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Illustration by Kelly Alder
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Dave Hennessey of Camp Thunderbird stands on the porch of Cabin 13, supposedly haunted by “Bloody Mary.”Photo by Isaac Harrell.
Ghost stories, short-sheeted beds, catchy songs and daring exploits are woven into the fabric of summer-camp life. For some kids, it's the first time they've been away from home, and even for veteran campers, boundaries are pushed and another plank is wedged into the foundation of independence.
Summer camp can be a pivotal, life-changing experience. Just think about how often it's been portrayed on television and in movies and advertising — everything from Bill Murray's 1979 film Meatballs to the 1990s Nickelodeon TV series Salute Your Shorts.
"It's amazing just how prevalent it is," says Matthew Ralph, a Pennsylvania-based PR person who writes the Summer Camp Culture blog ( summercampculture.com ), which collects the flotsam and jetsam of camp pop culture.
Camp is a uniquely American rite of passage, and it has its own culture of shared experiences, from campfire songs to contraband candy, says Ralph, who attended summer camp and was a camp counselor during college, just like his mother before him.
For many kids, it's where they learn to be on their own for the first time, and that can be both scary and exhilarating. "It's not school," Ralph says. "There's not that much structure; there's freedom to explore. You have all these awkward experiences and encounters and bullies and pranks, but you also have new discoveries and friendships and love interests."
The Hero's Journey
Dave Hennessey, camping-services director of YMCA Camp Thunderbird in Chesterfield County, once read an article comparing the summer-camp experience to Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, which he thinks is apt.
"Camp is … almost a magical world where anything can and frequently does happen," Hennessey says. Like the great heroes of film and folklore, kids "start out in a mundane world. They go to school and participate in activities … but there's a feeling of adventure missing."
At camp, kids get the call to explore under the tutelage of caring, wise mentors. They engage in adventures both large and small, ranging from meeting new kids to testing their boundaries in exciting ways, like climbing the 50-foot Alpine tower at Camp Thunderbird or zooming across the lake on a zip line. "Camp does a really good job of providing a space for risk for kids," Hennessey says.
Susann Cokal, a professor of literature at Virginia Commonwealth University who teaches students about folklore, says, "Our fantasies are always about being orphans when we were kids: You're an orphan, but you prevail. … It's another version of the journey of the hero. There's a glamour to it, even to the homesickness. It proves you can survive."
The Campfire: Songs and Stories
Probably the most iconic image of summer camp is the campfire, says Ralph, evoking thoughts of telling stories, singing songs and roasting s'mores.
The campfire creates community through those rituals, says Cokal: "You start out with people who are all different, and you go through certain steps, and you end up with people who are all on the same level."
While many camps have their own official song, most campfire tunes are silly and fun "repeat-after-me kind of songs," Hennessey says. Folk songs are also big. Philip McMurry, a native Richmonder who spent his summers during college as a camp counselor at Makemie Woods, a Presbyterian overnight camp near Williamsburg, remembers playing acoustic versions of Indigo Girls and Bob Dylan tunes as a counselor in the late 1980s. Peter, Paul and Mary's "I'm in Love With a Big, Blue Frog" is still a hit at Camp Horizons.
Then there are the scary stories. McMurry, now an assistant professor of history at the University of Northwestern Ohio, remembers weaving scary tales for teen campers at a specially chosen isolated point on the Williamsburg peninsula.
"Many camps have different sorts of legends and spooky things," Hennessey says. "We just need to make sure we know our audience." Scary stories are typically restricted to teen campers, he says. While Camp Thunderbird doesn't have an official legend, Hennessey has heard campers and counselors tell tales about "Bloody Mary" living in Cabin 13, adding, "I am sure that has been co-opted from somewhere else."
Braving such stories also creates togetherness, Cokal says: "You are going to be part of this community by being terrified of the story of the bloody hook left on the car door." And while some camps like Camp Horizons don't endorse scary stories, Cokal suspects there are still nighttime tales being told behind cabin doors by flashlight. "Kids are always telling each other scary stories," she says, "partly as a way of learning about the world and facing its fears."
Pranks are another major aspect of summer camp and have long been a hallmark of summer camp's depictions in movies and TV. The title of Nickelodeon's Salute Your Shorts refers to the practice of raising a kid's underwear up the camp flagpole, a prank that also shows up in Meatballs.
"Why is a kid in fourth or fifth grade bringing shaving cream to camp? He's going to end up shaving-creaming someone's bed," says Ralph, who recalls having freezing cold water turned on him in the showers. "Pranks can be fun at camp, but they can also be cruel and unusual," he says.
On the whole, though, most summer camp shenanigans tend to be of a mild variety, like pillow fights or water-gun battles.
At Makemie Woods, McMurry once helped a bunch of guys lean a trash can full of water against the door of the girls' cabin. When the door opened, the can disgorged its contents into the cabin and onto the ankles of the unsuspecting girls. At 4 a.m. the next morning, the girls reciprocated, standing outside the pranksters' cabin and "singing in this high-pitched wailing voice, purposefully off-key."
At Camp Thunderbird, "water pranks are very popular because it's hot and it's easy to do," Hennessey says, noting that it's often "less of a prank and more of a relief."
The Great Outdoors
For kids in 2012, camp serves a function that's even more important — and basic — than developing competition and teamwork: It gets them unplugged from computers and iPhones and "understanding that there is fun stuff to do outside, too," says Kim Betts, director of administration at Camp Horizons in Harrisonburg, where all the traditional camp amenities are offered, from horseback riding and archery to canoeing, kayaking and a zip line.
When Hennessey, 29, was a middle schooler, he rode his bike everywhere. "Nowadays, it's not like that," he says, but children's "sense of adventure is still there." Camp Thunderbird also offers riding, canoeing, kayaking, a BB-gun range and more.
In our world of video games, social networks, endless organized after-school activities and overprotective parents, Hennessey says, "just being outside a majority of the day makes a big difference in their lives."