Friday the 13th: When Did Jason Voorhees Become the Hero of His Franchise?

Jason Vorhees is an undead monster who likes killing teenagers while wearing a hockey mask. So when exactly did he become the hero of the Friday the 13th franchise?

Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th in Freddy vs Jason
Photo: New Line Cinema

This article contains Freddy vs. Jason spoilers.

As a wrestling fan, one of the things I always found interesting was the idea of a match where it was bad guy vs. bad guy. In a form of entertainment based on cheering on the hero, the heel vs. heel scenario makes you question who the lesser evil is. Do you side with the kleptomaniac obsessed with repossessing people’s property or the supernatural voodoo priest who makes his opponents secrete black ooze from their foreheads? The egotistical male model or the egotistical gigolo? The flamboyant bullies or the evil rich guys?

Horror movies are a lot like that. Your list of victims may have a few jackasses in there, but being kind of an asshole is better than being a deranged serial killer… most of the time. Over the course of the Friday the 13th series, not counting the first and fifth movies, you knew that Jason Voorhees was THE monster. He was this unstoppable, insidious killer with an endless thirst for murder. He could kill everyone on Earth with his bare hands and it would not be enough to satiate his bloodlust.

One could even be forgiven for thinking that Jason had some kind of code to him. Slasher movies usually suggest that teens are being punished for acting out, so maybe if you’re straight edge and you abstain from sex, you might be off the menu? That doesn’t really fly, however, as Jason will kill just about anyone whether they fit into the theme or not.

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Then something interesting happened. Like with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) in the early days of horror cinema, people started to become infatuated with the ideas of then-modern horror icons duking it out. Unofficially, it started with 1988’s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. After the series went full-on supernatural in Part VI (1986), with Jason becoming undead, Part VII went further by introducing Tina Shepard. Due to her telekinesis and life of trauma, the conflict was supposed to invoke the concept of Jason vs. Carrie. Stephen King’s Carrie White is already one of the more sympathetic horror icons, but take away the part where she’s a mass murderer, and there’s no question that Jason is overwhelmingly the bad guy.

Then in 1993, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was released. While it was very messy and all over the place (and not in the fun blood and guts way), the final seconds did make a major hint that we would be seeing Jason take on Freddy Krueger… eventually. It would take time, but one day we seemed destined to get another Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man like showdown.

In the meantime, Topps Comics did a three-issue miniseries from late 1995 to early 1996 called Jason vs. Leatherface, which was written by Nancy A. Collins and David Imhoff and drawn by Jeff Butler. Other than the awesome imagery of two masked maniacs trying to murder each other with sharp instruments of pain, there isn’t too much to this fight on paper. Leatherface is crazy and violent, but he’s still just a mortal up against an unkillable zombie with super strength.

What’s notable is that this comic gave Jason Voorhees feelings. Now sure, this is a guy who has always been driven by his mother being beheaded, but Jason is still always treated as completely cold and emotionless. In this comic, Jason ends up in the Texas backwoods where he comes across the cannibalistic Sawyer siblings (the main villains of 1974’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Bonding over their shared hobby of killing the innocent in the woods, Jason gets invited into the Sawyer home and is basically adopted.

Jason and Leatherface in the Comics

Jason feels a kinship with Leatherface due to their similarities but also ends up developing a sense of disgust with the way the rest of the family mistreats him. When we do get the big Jason vs. Leatherface showdown, it’s because Jason wants to murder the other Sawyers for being abusive, and Leatherface is just too loyal to his kin and protects them. It’s such a weird situation where both slashers are treated as sympathetic and, on some level, well-meaning.

Before Ronny Yu’s Freddy vs. Jason came out in 2003, the movie was in developmental hell for years. During that time, there were so many screenplays written and rejected for one reason or another. My friends, they were bonkers. What these treatments all basically agreed on was that at the end of the day, countless victims or not, Jason Voorhees was always going to be the good guy when faced off against someone like Freddy Krueger.

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While there may be some stuff in there about a traumatic childhood from the later Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, Freddy has always been treated as a purely evil monster. He’s a child molester and a child killer. He is overpowered, and when somebody figures out a way to kill him, it’s hand-waved away by the next movie. He’s unescapable and does what he does because he relishes it. Sure, there’s an aspect of revenge in there, but it’s revenge for being burned to death due to his many unspeakable crimes in life.

By contrast, Jason is a tank of a man but he isn’t God. It’s not easy, but he can be stopped, he can be escaped, and he can be defeated. He is driven by revenge over his dead mother, who was driven herself by revenge for Jason being teased and allowed to die as a child due to negligence. Bad editing and writing can make him seem unfair at times, what with all the teleporting, but nowhere near Freddy’s level.

On top of that, Jason represents catharsis in this rivalry. Just like it was satisfying to see Jason thrown around by a psychic teen girl, people would love to see Jason shut Freddy up by giving him the mauling he so richly deserves. It was long past due to watch Freddy get taken down a peg by someone supernatural who did not seem to be afraid of him.

Not that that last part was totally true in some of those early scripts. One of the recurring ideas was that Freddy and Jason had a history stretching back to before the body counts. Ideas that Freddy was a counselor at Camp Crystal Lake. Maybe he bullied Jason. Maybe he molested Jason. Maybe Jason saw Freddy making moves on Pamela Voorhees and the shock made him run into the lake to die. All these scenarios made Jason seem like the underdog who needed to redeem his past.

In some of the early script treatments, Jason would even blatantly be on the teens’ side! They writers really pushed Jason as being the antihero in these, including by having the killer and a protagonist getting into a car and Jason insisting that he gets to drive by quietly and powerfully shoving the other guy into the passenger seat. This would be the same screenplay that ended with Freddy and Jason having a boxing match in Hell—a screenplay where the plot is that Jason was resurrected to save the world from a Freddy Krueger cult made up of “Fred Heads.”

Sometimes they even gave Jason the climactic moment of getting to talk. In one instance, as a burning mall collapsed around Jason and Freddy, the one in the hockey mask growled at the main character, “Get out.” Another time, he got to triumphantly hold Freddy’s limp corpse in the air while screaming, “FREDDY’S DEAD!”

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As the movie got closer to being made, New Line Cinema put its foot down on certain things. For one, this retcon crossover stuff had to go. Freddy and Jason have never met each other and are not linked by origins. It was also decided that Jason was not going to be a damn superhero. It was going to be a villain vs. villain fight.

Yet in the end, Jason still ended up looking like the lesser evil. Onscreen, see that Freddy is able to reduce him into a scared, little child in the dream world. The main girl Lori (Monica Keena) was also revealed to have some sympathy for Jason after watching him drown as a boy in one of his dream memories. When she throws Jason his machete in the end, there is a feeling of a connection with the way he stares at her. The fact that Freddy was the mastermind of everything, and the teens are trying to weaponize Jason to stop him, only added to the idea that some people just want to see Jason set loose on someone arguably worse.

Funnily enough, when they got around to doing the comic book sequel, Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash, the inclusion of Evil Dead’s Ash Williams made it so that Jason did not need that antihero edge. The very opening scene had Jason kill off the survivors from Freddy vs. Jason while Lori angrily screamed that she was wrong for ever feeling sorry for him.

And you know what? Jason still kind of fell into the background for that series and its follow-up Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash: Nightmare Warriors. Said follow-up has Freddy create an undead army with the Necronomicon with Jason as a lieutenant who is just…there. There with long, luxurious hair because it was a really dumb comic.

On the other hand, a really awesome comic was the two-issue story Friday the 13th: How I Spent My Summer Vacation by Jason Aaron and Adam Archer. The story hits the line between morbid and touching, following Crystal Lake camper Davie Falkner. Falkner has the same facial deformity as Jason, though he’s mentally capable. During one of Jason’s rampages, Jason sees Davie and chooses not to kill him. Instead he takes him with him on some kind of mysterious, personal mission.

Jason does kill a bunch of people, albeit in ways where he helps out Davie. For instance, he slaughters a group on a picnic, then gives their food to Davie. Davie begins to idolize Jason and feels that his victims deserve it. As messed up as this is, the true antagonist of the story is a corrupt sheriff on meth who wants to kill Davie for being a witness to him aiming his gun at Jason and missing, accidentally shooting some innocent teenagers.

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Jason ends up falling off a cliff while killing that sheriff after he is split up from Davie. Weirdly, we see that Jason’s mission was to visit his mother’s grave, as if he felt that his connection with Davie was familial in some way. Did he think Davie was a brother? A different version of himself? Was it some kind of show-and-tell moment for his new friend? It’s a cool, cryptic moment.

Jason Voorhees in My Summer Vacation comic

The antihero concept would return once again in 2015’s Mortal Kombat X, of all places. Like various other cinematic monsters (Freddy, Leatherface, Predator, Alien), Jason was playable as downloadable content. As part of the game’s story, former Mortal Kombat hero Liu Kang had been corrupted and became the king of Hell itself. In Jason’s ending—which interestingly noted that Jason and Scorpion are the same species of undead—Liu Kang noticed how good Jason was as a killer and thought to recruit him. He lured him to Hell and offered him an endless amount of slaughter in exchange for his allegiance.

Jason responded by strangling Liu Kang with his own intestines. Hell of a way of saying, “No thanks.”

Either way, Jason did everyone a whole lot of good by mindlessly lashing out.