Pamela Voorhees: Misunderstood Maniacal Matriarch?

In which Jacob Knight writes something like a love letter to FRIDAY THE 13th's memorable murder mama.

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***Spoilers, I Suppose, If You’ve Lived Under a Rock/Avoided Horror Movies for the Past 36 Years***

It’s debatable whether or not Pamela Voorhees is a “bad mom”. No bullshit. Sure, she may be a little hot tempered and has no real use for fornicating camp counselors or abusive fathers, but every act of violence she ever perpetrated was in the name of protecting Jason, her “special boy”. Born in 1930, Pamela was impregnated at the age of fifteen by Elias Voorhees, a vicious brute of a man who beat the woman while she carried their child. Fed up with his piggish, two-fisted ways and fearing for both her and her baby’s life, Pamela picked up an axe and planted it in the back of Elias’ skull before burning their trailer to the ground. Her baby daddy’s body ended up at the bottom of New Jersey’s Crystal Lake, and Pamela was hired by the Christy Family as a cook at the local summer camp they founded, brazenly refusing to vacate the area she called home. In a cruel twist of fate, Jason would join his father in his watery grave after two counselors (who “should’ve been watching” the boy as he swam) snuck off to canoodle, leaving the poor hydrocephalic to drown.

Which brings us to Friday the 13th – the seminal slasher that climaxes with the reveal that Pamela (portrayed [in]famously by Betsy Palmer and her oversized chompers) is the reason Camp Crystal Lake has been nicknamed Camp Blood by the locals. After pitilessly murdering the two employees in 1958 – a year after Jason tragically perished – Pamela returns on her son’s thirty-third birthday (Friday June 13, 1979) upon learning that Camp Blood is due to be re-opened by a new set of pot smoking, sexually liberated kids just looking to make a buck under the summer sun. Led by new owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), it’s the second time anyone has dared try to reclaim the campgrounds following the murders, as a previous revival (in 1962) was stopped short thanks to a series of fires and a poisoned water supply. In Bava-esque fashion, Pamela sneakily offs six of the seven counselors along with Steve, only to have her reign of terror be snuffed out by Alice (Adrienne King), the sole survivor of her massacre. Alice chops Pamela’s head off with a machete on the shores of Crystal Lake, leaving the mother’s body to bleed out as Alice shoves off in a canoe, hoping the calm waters will protect her from any further terror.

Betsy Palmer crafted a horror icon in Pamela Voorhees using mere minutes of screen time. Appearing out of the darkness donning nothing more than a ratty grey sweater and clutching a Bowie knife, she informs our Final Girl just why she's about to die. Mrs. Voorhees is determined to cut the innocent down, hissing "kill her mommy!" as the voices in her head become completely overwhelming. Palmer is utterly unhinged; her face contorting with homicidal glee as she pursues her prey, seeking misplaced retribution for her baby boy's death. Following Jason's insertion as the series' subsequent hockey masked maniac, Mrs. Voorhees' bloodlust would be relegated to bar trivia and another cinematic murder machine's pre-slaughter quiz answer (Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson don't give a shit about spoilers, it seems). But the fact remains: Friday the 13th’s enduring potency as a genre picture is at least partially due to Palmer's wide-eyed turn. She's the ultimate avatar for matriarchal comeuppance; a white hot ball of psychotic hate whose atomically ferocious genes are passed off to arguably the most recognizable boogeyman outside of the Universal Monsters.

Mrs. Voorhees would continue to haunt Jason throughout the rest of the Friday the 13th run, as he collects her severed head and nappy sweater in order to build a small shrine in the Crystal Lake shack he calls home. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense (though little about the slasher series does – let’s not even get started on the convoluted timeline), but there's something primal and inspiring (or at least relatable) about the lost boy mass murderer taking up the mantle of the woman who swore to shelter him. Mrs. Voorhees' ghost would follow her son into the next sequel (where Palmer reprised her role for a spectral cameo), a showdown against a legendary nightmare stalker (Freddy vs. Jason; as portrayed by Paula Shaw), a remake (where Nana Visitor slips on the sweater), her own comic book mini-series (which is a main source for fleshing out her backstory), and even a NES video game (where her floating dome acts as a nearly-impossible-to-beat underboss). Palmer's creation echoed across decades and formats, becoming almost as identifiable as her offspring.

This author does not claim to be any sort of expert in child-rearing. One could perhaps make the argument that Mrs. Voorhees should’ve been at home with Jason, making sure he didn’t sneak out of their cabin in order to take a midnight dip. But then again – it’s got to be hard raising a son as a single mom who already committed patricide in order to keep on keeping on. Pamela was counting on the kids the Christys hired to do their jobs, and they failed. So instead of accepting her boy’s death, she made sure that his name rang out amongst the tall trees that surrounded Crystal Lake. Jason would be remembered, even if he had never become a mentally challenged, reanimated corpse with a penchant for brutal dismemberment. We should all be so lucky to have a “bad mom” like Pamela Voorhees. She’s a noble guardian, shielding her kid from the cruelties of the universe. Or maybe – she’s just crazy as fuck.