Grossing a box office success that even its director, Sean S. Cunningham, couldn’t have dreamt of, the 1980 slasher movie ‘Friday the 13th’ was exactly what lovers of the horror genre wanted. The first instalment in a vast franchise of 12 movies and plenty of other spinoffs, it was introduced at a time when slasher as a sub-genre of horror movies was just getting recognized. Featuring great performances by Betsy Palmer, Jeannine Taylor and Adrienne King, and others, the film is about gory murders at a summer camp and the equally thrilling sequence of events behind it. It follows two timelines, with the first being in 1958, when two summer camp counselors were killed.
For a while, everyone knew that the Crystal Lake area basically screams danger, and it needs to be avoided. Despite the warnings, the camp reopens around 20 years later, giving rise to a streak of many more murders, where counselors seem to be the ideal victims. Chaos and mayhem regarding the identity of the perpetrator ensues. As is the case with most murderous movies, serial killing raises a lot of questions about the authenticity of the events portrayed in the movie.
The Real Origins of Friday the 13th
No, ‘Friday the 13th’ is not based on a true story. The makers of the film have repeatedly clarified that there’s no real incident on which it found its origin. Nevertheless, the true inspiration for the film has been attributed to the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher film ‘Halloween,’ which sort of established the genre. The makers wanted to create something similar, just like everyone did at that point, and that worked as a major motivation for the film, albeit with own creative twists of the writer Victor Miller.
For those who are wondering, a summer camp was chosen as an ideal setting for the grisly murders to ensure that the youngsters are away from adult help, making it easier for the killer to target them. This was also the basic idea taken from ‘Halloween.’ The need for a faceless killer was established very soon, and a lot of other ideas were explored based on the location and the kind of fear that can be instilled by basing the film in a summer camp. Miller admitted in an interview with Friday the 13th Films that the ending has been inspired by the 1976 film, ‘Carrie,’ primarily in terms of the shots and the jump scares, recommended by makeup designer Tom Savini.
The idea for the title of the movie itself came randomly to Sean S. Cunningham in a brainstorming session for his 1978 film ‘Manny’s Orphans.’ The filmmaker admitted to Esquire that he believes a poster of the movie should, in a way, tell the story. Speaking of the same, he said, “As producers often do, you sit down with the yellow pad and you start just making lists of titles, trying to free associate and so on, and we came up with some bogus titles for Manny’s Orphans. While I was doing that I wrote down ‘Friday the 13th.’ And, with a couple of people sitting around the table and I said: ‘Friday the 13th.’ I had a picture called Friday the 13th, and I knew how to sell that.”
With no script, story, or cast on their plate, Cunningham and team started working on the ad campaign right after. “I figured we’d run the ad and see if we got any lawyers’ letters, or what the response would be. To my surprise, I didn’t get any lawyers’ letters, but I got a whole bunch of distribution queries, particularly foreign… So we started running around, trying to raise the money for something called Friday the 13th,” he said. Moreover, the makers wanted to advertise the film as the scariest horror movie, which is why ‘Friday the 13th’ felt like a perfect fit, due to the mystery associated with this particular day and date, which is also the day in the film when the murders take place.
Interestingly, he never expected anything out of the film and just wanted to make something that people would enjoy and throw their popcorn around with dread. When the film received the kind of reception it did, he knew that his tactics and approach towards the film had been successful. Cunningham feels that the ending and the mystery he was able to associate with the killer helped chalk out the path for multiple other sequels that could take the story forward.
In terms of the creation of Jason Voorhees, writer Miller just combined the names of his two sons — Josh and Ian, and another girl he knew, Van Vorhees, to create the name for the character that would go down in history as one of the most popular characters in the world of horror. Miller has also touched upon how he believes the antagonist of the film is actually a victim, not a villain. He added that while drafting the script for the original film, he wrote the killer as one who is driven by a “horribly twisted desire to avenge the senseless death” of the person they love the most. The decision to change that in the future installments is something Miller isn’t very happy about.
Due to the success of the film, there are several theories about some real incidents that could have inspired this movie. Even if the makers have repeatedly denied these connections, one real story appears to be very closely associated with the origin of the film — a massacre in Finland in the 1960s. On June 4, 1960, four teenagers decided to camp out near Lake Bodem in Finland. The next morning, only one of them, Nils Gustafsson, survived, while the others were stabbed to death. The real identity of the murderer still remains unclear, even if an elderly suspect reportedly confessed to having killed the kids before seemingly taking his own life in a nearby lake 12 years after the incident.
While incidents like these are eerily similar to the plot, the makers maintain that the script is entirely fictional. The director feels the success of the film has been the result of sheer luck, as while making it, he and his team were just trying to stay employed and working on the movie till the time he could figure out how to make ‘Manny’s Orphans’ into a series. “It was really meant, in out minds, as just a filler.” This shows that while the narrative of ‘Friday the 13th’ is not based on a true story, a lot of elements, including luck, worked their way to create a phenomenal success that would later be adapted in many different ways.