Few horror movie villains are as iconic as Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees but, surprising as it may seem for fans of the franchise, it’s time for the murderer to hang up his infamous hockey mask. First released in 1980, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th was a blatant Halloween rip-off that used a twisty, Agatha Christie-style murder mystery plot and some clever, Giallo-influenced kills to win itself a massive audience and become a sleeper hit.
The film may have had an absurd killer reveal in the form of Ms. Voorhees, Jason’s vengeful mother, but it was the secondary villain barely glimpsed in its closing scenes who truly changed horror history. Even though Jason Voorhees, the little boy who was drowned in Camp Crystal Lake, is only seen in a brief dream sequence, the character went on to become one of slasher cinema’s most recognizable faces. Only that’s not quite true.
While Jason Voorhees is as famous as A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger (who he faced off against in 2003’s maligned crossover Freddy vs Jason), he’s best known for the distinctive hockey mask that hides his face from view. Few films in the long-running Friday the 13th series have unmasked Jason and given viewers a good look at his real face. The franchise’s critically derided 2009 reboot even gave the mask its own backstory, but despite—or perhaps because of—this outsized fame, is it time for the character to hang up his most recognizable piece of attire? What was once a smart way for the low-budget series to avoid exposing its limited special effects has now led the character’s mask to become so widely spoofed that a truly scary Jason reboot would need to drop the detail to avoid self-parody. Not only that, but since any new version of Friday the 13th‘s Jason is expected to keep the costume unchanged, the sight of an unmasked Jason would be a far scarier surprise than another redesign of the character.
It’s important to remember when considering the future of Jason’s mask that the character didn’t always need the prop to be an effective villain. In the first film, as Scream’s killers noted, Jason barely even appears, since his mother turns out to be the surprise villain. When he does crop up, his mask-less appearance provides the biggest scare in the entire movie. It’s an iconic jump scare that has gone on to influence everything from Hatchet to 1408; the fact that Jason’s unmasked visage can prompt so much terror proves the character doesn’t need to stick to his existing design in the future. It’s also worth noting that the character simply wears a cloth sack over his head in the MPAA-butchered Friday the 13th Part 2, although this isn’t a look that the series needs to revisit regardless of whether the creators opt to retire Jason’s mask.
The original reasoning behind the iconic costume detail was more practical than anything else, as the cash-strapped filmmakers couldn’t afford to have Jason’s expensive prosthetic face on display for long. Every version of Jason’s unmasked face has been uniquely disturbing in its inventive design, but one thing each form has in common is that they’re barely glimpsed by audiences before being hidden again moments later, meaning the facial prosthetics were never held up to intense scrutiny. The Friday the 13th franchise’s huge financial success, alongside the massive popularity of ’80s horror throwbacks such as Stephen King’s It and Stranger Things, ensure that any Jason-centric project wouldn’t struggle to find big-budget backing now. As a result, the fear of exposing a paltry FX budget is no longer a relevant concern for the creators. Not only that, but It’s redesigned Pennywise has proven that prolonged exposure to a monster’s creature design isn’t enough to stop contemporary audiences from being scared senseless by the villain, with many critics lauding the Stephen King adaptation’s risky decision to show its antagonist often and in broad daylight throughout both movies.
Even more so than fellow horror icons Michael Myers and Leatherface, Jason Voorhees and his hockey mask have been parodied everywhere. Everything from horror movie parodies such as ’80s throwback The Final Girls and Unmasked Part 25, to The Simpsons to even children’s shows such as Tiny Toon Adventures and The Looney Tunes have used a hockey mask as a visual shorthand for a mute slasher movie villain, and as a result, the design’s simplicity has been lost to ubiquity. Where once Jason’s mask was a genuinely scary element which made the character’s true face unknowable, it’s now a cliche and has been for some time, making the costume more of a nostalgic throwback to classic slasher movies than a genuinely intimidating character detail. It’s a problem never faced by Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, for example, as a mask made of human flesh will always be inherently threatening. The mask also doesn’t plague Halloween’s Michael Myers simply because his appearance hasn’t been as widely parodied as Jason’s iconic look.
The Friday the 13th series’ 2009 reboot epitomized the issue of the mask’s excessive recognizability in a clumsy scene that dwelled on Jason killing a local and finding the item for the first time. Attempting to give this moment weight and meaning seemed bizarre and out of place as, ultimately, the mask isn’t something that ever required explanation. The scene sees Jason hold up the mask as if it were Batman’s cowl or Spiderman’s suit, and while a lot of viewers do cheer Jason on and view the killer as something of an unintentional antihero, it’s too much to try and give his costume meaning and emotional heft. Ultimately, the enduring appeal of Jason throughout the sometimes scary, sometimes comical Friday the 13th movies is that whether he’s possessing someone, returning from the dead, or traveling through Hell, the character is simply a mute killer with little humanity or motive beyond revenge, and too much backstory bogs down this simplicity.
Much like the rebooted Jason’s survivalist bunker was a step too far for many fans who were already acclimated to stretching credulity for this franchise, another dramatically lit and scored mask unveiling would be a mistake for the series. In contrast, getting rid of the mask entirely and giving Jason a new look for the new films would be a genuinely unexpected shock for longtime fans of the franchise who by now have seen the character briefly unmasked countless times. Friday the 13th viewers have seen multiple versions of Jason’s face behind the mask, but the killer has never stalked his victims and prowled around Crystal Lake bare-faced. It’s exactly the sort of reinvention that the character needs, particularly if the next Friday the 13th movie is another prequel that could re-establish the franchise’s lore.