Camp. The Parent Trap (1961). The Parent Trap (1998). Heavyweights. Friday the 13th. Little Darlings. Camp Rock. Happy Campers. The Final Girls. Moonrise Kingdom. American Pie Presents: Band Camp. Camp Nowhere. Wet Hot American Summer … and many more. Movies set at American summer camp—known as Summer Camp Movies from here on out—fall into a plethora of more general film genres, including horror, comedy, romance, satire, kids movie, etc. What unites them—beyond the setting—is the portal they provide to another world, a world where seemingly anything can happen.
For some, these movies may be something of a reflection of reality; despite whatever plot is unraveling on-screen, the settings are familiar or representative of their experience of summers spent at camp. Not everyone goes away to summer camp, though (I didn’t, for the record); for those who didn’t, these movie settings are the stuff of imagination. But whether or not the setting is familiar, Summer Camp Movies have always been fantasy portals. Perhaps this is more true now than ever before, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States this year, some summer camps have transitioned to a virtual space, some have opened with precautions in place, some haven’t opened at all. “Not being able to go to or work at summer camp” is just one of many far-reaching effects of the virus, even as it falls further down the list in terms of urgency.
Camp is not a universal experience: It can be expensive, and some summer camps were also historically segregated spaces. The history of real-life summer camp as a “moral reformer” project and the modern reality may differ from its image as a place where kids get to have parent-free, homework-free fun for a whole summer, but that image of summer camp is pervasive in Summer Camp Movies. They offer up a getaway to the summer camp setting as well as the freeing feeling of that “no parents, no school” summer fantasy—and then they push the fantasy even further. These movies aren’t always in the fantasy genre, nor do they always offer a desirable escape (there are serial killers, sexual objectification, cultural appropriation, and fatphobia in some of these movies), but rather they represent the magical feeling that the regular rules of the school year or the real world don’t apply.
At summer camp, these movies tell us, you could meet your long-lost twin, like Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan do in The Parent Trap, or the Olsen twins do in It Takes Two (sort of—they aren’t actually separated-at-birth twins in that movie, just identical, unrelated strangers). You could get terrorized by a serial killer—sleepaway camp is a popular setting for slasher films, perhaps because of the isolated setting. You could survive the wrath of said serial killer, as at least one person inevitably always does. You could finally show up your nemesis or nemeses like in Meatballs or Heavyweights. You could fall in love, like the kids in Moonrise Kingdom or the musicians in Summer Love. You could fall out of love or have your heart broken. You could have your first kiss, like some of the campers in Camp Nowhere do, or have sex for the first time, as in Little Darlings or Happy Campers. You could hook up—a lot—like the counselors in Wet Hot American Summer (both a Summer Camp Movie and a satire of one). You could hook up and then almost immediately get murdered (those slasher films again!). You could leave the embarrassments of the school year far behind you, like Joanna Chilcoat does in Camp. You could rock out with a Jonas brother, like Demi Lovato does in Camp Rock. You could find glory and confidence in your moment in the spotlight, like Anna Kendrick and Tiffany Taylor in Camp. You could discover that your biological father is the Greek god Poseidon (like the titular Percy in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief).
Wet Hot American Summer, as a satirical Summer Camp Movie that birthed two Netflix Original spinoffs, takes this point and runs even farther with it. So many things—too many things—can and do happen on the last day of camp at Camp Firewood. Counselors hook up, campers hook up, staffers hook up. People fall in love, break up, step in goat poop, and rescue a raft of campers. There’s a spoof on the “climactic sporting event against the mean camp from across the lake” trope. Campers help save the world from a falling piece of a space station. There’s an epic talent show. There’s a wedding in the woods. There are montages galore. A can of mixed vegetables comes to life. Even more than this happens during the movie; the possibilities seem endless. The Final Girls is similarly meta and self-referential when it comes to the cross section of the Summer Camp Movie and the slasher flick. Anything can happen when you’ve somehow become part of the cult-classic summer-camp slasher movie your mom starred in—including (spoiler alert) the death of characters who didn’t die in the original movie.
Since the Summer Camp Movie is a subgenre within a wide range of other genres, it explores a variety of plots (murder, raunchy comedy, coming-of-age, heartfelt romance, and so on). The setting also changes things up for its characters—they often come together as blank slates, and are encouraged to socially engage free from their parents or any other part of their non-camp “real” lives, which widens the storytelling prospects. The characters are also removed from the routine of their non-summer lives; though summertime can come with its own responsibilities (summer jobs, summer school, summer reading), it’s a break from the regular school year just by virtue of scheduling. With the difference in routine comes the feeling of possibility. That’s potentially exciting and potentially terrifying, and Summer Camp Movies capitalize on the “anything can happen” spirit. The appeal of the Summer Camp Movie is that it brings up that feeling of summertime as a break in routine, as a season of possibility. It then lets those possibilities flow.
Now that summer camp is on pause in real life, these movies may also become a time capsule. There’s no way to know what the summer camp experience will look like in the future, but at this moment in time, it’s not out of the question to think that it, like potentially so many other things, will be permanently changed coming out of this crisis. After years and years of turning to the Summer Camp Movie to live out dreams of unencumbered joy, romance, and even fear, movie-watchers may soon utilize the Summer Camp Movie as a relic of the past, a tool to remember a time of running wild, without a care in the world.
Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the world wide web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).