Sean S. Cunningham: The Man Behind ‘Friday the 13th’

by Thomas Tuna

Check the calendar. It’s Friday the 13th.

Ring any sort of bell?

For many people (the superstitious sorts), this day is all about avoiding black cats, ladders and broken mirrors. But for others (horror fans), this is the day to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of one of the truly iconic horror films–Friday the 13th.

Now, there have been gazillions of stories written about that movie and the franchise it spawned–more than a few right on this website–but how well do you know the man behind the myth and the legend?

Sean S. Cunningham (the middle initial stands for Sexton–really) is an 81-year-old native New Yorker, raised in Connecticut who earned his Master’s at Stanford University. Best known–of course–for being the co-creator and director of the original 1980 slasher classic, Cunningham took an interesting route to horror immortality.

The future filmmaker’s first jobs included managing theater companies–including the famed Lincoln Center in Manhattan–and working for a documentary company in New York City. Then, in the late ’60s, he made his directorial debut with The Art of Marriage before meeting the man who had a profound influence on his career.

Cunningham met Wes Craven, and the pair soon collaborated on Craven’s directorial coming-out party in 1972–a little film called The Last House on the Left, which Cunningham produced.

That experience on the cult classic led Cunningham to 1980’s Friday the 13th–and the rest is horror history. Of the dozen films in the franchise, Cunningham has been involved in the original, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Jason X, Freddy vs. Jason and the 2009 reboot.

For the original Friday the 13th, Cunningham took an extraordinary gamble. Encouraged by the success of Halloween two years earlier, he took out a dramatic ad in Variety, pushing his new film–even before he had completed the screenplay.

Cunningham casted the film in New York City before filming in New Jersey in 1979 on a budget of just $550,000. That investment grew to a box office bonanza, as the film earned $60 million worldwide. A franchise–and a legend–had been born.

Cunningham–who is also the founder and chief executive of Crystal Lake Entertainment (wonder where he got that name?)–also was set to produce the CW series adaptation of Friday the 13th before that project hit the rocks.

By the way, the filmmaker is also on the board of advisors for the Hollywood Horror Museum. Wonder how many Jason mementos sit on those shelves?

Enjoy your Friday the 13th–and lift a glass to Sean S. Cunningham while you’re at it.


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