Summer camps are an American institution, originating in the late 19th century as a new generation of educators, social welfare professionals, organisations and motivated independents sought to create an environment for children’s development away from the corrupting influence of the growing cities of the north-eastern states. From those earliest days, a number of themes can be traced which have remained central to the summer camp project:
- The provision of a rural environment to bring children closer to nature, which is deemed beneficial both to health and to appreciation of the natural world.
- The fostering of a sense of independence in children and group dynamics such as teamwork, sociability and empathy for others.
- Gender-specific activity which reinforce social roles and an early environment for contact between the sexes in the form of co-education camps and arranged evenings between single-sex camps.
- A forum where inter-generational relationships can be established and tested, outside of the parental home and school environment. Most summer camps have a carefully structured hierarchy from campers of different ages, counsellors-in-training (CITs), counsellors, staff members and directors/owners.
Each of these themes are present in the large number of films set at summer camps, especially in the commercial films made popular in the horror genre, by the success of Friday the 13th (1980), and the comedy genre, by the success of Meatballs (1979)1. This essay will attempt to delineate the themes described above as they are developed in these films and comment on why films were made in these genres.
Leslie Paris, in her history of the American Summer Camp – Children’s Nature – places the start of the movement in 1881, with Ernest Balch’s foundation of a camp for older boys on an island on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. The motives she describes are illustrative of the way that themes central to the American Summer Camp movement were present from these first steps:
To discover and take possession of an island … was to lay claim to one of the central parables of American history: the story of virtuous pioneers, guided by manifest destiny, who forged new communities on virgin soil … Many wilderness enthusiasts had grown up on farms or in small towns and they bemoaned the gradual loss of a farming culture … camping beckoned as a means of recapturing, however briefly, the early pioneers’ bravery and independence. 2
The pioneer spirit is raised as the model for virtue, bravery, independence and Godliness. The act of conquering “virgin soil” is seen as the testing ground for manliness and this was presented by early practitioners as an antidote to the over-civilising, feminising effect of city life. The role that exposure to camping could play in the adolescent years of children, especially boys, was seen as crucial by early figures such as Balch:
… the founders of the first children’s summer camps translated these antimodern anxieties into youth-specific terms. Camp Chocorua, one of the first American summer camps, represented the early industry’s key themes: a manufactured peer group of older boys gathered under men’s guidance for outdoor recreation, health and physical activity, and character development … designed to make better citizens of boys.3
That summer camps were seen both as a means to extract children from “unhealthy” urban environments and prepare them to become “better citizens” illustrates the paradoxical way that camp founders viewed the civilised, industrial society developing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Long-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, in his autobiographical book on his summer camp experiences, wrote that ‘[c]amp taught me a lot of little things, and the experiences accumulated into some big “stuff,” stuff that builds backbone and teaches lessons that keep popping up in adulthood.’4 So while camp is seen as a healthy escape from the pressures of modern, urban life it simultaneously develops the characteristics which allow one to succeed in just that milieu. Camp activities such as team sports, overnight camping expeditions and creative activities like putting on a parent’s show are central in fostering social skills, independence and leadership seen as crucial for success in adulthood, particularly in the workplace.
Similarly, the steady introduction of girls to the camp movement – through dedicated girls’ camps and co-educational establishments – meant that camp also taught children how to behave with the opposite sex, through adult-supervised dances and other events. These activities could be a source of joyful experiences – author Josh Wolk remembers, ‘I … had my first kiss at a dance with a neighbouring girls’ camp. Everything I couldn’t get during the school year, I got at Eastwind.”5 Alternatively, they could be a source of extreme pain and embarrassment, as recorded by Eric Simonoff: ‘My wife … has heard many many stories from my Camp Harlam days and now refers to it only as Jewish Sex Camp, as its all but stated purpose was to acclimate young Jews to the idea of marrying other Jews, by means of coed campouts, enforced Saturday socials, and a heavy emphasis on pairing off.’6 Aside from the awkwardness of these proscribed events, the risk of being trapped all summer in an unrequited relationship was a concern for young campers such as Mindy Schneider, who dedicated one whole summer to discovering ‘a way to make Kenny notice me’.7
Helping young campers navigate these opportunities for pleasure or pain was a highly-structured hierarchy of authority, with CITs, counsellors, adult staff members and the camp directors tasked with protecting, guiding and educating children for up to eight weeks of summer vacation. Many of the senior staff would have attended the same camp as children and, as such, were sources of stories, traditions and behaviours which provided a sense of continuity and tradition which encouraged a sense of ownership between campers and the camp itself. Directors often tried to extend this sense of place and history beyond the formation of the camp by co-opting names and rituals evoking Native Americans. In seeking to recreate a pioneer past and co-opting the nomenclature and ritual of the natives the summer camp project has some inherent moral and historical paradoxes.
Released in 1979, Meatballs is set in a typical co-educational summer camp of the period: campers of a variety of ages living in wooden cabins surrounding a lake, a hierarchy of counsellors and staff members, daily sports and craft activities, etc. The film focuses on two figures – an early teenage camper called Rudy and the head staff member, Tripper, played by former Saturday Night Live comic Bill Murray, in his first film role. The film contrasts Tripper’s easy-going, comic but authoritative personality with Rudy’s shy, insecure and withdrawn persona. Rudy is shown arriving at the camp buses, saying goodbye to his father and is obviously reluctant to spend summer at camp. When the buses arrive, Rudy is seen sitting alone on his suitcase and it is Tripper who begins to draw the boy out of his shell, greeting him with, ‘Ah, you must be that small, depressed boy we ordered!’ Though the film sets a template for the many summer camp films which followed by being largely made up of a serious of loosely-connected sketches8, the relationship between Tripper and Rudy remains central. Despite Tripper taking the time to personally introduce him to his cabin mates – ‘Watch this one – he’s done time for car theft!’ he jokes with the cabin counsellor – he is bullied and ignored by his peers and later has to be prevented from leaving camp by Tripper, who offers him a personal guarantee of protection. In an illustration of the central camp philosophy that physical activity leads not just to health but self-esteem and independence, it’s through encouraging Rudy’s natural talent for cross-country running that Tripper begins to draw him out of his shell. This sets up the film’s finale as Rudy defeats a bigger, stronger and older member of a rival camp to win the end-of-season ‘Camp Olympics’. Again, the somewhat paradoxical camp creed that success is achieved through a rejection of modern, urban ideals – the rival camp has a strict, regimented dress code, exhibit ultra-competitive behaviour and is more expensive – but remains measured by them. In the end, though taking part is seen as good, winning is important – even to the geeky underdogs of Camp North Star.
Meatballs is fairly typical for a summer camp film (regardless of genre) in including a scene where a senior member of staff recounts a traditional horror tale at night around the camp fire – in this case, the common urban legend concerning a hook-handed killer and a young couple in a car on “lover’s lane”. These stories perform a narrative function in the horror genre – they provide back-story and foreshadow later events – but their function in an actual summer camp setting points to other levels of interpretation. The stories operate as a “cautionary tale”, usually advising young adults to stay away from vices such as drugs, alcohol and – especially – sex; it’s a much commented-on feature of horror genres such as the slasher film that sex equals death9. However, when we pay closer attention to the status of the teller and the audience a reading of the campfire story with greater relevance to the summer camp project emerges. The tale is told by either the camp director – see Madman (1982) or Happy Campers (2001) – or a senior counsellor or staff member – for example, in The Burning (1980) or Meatballs. The audience is made up of groups lower in the camp hierarchy – counsellors, CITs and campers. These stories, told on the threshold of night, between civilisation and the wild, to an audience in an established stratum of responsibility, act to reinforce the rules and structure of the community. They tell campers what can go wrong if they don’t respect nature and obey the camp rules; they tell those tasked with the care of the flock what can go wrong if they neglect their roles. In this sense they act like the classic tale of the boy who cried wolf10; they stress that, no matter how the camp project works to encourage a sense of play and fun, its placement on the edge of civilisation requires a sense of responsibility.
Friday the 13th (1980), an enormously successful independent production riding the coattails of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1979), begins with such a cautionary tale. Two camp counsellors, who should be overseeing a group of swimming campers, sneak off to make out in one of the camp buildings. A child drowns and they are attacked and killed by an unseen assailant. Twenty-two years later a group of counsellors who are preparing the camp to reopen fall prey to something or somebody in the woods. The film’s core idea has the brevity and simplicity of a cautionary folk tale, which may explain its success in the face of justified criticism concerning the paucity of its script and production values. The events of the opening scene are repeated within the narrative in the form of a cautionary tale, with several of the counsellors warned-off from approaching the camp by members of the surrounding community. This has parallels with the kind of real-world summer camp legends which function to keep campers in line, such as the one told to Thomas Adler when homesick on his first trip to summer camp:
My mind was telling me that I could probably plan an escape, and no one would find out I was missing for a couple of hours – except the Bulk. I mentioned it to him and he said, “Last year two boys decided they were Lewis and Clark and tried to get away. They blazed a trail through the camp woods and ended up at the fire circle on the far west side of camp. They were way past frightened when their counsellor finally found them, and that was the end of it” … At that point I realised it was too complicated to try to escape.11
Simple tales like this, whether factual or not, become legendary in the telling, both over time and through the authority of the teller and the setting, and are effective in reinforcing rules and behaviours in a non-dogmatic manner. The lesson from Friday the 13th, that two kids abdicated their responsibility to do something prohibited, that someone vulnerable suffered as a result, and that now everyone in the same position is fair game for vengeance, would have played well to a target audience of teens, many of whom would have attended summer camp and may have been counsellors-in-training themselves. Similarly, Madman begins with an act of irresponsibility which has devastating consequences. Beside the traditional evening camp fire, owner Max tells the story of a local farmer by the name of Marz who killed his family and is rumoured to still wander the woods. He recounts that anyone calling the name of “Madman Marz” will bring the farmer hunting, with predictable results, as a young counsellor does just that. What is intended as a cautionary tale to keep kids out of the woods instead prompts actions which bring the wrath of untamed nature down on all. It’s also interesting to note that the female counsellors also criticise Max over the story as some of the younger campers are frightened and upset by the story. There is a fine line between warning children away from potential threats and traumatising them, and the camp fireside story ritual treads this as carefully as horror films do in the culture at large – performing a function, yet inspiring criticism and censure.
Camp legends, in the form of stories, are reinforced by nomenclature and ritual which are designed to give the camp historical continuity. It is striking how the camp movement appropriated Native American Indian names for camp grounds and rituals for adaptation into activities. This was a feature of early camps such as the girl’s camp established by Mary Jobe in 1916, where the end of the summer season was marked by “The Passing of the Pequots”, an Indian pageant, with the girls dressed as Indian squaws. The alignment with Native peoples and rituals is seen as marking the summer camp project as external to the civilised, urban world and part of the “natural” world:
… a degree of “primitive” cross-racial play, albeit temporary and contained, was at many white-only camps central to the community experience. Having effected a retreat from heterogeneous and increasingly multiracial urban centres, camp communities turned back with desire to images of darkness. Like the jokes, songs, nicknames and special colors that were central to camp life, racial “outsiders” helped to create a sense of being inside.12
The contact with Native American people and ritual has remained to the present day: Thomas Adler describes how an Indian chief called Dea Quay visited his summer camp and led the campers in “a tribal chant”13. Interestingly, Adler comments how he would have been “bitter had [he] been Dea Quay”14, as he reflects on the Indian’s stories of his ancestors, who lived on the land surrounding the camp for hundreds of years. Again, there is a tension in the camp project between civilisation and nature and the notions of what is good or appropriate in either. The ideological clash is played out in several summer camp comedies in the form of a threat to an established camp, usually codified as underdog by un-athletic, “nerdy” campers or camp owners approaching financial ruin.
In Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) – part of the long-running series based on the character created by comic Jim Varney – camp handyman Ernest is given the chance to become a counsellor if he looks after a group of kids on release from a juvenile centre. The children are largely Hispanic and black in what appears to be otherwise an all-white camp and they are further codified as “urban” by their language and defensive “streetwise” attitude to the other campers. The boys are initially dismissive of the camp and Ernest’s attempts to involve them in camp activities fail until they are involved in a craft competition where the group builds an Indian tepee. The boys are then central in an attempt to fight off the attempts of an unscrupulous developer to bulldoze the camp – having outsmarted Ernest to obtain a signature from the camp’s owner, an indian chief. It is through this battle – which references classic “cowboy-and-indian” battles involving flaming arrows and improvised tomahawks – that the boys integrate with the rest of the campers; the boys are unified in their defence of the natural world against the unchecked progress of urbanisation. This kind of drama which co-opts and reinforces themes central to the summer camp project would seem heavy-handed in a non-comic context. Ernest Goes to Camp can deliver a subtle message about integration and the importance of tradition while amusing its audience with slapstick.
In much the same manner, Oddballs (1984) features a group of teenage boy campers working to uncover an attempt by the owner of the neighbouring upscale girls’ camp to force the owner to sell, while planning to turn the land over to developers of a shopping mall. Much of the running time, however, is spent on the comic potential of the boys’ attempts to get to the girls’ camp, with one attempt to row across the lake separating the camps ending in disaster. An arranged evening provides a better opportunity, but is met with a similar comic lack of success, with one character’s attempt to appear sophisticated with pidgin French exposed by a fluently Francophone girl camper15. As previously noted, these kinds of awkward moments between the sexes would have resonated with an audience with experience of actual summer camps, and it is in the comedy genre that this theme is exploited most strongly. However, in the horror film Sleepaway Camp (1983), the issues surrounding gender are foreground in an extraordinary manner. The film begins with a tragic event where a man and his two children are hit by a speedboat – the father and his son are killed and his daughter, Angela, is sent to live with an aunt. Eight years later, Angela is sent to the same summer camp as her aunt’s son, Ricky, and a series of deaths take place, with Angela revealed as the killer. This setup is fairly consistent with the slasher film template, but the film is given a further psycho-sexual twist by the revelation that Angela is actually Peter, her brother, presumed killed in the opening scene, and has been raised as a girl by her mentally-unstable aunt16. Angela’s true nature is subtly foreshadowed in the scene where her aunt – a Doctor – provides her and Ricky with certificates of fitness to give to the camp nurse, exempting them from the “physical”, a long-established feature of camp life:
Children’s inculcation into camps’ body-focused culture began when they underwent precamp physicals… designed primarily to keep ill and potentially contagious children out of camps, where they might put others at risk…. They undressed in single-sex groups, wrapped themselves in sheets, and stood in line with many others until it was their turn to have their noses, throats, ears, teeth, chests, hearts, skin, and feet examined.17
Angela is awkward and shy and is mercilessly bullied by the girls in her cabin and the campers at large. Much of the teasing is of a sexual nature, as when Judy wonders aloud why Angela “never showers with the rest of us. What has she got to hide?!” However, her cousin’s best camp friend Paul develops a crush on her and begins a tentative relationship which, while prompting Angela to smile and talk, engenders jealousy and triggers events which lead to tragedy. Putting aside Angela/Peter for a moment, the film is full of other troubled relationships: Angela’s cousin Ricky returns to summer camp to find that his “steady” from the previous summer has matured and is no longer interested in, as she says, “younger men”; camp counsellor Meg is having an affair with a camp director old enough to be her father; the chef is a predatory child abuser and the other counsellors are involved in bickering, destructive relationships. Placed against this background, the attempts by Paul to draw Angela out of her shell seem tender and wholesome and make the final reveal all the more shocking: Angela asks Paul to go skinny-dipping on the lake and is discovered with his severed head in her lap before standing to reveal herself as Peter18.
A gentler approach to the same themes is found within the later comedic drama Happy Campers (2001), which draws on A Midsummer Night’s Dream to tell the story of the relationships between a group of summer camp counsellors over the course of one summer. The central couple are Wendy, who is a overly-conscientious counsellor focused on the welfare of the campers and Wichita, who is a cynical, poetry-writing young man who is bewitched by Wendy but unable to identify with her. As their relationship ebbs and flows through the summer it has a direct impact on the campers as they are described as “the heart and soul of the camp”, a constant source of gossip for the younger children. Happy Campers dramatises this inter-generational aspect of relationships to a greater extent than other summer camp-set films, with several of the campers developing crushes and meaningful relationships with the older counsellors. Talia, an initially uncommitted and cynical counsellor, described as “our queen” by another character19, has to deal with a young female camper’s first period which, though awkward to begin with, leads to reciprocal relationship where the camper encourages her to talk about her unrequited love for Wichita. The film also reveals its distance from the more conservative 1980s by foregrounding an openly gay counsellor and a potentially closeted by-sexual female character. The gay counsellor, Jasper, has his own following amongst the campers and is approached by one young boy on the last day:
Boy: I’m gay.
Jasper: No. You’re not. You’re twelve.
Boy: Are you saying you didn’t have any gay thoughts when you were twelve.
Jasper: No, I didn’t have any sex thoughts when I was twelve.
Boy: [pause] Aren’t you glad I waited until the last day to have this conversation?
Jasper: You better believe it! Get out of here!
The film obfuscates the lines demarcating authority in the camp hierarchy by telling the story from the perspective of the counsellors, presenting them as fallible and subject to their own emotional and professional challenges. As Wendy says, “The kids had to realise that this was our vacation too.” And, when the bus is leaving and the counsellors are loudly complaining about their pay cheques one of the campers indignantly replies, “Hey! This was the best summer of my life! I love you guys!” Of course, it’s a joke (or half-joke), a dig at authority, and part of the dissolving of barriers which the film works to achieve.
Summer camps originated at roughly the same time as cinema, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, but despite several films containing scenes or references to camp20, it was not until the late 1970s that films began to emerge that were not just set at summer camp, but explored the themes central to the whole ethos of the summer camp movement. This seems curious given the massive popularity and coast-to-coast nature of summer camps from the interwar years, and the focus on films for a youth market from as early as the late 1950s. It seems that it took the emergence of a generation of younger filmmakers in the 1970s, people who had attended summer camps themselves and who were close enough to those days to want to attempt to capture the sights, sounds and spirit of camp. As Meatballs director Ivan Reitman says in his foreword to Camp Camp, a pictorial history of everyday campers’ experiences in the 70s and 80s:
I honestly believe that I would not have the life or career that I now have had I not gone to camp. It was at camp that I started my first band, acted in a play, competed in group sports, and learned that one could actually talk to members of the opposite sex… When I look back on Meatballs now … I am pleased with how honestly and joyfully it reflected my own camp experiences: from crying as a seven-year-old when my parents left me after Vistiting Day to the shivering excitement I experienced after my first kiss to the thrill of competing in Color War. All the feelings I felt during and about summer camp are woven into that movie.21
Reitman describes how everything that is good about camp life is contained within the film, and the comedy genre – particularly the brand of knockabout, “smart-alecky”22, teen-focussed comedy which emerged in the late 1970s – is perfect for capturing the sense of fun, independence and group spirit which are integral to summer camp. But, as has been stressed above, not all campers have wholly positive experiences from camp, and defining a hierarchy of authority and structuring play is also part of camp. The emergence of a youth-focused series of cautionary tales set in authentic camp environments, modern-day Brothers Grimm horror tales, makes sense as the flipside of the exuberant, “schools out” attitude of the summer camp comedy genre. That there are a number of overlaps, genre-crossbreeds and parodies23 illustrates the careful balance camp ideology played with notions such as safety/freedom, civilisation/nature and authority/independence. Playing largely to a teen audience with knowledge of, if not direct experience with, summer camps, these films accurately reflected and exploited the tears and laughter, failure and triumph, loneliness and community of summer camps – through horror and comedy.
Primary film texts
Friday the 13th (Georgetown Productions Inc., 1980)
Meatballs (Canadian Film Development Corporation, 1979)
Madman (The Legend Lives Company, 1982)
Sleepaway Camp (American Eagle, 1983)
The Burning (Filmways Pictures, 1981)
Ernest Goes to Camp (Emshell Producers, 1987)
Oddballs (unknown, 1984)
Happy Campers (DiNovi Pictures, 2001)
Leslie Paris, Children’s Nature, NYU Press, New York, 2008
Thomas C. Adler, Campingly Yours, 5Star Publications, Chandler Arizona, 2009
Michael D. Eisner, Camp, Warner Books, New York, 2005
Mindy Schneider, Not a Happy Camper, Grove Press, New York, 2007
Eric Simonoff (ed.), Sleepaway, Penguin, New York, 2005
Josh Wolf, Cabin Pressure, Hyperion, New York, 2007
Roger Bennett & Jules Shell, Camp Camp, Crown, New York, 2008