[This week my sons return for their second stay at an overnight camp. That gives me serious empty nest syndrome, but more relevantly it also gives us an opportunity for some Summer CampStudying! Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the summer camp experiences, stories, and perspectives of fellow AmericanStudiers.]
On what camp has come to mean, and what to make of the change.
I’ve traced a number of different contexts for and meanings of summer camp in this week’s series, but the truth is that, for anyone who grew up in the 1980s as I did, there’s one particularly clear camp connection I haven’t yet mentioned: death. Brutal, bloody, inventive and inevitable death. The series of Friday the 13th films, which began with 1980’s Friday the 13th and saw seven sequels released in the 1980s alone, created in Camp Crystal Lake a horrific doppelganger to the extremely unhappy camp experiences captured in “Hello Muddah” (although, to be fair, the childish campers themselves were never Jason Voorhees’ targets). And thanks to that franchise’s unparalleled and consistent box office success, numerous other horror and slasher films mined the same territory over those years (and beyond), turning summer camp into one of the celluloid settings in which attractive teenagers were most likely to be gruesomely murdered.
So what do we make of this shift in, or at least striking addition to, the cultural images and meanings of summer camp? While, again, the youthful campers themselves were not typically endangered in these films, they were most definitely surrounded by and witnesses to the horror—which, if we connect Friday the 13th with the babysitting scenario at the heart of its most obviously influential predecessor, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), is a common thread across these defining early slasher films. It’s hard not to see this consistent emphasis, the presence of young children observing the monsters and their unfolding horrors, as a commentary on—or, at the very least, a reflection of—a society in which images of childhood innocence were giving way to darker visions and fears. Indeed, the Friday the 13th series took that idea one step further still, creating in the unique character of Tommy Jarvis a multi-film narrative of a young child impacted and then significantly changed by his observations of and encounters with Jason Voorhees.
Moreover, it’s equally difficult not to connect those ideas of childhood observation and change to the experience of watching these films. One of my own most unsettling memories is of watching my first Friday the 13th film, Part VI, at the home of a middle school friend; it might sound too pat to be true, but the moment and line I remember most vividly is when one of the young campers sees Jason outside a cabin window and tells the (doomed) counselors that she has seen “a monster.” On the other hand, I don’t want to overstate this effect—I attended overnight camp a couple of years later, and I can honestly say that I didn’t think about Friday the 13th a single time during my week’s stay, nor did such images lessen the fun I had at the camp. So perhaps it’s most accurate to say that summer camp, like so many aspects of late 20th and early 21st century American society, contains multitudes, competing and even contrasting images and narratives, historical and contemporary, cultural and social, that nonetheless coexist in our collective consciousness.
Last camp context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Summer camp stories you’d share or histories you’d highlight?
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