A personal recollection of a lifetime spent loving summer camp slasher flicks.
I wish that there was only one film that would come to mind whenever someone asks me, whats your favorite summer camp slasher? With the number of them that were made during the era of the 80s when teen horror films dominated the first part of the decade, Ive never been able to provide just one as the answer. Sometimes I respond by stating that FRIDAY THE 13th: PART 2 is not only my all-time favorite, but praise it as the quintessential eighties camp slasher film period. Other times I say without remorse that SLEEPAWAY CAMP reigns supreme (mostly due to my overwhelming crush on its star, Felissa Rose). In the heat of an elevated discussion, Ive even gone as far as to name the relatively-obscure yet revered TWISTED NIGHTMARE as the one to hold the top spot on my list. With the teen stalk-and-slash film being the sub-category of horror that I enjoy watching and talking about most, I sometimes meet resistance from other horror fans when I bring up how much I take pleasure in sitting in front of these and other horror films with a summer camp setting as many times as possible. And its not that I dont love and appreciate similarly-themed backwoods slashers like JUST BEFORE DAWN, HUNTERS BLOOD, and THE FINAL TERROR but ones that establish its location as an established and known youth camp that feature forests, cabins, bodies of water and most importantly, campers and counselors frolicking during the summer months are the ones that I have a penchant for most.
The very first horror film I watched at the tender age of eight was the original and genre-defining FRIDAY THE 13th back when it was first released on Capacitance Electronic Disc back in 1983 just when the home video revolution was getting off the ground. It was something Id never seen before and it would burn itself into the corridors of my young mind forever. The film sent not only a distinct and unforgettable wave of fear through me as I sat and watched it as an attempt by my father to play a cruel and merciless joke on an innocent first grader, but it ended up planting the seed of curiosity that would eventually bloom and make me the die-hard slasher fan that I grew up to be. It also instilled within me a dread of summer camps and an overwhelming trepidation with tents, campfires and being out in the wild with nothing but a sleeping bag and an overactive imagination. I recall the second time I felt that wave of fear come over me later on that same summer while on a trip to the local drive-in that doubled as a swap meet on weekends. I remember the large image of a bloody knife slicing through a soaking wet tennis shoe plastered onto a wall next to the cash register in the snack bar. I held a 32oz Pepsi as I nervously chewed on the cups waxed rim and felt that same dread I felt watching FRIDAY THE 13th come over me. I closed my eyes and remembered the gruesome scenes from the film and associated them with what could possibly be shown in the film whose poster I was terrifyingly gazing at. I never forgot that image of the blood dripping from the title as it stayed in my head only to haunt me when I went to bed at night. That film was SLEEPAWAY CAMP.
Between the ages of eleven and seventeen, anything and everything horror on VHS was an obsession and I did whatever I could to learn about all of the slasher films that lined the shelves at the video rental outlets that were salt-and-peppered throughout where I lived at the time. As we were raised in a strict Pentecostal household, my parents ran a tight ship at home and never allowed my siblings and I to watch anything that they did not approve of and sadly, horror was completely out of the question. Funny, as my father was the one at fault for instilling the curiosity in me in the first place. I was able to get my best friend at the time to convince his brother, a manager at a local grocery store with its own video rental department, to bring us under aged kids some horror flicks in an attempt get to boast to the rad kids at school that wed watched something they knew was forbidden in our household.
The game would change during the spring of 1987 while cruising the video rental department of the local H-E-B grocery store, stopping in my tracks as the VHS box for SLEEPAWAY CAMP resting quietly on a shelf caught my eye. That unmistakable wave of terror came over me once again as it had that day at the drive-in when I was first introduced to the famous image of the knife through the tennis shoe. There was an inquisitiveness that began to brew deep inside of me as my fingers made contact with it, wrapped themselves around it and turned it around to look at the back. My heart raced as I took in every image, every color and every word that was printed on it and I knew right then and there that I needed to find a way to sit in front it, even though I ran the risk of being terrified out of my mind. There was no other alternative. I needed to watch it regardless of my prior experience and aftermath watching the one film that would forever make me deathly afraid of over-vegetated forests looming darkly over lakes and rivers with quaint and cozy picturesque log cabins nestled on their shores. I put the reservations brought on my father aside and convinced my best friend, coincidentally named Jason, to have his brother bring the videocassette home so I could watch it before I lost my twelve year-old nerve and to prove to myself once and for all that my irrational aversion to summer camps (and camping in general) was all a figment of my own pre-pubescent imagination placed there by my authoritarian father.
With SLEEPAWAY CAMP being one of those films during the eighties that had its reputation precede it and word-of-mouth being the element that would propel its popularity into the stratosphere, the rumors of its plot and contents ran rampant through the sixth-grade playground of my middle school. I wanted to be one of those kids whose parents didnt care at all what their children were exposed to either on film or television and then be able to boast about it the next day to my friends. I wanted my grade-school counterparts to look at me in awe for getting permission from my mother and father to get to stay up late watching ON-TV and slasher films broadcast on premium television and cable on weekends. But, I wasnt that fortunate. So getting to watch a horror film on videocassette behind their back was all I could bring to the table during recesses, and I ran with it. Needless to say, SLEEPAWAY CAMP not only ended up magnifying my terror for secluded wooded areas and the act of roasting marshmallows under a bright full moon, but that notorious and mind-altering final scene was enough to warrant me never wanting to set foot anywhere near a campsite or sing Kumbaya ever in my lifetime. Though I did get the chance to prance around the others like a peacock and brag that Id watched it, there was that nagging tremble of uneasiness in my heart that I made certain nobody could see. Yeah, I wanted to be one of the cool kids, but little did those same classmates who knew everything about Freddy Krueger and whod sat through FRIDAY THE 13th: A NEW BEGINNING during its original theatrical run know just how much of a well-cooked chicken I really was.
My cover would be blown several months later when I found out that our churchs Royal Rangers outpost would be heading for Camp Perry, a Boy Scout establishment about forty minutes from where we lived to spend a few days basking in the hot summer sun. I had done my best to keep my strange and absurd apprehension toward camping as undisclosed as I could as I was more than certain that I would be the laughing stock of everyone I knew should anyone come to find out about it. I would never admit to anyone that I actually harbored the preposterous idea that a summer camp slasher film could actually happen in real life. I also would never admit that I had nightmares every so often about being trapped alone on a summer campground and hunted by a maniacal killer and feeling that horrible panic I felt after having watched FRIDAY THE 13th, FRIDAY THE 13th: PART 2 and SLEEPAWAY CAMP 2. I believed that because of going against my parents and engaging in the pleasure of the slasher film without their knowledge and with all the images of slain horny teenagers disposed of in a myriad of fashions, I now had the preconceived notion that if I was ever to even step foot onto a campsite, I would become one of them, a victim to a knife-wielding, ax-carrying madman out for blood, seeking to deliver retribution for the sin I had committed. But it wasnt until I physically stepped foot off the church bus onto the actual campgrounds, the straps to my light blue Charlie Brown duffel bag clutched tightly in my hand where it all came together. I remember looking up at the tall, thick trees looming ominously overhead as the other kids rushed off the bus, laughing and talking excitedly to each other while I stood there trembling inside. I looked around at the cozy cabins that were scattered all around the campsite, the mess hall at its far end, and the trails that lead to both the swimming hole and the nature hikes. That moment when we entered the camps main gate and I saw its wooden red and white sign welcoming us just as the Camp Crystal Lake does to the soon-to-be victims in FRIDAY THE 13th , I had the strange feeling that I was in for trouble. All I could think of when I entered the cabin designated to the group I was in was that someone was watching from within the forest surrounding us and that at any perfect opportune moment, they would find their way inside and hide under the bed below that I would sleep in just waiting for the chance to reach up from under and dispose of me swiftly. At every turn, I saw things that reminded me of what Id seen in the camp slasher films Id watched in the comfort and safety of my friends home. When I sat under the stars before a burning and crackling campfire that first night listening to my father who was the group leader giving us boys an evening devotional, I remembered the scene in FRIDAY THE 13th when Paul eerily addresses the group about the legend of Jason and without anyones knowledge, my heart was racing as I waited for someone to pop out of the darkness to do away with us all, one by one as Cropsy had done in the infamous raft scene in THE BURNING. I was so wound up and on edge that I didnt sleep at all that whole trip as I was listening for anything and everything that went bump in the night, and spent the next two days looking over my shoulder during nature walks and sitting by the pool dreading dusk each day. It wasnt that I had it in my mind that something would actually happen, it was more of the possibility that my most horrific fears and the inane ideas that my brain had concocted would come to fruition right there in the exact same manner I imagined them, complete with being chased through the woods by a guy in a burlap-sack mask holding a hunting knife and escaping to a dark and dank cabin filled with the bloody cadavers that were once my friends.
My tight-kept secret would sadly come to light when some of the older kids in the group would decide to play a prank on everyone the final night. A simple practical joke that involved nothing but a pillowcase, a plastic hunting knife and a well-timed and well-executed scare through a window of the cabin I was sleeping in was enough to send me over the edge, running out into the night in complete hysterics. Tears, sobbing and a dramatic confession to my direct commander immediately followed, swiftly cementing my reputation of being not only the weakest one in the entire group but also making me the kid to target in the future with mean taunts, wickedly cruel limericks and the butt of even many more practical jokes. All because Id secretly fallen in love with scary movies but allowed my childish insecurities and wild mind’s eye to get the better of me. As I got older and widened my horizons watching more and more of the videocassettes I longed to get to know, I remembered the real terror I felt that night at camp and associated it with the films that would soon become my all-time favorites, understanding first-hand how it felt to be truly afraid even though I knew deep inside that I really had nothing to be afraid of to begin with. We would frequent that camp every summer thereafter and every time I sat on the canoe dock facing the Arroyo Colorado and stared out into the night, I would smile to myself and think of how much fun it actually was to be a budding horror lover and how lucky I was to have been introduced to them by my father, even though it was never his intention for me to become a rabid connoisseur of everything slasher. I would listen to the chirp of the crickets in the air and savor the ambiance and humidity of the evening and just muse on how great it was to be different. Though I felt so out of place among everyone, I wasnt the least bit worried. I had taken this strange and misunderstood love of kids getting stalked and slaughtered in the woods in bizarre and creative ways and embraced it wholeheartedly. That weird part of me that nobody understood would soon become an integral part of my everyday life and my persona as a whole. Those films and those experiences at camp are something that would follow me as I would go onto to become an adult and its too bad that once I got on in age, those trips to Camp Perry became a thing of the past. I would welcome the chance to go back and stand on that pier overlooking the arroyo under the blazing Texas sun just one more time. I would love another chance to walk around the cabins and the campsites, stand over the swimming pool and stand in the archery range again just to remember how great life was as a kid in the eighties. I would love the opportunity to sit on that pier, take in the sounds of rustling leaves above me and the wind moving across the water, and close my eyes to imagine that a maniac was on the loose trapping us all on the camp and disposing of everyone that was with me, one by one. A big fat grin would come over my face and I would laugh to myself at the sheer lunacy of the idea. If it werent for all of the fantastic summer camp slasher films I sat in front of that came out of that incomparable era, I would never have morphed into the creature I am today. I wouldnt have the incredible memories of the most fantastic times of my young life being terrified of being in a tent or a cabin out in the woods and wondering if someone or something was walking around in the dark, a shiny and sharp knife gripped tightly in hand just waiting for one of us to stray from the group. It was a time Ill never forget and a time that will always hold a special place in not only my own personal history, but also a place in my tender, slasher-loving heart.