Find Your Bunk, Change Your Life: Thinking About Liminal Spaces in Books, TV, and Movies
Summer camp, boarding school, college—interesting places for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that they have as one of their founding principles the idea that you will, absolutely, leave them. In fact, leaving them is one of the main points. You will come to them as a stranger, bright, shiny, and anxious. You will be thrown into cabins, dorm rooms, residence halls with other bright, shiny, anxious strangers. You will go through both an individual and a collective experience, in prefab, ersatz homes where you will create your own community by bonding with others going through the same experience.
You will be changed somehow, and you will leave. Whether it’s four weeks or four years, these places are built around the idea, at some level, that you will give yourself to them and surrender to their liminality. Surrender to the idea that they are a stopover with much to offer if you would only do the work necessary. These are all transitional spaces—from youth to adulthood, amateur to professional, student to master, etc.—with camps perhaps providing the widest variety of possible missions and outcomes. Our culture has embraced arts camps, adventure camps, religious camps, boy and girl scout camps, sports camps, nature camps, science camps, math camps, equestrian camps, so-called “fat camps,” and many others besides. Nowhere is the concept of camp-as-change-agent more baldly evident than at weight loss (“fat”) camps. You go in one way, and the aim is to come out another.
The higher form of this aim—evolution, self-improvement, self-actualization, finding community—is at the heart of really every camp experience, whether you’re there to get better at soccer or math or socializing.
I think this is why there’s a fascination with these places; why they are, in many ways, so romanticized and fantasized about. Think movies and TV shows like Meatballs, Wet Hot American Summer, The Parent Trap, Salute Your Shorts, and books like Nerd Camp, and even the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
But they are not only romanticized—they are also often transfigured into the settings for stories of thrills, chills, and gore. And it’s easy to see why. Most camps are set up to be apart from the world, meant as getaways. They employ rotating casts of characters from summer to summer, stewarding rotating casts of campers. In short: seclusion and transience, two powerful ingredients for telling an unsettling story.
There are a fair number of movies in this genre, and a growing number of books, including Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied. In The Last Time I Lied, a woman returns to the summer camp of her youth as an instructor and is forced to confront the traumatic disappearance of her bunkmates fifteen years prior. R.L. Stine also has seven books in his Goosebumps series set at camps, including Ghost Camp and The Horror at Camp Jellyjam.
In my debut thriller Dark Things I Adore, an eclectic group of young artists forge deep and impactful connections with each other during the summer of 1988 at the Lupine Valley Arts Collective, a cloistered and prestigious arts camp in King City, a remote town in Maine. Coral, Moss, Juniper, Mantis, and Zephyr (who all go by their camp nicknames), spend a dream-like summer together before one of them suffers an unspeakable cruelty in early 1989 which splinters the group irreparably.
Thirty years later, gifted painting student Audra Colfax lures predatory professor Max Durant to her home in the remote woods of Maine. Though Max believes he’s there to consummate the long-simmering sexual tension he senses between them, Audra has much darker, much more devious plans in mind for their weekend away. Because Audra knows a terrible secret from Max’s past, and now she has engineered every detail of their weekend away together with one aim in mind—to make him pay.
Here is a sampling of other books and movies set in these “transitional” spaces.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
A camp for teens becomes the site of a slew of murders and the killer is someone no one suspects.
Friday the 13th (1980)
A group of counselors set up a camp on the shores of Crystal Lake despite the objections of locals, triggering a very bloody summer.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)
Years after a murder at his school, Richard Papen reflects on the situation that led to a fellow student’s death.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006)
Blue van Meer finds herself at the confluence of multiple mysteries when both a friend and a mentor die during her senior year at the elite St. Gallway School.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas (2020)
A strong-willed undergraduate uncovers the secrets of the school that promises her and its other students unheard-of success and prestige.
In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead (2021)
Ten years after graduation, Duquette University alumna Jessica Miller returns for reunion where she must reckon with the circumstances that led to the death of a close friend.