Jason from Friday the 13th is wearing a mask.

Why does Jason Voorhees kill in ‘Friday the 13th’?

What could motivate a machete-wielding, hockey-mask wearing hulk like Jason Voorhees to kill? We take a closer look.

Jason Voorhees is one of the most recognizable figures in horror. He’s the poster boy for the Friday the 13th movie franchise and has smashed, slashed, and reanimated his way through 12 films since 1980. Given how murderous and devious he is, it is only natural to wonder about his backstory and why he kills in the first place.

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Who is Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th?

Image via Paramount Pictures

The Jason that springs to mind is a bulky figure, rising from Camp Crystal Lake, a machete in his hand and a hockey mask firmly clamped over his face. But Jason Voorhees has undergone an incredible transformation. If you’re only familiar with the franchise’s short-lived reboot in 2009, you may be surprised that it took Jason longer to find his iconic look than many of his rivals.

The hockey-masked hulk wasn’t even the antagonist in Friday the 13th, despite a memorable cameo at the end. While the 1980 slasher was inspired by John Carpenter’s definitive Halloween (1978), its twist came when the killer was revealed as Pamela Voorhees. Yes, Jason’s mother, memorably played by Betsy Palmer. Mrs. Voorhees’ killing spree targeting counselors at Camp Crystal Lake was all about vengeance. 

Sequels revealed it to be more deranged and misguided than it first appeared. Mrs. Voorhees was distraught following the drowning of her son in 1957. She was convinced he died because counselors were too busy ogling each other to keep an eye on her son. The grief and injustice had driven her back to Crystal Lake twice to take revenge on any counselors attempting to have fun, her last attempt recorded in the bloody events of Friday the 13th. Her motivation drove the idea that the franchise is about punishing teens for pre-marital sex, but that’s not true. Well, not entirely. 

What is true is that the unmasking of Pamela Voorhees as the film’s villain after a few civil appearances remains one of the best twists in slasher history. And her beheading by final girl Annie is up there as an iconic death.

But her grief was misplaced. It’s ambiguous in the dreamy set-piece that ends Friday the 13th (but confirmed in the sequels) that Jason had survived the events of 1957. He’d grown up feral, isolated, and undisturbed in a cabin near the camp for years. Upon his estranged mother’s death, he was ready to take up her mission, launching one of the most brilliantly ridiculous journeys a horror icon has ever undertaken. 

Jason’s history in the Friday the 13th franchise, explained

Jason is wearing a mask in Friday the 13th.

Jason is the antagonist of the Friday the 13th franchise from the second film, but he didn’t gain his famous hockey mask until the third. During Part 2, he’s a crazed axeman who hides his face with a fetching fabric bag.

When he survived an ax to the head that split his mask at the climax of the third film, he improbably woke in a morgue and made his way back to his home. His run-in with a new set of counselors ended badly for the slasher in the fourth entry when he was hacked to pieces. The sixth installment, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, granted Jason explicitly supernatural powers.

His reanimation by a lightning bolt ended in his imprisonment under the water of Crystal Lake, biding his time. In the seventh entry, Jason escaped his watery prison with the help of a telekinetic teenager. That film ended with him trapped on the lakebed once again, thanks to an intervention from the ghost of the teen’s father. 

Unbelievably, things get even worse for Jason in the eighth film. Having escaped Crystal Lake once more and been recharged by underwater electric cables, Jason embarked on a murder spree in Manhattan. A known national threat by the time of the spectacularly named Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, his hockey mask was fused to his face before the FBI tracked him down to Crystal Lake and blew him up. That wasn’t enough to stop Jason, who revealed an ability to transcend his physical form and continue his rampage through possession until even Hell had enough. Demons dragged him to the underworld at the end of the ninth film. 

Of course, the story didn’t stop there. That trip to hell inadvertently linked him up with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger. Their uneasy alliance ended the only way possible: a surprisingly reverential horror slash between the modern horror icons at Crystal Lake during 2003’s Freddy Vs. Jason

The only thing that could genuinely stop Jason in his tracks was a studio reboot. But before that happened in 2009,  he was rocketed to space. Defrosted aboard a space station in the 25th century, Jason X gave him a space-age upgrade. 

Voorhees Jr’s journey was truly extraordinary, but that doesn’t explain why Jason became a dedicated killing machine in the first place.

Why does Jason Voorhees kill? 

Jason is wearing a mask and holding a weapon in Friday the 13th.
Image via Warner Bros

Jason may have supernatural strengths, but he doesn’t have an infernal motivation. The slasher’s bloody rampage all boils down to his mommy issues. 

Despite his separation from his mother for many years, Mrs. Voorhees proved his most significant influence. 

Alice is the final girl who makes it out of Camp Crystal Lake, although her survival is only confirmed in the second film. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th ends on a soft-focus dream sequence. Alice had made it through to a dreamy, tranquil morning after killing her attacker and taking refuge in a rowboat in the middle of Crystal Lake. But that proved to be a bad idea when a disfigured boy lunged from the depths and dragged her overboard. 

It remains one of slasher horror’s most famous jump scares, but it was a mystery at the time. Was that a ghost, or had Jason returned from the dead? It was down to Friday the 13th Part 2 to confirm that sequence was a dream, or more likely a premonition, as Jason had survived his death in 1957. Years later, having raised himself in a cabin at the isolated camp, discovering his mother’s decapitated body sets him on a path of vengeance. 

Jason’s first on-screen kill avenged his mother when he tracked Alice to her home, surprised her with his mother’s severed head, and then killed her with an ice pick. True to his mother’s obsession, Jason was committed to making sure Camp Crystal Lake wouldn’t be a place of fun and laughter but fear and death. 

Jason’s mommy issues occasionally proved to be his downfall. In the second movie, fleeing counselor Ginny runs into Jason’s cabin. Finding the killer had built a shrine to his dead mother, including her clothing and head,  Ginny’s attempt to impersonate Pamela Voorhees by wearing her sweater almost paid off. Mrs. Voorhees herself even appeared as a reanimated corpse to one of Jason’s potential victims in Friday the 13th Part III.

Few slasher franchises have resisted the urge to explore the origin of their killers, even though they are usually fatally undermined when they lose their mystery. Almost by accident, Friday the 13th anticipated the danger by building from its killer’s roots, with more than a nod to its proto-slasher Psycho (1960). If you’re going to steal a storyline, an iconic Hitchcock movie is a great place to start.

The hulking, hockey mask-wearing figure of Jason may be what everybody thinks about on any month’s unluckiest day, but the true antagonist of Friday the 13th has always been Pamela Voorhees.

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Matt Goddard
Matt enjoys casting Jack Kirby color, Zack Snyder slow-mo, and J.J. Abrams lens flare on every facet of pop culture. Since graduating with a degree in English from the University of York, his writing on film, TV, games, and more has appeared on WGTC, Mirror Online and the Guardian.