Get ready for a nostalgia bomb! From quirky kids’ shows to iconic horror films, these stories set at summer camp are sure to entertain you in your nice, air-conditioned, mosquito-free living room.
Addams Family Values
How could I kick off this list with anything other than Addams Family Values? For proto-goth kids like me, the Addams Family movies from the 90s were aspirational. Wednesday and Pugsley are sent to Camp Chippewa, a stereotypical American summer camp, and chaos ensues. Yeah, it’s played for laughs—but it’s also a reminder of how important it is to be true to yourself and not try to change your personality to fit in. You’re far better off finding your real tribe. You know, the people who would never forget you because you’re too weird.
Fun facts: The little blonde girl in this scene would grow up to be Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and her mom plays one of the creepiest monsters of the week from The X-Files, the cloned experiments known as Eve.
Dead of Summer
You can thank the summer camp slasher flicks of the 70s and 80s for Dead of Summer, a short-lived horror series from Freeform. The show ran for just 10 episodes, which is a huge shame. It was supposed to be an anthology series, but instead, we only got one season set at Camp Stillwater in the late 1980s. Dead of Summer isn’t too bloody, so if you’re squeamish, you’ll probably be fine. You can watch several episodes for free online via Freeform, and it’s a great show to have on in the background while you do chores around the house.
Wet Hot American Summer
Wet Hot American Summer has a stacked cast that includes Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, Amy Poehler, Bradly Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Christopher Meloni. The movie is a spoof of the raunchy comedies from the 1980s (such as Meatballs), and it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
The movie was a flop when it premiered in 2001, but thanks in large part to the success of the cast since then, Wet Hot American Summer developed a cult following. Netflix commissioned two limited-run sequel series in 2015 and 2017, so there’s plenty more goofs starring your favorite stars where this came from.
Okay, how about a family-friendly palate cleanser? Camp Rock stars baby-faced teen pop sensations Demi Lovato and Joe Jonas. For a certain generation, this Disney original movie is pure, powerful nostalgia. I was, frankly, too old for this one, but if Camp Rock is your jam, then more power to you! The franchise follows the kids at a music camp as they fall in love and find their voices. Is it cheesy? Yeah. But it’s super cute and charming anyway. Plus, nobody gets murdered! The same can’t be said for our next entry…
Everybody knows that Friday the 13th is the ultimate summer camp slasher movie—and don’t worry, we’ll be talking about that one soon. But Sleepaway Camp is an underrated 80s horror flick. The story is centered on Angela, a young woman who survived a terrible tragedy eight years earlier. At the start of the movie, she’s sent to summer camp, where things only get worse. Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get spoiled by the ending of this one! I wouldn’t necessarily say that it aged well, but it’s still a shocking twist.
Salute Your Shorts
Raise your hand if you still know the Salute Your Shorts theme song! This iconic summer camp TV show aired on Nickelodeon in the early 90s, during the same block as Hey Dude. (Remember that one?)
The short-lived show followed the teen campers at Camp Anawanna as they pranked each other and battled their doofus camp counselor. Sadly, Kirk Baily, the actor who played Kevin “Ug” Lee, passed away in February of this year at the too-young age of 59.
You’re either a fan of Wes Anderson movies or allergic to that level of quirkiness. Moonrise Kingdom features the familiar color palette, cinematography, and oddball characters as the rest of his movies. If you like Wes Anderson, then you’ll like Moonrise Kingdom. It’s gorgeous and weird, and the cast is outstanding, featuring many of Anderson’s regulars. Be warned that there’s some controversial content, including a scene between the two lead kids as well as something bad happening to a dog.
We’re back on the Disney Channel with Bunk’d, a sweet summer camp series set at Camp Kikiwaka in scenic Maine. The heavy laugh track and cheesy plots make this one best suited for kids and grownups who grew up on the show. Fans of Cobra Kai will recognize star Peyton List, and fans of breathtaking New England vistas will recognize Maine. Oh, wait… no, they won’t because Bunk’d was filmed on a series of sound stages at Sunset Las Palmas Studios. That’s disappointing.
The Parent Trap
Both the original 1961 The Parent Trap and the 1998 remake feature twin sisters who are determined to reunite their parents. The girls initially don’t know that they are twins, but when they meet each other for the first time at summer camp, it’s clear that they are connected. At first antagonistic toward each other, they eventually figure out the truth and hatch a plan to reunite their birth families.
Hayley Mills starred in the 1961 version, which was nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Sound and Best Film Editing). The Lindsay Lohan version wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, but it did make a massive profit and served to launch Lohan’s career. We all know how that turned out, but you can’t deny that she was a talented and charismatic actress once upon a time.
Cartoon Network cranked out some very strange shows, and while Camp Lazlo wasn’t the weirdest, it’s still aggressively quirky. The show ran from 2005 to 2008, and it was heavily influenced by SpongeBob SquarePants and Rocko’s Modern Life. The campers at Camp Kidney are all anthropomorphic animals, including an elephant, a rhino, and a spider monkey. Yet another fun fact: Patsy the mongoose was voiced by Jodi Benson, who also performed the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid!
I’m just now realizing how many summer camp shows were produced by Disney. Did they tap into some collective memory belonging to generations of kids, or do we remember summer camp through the lens of all these Disney shows? Either way, Bug Juice is a classic. It ran from 1998 to 2001, although there was a one-season revival in 2018.
What sets Bug Juice apart is that it’s a reality series. There aren’t many reality kids’ shows, for obvious reasons. Bug Juice was one of the earliest reality TV shows, premiering just a few years after The Real World. The show’s challenges are like “Baby Survivor,” and adults revisiting Bug Juice 20 years later may find the constant shrieking to be a bit much.
Okay, okay—Gravity Falls isn’t technically about a summer camp. It’s the story of twins Dipper and Mabel Pines, who spend the summer with their great-uncle in the spooky, kooky town of Gravity Falls. The Pines twins do normal summer camp stuff, like arts ‘n’ crafts and fishing, but they also battle supernatural monsters and discover a threat that could unravel all of existence.
This is one of my favorite shows ever, and I can’t recommend it enough. Part of me hates that it ended after two nearly perfect seasons, but I respect Alex Hirsch’s decision to end the series before it had the chance to become stale.
Troop Beverly Hills
Shelley Long (no relation to the author) stars as Phyllis, a recent divorcee who decides to take on the role of den mother to her young daughter’s scout troop. The Wilderness Girls challenge Phyllis in ways she never imagined, culminating in the annual jamboree. This movie flopped at the box office, but—like Wet Hot American Summer—it became a cult classic.
One more fun fact: Jenny Lewis (who played Hannah) would go on to become an indie-rock darling. She fronted the band Rilo Kiley and is now a successful solo artist.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is a documentary produced by the Obamas about a one-of-a-kind summer camp for disabled folks. Centered on the teenager campers and the post-Woodstock hippies who ran the camp, the documentary is a fantastic look at an often-overlooked area of civil rights. Crip Camp is joyful and also sometimes infuriating because of how far we still have to go in disability rights and intersectionality. The folks featured in the film aren’t inspirational because they are disabled, but because they are fearless trailblazers who demand to be treated with equity.
Friday the 13th
I promised you Friday the 13th, and I deliver on my promises. The classic slasher needs no introduction, but in case you don’t remember, it takes place at Camp Crystal Lake. The seemingly idyllic summer camp witnesses a string of horrific murders (and young Kevin Bacon’s feathered mullet). Friday the 13th wasn’t the first slasher film, but it established many of the genre’s tropes and inspired countless copycats and spoofs—not to mention a ton of sequels. It was made for about half a million dollars in 1979 and went on to gross almost $60 million!