I have never been to summer camp. Not the true, sleepaway, romance-filled, adventurous camp that was featured on TV and in the movies when I was a child. So, every year, as my peers bragged about space, horse, archery, whatever camp they were going to in the Midwestern wilderness, I would seethe with jealousy.
My obsession was fueled, but also soothed, by summer camp movies. Needless to say, I devoured films like Heavyweights, The Parent Trap remake, and even horror classics like Friday the 13th.
Today, as I sit through another summer dominated by superheroes, supernatural romances, and dystopian disasters, I realize something is missing from the movie landscape: Where is America’s obsession with summer camp? And, why did it end?
According to pop-culture expert Jeff Brown, a media studies professor at Bowling Green State University, it’s quite simple, really. The summer camp movie prevailed in the '80s and '90s because it was all about sex.
In horror camp movies, characters engaging in sex or a steamy makeout session in the woods were likely to die first — a punishment of sorts for doing something forbidden. Even in comedies like Meatballs and Pretty Little Darlings, "they have that freedom," says Brown. "They’re unsupervised and can have sex.”
Even the kids’ camp movie has a romantic or sexual element, he pointed out. It could be the sneaking into the girls’ cabin to steal underwear, a sweet romantic first kiss, or losing your virginity.
Brown also said ratings changes at the time aided in the domination of the summer camp genre. “So suddenly, you could show breasts in movies like Meatballs,” Brown said. “It really catered to younger-aged titillation and taboo and forbidden knowledge, and I think people have aged out of that, as our culture has become a lot more sexualized.”
The preteen and teenaged group are still a focus for studios, particularly in the summer when school is finished and kids want to hang out. But, the Internet gives kids instant access to titillation now, whereas summer movies in the '80s were sort of a "pre-access" to pornography, according to Brown. There's less interest in seeing that transition into adulthood and sex; it's no longer a mystery.
The real trend now is in action movies, which have a broader audience, and young-adult romance novels, which have a fiercely dedicated fanbase. Teen romance, in particular, draws viewers in the summer and are cheap for studios to make, Brown said. The last few years have been filled with the YA novel turned movie — most recently, The Fault In Our Stars.
But, change is coming again. Brown predicts that the YA novel movie has about two or three years left.
“There have been a few flops,” he said, citing movies like Vampire Academy. “They’re going to keep trying those for a while, and once that burns out, there will be a shift in what brings teens to the theater.”
What could be next? I, for one, vote for another round of summer camp movies. It’s fun. It’s nostalgic. It’s liberating. And, to me, it’s completely symbolic of growing up. You’re on your own for the first time, trying to figure out who you want to be, how to make friends on your own, and how to fall in love. And, yes, for many, that naturally includes sex.
"Summer camp movies are sweet summer romances (or) horrors," Brown said. Like the thought of growing up, "it’s horrifying and exciting."