A Symbolic Interpretation of a ‘Halloween Knock-Off’
As I was watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1—specifically, the scene where Beatrix Kiddo lodges a hatchet in the skull of one of the Crazy 88—it occurred to me that I had seen this gruesome image the week before while watching Friday the 13th. There too, a hatchet is firmly embedded down the middle of, camp counselor, Marcie’s forehead. So then, was Kill Bill director, Quentin Tarentino, paying homage to Friday the 13th? If so, it would mean Tarentino’s tribute to the 1981 slasher film was part of an infinite regress in cinema semiotics considering that the aforementioned axe-murdering scene from Friday the 13th’s takes place in a Camp Crystal Lake shower stall; itself, an obvious homage to the shower-scene murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
This, of course, contradicts film scholar Vera Dika’s observation that “Friday the 13th has no artistic pretensions, no film school ‘allusions’ or ‘homages’” (Sleaze Artists, p.230). Dika’s examination of the slasher flick—which Matt Hills discusses in his essay “Para-Paracinema”—seems either wholly uninformed or peripheral at best. Whether it was consciously or subconsciously intentional, Friday the 13th’s creators and scriptwriters managed to allude to several primal, semiotic images within the film’s mis-en-scene; thus, making it manifest to dismiss Dika's exceedingly shortsighted remarks. It doesn’t take an academic scholar endless hours in the corner of some marble-hall’d library—his/her eyes permanently affixed to countless volumes of books that have acquired several layers of dust from disuse—to point out that there are several antediluvian, metaphoric constants in Friday the 13th. Just a quick skim through my copy of Dictionary of Symbols, requires little brain power, elbow grease, or burning of midnight oil, yet can turn up some surprising results.
So, let’s start with something in Friday the 13th that’s central to the film and important to its mis-en-scene: its spatiotemporal setting at Crystal Lake. Under its entry in Dictionary of Symbols, lakes are considered “an occult medium in mythology and legend, linked particularly…with feminine powers of enchantment, through the feminine symbolism of water, and more widely with…death” (p.118). Considering that both the protagonist and antagonist of the film are women—and that the two do battle and meet their fates on the shores of Crystal Lake—it deepens the significance of Alice’s and Pamela Vorhees’ final confrontation there. Thus, the use of the lake as a visual platform fortifies the film’s revelatory gender ambiguity/specificity duality as well as its cinematic centrality in Friday the 13th.
The same entry in Dictionary of Symbols also states that the lake is “in effect a two-way mirror symbol” (p.118). Again, whether intentional or not, there’s little doubt that the mirroring effect of Crystal Lake is utilized as a nexus point, paralleling the gender identification (or lack thereof) between the protagonist and antagonist as ambiguous females; furthermore, it parallels the camera’s voyeuristic projections—taking ocular possession of both characters’ perspectives throughout the film and transmits them into that of the viewers. This diegetic interchangeability between hero and villain via gender revelation is intermixed with the Droste-effective transfer from Alice’s and Mrs. Vorhees’ perspectives to the camera to the viewer; ultimately, systematizing this two-way mirror exchange and extending it further by taking moviegoing possession of the viewer's vision.
Additionally, in Greek myth, the lake was considered another entryway into the underworld. When you combine these symbolic meanings for ‘lake’ in their totality and then adjoin it with Dictionary of Symbols’ entry for ‘crystal’, the choice of Camp Crystal Lake as Friday the 13th’s predetermined location—where eleven characters meet their deaths—makes symbolic sense. Likewise, the metaphoric use of ‘crystal’ signifies “the notion of passing or looking beyond the material world” (p.59), and intimated “clairvoyance [and] supernatural knowledge” (p.59). Therefore, Crystal Lake can be interpreted as a crux between the physical world and the afterlife, which then fortifies the worldly/otherworldly duality of Pamela Vorhees’ drowned son, Jason, and his ability to transcend death as long as he remains in the lake’s depths; thus, it serves as both a watery grave and an aquatic refuge for the dead/alive deformed boy. Caveat: obviously, Jason crosses over from this in-betweener state and into the physical world in the Friday the 13th sequels where he attains his slaughterhouse apotheosis from ‘lad of the lake’—complete with his modernized variation of the sword, Excalibur—into the iconic hockey-masked monster of contemporary popcultural myth; however, for now, let's focus solely on the original film.
Moving away from the film’s location, the semiotic significance of Friday the 13th’s protagonist Alice Hardy—yet another of Camp Crystal Lake's counselors—is what Carol Clover identifies in her essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” as the 'Final Girl’ archetype common in slasher films. Clover observes, “The Final Girl is boyish, in a word…she is not fully feminine…Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls” (p.204), and continues by noting that the Final Girl’s “unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the ‘active investigating gaze’ normally reserved or males…the Final Girl looks for the killer” (p.210). This unfemininity and boyishness that the slasher film’s Final Girl embodies is indicative of her role as hero-androgyne, and, by logical extension, Friday the 13th’s Alice is every bit the gender-ambiguous champion.
Throughout the film, the viewer can observe Alice’s subtle, genderless mannerisms and proactive attentiveness, which Carol Clover emphasizes, are key components of the Final Girl paradigm. For example, Alice’s hairstyle is somewhere between that of figure skater, Dorothy Hamill, and Jedi Knight, Mark Hamill. Her clothing is muted in tone and sexually nondescript with little-to-no accentuation of anatomical correctness. She is seen repairing the gutter on one of Camp Crystal Lake’s cabins as well as spending time in the kitchen. In one scen, after taking a shower, Alice is garbed in a full-length robe concealing any hint of her sexuality and, when she shrieks from the phallic snake slithering about her room, the viewer is left wondering if her panic is due to the snake itself or to her involuntary penis removal. Later in the film, while playing a game of ‘Strip-Monopoly’ with fellow camp counselors Bill and Brenda, Alice is the only player who, quite miraculously, hasn’t removed one article of her clothing. No-one can be that lucky. No-one except for Alice, that is. And her providence at ‘Strip Monopoly’ perhaps foreshadows her being the only fortunate soul to survive the forthcoming Crystal Lake massacre.
Symbolically speaking, Alice’s androgynous state might be interpreted as a metaphor for “divine wholeness—[the androgyne is] an ancient symbolism derived from widespread worship of primal gods who were simultaneously male and female” (Dictionary of Symbols, p.12). Thus, Alice’s preservation of gender neutrality during her bildungsroman from the feminine archetype of passive witness of the killer’s carnage into that of the masculine archetype as heroic aggressor and “killer of the killer” (Clover, p208) is one which ultimately leads to a figurative transfiguration into what I will term as ‘exosexual’ restorer of contextual order and cinematic balance.
By ‘exosexual’, I mean that Alice (and, to some extent, all slasher-film Final Girls) is outside of and an outsider to her own sexuality; she is neither wholly female nor wholly male and maintains this sexual ambiguity throughout Friday the 13th. Therefore, on a purely symbolic level, Alice’s sexual drive can be seen as neither focused on procreation nor on recreation, but rather on upholding filmic stabilization in contrast to the killer’s vengeful acts of devastation against the body and, by logical extension, the voyeuristic terror-reaction roused within moviegoers witnessing the killer’s on-screen massacre.
Likewise, the character of Pamela Vorhees toys with androgyny to a lesser extent. As Clover points out, the viewer—via the killer’s perspective in Friday the 13th—is led to believe that Mrs. Vorhees isn’t a ‘Mrs.’ at all. Instead, the viewer assumes that the killer is male throughout most of the film: “’we’ [the moviegoers] stalk and kill a number of teenagers over the course of an hour of screen time…we are invited, by conventional expectation and by glimpses of…a heavily booted foot, a roughly gloved hand—to suppose that ‘we’ are male, but ‘we’ are revealed, at film’s end, as a woman” (p.216). Clover considers this to be “the most dramatic case of pulling out the gender rug” (p.216), and so right she is.
However, unlike Alice’s androgyny that subverts the classic ‘heroic male’ paradigm, Pamela Vorhees’ androgyny is one based on trickery in the context of the film’s semiotic subtext. The viewer is misled into believing that the killer is an antagonistic male aggressor in opposition to the androgynous Alice when, in fact, this isn’t the case. It is only after the killer is ‘unmasked’ and revealed to be Mrs. Vorhees that the viewer then realizes that he/she has been duped into believing otherwise and the killer’s androgynous masquerade has been exposed; yet, Pamela’s figurative meaning is still transfiguring on other levels.
Mrs. Vorhees also serves a dual role as both vengeful mother and slaughterer of camp counselors and can be metaphorically understood as that of the archetypal ‘mother-devourer’ found in countless world myths and religions. In the Dictionary of Symbols, this mother-devourer duality is identified as “Kali, the ‘Dark Mother’ of Hindu mythology [who] is the most alarming image of creator-destroyer” (p.138). Keeping this in mind, Mrs. Vorhees is imbued with the aspects of mother-creator—having originally given birth to her drowned son, Jason—as well as those of mother-destroyer who blindly seeks retribution for her son’s death via executing anyone associated with Camp Crystal Lake, the site of Jason’s watery demise.
Furthermore, Pamela is indicative of psychology’s ‘terrible mother’ who symbolizes “possessive love and the danger of an infantile fixation persisting and blocking development of the self” (Dictionary of Symbols, p.138). In the film, this ‘possessive love’ arises within Mrs. Vorhees due to motherly instinct to protect her child…even if the child is already dead and it means she must continually satiate her unquenchable, psychotic desire for vengeance by upsetting the balance between birth and death.
Matt Hills’ remark that—to film scholars and movie critics—Friday the 13th is considered “to lack originality and artfulness, to possess no nominated or recognized auteur, and to be grossly sensationalist in its focus on…special effects” (p.232), but to simply dismiss it as assembly-line slasher-flick fodder is doing the film an injustice. In the context of horror film history, it is unique regardless of its pandering to box-office sales and partaking in the “time-honored 1950s and 1960s tradition of a major studio knocking off the genre success of an independent production”. Although it might not be the first slasher flick to introduce the concept of ‘Final Girl’—that honor goes to John Carpenter’s Halloween—it does succeed where Carpenter’s film fails: that of fully transfiguring the Final Girl from stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ who is saved in the nick of time by a heroic male figure—and thus, maintaining patriarchal order within the film’s 95-minute run—into one who needs no male hero to be saved by for she has appropriated those heroic qualities of self-reliance, independence, and assumed the role of ‘vanquisher of the enemy’.
With that said, Friday the 13th also stands apart in slasher-film history and originality with its subversion of the stereotypical enemy. Not only is the film’s killer the first female ‘slasher’, but she’s also a contemporary reinterpretation of the classic ‘mother-devourer’ paradigm. The fact that this film was exploring new boundaries with women’s roles in cinema and questioning otherwise implicit sexual stereotypes often relegated to female characters AND doing all of this in a commercially-successful motion picture, one would assume that film scholars and movie critics alike would be lauding Friday the 13th; yet that’s not the case. For reasons that I as yet cannot fully fathom, this singular slasher film hasn’t received any further scholarly examination beyond that of peripheral criticism and/or myopic dismissal. Furthermore, virtually nothing has been written about its re-appropriation of mythic and religious symbolism and their re-interpretations onto late-20th century cinema screens—and interwoven with sexual politics, I might add. Friday the 13th proves that some slasher films just get no respect (…but plenty of sequels).
Clover, Carol J. "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film." Representations, No. 20, Special Issue: Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy (Autumn 1987): pp.187-228.
Friday the 13th: Uncut – Deluxe Edition. Dir. Sean S. Cunningham. Perf. Kevin Bacon, Adrienne King Betsy Palmer. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD.
Hills, Matt. "Para-Paracinema." Sconce, Jeffrey. Sleaze Artists. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. pp.219-239.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox Uma Thurman. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.
Tresidder, Jack. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.