Summer Camp Horror

Summer Camp Horror

Sometime back in February or March, it came to my attention that April 2018 had a Friday the 13th.  Not wanting to miss an opportunity for an exercise in pure meta-nerd indulgence, I immediately contacted some good friends and inquired if their cabin was available. Here in western Pennsylvania there are areas where farms border patches of thick wilderness. The last outpost of civilization is merely a campground. In this transition area sits our "little slice of heaven."  Naked early spring trees serve to create a gnarled harbor for uneasy feelings... but more importantly they make it infinitely easy to string up a screen for a Friday the 13th marathon.

In our case the screen was a stained curtain purchased at a local thrift store. This piece of essential Camp Crystal Lake equipment was selected solely for its opaque qualities not to mention the fact that it was only textured on one side. Selling points in any impromptu outdoor screen. The idea of being a guerilla projectionist was not lost on me. After all it was opening weekend of trout season, and here I am screening a bunch of R rated films 3 minutes from one of the best recreational lakes in the area. Needless to say there was an underlying layer of illicit excitement.  My companion and I both arrived in true Friday the 13th style.  Her in 20 year old red convertible and myself in a nondescript pickup truck. The perfect combination of vehicles notorious for never starting when you need them too. Particularly when a machete wielding maniac is on the loose.  We had no time to worry about such horror tropes, there was work to be done.

The weekend essentials were unloaded into the cabin. Truth be told I use the term "cabin" loosely. While we love our summer place deeply, it amounts to little more than a modest teardrop trailer with what was possibly once a porch attached. This lanai has since been enclosed, serving as the living room and dinette area. Just big enough for two and if you need to shower the campground facility is only a short walk, just past the path where I heard that mysterious noise last summer. After stretching the screen between two trees, there was nothing to do but wait. It is nearly impossible to set up your projector outdoors until well into the evening. While we were able to make out the Japanese brand name faintly cast on the sheet, adjusting the level and height and was in fact...  impossible.  When anticipation collided with boredom, red and blue 3D glasses were distributed and the 3rd addition to the franchise appeared on the white screen. All in the name of an "equipment check," however it was still too early and the images appeared in three dimensions but notably washed out. 

Two cabins up, our kind hosts for the weekend had friends over, but they planned to join us around nine or ten to screen the 1980 classic. It was just at dusk, when one of these “kind” hosts decided to sneak around the cabin in an attempt to scare us. This effort was successful, the suspension of disbelief had become immersive in this wooded landscape. For a brief moment I was convinced it was all over. We arranged the chairs and as the night came on the audience began to arrive, one by one. Friday the 13th flickered onto the sheet to noted cheers.

We decided to watch in a mystery science theater fashion, offering our own commentary on the film. The prologue scene elicited cat calls as it became obvious that the counselors were attempting to consummate their relationship. Which always seems silly. How could they be attracted to each other in those androgynous camp uniforms? Blue shorts, banana yellow button-down shirts, and bright white patent leather belts. Be still my heart. Later in the film there were multiple references to Kevin Bacon’s swimming attire that continued until his incredible death scene. In the decade that followed F13th’s release, the practical effects from the Viceroy of Viscera: Tom Savini became the standard against which all slasher films are appraised. Possibly the best character for lampooning was Crazy Ralph. As he peddled away in one scene, you could hear someone in the audience hum the Wicked Witch theme from the Wizard of Oz. In this film’s runtime, the youthful sensibilities of Sean Cunningham and the feeling of isolation penned by Steve Miner combine to create a rural stage that seems almost custom built for faceless slashers. Friday lends itself so much to the outdoor screening that I would not be surprised if the lion's share of the box office take was attributed to Drive-Ins. Not to mention Columbia Pictures distribution resources.

We continued with sequels until well after 3 AM when our firewood ran out, the crowd dwindling until only two remained.  That feeling of being exposed, the camera POV in bushes and behind trees, cabins and camp facilities that offer little shelter, all of it serves to bring the viewer into the film. When you watch a Friday the 13th movie you cease to be a passive audience member. Whether you’re looking through the killers eyes or telling Marcy “don’t go in there!!!!” you’ve become a participant. Willingly or otherwise. Adding that extra layer to the experience, by screening the movie outside and in a similar setting, ignited something inexplicable in all of us. Jump scares, kills, comic relief, and provocative images merited a variety of reactions, however it didn’t matter if you laughed, or shrieked, or whistled, it just had more energy.

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