Mother of Horror: Remembering Betsy Palmer
Originally posted on thesausagefactoryshow.com June 6, 2015
“What is she doing in that!?”
I remember the disdain in my mother’s voice to this day. My mother's disdain was of the highest caliber and kind. I usually found myself on the business end of her disapproval, not only for the uncanny ability I possessed for getting myself into trouble (small town + recalcitrant kid = mommy needs Prozac), but for my taste in movies. The “she” my mother was referring to was actress Betsy Palmer, the “that” was groundbreaking 1980 slasher flick Friday the 13th.
My mother, like most people prior to 1980, knew Betsy Palmer as a star of both stage and screen. Beginning her career in 1951, Betsy Palmer had enjoyed recurring roles on dozens of television shows and was a panelist on the long-running quiz show I’ve Got a Secret. She shared the silver screen alongside such Hollywood heavyweights as Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, William Powell, Jackie Gleason, Joan Crawford, James Cagney, Anthony Perkins and Jack Lord. She even reportedly dated James Dean. Betsy had been given the dubious branding of “the girl next door”. She was peaches and cream. Oh, how that would soon change.
So what was she doing in that? One can only chalk it up to a sublime coincidence, in which the stars aligned and the movie gods, cruel as they so often are, smiled down upon us. In the late 70’s, following the runaway success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (a movie made for a little that made a whole lot), Sean S. Cunningham and his writing partner Victor Miller set out to capitalize on its success with their own bloody tale of hapless teens meeting an untimely demise. Miller followed the basic premise of Halloween, which found a group of suburban teens stalked and slaughtered by the Boogieman. Miller substituted a summer camp for suburbia, played up the “sex means death” trope that became a staple of 80’s slashers and decided to appoint a more maternal antagonist to play judge, jury and executioner to his motley crue of victims. Like Halloween, Cunningham wanted to appropriate a date just as familiar to audiences, with the same foreboding stigma. Friday the 13th was born. Cunningham had his title, had his script, but needed a killer…
"Without Betsy Palmer we'd all be unknowns trying to sell a horror screenplay."
- Victor Miller, screenwriter Friday the 13th.
Betsy Palmer needed a vehicle. In Hollywood terms, a “vehicle” is a movie intended to pave the way to stardom for an up-and-coming young actor or actress. Betsy had been there and done that. She needed a new ride. Betsy’s beloved Mercedes had recently broken down. She asked the universe to deliver her a car. Fate (by way of her agent) brought her a movie script instead. The job would pay her $1000 dollars per day for a 10 day shoot. It just so happened that Betsy had been eyeing a Volkswagen Scirocco that cost $9,999.99. The universe works in mysterious ways. The script she was delivered was for a low budget horror film entitled Friday the 13th. She thought the script was “a piece of shit” upon first reading it, but figured no one would ever see the movie and accepted the role. Betsy reported to the set, a Boy Scout camp in New Jersey, and, 10 days later, was wrapped. She bought her new car and left Friday the 13th in her rearview, but not before making an impression on her young co-stars, Adrienne King and Ari Lehman. "Sean was so smart to keep Betsy and me apart between scenes when we filmed Friday the 13th," King recalls. "He probably realized we would have become fast friends on set. That might’ve gotten in the way of our biting & smashing each other’s head in the sand." "Betsy Palmer made everyone around her feel special," said Lehman. "No one could work a crowd like her. I have seen her make people laugh until they literally fell out of their seats."
Now, whether or not Friday the 13th is a piece of shit or not is debatable, particularly with my mother, but there is absolutely no debating the fact that a lot of people saw the movie. Friday the 13th was picked up by Paramount Pictures and released wide during the summer of 1980 - a first for a film of its kind. Friday the 13th grossed a ridiculous amount of money, spawned an endless succession of sequels, a syndicated television series (in title only), more imitators than you can shake a bloody pitchfork at, a barrage of merchandise and, of course, Jason Voorhees, one of cinema's most widely recognized and beloved villains.
No one was more shocked by the success of Friday the 13th than Betsy Palmer. No longer was she “the woman from the talk shows”. Betsy Palmer had transformed overnight into Pamela Voorhees, the mother of horror. Even now, people defend Mrs. Voorhees' actions. To her fans she’s a loving and devoted mother. Perhaps the mother they never had. They ask, “What would you do if your son’s death was caused by the negligence of others? Wouldn’t you want revenge?” She's taken on a kind of anti-hero status. Most people can, at least, meet her half way. She's also, inadvertently, become something of a surrogate mother to many horror fans.
At the time of the film's release, however, many saw Betsy's involvement in Friday the 13th as an affront to her squeaky clean image. Cunningham, in a stroke of brilliance, knew that audiences would be shocked at the revelation that Betsy Palmer was the killer. To say Betsy was playing against type is an understatement. Imagine if Katie Couric had been revealed as Jigsaw in the first Saw movie. Betsy had gone from peaches and cream to blood and gore. The late film critic Gene Siskel even went so far as to post Betsy's home address in his review of Friday the 13th. He urged readers to write Betsy and voice their disappointment in her for appearing in such a loathsome and reprehensible film. Critics claimed Friday the 13th was sexist, misogynistic and hinted at a deep hatred of women in general. They seemed to overlook the fact that just as many men had died in the film as women, that a woman was strong enough and smart enough to be the lone survivor and that a woman had been diabolical and calculating enough to orchestrate and carry out one of the most brutal mass murders in the history of film. Friday the 13th helped pave the way for the "final girl", a staple of slasher movies to this day, and proved that a Boogiewoman could be just as terrifying as any Boogieman.
Betsy appeared briefly in the sequel, Friday the 13th Part 2, the following year, passing the proverbial (and literal) machete on to Jason, who continues his mother’s bloody work to this day. Betsy's post Friday the 13th career consisted of appearances on episodic television series like Columbo, The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, and Charles in Charge.
In her later years, long after having dismissed Friday the 13th and her part in it, Betsy seemed to fully embrace her iconic standing in the horror movie community. She began appearing at horror conventions, where she greeted her fans with a warm, motherly embrace. She did countless interviews for websites, books and documentaries about the series.
"I always enjoyed Betsy at Q&A’s!" Adrienne King says of their convention appearances together. "Mrs. V. rocked the room of fans with her quick wit & brutal honesty! I am so blessed to have gotten to know the Betsy Palmer behind Mrs. Voorhees. "
"She reminded me of a foul-mouthed grandma, but at the same time very warm and friendly," said Deadpit Radio co-host The Creepy Kentuckian.
"Betsy Palmer was an absolute gem to meet. She was so lovable and genuine to her fans," recalled Garrett Sawaia, Friday the 13th fan. "She will always be Mrs. Voorhees, regardless how many future incarnations we may witness."
Tony Timpone, Editor of Fangoria Magazine remembers Betsy as "...a real spitfire! I loved having her at my conventions and on Fangoria Radio. She was such a pleasure to work with and have as a guest."
Peter Bracke on interviewing Betsy for his book Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th: "I remember Betsy was one of the first interviews I had the pleasure to do for Crystal Lake Memories. She called me from her home on the East Coast (I'll never forget my excitement when the words "Betsy Palmer" lit up on my caller ID.) She gave me almost two hours, filled with gracious humor, lots of laughs and a genuine affection and appreciation for the fans who had discovered her with Friday the 13th. Only a week afterwards, I was surprised to receive a wonderful handwritten note from her in the mail, along with a box of cookies! She thanked me for the interview, even if I should have been thanking her--who gets a box of cookies from Mrs. Voorhees? And I still have that letter, framed on my wall."
It seemed that Betsy had finally come to terms with Pamela Voorhees. She may have dismissed Friday the 13th, but horror fans are a rare breed, one of unwavering loyalty and devotion. We never dismissed her or her importance to the series that many of us grew up with and to the genre that we all love.
The outpouring of sadness that accompanied the news of Betsy's passing on May 29th 2015 at the age of 88 is testimony to the indelible impression she made on so many, not just for her portrayal of Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th some 35 years ago, but because of the genuine and warm nature she had for her fans and for the series itself. When asked in an Icons of Fright interview about the action figure based on Mrs. Voorhees, Betsy replied, “I love it! You know, I’m going to be dead and buried and live on through these crazy movies.”
Indeed, she will.
Betsy Palmer, November 1st 1926 - May 29th 2015.
During the course of writing this, I asked several people who'd had the great pleasure of working with Betsy Palmer, as well as fans who'd met her, for contributions in the form of memories or statements about her. I would like to thank Victor Miller, Ari Lehman, Tony Timpone, Peter Bracke, The Creepy Kentuckian and Garrett Sawaia. An extra special thank you goes out to Adrienne King for sharing this very special memory of Betsy Palmer:
Betsy invited me over to her Brownstone off of Central Park West in the Spring of 2009 for Dinner. By this time Betsy had convinced me to become a vegetarian: “Chicken! You don’t want to eat chicken! Who wants to eat an animal that eats its own shit!”.. that was Betsy.
So, I brought my Crystal Lake Memories Book to her cozy apartment that late afternoon (I’d finally received it myself from Peter) for her to sign. It was close to Mother’s Day & she was going to visit her daughter in Connecticut & asked if she could “borrow” the Bracke “bible” of which she had not received a copy. We looked through the bloody brilliant book & I could see her amazement at the phenomenon of our little Friday the 13th; what this little low budget horror flick had spawned…all unfolding as we flipped through the pages together. She looked at me & said.. ”This all began with us!” It brought tears to both our eyes and this is when she said to me, "I guess being remembered for a devoted mother isn’t the worst thing in the World…” and I said “Betsy, you have three generations of fans around the Globe who adore you. You’ve impacted them forever! You were a pioneer in the industry and are a living legend and they love you!
Betsy smiled and said, "I guess I’m going to have to embrace that." She chuckled & held the book to her chest. And she did. I saw in that moment that Betsy let it happen and it gave me goose bumps as I watched her let out a huge sigh and smile with tears running down her cheeks. She had finally embraced her role as Mrs. Voorhees despite the agony it caused her when the film first came out in 1980. It was a full circle moment.
“May I keep this” she asked of the book.
“It’s yours, Betsy. Enjoy.” And I know she did.
We had a special moment that is frozen in time.