Sean S. Cunningham and the rest of the creative team behind the 1980 slasher film Friday the 13th have been forthcoming for years on “borrowing” the shock element from the ending of Carrie and utilizing it for their own ending. Arguably even more effective than Carrie’s exhilarating conclusion, the final moments of Friday the 13th are the stuff of legend. But how should the sudden appearance of Jason in Camp Crystal Lake be interpreted? Let’s consider the options.
The overwhelming consensus, and apparently the intent of the filmmakers (which goes a long way), is that Jason’s act of revenge on Alice was all a dream sequence. You will remember that after Alice decapitated Mrs. Voorhees she gently pushed a canoe into Crystal Lake presumably to wait for help. After the Jason sequence and Alice’s abrupt awakening in the hospital bed, we conclude that Alice fell asleep at some point during the night while in the canoe on Crystal Lake and dreamed the entire horrific episode. This is the first and most popular option in considering what happened at the end of the film.
The major strength of this view is obvious. Alice survives the attack. It would be difficult to explain how Alice, after a long night of fighting for her life against Mrs. Voorhees and hanging out in a canoe, could survive an attack by a very ticked-off Jason who is looking for revenge. I have some ideas on how it could have happened, but the fact alone that she lives is a strong argument for the dream sequence.
Equally strong is the police officer issue. Just before Alice is attacked by Jason in the canoe, we are relieved to see the police make their way to the shore of the lake. An officer gets out of his vehicle and is seen shouting toward the canoe which is in the dead middle of the lake. We do not hear the police officer’s voice because we have been so completely immersed in the underrated closing score by Henry Manfredini (I will be writing a subsequent article on Manfredini’s score). The issue at hand as it concerns the police officer is this: He is looking directly at the canoe, trying to get Alice’s attention. Only a few seconds later we are shocked to witness a young, deformed Jason Voorhees jump out of the lake and attack Alice. The necessary next question is clear – how did the officer not see and hear this commotion? The answer, of course, is because it never happened. Alice was dreaming. This is supported by the officer’s bewildered look when Alice asks about “the boy” in the hospital.
Frankly, if not for those two issues, making a case for the dream sequence would be very difficult. The only other possible reason why a viewer might reach such a conclusion is because of the absurdity of Jason rising out of the lake to take revenge after being “dead” for 22 years. But such reasoning is incredibly weak. Are we really suppose to assume Alice’s experience is a dream simply because something impossible happened in a slasher horror film? Horror fans watch horror movies for that very reason – to wait for the incredible, for the fantastic, for the impossible, to invade the lives of the characters and thus invade our lives. No serious horror fan would watch the ending of Friday the 13th and conclude “dream sequence” simply because it seems absurd.
That brings us back to the issue of the police officer and Alice’s survival – and those are significant. Significant enough that they quite possibly cannot be overcome. But, let’s keep thinking…
The second interpretive option for the ending of Friday the 13th is that the events actually happened and Alice was attacked by Jason. There are several strengths for this view. First, this view is supported by the franchise itself. Jason is alive in Friday the 13th part 2. I recognize the inherit weakness of this particular argument – I am relying on material not yet revealed in 1980 to support a position in the first film. If we demand Friday the 13th must stand alone without the aid of the series, then this first argument fails, for at the end of the original film we cannot be certain that Jason is, in fact, alive. Nevertheless, most people who have seen Friday the 13th watch it with a posteriori knowledge that Jason Voorhees is a killing machine, so seeing him pop out of Crystal Lake does not invoke “dream sequence” thoughts.
The second strength for this option also draws from the reality of future films and asks this question: If Jason did not rise from the lake, where had he been for 22 years? If one takes the ending as reality, then one must assume that Jason was brought back to life by the decapitating of his mother for the purpose of revenge. Just as Mrs. Voorhees was on a rampage for the killing of Jason, Jason is now on a rampage for the killing of his mother. If the ending is not reality, and we meet Jason very much alive in Part 2, then we must draw a conclusion that Jason was hiding out somewhere for 22 years. This doesn’t work because there is no reason why he would keep himself separated from his mother. Some have even suggested that Jason “witnessed” his mother’s decapitation from behind a tree, but this is nonsense. That Jason would be so close to his mom that he is keeping tabs on her from behind trees but never reveals to her that he is actually alive is ridiculous.
(I must make a quick aside to point out what could be seen as an inconsistency in the flow of my argument. This is one of those things you either “get” as a movie fan or you don’t. Just a few paragraphs above I made an argument for why the absurd should not keep us from believing something is based in reality – Jason coming back from the dead to attack Alice. Then, I turn right around and argue that it would be “nonsense” for Jason to be alive and not be with his mother. Although this sounds contradictory it actually isn’t. The reason is because we must allow for concessions based on genre but there are certain elements of any film that are constant as part of common sense living. For example, we have no problem enjoying and “believing” a ridiculous car chase in a film like “Fast & The Furious” but the same film still has certain boundaries that must be adhered to in order for the drama to remain “together.” For horror, the absurd and fantastic as they pertain to the elements of that particular drama are the very things that drive the story. Of course we know those things can’t really happen, but for the purpose of the film, we have no problem playing along. Yet, when it comes to characters behaving in a way that are so grossly outside the playing field of common sense, daily living, then we have problems. Even for the most casual horror movie fan, this truth is most clearly seen when a viewer is not bothered by the 3 headed monster who is chasing the helpless victim, but is deeply bothered when said victim locks themselves in a closet instead of running out the front door. Thus, that Jason returns from the dead to avenge his mother is perfectly “believable” within the framework of this genre. That he would keep himself separated from his mother for 22 years but watches her every move from behind a tree is perfectly unacceptable.)
Third, Alice’s final words in the original film are prophetic and have always come across to me as words spoken by a person who knows she is the only person who actually knows. We see this in horror films all the time – there is always that one person, often times a child, who actually understands what is taking place. This is what makes the Dr. Loomis character in Halloween work so well. When Alice says, “then he’s still there” in reference to Jason’s presence at Camp Crystal Lake, it feels honest and correct, not like the result of a dream. Of course, there is the possibility that the one does not have to exclude the other. Even if Alice was dreaming, she could have received and interpreted her dream as a vision of sorts, truly believing that, based on her dream, Jason really is “still there.”
So how does this option deal with the police officer watching Annie? There are two possible solutions.
First, even though the officer is last seen looking directly at Alice, he nevertheless misses something. We don’t know how or why, but he does. The way I can partially (although weakly) support this view is by comparing it to another film where something similar happens. In the original Halloween, Laurie Strode is standing at her bedroom window looking down into her yard. She is startled to see Michael Myers looking back at her. The camera comes back to Laurie who never takes her eye off the yard. Yet, when the camera returns to the yard, Michael is gone. What happened? Did Laurie watch him magically disappear? Did he simply walk away? Was she hallucinating the whole thing? We don’t know. But no one thinks that part of the film is a dream sequence. Somehow, we just get that Laurie, although still at the window, saw Michael and then she didn’t. A similar thing could have happened at Camp Crystal Lake; simply a filming decision. (watch the video below to understand better the Halloween comparison).
Second, the officer arriving at the lake was simply part of the “getting comfortable” mood in order to set up the shock ending. Whether or not the officer was even there during the attack could be in question. Could it actually have been the arrival of the police Alice was imagining and the attack was real – not the reverse?
There are a few other issues we could consider, but this article is already way too long. For example, we could discuss how Jason seemed to age incredibly fast in one year, from the Crystal Lake attack to when he actually kills Alice in part 2. I have some thoughts on why that could have happened, but I will leave that alone for now.
So where do I come down on this? When I first watched the original Friday the 13th I would have been about 11 years old. I was well aware of the subsequent films and the carnage of Jason Voorhees. Thus, on my first viewing, I took the attack as real. I have leaned in that direction ever since. Nevertheless, I recognize the arguments are stronger for the dream sequence interpretation and based on the matter-of-fact way Cunningham and everyone else speaks of the ending as a dream, it is hard to disagree.
What are your thoughts? (besides the glaring unimportant nature of this article).