Summer Camp Slash: Carol Clover and Sleepaway Camp
By Valerie Bromann
Summer camp: a time of fun, a time of laughter, a time of games, sports, crafts, and friends. A time of murder? From movies like Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) to Madman (Giannone, 1981) to Bloody Murder (Portillo, 2000), summer camp is a popular setting for the slasher film. Camp is a time when children get together, and with little adult supervision, anything can happen. One of the most famous of these camp killing classics is Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983). Sleepaway Camp begins with a family enjoying a summer day in the lake just outside of Camp Arawak. The action of two teens causes a speedboat to kill a father and one of his two children. Eight years to the day, Angela, the silent survivor, and Ricky, her cousin head off to the same camp. Once sent off by sole parental figure Aunt Martha Thomas, Angela encounters her fair share of lewd advances and camper cruelty. Ricky is always there to protect her. As camp goes on people start getting killed off, leaving one to question who is murdering and why? These questions can easily be answered by Carol Clover, author of the article “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” In this article Clover explains the six elements visible within a slasher film: locale, weapons, victims, the final girl, killer, and shock effects. She also explains gender roles and sexuality within the genre. In looking at Sleepaway Camp in light of Clover’s article, one can understand her points more fully, as well as gain a greater knowledge of the film. Through this, it is easier to understand just what went on at Camp Arawak.
Carol Clover explains six imperatives for the slasher film. While some of these aspects are more difficult to explain, some are rather obvious within Sleepaway Camp, such as locale and weapons. According to Clover, the locale in a slasher is the “terrible place” where the killer and victims find themselves. It is usually a place with remnants from the past where terrible things had occurred (138). Here, this place is Camp Arawak. Earlier this is where the trouble began when Angela loses her sibling and father in a boating accident. Eight years later, this is where Angela and her cousin Ricky attend sleepaway camp and find that a killer is loose upon the camp. As for the weapons, Clover shows that they should be pretechnological and that guns have no place in the slasher film. This is because guns are impersonal, since they can be used at a distance, leaving no contact between the killer and victim. They are also loud, allowing the killer’s presence to be heard. Rather, according to Clover, “the preferred weapon of the killer are knives, hammers, axes, ice picks, hypodermic needles, red-hot pokers, pitchforks, and the like” (139). These weapons provide the closeness and tactility needed to perform the job at hand. They are also penetrating, allowing one to tear, reveal, and destroy. In Sleepaway Camp, similar weaponry is used. In many of the instances the killer uses his bare hands to off the victim, allowing for true intimacy. Examples of such killings include Artie, the cook, being scorched by boiling water, Kenny being drowned at the hands of the killer, Meg being stabbed with a knife, Judy killed by a curling iron, and finally, Paul’s head chopped off by an unidentified object. In each of these instances the killing is personal and there is some human interaction and contact between the two. This discussion on weapons leads to another slasher imperative: the victim.
Since in order to use said weapons, the killer must have a target, this is another essential feature of the slasher film. Although these targets may at times seem random, there are certain characteristics of the slasher victim. One major aspect is that “sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction. The genre is studded with couples trying to find a place beyond purview of parents and employers where they can have sex, and immediately afterwards, (or during) being killed” (140). Simply put, those who engage in or seek unauthorized sex will die. This can be clearly seen with the first victim, Artie. This is a middle-aged man looking to take advantage of the young female campers. His demise occurs shortly after confronting Angela in the pantry with the attempt to seduce and rape her. In similar terms, Kenny is killed after trying to sleep with Leslie on the canoe; Meg after making a date with Mel, the perverted camp owner; and Judy after making out with Mike (not to mention her slutty status and attempts to lure away Angela’s boyfriend). All of the victims were killed because they were more sexually promiscuous and immoral.
Two other imperatives of slashers are the killer and the final girl. However, the ironic complexity within Sleepaway Camp lies in that the killer and the final girl seem to be one and the same. According to Clover, the final girl is presented from the outset as being the main character, who is more sexually reserved, boyish, intelligent and resourceful (147). This is exactly Angela’s character. The majority of the film concentrated on her plight through summer camp. She is a tomboyish girl who is quiet and reserved. When Billy tried to kiss her, she ran off, and she later stopped him from feeling her chest under her shirt. However, Clover also states that “the image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who didn’t die: the survivor or final girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased cornered and wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, and rise, and scream again” (143). However, Angela turns out to be the killer in the end, yet one might see her as defeating herself, since she allows herself to get caught and helped. It is because of this that Angela can be seen as the final girl even though she is also the killer.
Throughout the film, the killer’s identity was a mystery. Was it the deranged aunt, a camp counselor, a mean bunkmate, cousin Ricky, or someone else completely? To much surprise, with an interesting twist, the killer turns out to be Angela, the final girl who turns out to be the final killer as well. Yet, as the audience finds out, she fits the killer’s role as perfectly as she fits that of the final girl. In her argument, Carol Clover gives three different ways to look at the killer. First, “the killer is a psychotic product of a sick family but still recognizably human… [who is] propelled by psychosexual fury, more particularly a male in gender distress, has proved a durable one, and the progeny of Norman Bates stalk the genre to the present day” (135). She also shows that female killers, although scarce, do not show gender confusion and their motive is not overtly psychosexual, unlike the previously described male role. Finally, she gives a more generic declaration in that she believes that the killer is an insider, someone close to the victims who serves a normal function until the end when their other self is revealed (137). Angela seems to take on all of these ideas. Looking at the third idea first, one can see that Angela is part of the group that the killings are occurring in. She is a camper among the children and adults who die. The first two views, however, are not as clearly seen, and quite complicated. This is simply because there is one view for the male killer and one for the female killer. At first glance, Angela is a female killing to take avenge against her torturous peers and superiors. However, it is soon revealed that the Angela the audience has come to know is not the “female” killer, but actually a gender-confused male. As Angela presents herself at the end it turns out that she is not a she at all, but rather a he. This, as shown in a flashback, idealizes the sick family idea. As it turns out, Angela’s Aunt Martha takes in the young boy who survived the boat accident and decides to make him into the little girl that she has wanted. Herein lies the gender confusion and psychosexual fury. Angela cannot be the girl her aunt wanted her to be, and it is because of this that she is outcasted. She is made fun of for not swimming or taking showers with the rest, and she cannot hold the relationship that Billy wants because her sexuality does not allow for it. Above all, Angela is shown to be a complex character; she is the final girl along with both the female and male killer.
In looking at the killer and final girl, Clover also puts forth an argument about gender that is epitomized in Sleepaway Camp. According to her, “slasher films present us in startling direct terms with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds but in which, at the same time, masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body” (126). She later talks of the male killer as having a phallic purpose, but with distorted masculinity, such as being virginal, transsexual, spiritually divided, or, as in Sleepaway Camp, a man raised as a girl (154). Of the final girl, Clover states that she encompasses masculine interests and shares a phallic symbol with the killer, usually in the form of “castrating” him in some way (155). Since in Sleepaway Camp the final girl is the same as the killer, these views can be clearly seen. Angela is a phallicized woman, or a feminized man. Both views can be seen as correct, leaving Angela to be the perfect example of a one-sex character.
Finally, the element of shock effects is presented in the slasher film. These allow for the audience to see the gory deaths, witness murder and mayhem, and be blown away by images they could not imagine (149). While the audience of Sleepaway Camp for the most part does not see the spectacles of killing, they do see the after products. They see the scalded, blistered face of Artie, the bluing bloated Kenny complete with snakes crawling from his mouth, and the swollen, scabbed bee stung Billy. Finally, comes the shock effect to end all shock effects, as the final scene commences, Angela stands up and faces her naked body to the audience. However, instead of breasts and a vagina, they are faced with this darling girls head on a grisly, hairy, penis equipped, male body. This image closes the film, leaving this shocking image on the mind that could not be imagined and is needed to tie up the significance of the film.
Carol Clover’s “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” and the film Sleepaway Camp are perfect compliments to each other. Each of Clover’s six imperatives; locale, weapons, victims, the final girl, killer, and shock effects are apparent in the film. Along with this the character of Angela epitomizes the gender-confusion set forth by Clover. Angela is a complex character of American cinematic horror, embodying much more than meets the eye. She is a killer, a female, a male, and most importantly, a camper that most would never want to bunk with.
Bloody Murder (2000) Dir. Ralph Portillo
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” Screening Violence, ed. Stephen Prince (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2000). 125-174
Friday the 13th (1980) Dir. Sean S.Cunningham
Madman (1981) Dir. Joe Giannone
Sleepaway Camp (1983) Dir. Robert Hiltzik