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Why Are There So Many Summer Camp Horror Movies?

Summer camp is all about canoes, campfires, and creepy machete-wielding maniacs.
by David Young on August 31, 2022

Horror movies and summer camp go together like spaghetti and meatballs. With its origins in gory giallo slasher flicks of the 1970s, the summer camp horror subgenre (an offshute of slasher films) has been a thing since the early 1980s thanks to Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp. But, why is that? Why does summer camp seem like the right place to kill off your characters? Should you avoid the instinct of this trope, or are there good reasons to keep doing the same thing with your own special spin?

I’m happy you asked. Read on to learn why horror movies keep taking to the settings of summer camps — and why that’s a perfectly fine choice.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Do you know what changes a horror movie’s trajectory more than anything? It’s the choices that get made. If everyone made the right choices in a movie, you may not even be watching a horror movie — you might be seeing a thriller. But we won’t get into the specifics of that. Instead, think about the people that make those choices. Here are three factors that make younger folks the perfect target for horror setups:

Bad Decision-Making

Horror often relies on people to make uninformed or rash decisions — it’s part of the formula that prolongs the threat of danger. And no population is more prone to uninformed and rash decisions than teenagers. Teens in films are driven in many cases by hormones and the poor choices of their parents, in combination with enough knowledge and time to have developed more personality than a younger group of kids. 

Risk-Taking

Teenagers are also under the impression that they’re invincible: it’s a proven fact that younger people tend toward riskier choices because their sense of mortality is less than that of we who have already reached age 30. 

Gathering in Groups

The final ingredient for the perfect cocktail of murder and mayhem is the group dynamic. When teenagers get together in a story, something incredible often happens. Namely, the worst characteristics, like their sense of invincibility, become exponentially more problematic. When teenagers get together, we also see cliques form — a perfect “us versus them” dichotomy that makes the group nervous and puts them on edge. You’ll notice that while their mob mentality increases in times of distress, their instinct to split and splinter the group is similarly tangible.

Must Be Something In The Atmosphere

Summer Camp Settings Are Inherently Spooky

Horrors are genre films and genre films are all about atmosphere. It’s about where and when a story takes place, as much as it is about how that setting feels. Think about the iconic summer camp for a second: What are you picturing? If you pictured woods, you’re on the right track; if you pictured a creepy, still lake, you’re also correct.

The truth is that the woods and adjacent mysterious bodies of water produce the fear of the unknown in many people. What's out there in those woods? What's swimming right underneath my toes? What threat is lurking beyond where I can't see?

The Tradition of Creepy Campfire Tales

This setting also makes for great tall tales told around a campfire. In fact, the name “campfire” evokes the idea of a bunch of kids hearing scary stories. And in horror films, the legend we hear around that campfire is usually very much true.

No Adult Supervision is Cool — But Scary and Isolating

Places, like summer camps, are void of adult supervision in many cases, instead relying on slightly older teenagers to keep the camp from falling into complete ruin. 

More than that, though, there’s the element of isolation. A “camp” is by definition separated from civilization. You’re trapped, in a sense, locked out in the wilderness with nothing but the lodgings provided to you. Whether it’s communal cabins or private tents, the woods are always just beyond the walls — a boundary all too thin to ignore. You can easily feel the anxiety of being separated from lifelines like the police or your parents in a place like this, and that’s the point. On top of all this, a killer can use the woods — and the element of isolation — to their advantage, eventually separating the campers from each other very easily thanks to the setting’s natural ability to do so.

Horror Movies: Beyond the Summer Camp

Now, not all great horror movies rely on the premise of teenagers in the woods, obviously. In some cases, it’s a different wilderness, the people are adults, or there are new rules to survive. But the iconic things about teens in the woods are the choices they make and the place where they’re stranded.

Without the ability to be in a more populated area, closer to civilization, people are prime targets for whatever goes bump in the night.

Without making the best choices, people in films make themselves more likely to get taken advantage of in the wake of oncoming disaster.

Whether that disaster comes in the form of a spooky undead killer, a monster of legend, or a regular ol’ psycho, it’s easy to replicate such harrowing and fearsome tales of your own when keeping that in mind.

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