enough, I reasoned, I would become inured to it, like a vaccination. To my surprise, I found that I was a natural acolyte of horror cinema. I enjoyed the stories of people--often young, like myself-- fighting against unstoppable monsters. I enjoyed the genre's understanding of outsiders, of those damaged by an irresponsible system that could not protect them from its own failings. And, not to lie, as a teenager, I enjoyed the copious nudity.
Then, I met Jason Voorhees.
Initially, I failed to make the connection between the NES box and the genre; after all, there's no hockey mask to be found in the first film, and, depending on your perspective, no real Jason, either. I found the film satisfying enough for a boring afternoon, but wasn't really captivated. I had made the decision, though, to see every entry in every major horror franchise, and having just finished all of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, I needed to move on to something new.
I watched the majority of the franchise during a week-long, late-night bender, consuming some entries back to back. It was hard not to; the series almost felt made for me. Here was another victimized child, another little boy placed in the care of older, irresponsible people whose actions had long reaching consequences. Here was someone else horribly damaged by individuals who should have known better; individuals, one will remember, who never pay the price for their crime (I've always found it fascinating that we've never actually met the counselors who allowed Jason to drown. There's the subtle implication that the two victims in the opening scene of the first film as the guilty pair, but it's never made explicit, and they could just be two unlucky schmucks. I digress). Here was someone else who, much as I felt myself at the time, was trapped in an eternal state of uncertainty between identities-- part child, part adult, made to grow up too soon in some respects while never being allowed to grow up in others. And, just as Jason (depending on the interpretation) had died and returned from the grave, I'd felt for a time that, in many ways, I had died, that the person I was meant to be was killed in the classroom, and that what occupied my body now was something reanimated, something partial.
Though I never reveled in the deaths of Jason's victims, I understood his rage, and felt a certain satisfaction at his power. I awaited the moment in later entries of the series when a villain character-- the evil psychiatrist, the evil principal, the evil preppy girl-- would be cut down by Jason for their selfish transgressions. Jason, though mute, was my voice, exacting revenge for all of the children who had ever been placed in terrible circumstances. When Part 7 rolled around, and I saw Jason wield the axe above his head, the image clicked for me and I remembered that NES box from long ago.
It was a good feeling.
When I finally got around to playing the game, NESes had been off the market for a good long while. Before starting it up I'd looked into the game, and learned of its terrible reputation. I prepared myself for the worst in gaming, but for the best in one other respect. I was not disappointed, either way. Though the game was awful, I was overcome with a sense of profound nostalgia; of safety; of peace. I stayed up late playing it and never made any progress. When I went to bed, it was the best night of sleep I'd had in a long while.
In many ways I've come to terms with what happened to me; in many, I have not. I must credit the franchise, though, for providing me with some small peace. Playing the game now, I can enjoy that nostalgia trip, imagining myself renting the game, not as a frightened child but one with wonder in his heart. Putting one of these movies into my DVD player on a cozy Friday night, I can transport myself back to the 80s, to a theater where one of the films is just premiering, in a time before victimization. I can imagine myself a teenager then, having grown up away from my tormentor, into a normal and safe adolescence. I can see myself with a girl, my arm around her, waiting for her to huddle close at the appearance of the masked madman. Though I never had these things, Friday the 13th-- the movies, the games, Jason Voorhees-- can at least help me feel all right about that.