Friday, March 13, 2015

The Mrs. Voorhees Problem

Everyone's written about the classic Friday the 13th franchise about a bajillion times.  So, I'm not gonna do a film review today.  I'm here for something different- a rant.  No, a theory.  I call it "The Mrs. Voorhees Problem."

An unofficial Twitter poll taken by Candice Frederick, relayed in her article for BitchFlicks titled Friday the 13th: In Defense of Pamela Voorhees (see footnote 1 for link), shows the surprising consensus that Mrs. Voorhees is scarier than her son, Jason.  Despite the fact that Jason is the monster for 11 movies, and Mrs. Voorhees only rampages through the first, it seems that she still lingers in the mind as the greater bogeyman.

Frederick goes on in her article to make a case for Pamela Voorhees as a more emotionally complex, and therefore compelling, character.  I want to make very clear, up front, that this is a point with which I completely agree.  There's no doubt that Jason is only given the flimsiest of character definition in the films, while Mrs. Voorhees' madness is clearly laid out in a strange, if tedious, monologue.  I thoroughly consider Mrs. Voorhees to be the more interesting character, and think that she's played brilliantly by Betsy Palmer.  The fact that Pamela Voorhees is a good character is not the Caesar I come to bury.  Rather, it is the good to be interred with her bones.

No, I come to talk about her crappy fight with the final girl.

It's about to get tl;dr up in here.

1 - See, what ha' happened was....

If it's been a while since you watched the original Friday the 13th, let me refresh you.  A group of 7 teenagers and 1 slightly-older owner converge on Camp Crystal Lake to renovate it for a new opening.  20-some years earlier, a boy had died by drowning (Jason), and the camp had shut down. The plot then unfolds with 6 of the teens and the owner getting brutally murdered in a matter of hours.  One of the first Final Girls in horror history, Alice, is left to tussle with Mrs. Voorhees, and triumphs in the end by chopping off Mrs. Voorhees' head with a single whack of a machete.  Thus, the formula for a slasher movie was born.

What you probably remember is the creepy little-kid voice Pamela Voorhees talks to herself in, murmuring "Kill her mommy!  Killlllll herrrrrr!"  You probably remember the fact that the killer was Mrs. Voorhees AT ALL was a shocking twist.  What you probably don't remember is how deeply incongruous the last twenty minutes are to the rest of the film.  Specifically, how the physical prowess (or lack thereof) of Mrs. Voorhees is insane if you believe that she has been responsible for all the murders up to this point.

To make myself clear, let's go over how these murders went down.

  • The hitchhiker girl, Annie, that stops at Ye Olde Foreboding Gas-station is picked up by a silent and unseen driver.  They ride for a while until Annie realizes something is wrong and jumps from the vehicle.  She is then chased through the woods by the driver before having her throat slit in one neat slash with a hunting knife.
  • Ned, the class-clown, enters a cabin by himself.  Hours later, his dead body is shown on the top bunk under which two of the other teens have sex.  Since the two teens had no idea he was up there, I reason that Ned must've been dead for a while, or drained of most of his blood such that the two lovers weren't soaked.  Rather, Ned only leaks a single drop.
  • Jack (aka Young Kevin Bacon) gets arrowed through the neck.  This is probably the best kill in the movie, but let's go into detail.  As he wipes that single drop of blood off his forehead, a hand suddenly shoots out from under the bed and pins his head down to the pillow.  A moment later, the sharp point of an arrow protrudes through the top of his chest, barely south of his larynx, barely north of his sternum.  This means that the killer both held him to the bed with one hand, and stabbed an arrow through a mattress and the entirety of a young, athletic male's body with the other.
  • Marcie, the other lover, is killed instantly in the bathroom with a single overhead blow from an axe.  (The strategic use of a vertical swing in close quarters will be important later).
  • Steve, the owner, is stabbed in the torso with a machete of some sort.  He is later found when his body lolls out of a tree, upside down, as Final Girl Alice runs around panicking.
  • Bill (Alice's boyfriend) was shot through with multiple arrows, including one to the eye-socket. Their wild angle suggests they were shot from a bow, and not stabbed by hand as with Jack.  Bill is then lifted off the ground and pinned to a wooden door via the arrows.    
  • The body of Brenda, who wandered onto the archery range searching for the voice of a child, is tied to a set of boards and then thrown through a glass window.  Not catapulted or swung or dragged: thrown.  

So, what does it sound like we're dealing with here?  A BEAST, that's what.  Someone who is capable of tossing around a minimum of 125 pounds like it ain't no thang.  Someone who is so confident that they don't mind approaching their victims and letting them see their face (as seen with hitchhiker girl and Steve).  Someone who is patient enough to hide under a bed for the duration of a sex act, a snoozle, and some banter.  Someone who is also stealthy enough to completely avoid detection while running all over the freaking place, killing and planting bodies like Easter Eggs.  Someone who is so good at killing that they only need one swing to murder.

However, all of this mayhem is rendered at the hands of a silent, unseen killer.  One which the audience easily assumes is some hulking dude, possibly along the lines of the gorilla in a jumpsuit Jason turns out to be in the later films.  But, TWIST: It's Mrs. Voorhees, a middle-aged, average looking woman in a bulky sweater.  She looks like she ought to offer you cookies or maybe a hug.  Too soon, though, she begins her babbling monologue wherein we discover she's Jason's mom and has been on quite the killing spree this evening.

Voorhees then gets into the tussle/run/tussle/run cycle with the final girl that came to define the climax of slasher movies.  So what's so wrong with this?

Merely, the fact that the moment we observe Mrs. Voorhees as a woman and not a man, she looses all her previous strength and special-forces killing prowess.   


2. The Fight with Final Girl Alice

Oh my God, you guys.  I hope you're still with me, because I'm about to tell you all the reasons I am a sad panda.  Yeah, that thesis statement in extra big letters might look like a tough one to support but let me lay my facts on you.  The following is what we get to see Mrs. Voorhees do visibly as Mrs. Voorhees.

Bout #1:  Hunting Knife vs. Fireplace poker.

Uh-oh.  Looks like Mrs. Voorhees is the monster, especially now that she's drawn her hunting knife.  Alice wisely backs up and grabs an iron fireplace poker.  Alice is armed at all, which is a good thing.  However, we've seen Mrs. Voorhees straight slice someone in a very similar situation: Annie, the hitchhiker.  But what does Voorhees do in this scene?  Run at Alice with the knife over her head like a volunteer in a haunted-house.  Alice easily smacks the knife out of Mrs. Voorhees' hand.  

This act of getting hit in the hand causes Mrs. Voorhees to collapse onto the couch.  

Alice then gives her a good whack across the back with the poker and runs.

Round 1 goes to Alice.

As Mrs. Voorhees chases after Alice, she forgets to even pick up her knife.  She just fucking leaves it on the floor for no reason.

Bout #2:  Gun vs. Slaps

Alice runs into another building where they keep the guns.  She finds an unloaded rifle and begins rummaging through the desk for shells.  Sadly, the shells are in padlocked drawers and we have to watch Alice fail at landing a good blow on a non-sentient, immobile object.  

Knowing the gun is useless, Alice throws it at Mrs. Voorhees.  The impact of being hit with the gently thrown gun knocks Mrs. Voorhees back a step.  

Alice throws a large ball of twine and what may be a pencil at Mrs. Voorhees while backing herself into a corner.  Finally, Mrs. Voorhees has closed in and grabbed her.  What does she do?  Break Alice's jaw with closed-fist punches?  

No.  She slaps her.  She... just... slaps her.     

And then pushes her.

Alice gets away from the slapping that reads more like a prelude to kinky sex than danger and grabs the gun again.  She stuns Mrs. Voorhees with a shot to the groin?  It's... awkward to watch.  Then swinging the gun again, she smashes Mrs. Voorhees in the face and runs.  

Round 2 goes to Alice.

Bout #3:  Machete vs. Frying Pan

Alice hides in a pantry.  Mrs. Voorhees uses a machete to smash through the door Jack Torrence-style.  As Mrs. Voorhees unlocks the door (btw, why is there a lock on the inside of a pantry?), Alice grabs a cast-iron frying pan.  Mrs. Voorhees completely forgets how she killed Marcie with an axe and proceeds to swing her machete wildly side to side.  It gets stuck in the wood of the shelves.

But even worse: Mrs. Voorhees wields the machete with two hands like it weighs a million pounds.  As if it were a CLAYMORE FOR FUCKSAKE.  What the actual fuck?  A machete is a one-handed weapon I'm capable of wielding!  Mrs. Voorhees threw a girl through a window!  She impaled a guy through a mattress and his whole boney-muscley body with ONE HAND in the cramped, leverage-free space beneath a bed.  Why on Earth does she have to use two hands on a machete?  I can't...even.

Alice bonks Mrs. Voorhees on the head as she flails like a moron.  It looks like Mrs. Voorhees is bleeding from a head wound when Alice runs to the shore of the lake to quietly contemplate life and all the vagaries of fate.

Round 3 goes to Alice.

Bout #4: Machete vs. Boat Paddle

A concussed Mrs. Voorhees comes upon Alice again.  She has the chance to get a blow in while Alice has her back turned and is on her knees.  Alice can hear the soundtrack, though, and just before Mrs. Voorhees straight murders her, Alice turns like a ninja and holds up a boat paddle just in time for Voorhees to cut it in half.

Mrs. Voorhees is yet again gently disarmed, and proceeds to angrily snuggle Alice.  Mrs. Voorhees tries impaling Alice with the broken paddle, but Alice rolls out of the way.  Mrs. Voorhees is established as a biter.  They then proceed to mud-wrestle.

So, how does this all cash out, if you're just scrolling down to read the parts in big letters?

Mrs. Voorhees fights and dies like the chumpiest chump that ever fell on their own machete.

This is seriously the last face she makes.

3. Why?  There's got to be an explanation!  Please!

The following are rationalizations that don't hold water for me.

Mrs. Voorhees is more of a lay-in-wait kind of killer.  She's super-effective when she gets the jump on people.  She failed against Alice because she walked up to her and starting monologuing. 
  • Nope. It's actually well-established in 2 instances that Mrs. Voorhees has no problem walking up to people before she kills them.  This is shown when she drives around with Annie the hitchhiker for several minutes, and when she shows her face to Steve, the owner.  She doesn't lay in wait for them, but wrecks them just the same.  

She's a middle-aged woman who worked as a cook.  She not special forces or anything, and women aren't that strong or good at fighting or whatever.  I mean, she seems pretty evenly matched with Alice afterall.
  • Nope.  Were you even watching the movie?  She did things like hold a teenager up with one hand while pinning him to a door with arrows in the other.  She hoisted an adult man 10-15 feet up into a tree.  She moved bodies quickly like they were garbage bags full of leaves.  She kills with one hit in multiple scenes.  

What if Jason did some of it?  Jason's a big dude and could easily be helping his mom out.  Jason 4 LYFE WOOT!
  • Nope.  Jason is supposed to be dead in this first movie.  At best, he's a figment of Alice's addled imagination when he jumps out of the lake at the end.  And at that, he's presented as an adolescent boy.  In the sequel, Friday the 13th Part II, the movie postulates (read: tells the audience) that Jason has been driven to murder after witnessing the death of his mother.  If that is the canon explanation for why Jason be Jasoning, then how could he have been helping his mom the whole time?  Not a part of this explanation makes sense.

Mrs. Voorhees was tired/ spent all her killing spells earlier that day/ got cocky.
  • Nope.  I mean, what?  How is that even an explanation?  How can Mrs. Voorhees get up from THREE temporarily debilitating blows, but be "too tired" to fight correctly?  And cockiness doesn't account for why she completely forgets how to fight and kill.  It seems she genuinely wants to kill Alice, so then why does she forget everything she's shown us she can do in spades?

We shouldn't show violence against women.
  • Um... we already killed three women in this movie.  We saw their throats slit open and everything.

Final Girl Magic.  Movie Reasons.  Hand-Wavey Jedi Mindtrick.
  • So, what you're saying is that the writers needed a way to wrap up the story with a hero-girl at the end.  But they also really wanted their twist.  And they wanted the killing in the movie to look awesome and scary.  I understand these production concerns.  What's not cool with it is how they went about it.  Making the killer such a stupendous badass, only to take that badassery away because of how your twist works feels like a cheat.  I completely bought Mrs. Voorhees as being the killer.  In fact it had me cheering up until I watched her fight.  The complete and utter failitude of her on-screen combat was just so stark and stunning to me, it broke my suspended disbelief.  I belieeeeeved in Mrs. Voorhees, until I just couldn't.
  • Further, there are multiple good ways they could have resolved this problem.  They could have made Alice more of a rugged badass.  They could have made Alice really familiar with gadgets or traps or the woods or a distance-runner.  Alice could have legitimately out-smarted Mrs. Voorhees at any point.  They could have had Mrs. Voorhees be wounded previously, so that she shows up bleeding when she first meets Alice. I dare say that would have made the twist even more head-snapping!  A moment of two survivors commiserating turns into a predator/prey battle! And it would have explained Mrs. Voorhees' on-screen impotence.

4. So what's your explanation then?

That Mrs. Voorhees' only mistake was being seen by the audience.  Let me show you how (dons Philsopher's hat).

Both Jason and Mrs. Voorhees do most of their killing unobserved by the audience.  While unobserved, one could say that Jason and Mrs. Voorhees have comparable abilities/properties when it comes to massacring human beings.  They're both super-strong, incredibly stealthy, good at fighting, good at anticipating behavior patterns so they know when and where to lay in wait.  In fact, the twist of Mrs. Voorhees being Mrs. Voorhees at all is leveraged off our assumption that she is a Jason-type character in the first place.

However, there is always a point in these movies where Jason or Pamela will be observed by the audience (not necessarily the cast).  When Jason is observed, he is revealed to be facially disfigured in a manner intended to horrify the audience, and is slightly suggestible when it comes to his mom, but otherwise loses none of his abilities.  He is every bit as strong, canny, and terrifying as he was the entire movie.  It usually takes multiple people, at least one of which must be male, to even harm him, and pretty much nobody is able to outright kill him (you know, because he's some kind of undead water-demon but that's a different theory-paper).

Mrs. Voorhees on the other hand, completely falls apart once observed.  There is really no other explanation for this sudden tailspin of incompetence.  There is no other factor that the movie gives for why there would be such an incredible change.

Nothing is different except Mrs. Voorhees' status as 'observed'.  And, once Mrs. Voorhees is observed, her properties change drastically.  They revert from that of the unstoppable killing-machine we've come to expect to a thing called "Woman". 

And we all know that women can't fight, they're weak, they're impulsive and foolish, and above all else they AREN'T SCARY.  /sarcasm

But, this stupid nerfing doesn't just happen to Mrs. Voorhees, it happens to every mundane woman in a horror movie.  Like, seriously, all of them.

At least I'm not alone!

5. The Mrs. Voorhees Problem

Or, Witch.Ghost.Demon.Other.

I've spent weeks thinking about this.  Whenever a woman is depicted as a lead in a horror movie there seems to be a very strict flowchart for what kind of creature she can be.  

Is she a hero or a villain?  If she's a hero, she gets to be a badass all she likes because Final Girl Magic.  Also, heroes come in the forms of actual badasses like Ellen Ripley or the ladies in The Descent.  They also come in the "brutally-raped so now I shall have my revenge!" flavor a la I Spit on Your Grave.  Heroes get to be powerful by definition.  This even sometimes applies when they are women.

However, if your woman is the head villain or monster, she has to be supernatural to be physically intimidating.  Yes, female villains can be cruel and manipulative and dangerous in sneaky ways.  They can play mind games and be abusive.  This can be disturbing and spooky, yes.

However, they aren't depicted as coming-to-kill-you scary unless they literally break the laws of nature.

They tend to come in 4 broad flavors: Witch, Ghost, Demon, Other.

Witches include actual witches, gypsies, psychics like Carrie, casually racist depictions of voo-doo priestesses, or women with otherwise loosely defined supernatural powers.  Ghosts are ghosts: think Sadako from The Ring.  Demons include succubi, Regan from The Exorcist, Deborah Logan, and all those poor girls in these found-footage movies about possessions and exorcisms.  Other includes shape-shifters like Irena from Cat-People, aliens or wasp-women or 50-foot women or robot-women (re: Terminator III) or that harpy from VHS.  Every so often there's an exotic reason for why the woman can't possibly exist in real life, and I consider that grab-bag to be Other.

Of course, each of these old archetypes has been riffed on, but one fact remains.  They aren't mundane.

Which is to say, women can only be the source of fear if we are utterly sure we'll never come across them in real life.

This is when I sat down like the Grinch and thought and thought about what female villain broke the pattern.  What lead female monster was utterly mundane and realistic?

-Carrie's mom!  She was totally mundane, super-abusive, and crazy as a loon!

Yes, but were you really afraid of Carrie's mom hiding in your closet?  In my opinion, the mom served more as character development for Carrie than as the monster or villain.  Yes, she was disturbing, but I never really feared her.  Rather, I felt sympathy for Carrie.  Ultimately, so long as our mom was not like Carrie's mom, then we can sleep safely knowing it's not our problem, so to speak.  Which, to bring it down to real-talk level, is probably how most of us cope with the reality of child-abuse that is happening all the time in the real world.  Like, right now.

-But, what about Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes in Misery?

Now, we're getting somewhere.  I LOVED Bates in Misery.  However, I would still like to point out that the writer is entirely crippled and almost dead when Annie nurses him back to health.  It still takes a dude to be at a rare and exceptional disadvantage to be at her mercy and threatened.  Not breaking the laws of nature, no, but still not really a fair fight.  It would be extremely rare to find ourselves in that kind of circumstance.

-What about Sherri Moon Zombie in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects or Juliette Lewis from Natural Born Killers?

Yes, Sherri is a mundane psychopath, but I don't particularly credit her as being The Villain of these movies.  Sure, she kills, and can take a bit of a beating, but she's also part of a group- an ensemble.  She spends a lot of her time using her sexuality and interpersonal skills to manipulate victims or getting her brother and step-dad to do the muscle-work for her.  Note: Sexuality and interpersonal manipulation being the classical arsenal women are allowed to have in lieu of physical power.

The same can be said of Lewis in NBK.  While she does do horrible stuff on her own, she's also sharing the spotlight with Woody Harrelson.  And, one could easily argue the scariest character in that movie is played by Rodney Dangerfield.

I'd say that while these come pretty close, they still don't fit what I'm looking for.  They aren't monsters by themselves.

It makes me so sad when you forget about me, sempai.....

5. Yes, Joanna, there is an Asami...

But then I remembered Audition!  And my heart grew three sizes that day!

Oh, Asami!  How I love you so!  You are completely mundane.  You have no magical powers except for your other-worldly charm and ability to puke on command, which is to say none.  You are just super-crazy.  And yet you murder dudes that are hale and hearty!  You are so deliciously creepy with your cute little smile.

I would like to talk more about all the ways and means Asami has of being awesome and one of the rare glimmering stars in a dark, dark night- but I also don't want to spoil Audition for you.  If you don't know what I'm talking about I just recommend you go watch it when you're ready for a far-out, richly crafted movie.  I will, however, let you know that it's pretty intense, involves torture and vomit and stuff, so steel yourself.

Also, a little birdie on the internet tells me that Marie in Haute Tension breaks the Mrs. Voorhees Problem into tiny little pieces.  This has moved it up my watch-list considerably (I'm dragging my feet on watching all the French Extreme stuff because gore is usually boring to me).  Once I watch, I'll come back for an edit.

In conclusion: Tell me I'm wrong!  Recommend movies with women that are scary and strong without having to break the 'rules' to do so.  Show me more Asamis.

Comment on this post below with your thoughts and recommendations and sundry hate-mail.

Feminist-hat and Philosopher-hat back on the stand,


1) Friday the 13th: In Defense of Pamela Voorhees by Candice Frederick. 2013.


  1. Fantastic analysis. And now I kinda want to see Haute Tension.
    I think there is one more example, from a genre-bender, but I can't remember what it is. I'll come back and comment if it ends up having been a genuine example. .

  2. Melissa pointed out on Monday that she considered Kathleen Turner's Serial Mom to break the mold. But, I didn't buy it as I considered Serial Mom to be a comedy on the taste level of... well, John Waters. I may have to rewatch it to see whether Turner is presented as a joke or as an actual monster. I seem to recall it was the former.

    Which, if anything, would prove my point of The Mrs. Voorhees Problem. A mundane woman being scary is so far-fetched as to be comedy. "A normal woman killing people? How laughable! Hordle-chortle."

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