From girl next door to a mother of the macabre, Betsy Palmer shed her squeaky clean image and achieved horror icon status as Jason’s vengeful mommy.
“Life is a tapestry, and little threads are being pulled all the time.” — Betsy Palmer
Our writers recently collaborated to explore the theme of motherhood in some of our favorite horror films. This got me thinking about one of the genre’s most iconic moms, and what it is that makes Pamela Voorhees so memorable and beloved by horror fans.
Yes, Mrs. Voorhees was the mother with a heart of gold, at least when it came to avenging the death of her young son Jason (Ari Lehman). Mrs. Voorhees — portrayed with the perfect touches of compassion and menace by the late actress Betsy Palmer — murdered all but one of the unsuspecting camp counselors at Crystal Lake in filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham’s seminal work “Friday the 13th” (1980).
Over the years — according to Palmer in numerous interviews — many of the fans she met at countless horror conventions understood why Mrs. Voorhees did such unspeakable things to the unsuspecting workers who spent their last summer in that lonely New Jersey hamlet.
“They love me,” Palmer said of the fans she met over the years. “It’s very strange.”
But why did fans rally around Mrs. Voorhees?
Much of the sympathy viewers of “Friday the 13th” felt for Mrs. Voorhees came from the universal nightmare of adults losing their children to an unimaginable tragedy, particularly an only child. Coupled with the superb acting chops of Palmer, which helped Mrs. Voorhees resonate with audiences, those elements helped Jason’s mom become much more than a one-dimensional killer.
The character’s complexity and depth led to Voorhees transcending a serial killer. As a result, Mrs. Voorhees became identifiable with the masses.
However, it’s Cunningham who ultimately tipped the scales in favor of Mrs. Voorhees being more human than monster.
Cunningham stated in a manifold of interviews that he cast Betsy in the role to take advantage of Palmer’s very personable and girl-next-door image she built up over the 30 years prior to cameras rolling on “Friday the 13th.”
“Any of the girls I’ve lived next door to, I wouldn’t want to be any one of them,” Palmer said of being associated with the girl-next-door type.
Casting Palmer against type allowed for doubt in the audiences’ minds to swell when Alice (Adrienne King) is seemingly rescued by Mrs. Voorhees in the final act of the movie. A deep wave of relief washed over movie fans in that pivotal moment when Mrs. Voorhees emerged from her Jeep. Smiling, and exposing those brilliantly kind teeth, Betsy Palmer made it all better. Viewers knew Alice was going to be okay because Palmer was there to save the day.
Cunningham’s brilliant acting hire fooled most, and Palmer’s casting is the real genius of “Friday the 13th.”
Consider this: Imagine if Mrs. Voorhees was written as Mr. Voorhees, and Vincent Price was cast as Jason’s father. Movie fans would have been leaping out of their seats in theaters and screaming at the screen, “Look out, Alice! He’s the killer!”
Betsy Palmer is the key to envisioning Mrs. Voorhees as more mother than murderer.
Audiences in the 1950s grew up first seeing — and becoming enamored with her — when Palmer starred on a number of game shows. She was briefly a letter-turner on the 1952-1953 television summer replacement “Wheel of Fortune.” Later, and more prominently, Palmer appeared repeatedly on game shows including “I’ve Got a Secret” (1955-1967), “To Tell the Truth” (1957-1965) and “Password All-Stars” (1961-1964).
Thanks to those appearances — not to mention being on the “Today” show — Palmer’s reputation as the kind, funny and personable girl-next-door was established. However, film roles alongside Henry Fonda in “Mister Roberts” (1955), Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in “The Long Gray Line” (1955) and Joan Crawford in “Queen Bee” (1955) helped expose Palmer to an even larger audience.
Her reputation as a good girl grew as did Palmer’s stereotypical association with the glamorous side of Hollywood.
“I think the thing that upset me mostly was that I wanted people to understand that I went to the john like everyone else, too,” Palmer said of being viewed by the public as a well-known celebrity. “I do not urinate through my eyes with tears.”
While her stage career also flourished, performing in summer stock with none other than James Dean and Paul Newman, Palmer’s television work — everything from “The Ed Sullivan Show” to “The Tonight Show” to “The Mike Douglas Show” — continued to expose her to the world as a wholesome celebrity.
Fast forward to 1980 and Palmer’s desperate necessity to buy a car.
In need of transportation, after her old vehicle broke down after nearly five hours of being stuck in traffic on a turnpike, Palmer told her agent that she’d accept a role in the horror film “Friday the 13th.” And that fluke in the illustrious career of Palmer change her squeaky-clean image forever. Accepting the role of Mrs. Voorhees also introduced Palmer to an entirely new generation of genre fans.
In conclusion, and quite simply put, it’s Betsy Palmer who made Mrs. Voorhees more mother than monster. Palmer’s acting chops and girl-next-door image compelled an entire generation of film fans to sympathize and, in some cases, even empathize with the plight Jason’s poor mother endured. With the fourth anniversary of Palmer’s passing on May 29, please take a moment to remember a fantastic actress and a memorable mainstay of the macabre.
DID YOU KNOW?
— Palmer’s first job when she arrived in New York in 1951 was for “Hollywood Screen Test” (1948-1953) which ironically only aired in Chicago via ABC, according to the actress. The show paired known and unknown actors/actresses, and Palmer’s first partner was the incomparable Jackie Cooper. After only being in New York five short days, Palmer was cast in the 15-minute soap opera “Miss Susan.”
— Those unforgettable blue eyes, natural blonde locks and sultry voice were the three notable trademarks of the girl-next-door Betsy Palmer in Hollywood.
— Palmer once worked as a chauffeur for Austrian actress Mady Christians.
— At the 2006 Terror Film Festival, Palmer won the Best Actress Award for her work on the film “Penny Dreadful” (2005).
— Palmer’s first acting opportunity in summer stock was playing the ingenue in a one-week rehearsal/performance of the play “Biography” written by S.N. Behrman.
— 1980’s “Friday the 13th” was Palmer’s first movie role since “The Last Angry Man” (1959). Although absent from the Silver Screen over two decades, Palmer continued acting on both the stage and television during that 21-year period.
— Palmer was paid $1,000 a day for the 10 days she worked on the production of “Friday the 13th.”
— While doing a play in Philadelphia, Palmer was in a supermarket when a shopper made the Ch-ch-ch-ch, ha-ha-ha-ha sound effect from “Friday the 13th” behind her. “I knew it was you!” The fan exclaimed in excitement. Palmer’s effect on the genre was secured.
— Palmer and her daughter Melissa watched “Friday the 13th” together in Connecticut when it was first released in theaters. The actress said only six other people were at that particular 7 p.m. screening, and Palmer noticed very little reaction to the horror flick from the patrons. Right after the screening Melissa told her mother she was glad she starred in the movie, so she wouldn’t have to explain to her friends who Betsy Palmer was anymore. A whole new generation was about to meet the girl-next-door.
— “Bell Witch: The Movie” (2007) was Palmer’s final film role. She retired from Hollywood after nearly 60 years in the business. Palmer was 80 years old when she walked away, but continued to thrill fans with appearances in documentaries and at horror film conventions.