40 years ago, the mega-franchises of today were just forming. Audiences hadn’t yet learned to fear and eventually root for the horror superheroes. John Carpenter changed the landscape of horror films in 1978 with the release of Halloween. Audiences were just getting their feet wet with the slasher icons we would all come to love. In 1980, they took their first dive into Crystal Lake, instantly falling in love with the whimsical horror, creative kills, and bloody fun of the franchise. Flash forward to today, and Friday the 13th is a massive success with 12 feature films, a television show, several documentaries, countless books and comics, and major video games (not to mention a never-ending stream of references throughout pop culture). Jason Voorhees is now a household name. But how did he get there? Let’s take a look at the history of one of the biggest horror franchises of all time.
Unlike the first installment of Halloween where the audience was immediately introduced to Michael Myers or the Nightmare on Elm Street series where Freddy Krueger comes out swinging, audiences didn’t really meet Jason until the very last moment of Friday the 13th (if you even want to count that). That’s right, in one of the most memorable twists in cinema history: the killer in Friday the 13th was not some monster or crazy man, it was actually Jason’s scorned mother who was getting revenge on the negligent teenage councilors that had let her son drown years ago. This reveal put a new twist on the genre. Maybe the kids who were being murdered weren’t all that innocent? It allowed the audience to let go of their hope that they would all make it out alive, but in some sick way you actually end up rooting for the killer while relishing in the violence. This shift in tone wasn’t the only shock the 1980 classic had for viewers, and in an incredible stinger a young deformed Jason reaches out from Crystal Lake and drags the surviving counselor down into the dark water never to be seen again. This ending shocked audiences and is forever engrained in the minds of any self respecting horror fan. Jason and Camp Crystal Lake were immediately cemented in the American zeitgeist.
Audiences were hooked, and the first sequel (of many) came just one year later. This time Jason was in fact the killer, and no longer a frail boy but a hulking and seemingly indestructible stalker whose face was covered by a torn bag. The iconic hockey mask didn’t make it’s first appearance until the third film in 1982, so its safe to say Jason’s look is always evolving. While critics didn’t care much for the films, audiences loved the gore and over the top kills. If you’ve seen any of the flicks I’m sure you’ve realized that character development and well constructed plots aren’t exactly what the franchise is famous for. Instead you’re going to see things like Jason decapitating a star athlete with a single uppercut (one of my personal favorites, which comes from Jason Takes Manhattan). In a weird way, it seemed to solidify the idea that deep down audiences were rooting for Jason, and not the bumbling, horny teenagers he was hunting in each installment. It’s a fact: Friday the 13th is the top grossing horror franchise in American history, bringing in a total of over 680 million dollars at the box office (adjusted for inflation).
Long before the MCU, DCEU, and the ever-growing connected universes that make up the landscape of modern blockbusters were even conceived, Jason was a part of one of the first major shared universes. There had been teases of a crossover between the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead Franchises as far back as 1993 where the Necronomicon and Freddy’s famous glove were featured in a surprising ending to Jason Goes to Hell. A full decade later we would see this vision partly realized when Freddy vs Jason was eventually released in 2003 in an attempt to revamp the franchise after sending Jason to space in the completely bonkers Jason X. The film is definitely fun, but left many fans pining for a follow up that would never come due to copyright issues with different studios, stopping us fanatics from ever seeing a live action Freddy vs Jason vs Ash. Luckily, there is a comic book version that is sure to hit the spot for any horror fan. Set almost two decades after Army of Darkness and just a few years after Freddy vs Jason, it’s a very fun read that I highly recommend.
Following the 2009 reboot, which is arguably the best of the major horror reboots, Jason was dragged into hell for a second time: the dreaded development hell. First there were talks of a direct sequel to the reboot, but after two years Paramount Studios decided it would be best to start fresh. The film still couldn’t get any traction though, as the release date was pushed back three times before eventually being shelved as a legal battle raged on over the script.
While we haven’t seen a new installment in 8 years, Jason still holds a special place in the hearts of all horror fans. In 2017 there was even a Friday the 13th game that plays like a total love letter to the slasher genre allowing players to either become Jason or try to escape as a teen, many of whom resemble fan favorite counselors from the franchise’s glory days. Also considering the upcoming release of the latest installment of John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise this fall, we will almost certainly see a return to form for slashers. While there is nothing officially on the schedule as of now, I’m willing to bet that’s going to change soon and while the water might be murky now, one thing is certain: the Friday the 13th franchise’s future is as bright as a day spent at Camp Crystal Lake.
So whether you celebrate this Friday the 13th by marathoning through the films, or by taking up the Jason mantle yourself in the Friday the 13th game, be sure to enjoy the gory spirit gruesome fun. Just make sure you don’t go skinny-dipping!