TRAUMA BEGETS TRAUMA: THE MOTIVATION OF PAMELA VOORHEES

Any good slasher movie worth its salt gives us a villain WHO has some traumatic event that sets off their murderous frenzy – their trigger, if you will. Sometimes it’s horrifically tragic, sometimes it’s tragically hilarious. Sometimes, there’s no motivation at all. and sometimes, there’s too much motivation. iN “tRIGGERED!,” we’re singlING out ONE insane individual from some of the best and worst slasher films TO see if we can make sense of the method behind their madness. Oh, and FAIR WARNING: spoilers for movies, old and new .
FOR OUR DEBUT INSTALLMENT, WE’RE FOCUSING ON THE MOTHER OF ALL MANIACS – FRIDAY THE 13TH’S PAMELA VOORHEES.

On May 9th, 1980, Paramount Pictures released a low-budget shocker about a group of young adults being brutally murdered by an unseen, unknown killer as they attempt to rejuvenate a rundown summer camp. It was called Friday the 13th, and it was engineered to try and succeed (cough…rip-off…cough) the same way John Carpenter did with his 1978 independent smash, Halloween. The thing is, though, where Halloween could offer chills and thrills with its faceless killer (a madman whose only motivation was no motivation), Friday the 13th couldn’t do the same – it needed to give its maniac purpose, a drive that perhaps we can all relate to – the loss of a loved one and the subsequent revenge (a template which would be used handily throughout most slasher films in the eighties). For those who haven’t seen it, the unseen murderer in Friday the 13th turns out to be a murderess -– Pamela Voorhees, played effectively and chillingly in her limited screen time by Betsy Palmer, the former camp cook whose trigger was that she lost her son via drowning in the camp’s titular lake in the 1950s. Her ultimate goal being to prevent the camp from re-opening, a goal achieved with swift, meticulous, and merciless murder in turn giving Camp Crystal Lake the eerie moniker “Camp Blood,” and giving us a film that is intensely spooky and memorable even forty years later.

For all of those reasons mentioned above, especially the trauma of loss, I can find myself empathizing with Pamela Voorhees. But at the same time, I can not condone what she did to get her revenge. She lost a child, one who was near and dear to her; if one mentally materializes the Jason curated through Betsy Palmer’s own backstory for Mrs. Voorhees, rather than screenwriter Victor Miller, Jason was a child born out of wedlock – a child born with disabilities, one that was raised by a single mother, a child whose father left town and never looked back. For a parent raising a child with disabilities, it’s an admirable feat. When you become a parent, you’re gifted with one of the most wonderful things a human being could ever ask for – a child’s unconditional love. The other thing born that day is a paralyzing batch of anxieties that make you fearful for your child’s life at nearly every waking moment. As your children grow older, some of the fear seeps away, but it doesn’t entirely disappear. It wakes up every now and then to let you know it’s there. It’s the stuff parents think about, but rarely speak about. For me, it certainly doesn’t help being rocketed awake from a deep sleep to the sound of gunshots firing off right near my house on occasional nights, or that the majority of the people in my neighborhood take the stop sign at the intersection by my house as a mere suggestion. Now, I can tell my kids over and over to look both ways before crossing the street, but proper planning only goes so far, and one day the unimaginable could happen and some irresponsible jerk screwing around on their phone could hit my kid. At that point, the red mist would descend, and I don’t know what would happen. Now, I’m not a violent person, I’ve never been in a fight in my life nor do I want to, but when it comes to protecting my children, I would certainly go to the extreme for their safety. Who could say they would be any different?

Seeking revenge for a traumatic incident wasn’t a new concept for cinema at the time, especially in grindhouse features. Lurid films like Ms. 45 or I Spit on Your Grave were tales of women fighting back after they experienced sexual assault at the hands of disgusting degenerate perpetrators. But real life isn’t as cut and dry as the movies are, and though there are probably instances of people regurgitating their traumas into revenge (like Bernie Goetz shooting four men on a subway in 1984 as what one would see as catharsis for an attempted mugging just three years earlier.) Of course, there are non-violent ways to get the justice the victim deserves.

Take for instance, Adam Walsh. The poor lad who went missing from a Sears department store inside a Florida mall in 1981. His kidnapping and subsequent death was used as a fodder to frighten children, like myself, who were prone to wandering off to catch a glimpse of the hottest video games in the electronics section. His father, John Walsh, famously created “America’s Most Wanted” so he could help parents like himself catch the criminals who took their children away from them. Ultimately, thankfully, Walsh found justice when Adam’s killer was apprehended – Ottis Toole, the very same killer whose horrifying actions were dramatized in the brutal horror film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Where John Walsh used the law to seek his justice, special effects whiz Tom Savini used the blood and guts he would splatter on the set of Friday the 13th (and other numerous low-budget films throughout the eighties) as a means of coping positively with the horrors he saw while entrenched in Vietnam as a combat photographer. The numerous deaths he concocts as a means of visually conveying Mrs. Voorhees’ revenge is legendary within horror film for its technical prowess, for example Kevin Bacon’s memorable death via arrow through the throat is simple in its construction, and unforgettable in its execution. As Savini tells it to the Pittsburgh Post, “When I was in Vietnam I was a combat photographer. My job was to shoot images of damage to machines and to people. Through my lens, I saw some hideous [stuff]. To cope with it, I guess I tried to think of it as special effects. Now, as an artist, I just think of creating the effect within the limitations we have to deal with.” Or take it from Dr. Rob Gordon, who works as clinical psychologist and consultant to the Australian Red Cross, courtesy of an interview with ABC.net: “When you’re in a frightened state, the chemistry in the brain caused by adrenaline puts the accent on the right side of the brain where you think in pictures. When you have profound emotional experiences, words are not very adequate at conveying it and often people don’t know how to explain it. That’s where music, drama, art or dance … can allow that emotional expression and that then can be something to be talked about.” For those who struggle with grief or trauma, art can be seen as a fantastic exorcism – a positive way to expunge the demons that very well may drive you to commit compulsive acts of violence if we make the choice to tackle our grief negatively.

According to Dr. Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D, in the article “Dealing with the Death of a Child” – “a child’s death is a family’s loss. Everyone in the family is affected.” So when you’re alone – it’s only your loss. For Mrs. Voorhees, she had no one to carry that weight with, and that grief ate at her like it would any sane or rational person. Another thing one gleans from watching how Palmer internalizes and externalizes her drive to kill is by mimicking what she assumes to be Jason’s voice (the famous “Kill her, Mommy,” which in turn became “ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma”), and according to Dr. Dennis Klass from the article mentioned above, this is “an inner representation of the deceased child.” This involves imagining what the child would be like, physically or mentally, so though Jason as a child may not have been someone with insidious thoughts, through the warped windscreen of Mrs. Voorhees’ mind, revenge is his now singular mentality. Through her hands, he’ll achieve it.

Back in the 1980s, such a thing as helicopter parents wasn’t prevalent. Children roamed their neighborhoods like wild tribes, playing with friends or kids they’ve never met, staying outdoors and away from their homes until the sun went down. There was that famous advertisement that would electronically chastise parents parked in their Barc-O-Loungers, a hot TV dinner plopped in their laps – to paraphrase, “It’s seven o’clock. Do you know where your kids are?” For Mrs. Voorhees, her son was safely ensconced in nature at Camp Crystal Lake under the eyes of trained counselors. She knew where her son was. She was free to fulfill her duties as camp cook. But the primal lust that accompanies all teenagers took over, and they went off to make whoopee. Without their helping gaze, poor young Jason plunged to the murky depths of Crystal Lake. Over the course of the eighties and certainly within the Friday the 13th franchise, having sex and doing drugs became sort of the slasher movie shorthand for “you do this or that, you’re going to die,” something that was greatly popularized with Kevin Williamson’s landmark horror script for Scream, and thus revisited for the litany of hack-and-slash titles in the prior decade. So the idea then mutates into “well, Mrs. Voorhees is just punishing those kids for going off and having sex because that’s why Jason died.” Maybe those voices are right, but to me, the whole thesis of slasher films in general, is irresponsibility. And you can insert this train of thought to just about any slasher film post-Halloween (which breaks that sex/drugs rule for its own final girl, because Laurie Strode was definitely getting high with Annie Brackett to the tunes of Blue Oyster Cult – she survived because she was responsible). It’s not that Jason drowned because the counselors went off to have sex, it’s that they shirked their responsibilities.

Mrs. Voorhees’ reign of terror came about not because she wanted to punish the kids for some Puritanical idea of being chaste or straight edge. In fact, most say that the parent will feel they’re being punished for some perceived sin. And in Mrs. Voorhees’ case, her violent behavior, I believe it’s because she felt guilty. She trusted these counselors, and when they let her son drown, her guilt became too much. According to the same Psychology Today article: “Guilt also may be intense. You may grapple with the notion, however unrealistic, that you could or should have prevented the death—the irrational belief that parents can always protect their children.” Listen to what she says when confronting our final girl, Alice: “He should’ve been watched! Every minute!” She’s not yelling at Alice or even the people she murdered in the past – she’s screaming at herself. In her mind, it’s “instead of cooking some lousy meals, I could’ve been right there to save his life!” That’s the train of thought that could drive anyone mad.

It is here we ask: does Mrs. Voorhees think that justice was served after Jason’s drowning? Let’s peddle in hypotheticals for a moment here. How do we think Camp Crystal Lake handled the matter? We’re reasonably given limited information on the matter by Miller, enough to understand her motive, but no more than that. And that’s by design, not flaw; it’s a slasher movie, not a courtroom drama. What we do know is the camp was still in operation after Jason’s “death” in 1958, the year the two teens are murdered during the film’s cold open, only shutting down after those dual deaths and ultimately closing sometime thereafter, because the camp is working to re-open during the film’s present timeline. But I hardly think that the issue for its closing stems from the drowning. If it’s anything like real world drownings or deaths that occur at water parks, it’s by throwing money at the problem or hammering those at fault with criminal charges. Take for instance, Caleb Schwab, the young boy who was decapitated at a Schlitterbahn in 2016 while riding the Verruckt waterslide (probably the first sign of trouble for this slide – its name is German for “insane.”) There were numerous indictments (including charges of second degree murder for the designers of the slide), and nearly twenty million dollars given to the family. In the case of the Schwab family, legally, justice was served. Was there some sort of paltry compensation doled out to Mrs. Voorhees? For her, whatever money–if any at all–thrown her way was presumably not enough to the fill the bottomless black hole of emptiness she gained when losing her child. So she responded with what she thought was the most rational take on getting justice: good old fashioned “eye for an eye” revenge. Everyone had to die.

This is the point where Mrs. Voorhees loses me (well, she lost me back in ’58 with the first two murders, technically). I can understand setting fires or even poisoning the water–presuming it wasn’t lethal–to shut the camp down (which by the way, could she have escalated a little differently – murder to arson is climbing the crime ladder rather incorrectly), so that other children may not go out there and they themselves suffer a tragedy. But a full-on murder spree? Some of the deaths are so cruel, too. Slashed throats, axes to the face, and the seven deaths of Bill (the dude gets it the worst in the whole movie). I realize her mind may be a little warped at this point, but killing young adults to prevent the “potential deaths” of children feels a little lopsided, Mrs. Vee! Not to mention that these victims of yours have parents as well, and instead of one parent wallowing in an endless torrent of grief, now you have (let’s do a little math here, assuming each young victim has two parents apiece), sixteen parents who have now lost their children! One parent’s grief is already too much, but sixteen is overkill. And to cap it all off, she’s traumatized a young woman, ending up sans cranium courtesy of a machete. And not for nothing, her noggin-lopping becomes trauma for her own thought-to-be dead son (so all those deaths were for naught, so it seems), which in turn leads to an even bigger, decades long campground of carnage the likes of which New Jersey has never seen.

In the case of Pamela Voorhees, her trigger becomes everyone’s trauma.