Broadcast Thought is the collective name for a creative cabal of three forensic psychiatrists (H. Eric Bender, M.D., Praveen R. Kambam, M.D., and Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D.) who also happen to have a vast and unquenchable thirst for pop culture knowledge.
I recently co-moderated a panel with them at Wondercon called “Flashback to the Slash Pack.” There, along with Freddy vs. Jason and Friday The 13th (2009) writer Mark Swift, we took a look at the psychological underpinnings of characters like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. But these guys go even deeper than that. Like I said, their interest is limitless and there is no figure in horror (or any other genre, for that matter) that is beyond reproach
Today we launch the first article in our two-part assessment of the mother of one of the most famous slashers out there, Jason Voorhees. And as a slasher herself, she’s no slouch. That’s right, Pamela Voorhees. While Mrs. Voorhees was played by Paula Shaw in Freddy vs. Jason and Nana Visitor in the 2009 reboot, their research here stems solely from Betsy Palmer’s iconic 1980 portrayal of the character in the original Friday The 13th.
Be sure to follow BTdocs on Twitter and head below to go Inside The Head Of Pamela Voorhees!!
DISCLAIMER 1: In real life, we would need an adequate evaluation:
Various diagnoses might help explain Pamela Voorhees’ mental state as seen in Friday the 13th (1980), but to truly understand her struggles, we would need to conduct a psychiatric evaluation and gather necessary information to properly diagnose anything. It might be tough to interview her given that she’s been decapitated.
DISCLAIMER 2: There is an overblown link between mental illness and violence:
While we can try to offer hypothetical explanations for Mrs. Voorhees’ behaviors, clinical mental illness, in and of itself, doesn’t typically increase one’s risk for violence except in a few narrow circumstances (e.g., alcohol and drug use disorders, acute paranoia).
What’s up with Mrs. Voorhees’ bizarre behaviors?
Dr. Bender: In Friday the 13th (1980), we see Mrs. Voorhees blaming camp personnel for perceived wrongs, sometimes having a conversation with herself using two different voices, becoming rageful, and of course, killing. From the limited information available, Mrs. V seemed to be displaying symptoms of dissociation (a state of detachment from oneself or surroundings) and/or psychosis (a loss of touch with reality). Examples of people in dissociative states can include a person under hypnosis, a person intoxicated with drugs like ketamine, a Vietnam veteran experiencing a “flashback” and believing he is back in a combat situation, and someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder). Examples of psychotic symptoms include experiencing hallucinations or believing bizarre things that are not really true, e.g., shape-shifting aliens have replaced my family members.
Dr Kambam: There is some evidence to suggest that Mrs. Voorhees is psychotic. First, she appeared to be talking to herself as if she were experiencing command auditory hallucinations (hearing a voice she believed to be Jason ordering her to do things). She might have been hearing and responding to a false perception of Jason’s voice. For example, when Mrs. V and Alice meet, Mrs. V said aloud, “Help, Mommy!” and then responded by saying, “I am, Jason.” Mrs. V then said to herself in a childish voice, “Kill her, Mommy! Kill her! Don’t let her get away, Mommy! Don’t let her live!” Mrs. V answered herself and stated, “I won’t, Jason! I won’t!” She repeatedly said, “Kill her!” in that childish voice, “Kill her, Mommy! Kill her! She can’t hide…No place to hide…Kill her!…Kill her!…Kill her!…Kill her!…”
Dr. Pozios: Mrs. V’s statements may indicate she held a delusion (fixed, false belief) that Alice (and other camp personnel) actually let Jason die. When Mrs. V and Alice meet, Mrs. V did appear to have thoughts of Jason drowning. She told Alice, “You let him drown! You never paid any attention! Look what you did to him…” If these were, in fact, delusional thoughts, it’s possible that the counselors weren’t even having sex the day of Jason’s death – Mrs. V might just have falsely believed that.
Dr. Kambam: When considering whether Mrs. V actually has a psychotic illness, it is important to consider her age. Given that Jason died at age eleven, Mrs. V was likely in her late 20s or 30s at that time. She would have been at a typical age for a woman to develop Schizophrenia (a psychotic disorder).
Dr. Pozios: Despite the above information suggesting that she had some psychotic behavior, other evidence suggests that she was not psychotic. First, it is atypical for someone genuinely experiencing auditory hallucinations to parrot or speak the auditory hallucination. That is, Mrs. V responding to Jason’s voice may be consistent with experiencing auditory hallucinations but her speaking in his voice is unusual. Second, assuming that the counselors truly were negligent of their duties when Jason died, Mrs. V might not have been delusional in thinking that Alice actually let Jason die. Instead, Mrs. V might have been communicating her anger and displacing that emotion onto anyone that was related to the camp (much like someone angry with the police after experiencing a perceived wrong from one or two police officers). Finally, experiencing the symptoms in question in an episodic fashion is atypical for a primary psychotic disorder compared to dissociative episodes.
Dr. Bender: Some evidence suggests that Mrs. V was actively dissociating – experiencing a separation from her surroundings and/or her physical and emotional experience. In fact, Mrs. V appeared to experience (at least) two personality states/identities as evidenced by her conversations with herself. She also appeared to act as if she were reliving or flashing back to the traumatic event (Jason’s drowning). Her actions might reflect symptoms of possible disorders in which someone can experience dissociative symptoms.
Dr. Pozios: First, she might have some form of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder). Could it be that the trauma of losing Jason was so devastating that she had a “split” in her personality and now has at least one other “alter” personality? At times there seemed to be two or more distinct personality states – an avenging, enforcer personality and a more childlike-sounding personality. There may have been a third “alter,” which could explain Mrs. V’s periods of relative wellness and not killing.
Dr. Kambam: But some things may not fit Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). We don’t have evidence for the other criteria of DID. Also, while it isn’t absolute, many with this disorder have a history of experiencing abuse – it is unclear from the movie alone whether Mrs. V had such a history.
Dr. Pozios: It’s also possible that Mrs. V had Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She experienced the traumatic event of her son dying. She re-experienced the event by possibly experiencing flashbacks of Jason dying when talking to Alice. She displayed problems with anger and irritability (which may be indications of hyperarousal symptoms).
Dr. Bender: But the problem with trying to apply a PTSD diagnosis is that Mrs. V didn’t display a hallmark feature: avoidance. Instead of avoiding reminders of the trauma, she actively sought them out by returning to the camp, the counselors, and the setting of the traumatic event. Also, hyperarousal symptoms of anger and irritability that can be part of PTSD have to be a change from baseline – we don’t know if these existed for Mrs. V before the events of the movie.
Dr. Kambam: It’s also possible her behaviors and dissociative episodes might reflect Borderline Personality Disorder. People with this disorder can experience dissociative episodes, especially when stressed, frantic, and feeling like they aren’t in control of a particular situation. (Borderline Personality Disorder was originally named for the borderline the patient walks between being neurotic, or distressed, and psychotic.) Mrs. V’s rapid, unpredictable mood shifts might have been affective instability of this personality disorder, while her murderous rampage might have reflected the inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger that someone with Borderline Personality Disorder can have. At the same time, blaming the counselors could have been a transient, stress-related paranoia.
Dr. Pozios: However, with Borderline Personality Disorder, the dissociation seen in Borderline Personality Disorder is often that of depersonalization (experiencing the sense/feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body with controlling it) or derealization (experiencing the sense/feeling that you’re surroundings aren’t real), rather than experiencing multiple personalities. So that doesn’t exactly fit. Also, people with Borderline Personality Disorder are much more likely to engage in self-injurious behavior rather than violence toward other (despite what we saw in Fatal Attraction).
Dr. Bender: What’s more, personality disorders are chronic and pervasive – from the first movie, we don’t know if Mrs. V had problems across the board throughout her life. In addition, Mrs. V didn’t meet enough criteria to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (she might have met three of criteria but five is required for the diagnosis).
If she has dissociation or psychosis, why isn’t she always killing or acting in a bizarre manner?
Dr. Pozios: If Mrs. V were experiencing dissociation, we could expect a worsening during periods of particular stress and/or reminders of trauma. The potential re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake might have been too much for her to handle. In a primary psychotic disorder like Schizophrenia, symptoms of psychosis would be relatively constant. However, this diagnosis would be inconsistent with an almost 20-year period in which she didn’t have any erratic, bizarre behaviors (or so we assume). At the same time, it may be that she had treatment during this time and that treatment controlled her symptoms.
Dr. Bender: While primary psychotic disorders like Schizophrenia have natural ebbs and flows in symptom severity, episodic psychotic symptoms are more typically seen when they are secondary to another illness that is episodic. One such illness is Major Depressive Disorder with Psychotic Features. Here, only during severe episodes of depression does one experience psychotic symptoms. In Mrs. V’s case, the death of Jason might have been such a significant stressor that it triggered grief then led to a Major Depressive Disorder in her. It is also possible that Mrs. V had periods of improvement (perhaps with treatment) and worsening. Perhaps the times when she got worse were in 1962, when she presumably poisoned the water at the camp, and in 1980, when she went on a killing rampage.
That’s it for this week! Tune in next week to find out if Pamela Voorhees was indeed a serial killer. Or if she was in fact insane…