The Psychoanalysis of Jason Voorhees: A New Wrinkle

Thesal Thayer
12 min readJan 13, 2020

The Friday the 13th films are steeped in Freudian motifs, and it is hardly a challenging (or even interesting) project to argue as much. The attachment between Jason Voorhees and his mother that drives the early films clearly bespeaks psychoanalytically charged anxieties; indeed, such intro-level psych considerations — such clichés, even — likely drove the production of the initial script itself. As a case in point, the character Ginny from Part 2, child-psych grad student and eventual Final Girl, proffers some pseudo-psychodynamic insight on the cusp of the climax, through which she provides the screenwriters a platform for some auto-analysis on the relationship between Jason and his mother. But what if are to look past the maternal over-attachment and look deeper into the Jason Voorhees that surfaces (quite literally) in the aftermath of his mother’s death at the end of the first film? What if we are to delve deeper into the psychodynamics of the motherless, monstrous man-child that emerges? What we find is a purely phallic being, malformed beyond anything Freud or Lacan or any other psychoanalyst to date could imagine.

This phallic monstrosity could not, of course, take origin independent from the bizarre attachment Jason has to his mother — that is, the more obvious Freudian reading of the Friday the 13th film series that is less an analysis than it is a restating of the basic premise of the franchise. The recurrent principal characters (or better yet visitants) of Pamela Voorhees and Jason, her hydrocephalic and ostensibly developmentally delayed son, are bound together in what seems inevitably to be an Oedipal tangle, one so strong that it has persisted even after the deaths of one or (in the later films) both characters. Constantly hearing the chittering ki-ki ma-ma which is either a manifestation of (or closely tied to) his dead mother’s persisting voice, Jason is driven to kill the nubile youths who insist upon setting up camp on the shores of Crystal Lake. While we could pass off Jason’s attachment to his mother as merely a neurotic psychosis, it is quite apparent that there are some misbegotten, complicated, and inexorable psycho-sexual energies tied up in this relationship. After all, he murders mercilessly because of said relationship’s premature ending. In the event that started the entire mess, the unattended Jason drowned in Crystal Lake when the supervising camp counselors were, by the reckoning of Pamela Voorhees, too preoccupied with “making love.” It is the sexual desire of the teen counselors — which Jason is denied not only due to his prepubescence at the time but also, prospectively, in the future by way of his hydrocephalic physiognomy — that led to the boy’s death and set in motion a recurring revenge event, which became a myth of eternal return for the series. The first revenge event, detailed in brief at the start of the original Friday the 13th, shows teen counselors from the 1950s being interrupted in the midst of canoodling and then promptly murdered. Flashing forward to the film’s present-day 1979, an upstart entrepreneur, Steve Christy, is trying to resurrect the camp, and brings with him a new flock of teens to help prepare the grounds for children again. Soon enough, everyone in proximity starts dying. In the end — and a spoiler alert would be in order here — it is none other than Pamela Voorhees who is revealed as the murderer. In a conclusion memorable on many levels, the plucky Final Girl manages to kill Jason’s mother, cutting off her head.

For Jason, whom we learn at the very end of the first film is “still out there” and presumptively a witness to his mother’s death (an idea given further credence in Part 2), this decapitation is rife with psychodynamic traumas. Not only is his mother brutally killed — enough to traumatize anyone — but she is beheaded. Beheading is, beyond actual castration, perhaps the most Freudian of dismemberments. For beheading is, to be sure, a symbolic castration, the head representing a seat of selfhood and identity, much as is the reproductive organ, while also being a locus of thinking and knowing, just as the glans (or “head,” in idiomatic parlance) is the initial site of “knowing” in the Biblical sense. For Jason, his mother’s death doubly underscores her impotence: firstly, in the broader sense, she proves she cannot protect their home (Crystal Lake), thereby failing in the role of Jason’s consistently and conspicuously absent father (about whom we learn little to nothing in the films themselves) and, secondly, in that it underlines Pamela’s perpetually “castrated” state as a woman. She is acephalic and, through the lens of Lacan, we can see that she goes to the grave on account of this potent symbolic and literal castration. This is obviously too much for the teenage boy (or ghost, or whatever Jason is at this point) to handle. Much like the murder of the patriarch in Freud’s primordial tribe, this beheading of the mother becomes the singular traumatic ur-event upon which Jason’s psyche hinges. If his mother is not already a psycho-sexual lynchpin for Jason (and we presume she is, as she represents the only female in his life), she certainly is to become one after her beheading. In parts two through four, where Jason is the feral, murderous woodsman, we are shown that he keeps his mother’s head in a shrine in his ramshackle hutment. Surrounded by votive candles, her head has become an object of worship, for she has been literally fetishized. That Jason’s dead mother has become his fetish is hardly surprising — in fact, it’s nothing less than predictable.

But the anti-hero’s monstrous psychosexuality runs deeper, and it becomes even more convoluted; indeed, the series from Part 2 onward can be read as Jason seeking out and actualizing phallic power — that is, masculinity at its most ruthless — and then performing it over and over again. With his mother viciously dispatched, her impotence violently proven and the absence of the father all the more palpable in the process, Jason steps up in her absence to perform a savagely over-geared masculinity, and he does it to hyperbolic effect. His conventional sexuality has never developed, however, and so this masculinity is entirely enacted through violent displays that bear an almost creative zest in their destructive execution. In spite of his apparent developmental delays, Jason is a savant with regard to slaughter. Jason’s over-exaggerated phallic masculinity is also helped along by the fact that he has grown physically huge, and this physicality grows increasingly obvious as the series progresses, with Jason being consistently played by men of strapping proportions. In place of the non-present, non-existent phallus of the father and the frail, elderly, and easily castrated mother who has died (beheaded at death on the top and at the bottom from birth, as it were) has grown a massive Priapus. Indeed, Jason Voorhees is a massive, motile erection, hardened not to generate but rather to destroy. He is the monstrous phallic, that capacity in the virile man to terminate — to ravage fatally — just as readily as he creates. And Jason’s “hardness,” that unfaltering killer instinct that propelled the character through twelve movies, never tires and never goes flaccid, because it can never gain release. And yet the source of this staying power is not just some kind of asexual vigor stemming from Jason’s differently-abled intellect or his repulsive ugliness or even the self-inflicted asceticism of the psychotic hermit lifestyle he upholds. Its source is Oedipal. His mother is dead, yes, but she is always there, her constant murderous encouragements a source of Jason’s potency and energy, the virility he both sublimates into and realizes through assassinations of the sexually active. It is his mother’s soothing voice that keeps Jason “hard.” This role in sustaining — in keeping up — the phallic Jason is often overlooked by the more clichéd, cookie-cutter Freudian reading of the films (cf. Carol Clover).

That Jason Voorhees is an erect phallus might not seem so obvious to some, but rather the product of ersatz Procrustean psychoanalytic over-determination and over-interpretation, seeing penises where there are cigars or, in this case, men with hockey masks. But consider that the first adult Jason we ever see is not wearing the goalie mask that would later become the symbolic sine qua non of the series. The first full-grown Jason, when he makes his appearance in Part 2, wears a burlap sack over his head as a hood, a hole cut into it so that a single accusatory left eye can peek out. On the surface, this was likely a visual allusion to the killer in the 1976 crime-procedural proto-slasher The Town that Dreaded Sundown, but with an important difference. That killer’s hood had two eyes. The hood itself is prepuce enough as it is, but the singular eye-hole renders Jason the proverbial one-eyed monster, that crude colloquial nickname for the penis. The mask itself, then, is the foreskin. Those who remain unconvinced should consider also the scene in Part 2 (that most Freudian of Friday the 13ths) in which counselors Jeff and Sandra are killed in an upstairs bedroom in flagrante. Earlier in the film, the jokester among the counselors had run out of the woods carrying a spear and wearing a cheap Cro-Magnon-styled mask in an attempt to portray none other than Jason himself as a mythical wild-man. As Jason makes his way up the stairs towards the bedroom where Jeff and Sandra coo post-coitally, he grabs the spear over the tip of which the mask has been left draped. Before he carries on, Jason’s veiny hand pulls the mask off the head of the spear. He then enters the bedroom and proceeds to spear Jeff and Sandra simultaneously whilst they make love, the erectile imagery anything but subtle. Indeed, when the murine counselor Vickie makes her way up to the bedroom, she finds Jason in the bed with Sandra’s corpse. Jason has effectively replaced Jeff in his capacity to pull back the foreskin and then “spear” the female. Jason’s virility is not one-and-done and lagging, though, for he promptly rises to the occasion to knife Vickie, and when he does so, he stabs low, aiming for the nether regions on her slight body, well below the breast-level frame of the shot.

But Part 2’s Jason has been in phallic form from the very start of the film, the urethra peeking out of foreskin in which it has been husked, and from which it cannot break free. He may be able to unmask the phallic weapon, but in his stunted, unfulfilled sexual development, he himself must perpetually cover the potent sexual readiness that the circumcised (or foreskin-retracted uncircumcised) penis represents, with its glans bared and fully empurpled. Jason’s unhusked sexuality is the undergirding horror of the Friday the 13th series. It is the worst possible outcome of maturity — a sexuality that, like Jason’s body, has been kept entirely underneath the surface in the withering brine, and has become monstrous as a result. That Jason suffers from hydrocephalus, the condition literally meaning a head full of water, is of course, emblematic of this, his malady characterized by a protuberant, misshapen head representing the glans that is unable to find release and therefore over-swollen with some vital fluid, not just water or cerebrospinal fluid but rather semen or blood or perhaps both. It is this painfully secreted sexuality, and the urge of the unfaltering, undying erection to break loose from its sheath and to ejaculate, that drives the plot of every Friday the 13th film (save Part V). Its sublimation brings brutal death to the victimized characters — shapely, id-driven youths who engage uninhibitedly in sex and hence fulfill their urges — but its full revelation brings immeasurable trauma to those who see it, and, as survivors, have to live with it afterward.

This uncircumcised aspect is absolutely essential to the perpetually ithyphallic penile embodiment that is Jason Voorhees. Though he trades his potato-sack from Part 2 for the hockey mask that would become the singular metonym for the entire series thereafter, every head-covering Jason dons is a symbolic foreskin. The mask covers the monstrous expression of his face and the abnormal countenance thereupon, yes, but more symbolically — and more profoundly — it masks the true expression of his sexuality. The masked Jason is notable for having no expression; on his face is but a void — a nothingness tantamount to his sexuality. This is further akin to the uncircumcised penis, that tube-like, trunk-like cylindrical appendage that has, as per the assessment of Seinfeld stalwart Elaine Benes, “no personality.” To be without sexual expression is, essentially, to have no personality. In Jason’s pure expressionless and sexless state, his is the foreskin that has never been pulled back, bared to the air so that it may sense and have sensation. As such, it is too sensitive for the exterior world. Jason is the sea-cucumber of Crystal Lake — the lake-cucumber — his monstrous glans lost in the briny deep. Bespeaking a sexuality that is forever submerged, the ever-phallic Jason suffers from nothing less than a figurative phimosis, the state in which the foreskin cannot be retracted. Consider that Jason, though he never shows a shred of mercy for his victims, insists upon remaining masked. To unmask would be a horror even this inveterate, unpitying murderer cannot unleash upon the victims he so despises. While there are exceptions — as is the case when Jason reveals his identity to the female lead in Part 3 and also when he scares some impertinent Times Square youths in Part VIII — for the most part his mask stays on, the sturdy, bolted straps the figurative frenulum. Even in these exceptional revelations, the result is always revulsion, for the horror of Jason Voorhees is the misshapen, brackish horror of the foreskin that won’t easily pull back, the glans festering with chalky residues and abnormal tissue attachments. The phimosis is further affirmed when we consider Jason’s silence. Phimosis, after all, derives from the Greek phimos, referring to a “muzzle.” That Jason does not speak betrays his ineffectual and effectively mute sexuality. This muzzled sexuality can only be proclaimed through the kill. Moreover, and perhaps most severely, the phimotic penis is headless, and so, in embodying this acephalous state, Jason is perpetually reminded of the murder of his mother, and, with that, her castration. Moreover, his figurative, full-body phimosis is an aide-mémoire of the specter of his own castrated state — his own sexually inefficacy — that haunts him all the while he haunts Camp Crystal Lake.

This walking erection, muzzled and headless by way of his horror-veiling hockey-mask prepuce, has no choice but to remain masked in what is, in essence, a sexual straight-jacket — at least until Jason is cut free. It is someone else, however who must make the cut, and this is the abiding resolution of virtually every Friday the 13th film. At the end of each film, only the pluckiest of teens, a select group made up of chaste, reverent males and abstinent Final Girls, are able to usurp Jason. They do this, fairly consistently at the end of most every installment, by ritually circumcising Jason by way of machete, butcher’s knife, outboard motor blade, or some other bladed weapon. For a brief moment, this is most often (and quite fittingly) followed by a brief glimpse of the unmasked monster straight on. Here we see Jason’s horrific face, and it is the face of the glans, with raw meatus and cataractic infections, smegma and papilloma and polyps, gnarled and calcified with anomalous adhesions, let out into the surface and into the painful fresh air. This is Jason’s sexuality, which, in just a glimpse, is immediately reaffirmed as non-viable and monstrous. And by witnessing the horror of his vanquishers, by seeing them see him, Jason too realizes his sexuality in full, along with its monstrosity, its ineptitude, its futility. Here, under the knife, he too has been proven impotent, and it is only at this point that he is fit to die…for the time being. The myth will, of course, repeat itself. For Jason is only circumcised, and never castrated; the latter is a fate that only his mother can truly know, for she, as a woman, knows it doubly. Jason will seek revenge for the terrifying revelation of circumcision, the glimpse of the horrific truth that comes with it, and he will return. Foreskins, apparently, in this monstrous vision, do grow back.

The Friday the 13th movies, then, are amenable to a psychoanalytic reading that goes beyond the mother-son dynamics of Jason and Pamela. The monster is the phallus — that is, Jason is the erect penis, a hulking, monstrous man-boy so stuck in the phallic stage that he embodies the organ itself. The Jason-cum-penis is all the more horrible in that his foreskin, signified by the mask, is an un-retractable one, a constant reminder of depths too briny to traverse. If the phallus is already in some measure monstrous, Jason Voorhees walks and stalks as the most vile and horrible incarnation of the phallus imaginable: erect, uncircumcised, and phimotic, riddled with infection and bacteria. In the fleeting joy of sex, we the counselors — that is to say, the sexually active — make great efforts to circumvent the monstrosity of it all. The pleasure is palliative, ultimately, as the terror lurking beneath has its cycles, and it recurs in all of us, perhaps with the frequency of a Friday the 13th sequel, and so, periodically, the horror of phallic sexuality rears its ugly head at all of us. For this reason, Friday the 13th should not be dismissed as mere camp, nor should any other slasher involving a masked killer. All masked slashers, to some degree, share in this foreskin imagery, as virtually all villains in the genre, from Halloween’s Michael Myers to The Burning’s Cropsy, are walking, stalking (but never talking) penises brandishing weapons that are self-metonymic, their phallic imaginaries spiraling into themselves unceasingly. Indeed, the erection that is Jason — roaming and headless and muzzled — is horror at its most paramount, hard and uncut.



Thesal Thayer

Horror and exploitation enthusiast. Also likes movies. "Too intense" for most acquaintances.