What Are You Doing Out In The Mess?: The Wobby Canon Of The Friday The 13th Franchise, PART 1

Sean S. Cunningham's seminal FRIDAY THE 13TH pioneered a new avenue in horror: the stripped-down, punk-relevant body count thriller. Earlier films such as Halloween and Black Christmas were formed out of a more traditional structural mold. Like Tobe Hooper's TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Cunningham's movie presented its story in a naturalist fashion, eschewing narrative framing in favor of a free-flowing, in-the-moment, guerrilla style. That's not the same as saying the film is bereft of style, only that the "plot" is largely incidental to the action on screen rather utilized as a framework on which the story is told.

FRIDAY THE 13TH tells its simple story mainly from the viewpoint of its young protagonists, never from a larger, omnipotent viewpoint. A common criticism of the film at the time of its release concerned the late-in-the-game reveal of both the killer and her motivation. On first viewing it is impossible to guess either. These criticisms fail to account for the intimate type of storytelling at hand. None of the young victims would have had any clue as to the villain's identity, and given the parameters of the storytelling model at hand, either should the audience.  What some criticized as a "cheat" ending is actually the result of following an approach to its logical end. After all, if the camp counselors knew that the mother of a drowned boy was lurking in the vicinity, why would any of them have taken the job at all?

Creating an ongoing film franchise from such a beginning, however, is fraught with difficulties. Since the first movie's key plot point— the revelation of Mrs. Voorhees and her motive— is largely an afterthought to justify the experience, creating a logical trajectory for the following films is a challenge that the series alternatively dismissed, embraced, refined, contradicted, and finally-- with 2009's reboot- resolved.

So, what qualifies as "canon" in the world of Friday the 13th?

The original FRIDAY THE 13TH sets a few indissoluble events on a time line, establishing the basic chronology of the entire series. There can be little controversy around the basic history: Jason's drowning, the early fires that kept the camp from reopening, the early murders. The only point of contention among fans is the year in which the main action takes place. A place card reads "Present Day", which doubtlessly was intentionally vague in order for the story to remain "contemporary" as the years rolled on. Little thought was given to the modest low-budget shocker spawning a franchise that would stretch out over decades. The film was made in 1979, but released in 1980. In the context of the maiden film, it makes little difference.

FRIDAY THE 13th - PART II's narrative is set five years from the original, as established during Paul's fireside ghost story— "It's been five long years…" This would place events in either 1984 or '85, although, still, its difficult to see any reason one would be preferable to the other.

More contentiously, PART II introduces the idea that Jason did not drown at all, but survived and lived through his adolescence in the woods before seeking revenge for his mother's death. As an aside, a horrible irony exists here: there's the real potential that Mrs. Voorhees' early attempt to prevent the camp from re-opening— poisoned water and arson— could have inadvertently killed her son while he lived off the land around Crystal Lake. If Jason had ingested "bad" water or a been trapped in a rapidly expanding forest fire, a mother's revenge could have doubled down on her personal tragedy.

Since the first film never provided any direct evidence that Jason had drown as a boy, only testimony to that effect from locals and Mrs. Voorhees, this revision is not an actual contradiction. Though it strains credibility, the campfire-story narrative style of the first two chapters certainly allow the audience to suspend their disbelief.

Still, it's worth exploring how unlikely this scenario really is:

Tom Savini based his original Jason design on a condition known as hydrocephalus. It's worth noting that young Jason, without the benefit of medical care, would have faced a very hostile existence alone in the woods. Symptoms of hydrocephalus can include extreme insomnia, migraines, blurred and overlapping vision, difficulty with mobility, incontinence, episodes of paralyzing dizziness, and seizures. Surviving in the wilderness with this condition, if at all possible, would have produced a man with the limited experiences of a child. Confused and in constant pain and confusion, grown Jason could very well be described as a "boy trapped in a man's body". His rage would have been born not just out of anger at his mother's death, but out of a lifetime of illness and delusion.

But, for the sake of the story, the audience can accept Jason's survival because there has been no direct confirmation that he ever drowned. The closest the original film comes is inside quick clips of Jason struggling against the tides of Crystal Lake, but these images are clearly portrayed as extensions of Mrs. Voorhees's madness. As the series continues, various sequels will choose one side of the narrative over the other, with JASON LIVES, JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, and JASON X all explicitly ignoring the "live Jason" concept brought forward in PART II.

So early in the series, PART II benefits from so few historical markers having been planted. Continuity was still young and avoiding contradictions was simple. From here on out, however, the films would begin to have difficulties fitting new elements into the storyline without retrofitting what had come before.

The events of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3-D follow the second film immediately, setting the action again in either '84 or '85. This is established by news report as well as through the eyes of our new protagonist, Chris. Driving into town, she witnesses the aftermath of Edna and Harold's murders. This sequence presents the film's first major conundrum. Accepting that Jason could survive the machete attack from PART II, how far does the maniac walk for a fresh clothes and a meal? Far enough that Chris has time to be "dreaming" as she almost runs over Abel. And then, of course, he turns around and heads right back to the lake. While there's no reason he couldn't do this, there's every reason to believe he never had. Surviving alone in the wilderness with a rehabilitating medical condition may be one thing, but trespassing through the surrounding town strains credibility even further. Could he really go unnoticed? Perhaps. If he only traveled out of the woods in the middle of the night. But you'd think that all the missing clothes and food (and murder weapons) would attract at least some attention. At the very least, this should be part of the town's folklore.

Jason's radical transformation from hairy-backwoods freak into a bald, enormous, athletic monster probably seems like an obvious continuity problem, and it is, but in this case its clearly an intentional artistic decision. As such, I won't cover it here, or later similar changes. One caveat here, however: shouldn't Jason appear in Chris' flashback as he appeared in PART II? Presumably this attack occurred sometime in the five year gap between Mrs. Voorhees' spree and the events of the first sequel.

Our heroine Chris presents a more vexing enigma. While she has her own history with Jason, she seems unaware of his back story, the earlier murders, or his mother's rampage. Rick, her estranged boyfriend, is presented as a local. At no point do they discuss the town's bloody past. You would think that at least the newest batch of killings would be on everyone's tongues. But no, not a word. When Chris finally reveals to him that she was attacked in the woods by a mongoloid sub-human with a machete, it never occurs to him that there may be a correlation between her encounter and the spate of recent violence.

One potentially interesting missing opportunity within the film revolves around the biker club lead by Ali. In any small town in America, probably the world, the presence of these three at the outset of a mass murder bloodbath would have law enforcement picturing a Manson family-styled scenario. How could they calmly harass Shelly and Vera in a convenience store without drawing notice? Wouldn't the entire town be on the edge and ready to jump to conclusions? Generally speaking, bikers tend to avoid towns with high levels of police activity. In the midst of the Packanack Lodge massacre, it seems unlikely the bikers would stick around, let alone act in a suspicious manner.

As divided as Friday fans have become over the issue of whether Jason drown as a child, there can be no uncertainty about PART 3-D. Here, Jason is portrayed as not being conventionally mortal. When Chris hangs him from the barn winch, she kills him. Period. This is simple medical physics (review Reverend Samuel Haughton's seminal book On Hanging for the math). Jason's neck broke. And yet, in a moment, he recovered. No matter which side the viewer takes on the off-screen "drowning", this death scene is undeniable. This represents the introduction of one of the major touchstone elements of the franchise: Jason Voorhees' invulnerability and ability to recover from, well, just about anything.

A "broken neck" is actually the fracture of at least one of the cervical vertebrae located inside the neck. The break invariable causes extreme pressure along the spinal cord, though often in the case of hangings, it is severed entirely. The spinal cord serves as the body's information superhighway, the  distribution hub for the nervous system, as well as the communication path of the brain to the body's musculature. The windpipe is constricted by the rope, causing a loss of consciousness almost instantly, and acute asphyxiation shortly thereafter. Blood vessels throughout the affected area often burst from the immense pressure.

Yeah, Jason died. Right there. In fact, the ax-to-the-head that followed may have very well been the more survivable injury, although almost certainly with massive brain damage. That Jason seems to have no lingering effects from the hanging suggests that his healing ability is absolute and instantaneous. To recover this way from a broken neck, bone, cartilage, blood vessels, and skin must all realign, regrow, or heal in seconds. This process would involve new tissue forming to replace the irreconcilably damaged. Instantly. Why, then, later in the series, can he not regrow an eye (FREDDY VS. JASON excluded)? Or why doesn't the gash in her head from Chris' ax close and heal? This inconsistency becomes a staple of the franchise: Jason's healing time from being crushed, electrocuted, set on fire, or shot at point blank range is entirely arbitrary. There's no attention to biology at all from this point on, which means the question of whether Jason drown as a child or not is irrelevant.


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