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What does Friday the 13th have to do with homelessness?

May 18, 2020 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPurpose
Damn, these guys really like horror movies.

That was my initial reaction when the men in Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program decided to watch the entire Friday the 13th film franchise in one weekend. It also reminded me of something a former shelter guest once said to me: “When you’re homeless, every day feels like Friday the 13th.”

At the time, I thought he was talking about the superstition, saying that being homeless was like being jinxed or caught in a streak of bad luck. I hadn’t considered the possibility that he was actually referring to the slasher film franchise — which gives an entirely different meaning to his words. That got me thinking: What does an iconic story about a masked man killing teenage camp counselors have to do with homelessness?

Quite a lot, actually. Here’s what I learned.

The Friday the 13th franchise generally isn’t considered part of the “homeless horror” genre that I wrote about in a previous column. Homelessness doesn’t directly impact any of its characters or feature strongly in any of its plots—with one minor exception. In Friday the 13th Part III (1982), a presumably homeless character named Abel makes a brief appearance. He stumbles across a corpse, keeps part of it as a souvenir, and then warns a group of teenagers to stay away from Camp Crystal Lake. Meanwhile, in a 1987 episode of the Friday the 13th television series, the plot revolves around someone who has been killing homeless people to steal their life force and remain young forever.

Not long after it aired, news broke about 22 homeless people who were murdered so their bodies could be used by a medical school in Colombia. That was nearly 30 years ago, yet even today the United Nations warns that the international black market for organs is alive and well — and that homeless people remain uniquely vulnerable targets.

Here in Philadelphia, I’ve worked with many homeless men who donate blood for money on a regular basis, or whose primary source of income is enrolling in pharmaceutical studies, and one who was desperate enough to ask if he could trade a kidney for a housing subsidy.

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With all that said, we might consider Friday the 13th an example of “homeless horror” for the way it indirectly comments on homelessness.

For example, in The Los Angeles Times’ review of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), Chris Willman points out the irony of the franchise’s villain “coming to the biggest of big cities, only to have his mere homicidal monstrousness dwarfed by the real-life horrors of drugs, rape, homelessness, disease, despair, and all-around urban decay.”

While reading Willman’s review, I’m reminded of a man who was stabbed to death at a local shelter in 2017. It’s a story I’ve heard many times and that continues to live on in the homeless community. I’ve heard it told by a man who says he was sitting next to the victim when it happened. I’ve heard it told by a man who saw it from across the room. I’ve heard it told by a man who was in the bathroom when he heard a scream. I’ve heard it told by a man who was smoking a cigarette outside when the police arrived. I even heard it told by a man who had just come into town from St. Louis, Missouri, and who wanted to know if what he had heard was true. I still hear about this story, and while the narrative is different every time, there’s one detail that always stays the same. The murder weapon is never a knife, never a shank, and never a blade, but always a machete.

A machete also happens to be the signature weapon in the Friday the 13th franchise.

It’s an unsettling coincidence — one that makes me wonder what the violence on screen means for this group of men in particular.

Throughout the movie marathon, I’m continuously reminded that what we’re seeing on screen is a reflection of real horror. For example, in Friday the 13th: Part III (1982), when a character is struck by an axe to the head, I’m reminded that one of our shelter guests was attacked in an alleyway with an axe last year.

In Friday the 13th Part VI (1986), when a character is tied to a boulder and thrown into a lake, I’m reminded of a shelter guest still living with the trauma of a sailing accident that happened decades ago.

In Friday the 13th Part VII (1988), when a character is killed in her sleeping bag, I’m reminded of the many guests who entered our shelter after being violently attacked while sleeping on the streets — kicked, beaten, and even set on fire.

This brings me to another observation. I’ve noticed that while homeless services providers often talk about “exiting” or “ending” homelessness, people experiencing homelessness more often talk about it in terms of escaping it.

In 2017, Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver, British Columbia, used this very concept to create a homelessness-themed escape room. You may have also heard about the live-action, outdoor escape room in Arizona modeled after the Friday the 13th movies —i n which players have to solve a series of puzzles while an actor dressed as Jason Voorhees “hunts” them. Bringing things full circle, there’s even a new horror film franchise being modeled after the escape room concept.

The critical response to the first film in that franchise — Escape Room (2019) — is fascinating, particularly the response towards the characters. The reviewer from Roger Ebert described them as universally “disposable.”

“Who cares if they live or die?”, wrote Variety.

“Honestly it’s more fun to root for the booby traps to win,” wrote the Inquirer.

Harsh reviews aren’t anything new, but while reading them I noticed that we often think about people experiencing homelessness in precisely these terms. In the American imagination, we treat them like they’re disposable — or “surplus life,” as one scholar has written. At best, they’re just people in the background (if we think of them as people at all). At worst, we think it’s acceptable to humiliate, degrade, or even attack them.

We’re scandalized by the mere idea of a human right to housing, while the reality of people living and dying on the streets is considered perfectly normal. It’s a horrifying way of life and a horrifying way of thinking.

It’s also a way of thinking that the Friday the 13th franchise has reinforced in us. Each film’s plot encourages viewers to guess when, how, and in what order the characters will die. The goal of the films is not to empathize with the characters — it’s to engage you in the “thrill” of speculating about and then witnessing their deaths. To that end, significant portions of the original film were shot in the first-person perspective of the killer.

In his review of Friday the 13th (2009), S.T. Karnick commented on this element of the franchise when he wrote that “indifference toward others is a central effect of the slasher film, and these movies ingeniously drive their point home by forcing audiences to experience the very thing that motivates the murders: a lack of compassion.”

This isn’t to say that these or any other films make us violent, but rather, as Karnick writes, “that audiences could be just as indifferent and callous as the characters in the films.” Which, come to think of it, is one of the most enduring — and powerful — horror concepts: holding a mirror up to ourselves.

By the time my shift at the shelter is over, the movie marathon is still going on. So is the COVID-19 pandemic. So is homelessness. So is poverty, climate change, and all the rest. The world we live in is one trauma after another, and in that sense I think Chris Willman from The Los Angeles Times may have been right: compared to the state of the world these days, Friday the 13th looks less like horror and more like satire.

As I’m walking out the door, I’m struck by the thought that perhaps a film franchise is a useful metaphor for understanding trauma therapy, or the more generalized “trauma work” we’re all engaged in to one degree of another.

In the Friday the 13th franchise, the villain never really dies. Even when he is literally dragged to hell, he somehow finds a way back. Trauma never quite goes away either.

The thing about a franchise, though, is that it goes on — and there is always room for change, growth, creativity, and rebirth. There is always a chance to reboot the concept, recast the characters, and rewrite the script.

So, yes, trauma happens; and yes, horror happens. But they’re not the end of the story.

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