In this article:
- For Scream fans out there, Pamela Voorhees is the answer to Ghostface’s question about who the original killer is in Friday the 13th.
- In the first movie, the sweater-clad, middle-aged mother of Jason turns out to be the one picking off the teens at Camp Crystal Lake one by one while her son still slumbers beneath the waters where he drowned as a boy.
- What comes off as (and honestly is) a campy horror flick made almost exclusively to cash in on the popularity of Halloween and other 70s-era slasher movies is also a creative reimagining of the age-old, pre-written language tale of Beowulf, with Pamela Voorhees playing the role of the monster’s mother.
- That an evil yet devoted mother like Mrs. Voorhees can be found in a tale as old as Beowulf gives us reason to explore why humanity is so fixated on (and terrified by) the concept of monstrous mothers.
It’s easy to dismiss the Friday the 13th franchise — and many other slasher franchises — as mere low-brow entertainment. If punching a teen’s head clean off his neck and into a dumpster in Jason Takes Manhattan didn’t give the campiness away, then his adventures in outer space in Jason X certainly did.
But underneath that campiness, Friday the 13th is a tale as old as time, exploring the same themes and difficult questions that stories have been exploring for as long as humans have been telling them.
The franchise is just one example of the way that horror — whether it’s elevated horror like Hereditary and Babadook or dressed in campy scenes and buckets of blood like Friday the 13th or Texas Chain Saw Massacre — is participating in the same tough conversations that more respected genres and mediums are having.
One of those themes is the significance of motherhood, both as a social role and as a cultural concept.
Get ready for an analysis of Pamela Voorhees and the first Friday the 13th movie that’s going to make you scream, “It’s not that deep!” But it is, in fact, that deep.
Pamela Voorhees Is Grendel’s Mom and Friday the 13th Is a Beowulf Remake
There are so many similarities between the English literary classic and the iconic slasher movie that you could go so far as to argue Friday the 13th is a remake of Beowulf. Everybody in your lit class will hate you for it, but you would have ground to stand on.
It’s a remake that takes liberties, to be sure, and the parallels all but end with the first movie because the rest of the franchise just follows the progressively weirder adventures of Jason. But the first movie in the franchise is a Beowulf remake with a similar moral lesson on the senselessness of revenge.
To understand how it does that, we first need to look at all the ways that Pamela Voorhees is an almost carbon-copy of Grendel’s mother.
The Undying Devotion to a Monstrous, Ostracized Child
A monster lurks in the lake, coming out periodically to wreak bloody havoc on the people nearby, ruining their every effort to party and have a good time. His murderous rampages are fueled by deep-seated jealousy and loneliness, as he’s been ostracized by society solely on the basis of grotesque traits he was born with.
Who is this freak of nature driven violently mad by his loneliness?
The description fits Grendel and Jason alike. Grendel is ostracized for the fact that he descends from Cain — the biblical figure who killed his own brother — while Jason is ostracized for having been born with a rare skull deformity that makes him appear monstrous.
In both cases, these monstrous boys have just one person in the entire world who sees past their grotesque appearance and loves them for who they are: their mothers.
Grendel’s mother and Pamela Voorhees both have nothing but unconditional love and devotion for their sons — even if the rest of the world refuses to invite them to their parties.
The Bloody and Excessive Vengeance Quest
Both of these devoted mothers prove just how undying that devotion is when, after their sons die, they become hell-bent on vengeance. Beowulf’s poet writes, “His [Grendel’s] mother moreover eager and gloomy was anxious to go on her mournful mission, mindful of vengeance for the death of her son.”
Pamela Voorhees is equally gloomy and anxious to go on her mournful mission.
In both cases, however, that obsession becomes so all-consuming that they don’t even limit their vengeance quest to the person (or people) directly responsible for their sons’ deaths.
Grendel’s mother leaves her son’s lifeless body and terrorizes every resident of a nearby town, even though it was Beowulf alone who killed her son. Pamela Voorhees slays anyone within stabbing distance of Camp Crystal Lake, even though they are not the same camp counselors who neglected her drowning son decades ago.
The vengeance quest is even filled with equal amounts of gratuitous violence. “The current was seething with blood and with gore,” Beowulf’s poet writes of the lake filled with the bloody, dismembered bodies of her many victims.
The Underestimation of a Woman’s Strength
Women aren’t thought of as physically strong. They can be cruel. They can be manipulative. They can use cunning and deceit to destroy their enemies. But they are almost never seen using brute strength to physically overpower anyone, let alone adult men.
Both Grendel’s mother and Pamela Voorhees, however, defy that stereotype and it’s their victims’ fatal choices to underestimate a woman’s strength that allows these mothers rack up such high body counts before finally being defeated.
“When the mother of Grendel entered the folk-hall; the fear was less grievous by even so much as the vigor of maidens, war-strength of women, by warrior is reckoned.”
The people of Heorot don’t fear Grendel’s mother as much as they should because they assume she must be weak because she’s a woman and women lack “war-strength.” Likewise, the teens at Camp Crystal Lake don’t see Pamela Voorhees as a threat until the knife is already hilt-deep.
The Death at the Hands of the Hero
If the parallels between the two characters’ motives and backstories aren’t enough, their almost identical deaths should convince you.
In Beowulf, the titular hero swims down into the underwater cavern where Grendel and his mother lived. Wielding a small but trusty sword, he descends on the mother who he’s sure he can kill because she is just a woman, after all. But the sword is impotent and each blow fails to even phase her.
Realizing the sword is useless, he tosses it aside and decides to try hand-to-hand combat. The hero and mother wrestle in the dirt awhile until the mother gains control, sitting on top of Beowulf and taking out all her grief and fury on him.
When all seems hopeless for our hero, he notices a much larger sword lying on the ground. After wrestling his way out from underneath the mother, he grabs the giant sword and deals the fatal blow. The blade crushes through her neck, bones and all:
“Hotly he smote her, that the fiend-woman’s neck firmly it grappled, broke through her bone-joints, the bill fully pierced her, fate-cursed body, she fell to the ground then: the hand-sword was bloody, the hero exulted.”
Now, watch Pamela Voorhees’ death scene in Friday the 13th:
Alice, the film’s final girl and female version of Beowulf, similarly moves from ineffectual first weapon to tussling with Pamela Voorhees in the dirt to finally getting her hands on a better weapon with which she decapitates the mother.
She even stands exulted with “bloody hand-sword” after it’s all over.
The Persistence of Monstrous Mothers in Humanity’s Stories
The horror genre thrives on taking deep-rooted cultural anxieties and personifying them into grotesque monsters.
Culturally, it’s a way for societies to confront their fears and reexamine their moral worldviews. Pragmatically, it’s a good way for a scary story to actually scare its audience — because it’s poking at the fears its audience is most likely to have.
Why, then, has the monstrous mother endured eons as a persistent horror trope?
In his article, “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf,’” Paul Acker gives us two answers. First, in a more primal sense, she represents mother beasts: the bears and wolves and other predators that humans have contended with for eons.
The mother bear will leap into action and rip you to shreds in a matter of seconds, all while you’re just trying to find a cozy cave to call home. The wolf mom will tear open your throat without a second thought if you accidentally venture too close to her den.
In this sense, deadly, terrifying mothers — who are all the deadlier and more terrifying for their intense devotion to their children — have been a looming source of fear for humans since before we were even human.
Second, in a more psychological and cultural sense, mothers — this time our own human mothers — represent an ideal we are always moving further away from, even as we long to return to it.
The safety and carefree nature of childhood, granted to us by virtue of a loving and protective mother, becomes increasingly unattainable as we get older. Our own sense of innocence and moral purity, too, becomes increasingly difficult to cling to.
As a symbol of that ideal — of the self and of life — horror can make its horrific elements all the more potent by simply grafting them onto a mother figure. A vengeance-driven dad makes for a fun action movie, but it doesn’t unsettle us to our very core. But a vengeance-driven mom? Audiences won’t leave the theater the same.
That’s because mothers, as an ideal, should be incorruptible, unyielding. They are patience and warm-heartedness personified. They are safety and home embodied. So when she picks up a knife and hacks apart a teenager or dismembers and devours a sleeping soldier with her teeth, everything we thought was safe and true is called into question.
In that second sense, of corrupting an ideal so deep-rooted that it predates Christianity, Grendel’s mother and Pamela Voorhees serve as cautionary tales. If the corrupting thing is powerful enough to make monsters of mothers, think what it would it do to mere mortals like us?
In the case of these two mothers, the corrupting element is vengeance: something we all thirst for and often conflate with justice but know, rationally, is both unsatisfying and dangerous.
Paul Acker argues that the vengeance and the non-stop gore it causes in Beowulf may have served as a sociopolitical commentary on the flaws in the vengeance-based justice system of blood feuds in Anglo Saxon England.
Pursuing a blood feud leads to the downfall of nearly every character in the poem, including Beowulf himself. Vengeance breeds vengeance, Beowulf’s poet may be telling the audience, creating a vicious and deadly cycle.
Both Grendel’s mother and Pamela Voorhees ultimately bring about their own demise in their pursuit of revenge. Had they opted out of vengeance, Beowulf would not have been woken from his sleep to go kill Grendel’s mother and Alice certainly would not have decapitated Pamela Voorhees.
Both stories warn us that the vengeance we crave will not only turn us into monsters, but make us more vulnerable than we already are to the threats that surround us.
That you can see this inner conflict — of longing for something that we know will hurt us — in an unbroken lineage of stories tracing from Beowulf to Friday the 13th is proof positive that it’s an inner conflict humans have struggled with for millennia.