Camp Rules!

Bill Murray as the best counselor ever in Meatballs

All through my adolescence I hoped that someone would send me to summer camp. Sadly, it never happened. This is one of the greatest tragedies of my life, because camp always seemed like this Shangri-lawless place totally devoid of parents where you ran wild, tried out new personas, ate oatmeal, and made out with people. If you’ve never gone to camp or you’re just nostalgic for the time when you did, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve figured out how to replicate the experience within the comfort of your own room by watching the movies and TV shows (and reading the one book) on this list.

Camp Rock (2008)
Camp Name: Camp Rock

Don’t let the name fool you: Camp Rock isn’t for geology enthusiasts. (Did you even think that it was?) While most traditional camps are all about canoes and whatnot, Camp Rock molds youngsters into pop stars. As one girl says at the beginning of this Disney Channel movie, “anybody who wants to be somebody in music goes to Camp Rock,” which is why aspiring singer Mitchie (Demi Lovato) is so jazzed when her folks agree to let her go for the summer. Less than 10 seconds after arriving, campers are doing backflips and clickety-clacking their drumsticks. A few kids even pop and lock their way off the camp bus. This is how you know the place is hardcore! Throughout the summer, boys and girls learn how to lip-sync to a backing track and hold a guitar while pretending to play it. The lucky ones get to take a class with bad-boy counselor Joe Jonas, who teaches them the ancient art of dancing in skinny jeans.

Camp Nowhere (1994)
Camp Name: Camp Nowhere

The intrepid kids at Camp Nowhere hire an out-of-work junior-high-school drama teacher (Christopher Lloyd, mad scientist Doc from the Back to the Future movies) to pose as the director of a phony camp, swindle their parents into giving them thousands of dollars, and then use the money to rent a former hippie commune for the summer. Ringleader Morris “Mud” Himmel (Jonathan Jackson, who has the most beautiful ’90s mullet that ever existed) and his crew of 13-year-old rascals spend their adult-free days jumping off of cabin roofs onto piles of dirty mattresses and skateboarding with fireworks strapped to their helmets (that is, all of the things that I do constantly now that I’m grown up and in charge of my life). If you actually tried to pull off a Camp Nowhere scenario (which I suggest you do), you wouldn’t have to worry about getting in trouble. When your parents inevitably find out what you’ve been up to, they’ll just be like, “Touché. That was an awesome idea, y’all.”

Camp (2003)
Camp Name: Camp Ovation

If you listen to mix CDs of Broadway ballads whenever you’re feeling blue, or casually reference Barbara Stanwyck films in everyday conversation, then the teens at the summer performing-arts program in Camp are your kindred spirits. During the school year, these kids are misfits, but Camp Ovation is their refuge, a place where they’re completely accepted and can proudly display their framed photos of Stephen Sondheim.

Addams Family Values (1993)
Camp Name: Camp Chippewa

In this sequel to The Addams Family, “altogether ooky” siblings Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) go to summer camp after a scheming nanny tricks their parents into sending them away (NOT because they want a break from watching their overly amorous mother and father come pretty close to having intercourse in front of them on a daily basis). Camp Chippewa is operated by two inordinately upbeat counselors and primarily populated by WASPy kids who can’t appreciate Wednesday’s morbid one-liners or her amazing vintage Victorian bathing suit. Spending eight weeks with Wednesday Addams would be a total dream—even if she ended up hating you after you asked her to braid your hair like hers.

Goosebumps #9: Welcome to Camp Nightmare (1993)
Camp Name: Camp Nightmoon

I imagine that the best part of any camp experience has to be the moment when you—and you alone—are called on to solve a mystery. That’s exactly what happens to Billy when he goes to Camp Nightmoon and the kids in his cabin start disappearing. Other great things about camp revealed in this book, which I like to imagine R.L. Stine wrote by candlelight while wearing a velvet cloak: every day closes with a cliffhanger, and there’s a shocking, life-altering twist when camp ends.

Bug Juice (1998-2001)
Camp Name: Camp Waziyatah

For three years at the turn of the millennium, the Disney Channel aired a reality show about summer camp. It was called Bug Juice, and it was amazing! According to the theme song, the show chronicled the “true life adventures” of “real kids, makin’ friends, havin’ fun” at a camp in Maine. You’d be hard pressed to find a more compelling premise than that! The carefree group of 12-to-15-year-olds played volleyball, waterskied, went on overnight hikes, lived in cabins, wrote poetry, and sang campfire songs. Mainly, though, the show was like junior high to the nth degree. Most of the girls were boy crazy, the boys were immature, and during their little camp dances, they’d all do what I call the “junior-high slow-jam shuffle” (you know, where you and your partner stiffly spin around in circles, both of you looking away from each other like you couldn’t be less interested in what’s going on).

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Camp Name: Camp Firewood

Co-writer/actor Michael Showalter was so devoted to telling this story of infatuation, rejection, redemption, gum-chewing, and calf-high tube-sock wearing, that he lost a ton of weight to believably portray a teenage counselor. Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, and Janeane Garofalo join him around the bonfire in this parody of camp movies. After watching Wet Hot, it isn’t uncommon to want to (a) immediately rewatch it and (b) set aside any of the career aspirations that you may have once had in favor of becoming a full-time camp counselor.

Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Camp Name: Camp Arawak

A mysterious psychopath on a killing spree terrorizes a camp full of kids. People are stabbed and killed with a curling iron, which doesn’t exactly paint summer camp in the most appealing light. But some of the kids don’t die, so that’s something, right? If you’re aren’t able to stomach the gruesome bits, fast-forward through them and enjoy the wonderful ’80s camp fashions—one muscle-bound counselor wears the most darling half-shirt-and-hot-pants ensemble that I’ve ever seen.

The Parent Trap (1961 & 1998)
Camp Name: Camp Walden

There’s no better pro-camp argument than the one put forward by both the original 1961 Parent Trap and its 1998 remake (starring an adorable 12-year-old Lindsay Lohan): if you go to camp, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll come across your long-lost twin (if you already live with your twin, then you’ll probably meet two other girls who look like you and discover that you’re quadruplets).

Arthur, season one, episode seven: “Arthur Goes to Camp” (1996)
Camp Name: Camp Meadowcroak

At Camp Meadowcroak, Arthur and the boys and Francine and the girls play pranks on one another and just generally run amok. At one point the girls booby-trap a ditch, and the boys fall into it. The counselors don’t give a crap because at camp, third-graders are free to do whatever the hell they want.

Meatballs (1979)
Camp Name: Camp North Star

My goal in life is to have Bill Murray take me under his wing the way he does with shy camp outcast Rudy. Until that day comes, I’ll just watch Meatballs over and over again.

Literally the Best Thing Ever: R.L. Stine

Ever since I was young, I’ve had an obsession with the horror genre. Anything that’s spooky, terrifying, and gruesome is insanely attractive to me. But before I would discover horror masters like Stephen King and Wes Craven in my teen years, a man named R.L. Stine gave me my first taste of terror.

My upper elementary school (that’s grades 4-6) had every Goosebumps book there was. I can honestly tell you that in the three years that I attended that school I read every original Goosebumps book (62 in all!). Whether the story was about a half-human, half-plant hybrid or demonic scarecrows, I was completely engrossed. That’s because R.L. Stine is a master of writing scary books for kids. Every Goosebumps chapter ends in a cliffhanger and that, my friends, is the best idea ever created. It’s also probably why I finished those books so quickly—I could never put them down! I had to know what happened next!

And the storylines! Stine doesn’t settle with the ol’ vampires and ghosts (although there are a lot of them). He’s got better stuff up his sleeve: A camera that kills! Alien lizard creatures that plan to enslave humanity! Boys who turn into dogs after using a weird suntan lotion! Trust me, R.L. Stine can churn out trippy scary stories like nobody’s business. He’s crazy brilliant! He’s the best thing ever!

But Stine didn’t stop at books; he also created the Goosebumps television show. I actually still own the episode “The Haunted Mask” (a two-parter!) on VHS. Evil masks that replace your own flesh just really make me excited, you know? Just watching the intro brings back so many memories. Evil dog, I love you!

The Cartoon Network started playing the episodes a little while back, and I’m hoping they bring them back for Halloween. I want children across America to get very, very afraid this Halloween season. (Meanwhile, the Hub is running Stine’s new show, The Haunting Hour.)

The business of being scary without being cheesy is a difficult one. Especially when your audience is made up of children! R.L. Stine’s writing is surprisingly timeless. I have a collection of 30 short Goosebumps stories on my shelf (sitting right above me as I type this) and I pull it out every now and then to read one. I am happy to confirm they have retained their creepiness. Each story ends eerily, without closure. It seems that almost all of R.L. Stine’s characters are horribly doomed. The stories just wouldn’t be the same with a happy ending.

Robert Lawrence Stine made me love being scared. And this is why he is the best thing ever (literally). ♦