According to the horror genre, summer camps are teeming with killers and other unusual dangers. These seasonal getaways designed for adventure and fun quickly turn into fights for survival. And it’s not just in the movies where a young camper’s sleeping bag doubles as their body bag; books also present camps as hotbeds of death, murder and mystery. Carol Ellis’ 1993 young-adult novel Camp Fear joins the popular club of sleepaway terror when the characters find themselves menaced one summer. And as the title of this Point Horror entry suggests, the culprit is preying on people’s greatest fears.
Lousy food, surprise pests and unpleasant accommodations are the universal challenges of most fictional summer camps, but Silverlake has a problem most others don’t — a person, hellbent on revenge, is terrorizing the staff. Before the place can reopen for business, teens are hired to clear the cobwebs, sweep the dust away and get everything else in order. Seems easy enough for the counselors, especially those who previously attended Silverlake as campers. Of course everything changes when one of the newbies uncovers a dark secret.
The sizable cast of Camp Fear can be confusing at first, especially given how thinly written everyone is. However, protruding characteristics help distinguish one counselor from another. At least the ones who matter the most to the story. Rachel Owens is the protagonist who readers naturally identify with because they are both outsiders at Silverlake. Although she’s not inexperienced as a camper, Rachel’s sense of newness and determination otherwise allows the looming mystery to unfold. It’s because of Rachel the past gets dug up in the first place.
They were footsteps, she was sure of it. But they didn’t belong to the groundskeeper. Someone else had been outside the cabin.
In charge of decorating the bulletin board, in honor of Silverlake’s twentieth anniversary, Rachel rummages through old photographs. Along with pictures of fellow counselors Mark James, Steve Michaels, Jordan Hurley, Stacey Brunswick and Paul Sidney, who were all campers seven years ago, is a photo of a mysterious boy. Rachel is so drawn to the pic, she adds it to the board without thinking anyone would object. Even when Mr. Drummond, the camp’s creepy groundskeeper, sees the photo himself, he tells Rachel she “couldn’t have picked a better one.”
Rachel’s ignorance eventually elicits an awkward reaction from Mark and the others. Teresa “Terry” Monroe and Linda Dolan are new like Rachel, but everyone else instantly recognizes the boy in the photo, now the display’s centerpiece. It’s only when Rachel talks to her brooding crush, Paul, does she find out who this kid was and why mentioning him makes the group so uncomfortable.
Friday the 13th was, and still is, a template for practically all horror stories about summer camps. Camp Fear is no exception, and the resemblances are obvious but also diluted. Not only does the name Camp Silverlake sound like the ill-famed Camp Crystal Lake, both places have a tragic past. In lieu of a drowning Jason Voorhees is Johnny Danard, Silverlake’s one and only casualty. This bullied boy who fell and broke his neck out in the woods is not the stuff of campfire ghost stories, yet much like Jason, Johnny’s death was a terrible accident that could have been prevented.
Readers by now have inferred why Mark and the others are so uneasy about Johnny; they had something to do with his death. It’s true they didn’t kill him, but they did bully him into going out in the middle of the night and during bad weather. Had Mark, Steve, Jordan and Stacey all been nicer to him, maybe Johnny wouldn’t have died. Nor would someone at the camp be obviously avenging his death. But who could it be? All fingers point to Mr. Drummond, although he turns out to be a red herring. That means the perpetrator can only be one of the counselors.
Anyone expecting a slasher or a murder mystery here will be disappointed. No one, other than Johnny in the prologue and a poor rattler found in Steve’s sleeping bag, dies in Camp Fear. Her contemporaries would provide a meager body count, whereas Ellis settles for mere jump-scares and intimidation. Apart from the exploitation of characters’ phobias — Steve hates snakes with every fiber of his being, Stacey loses her mind if she falls into a lake, and Mark is deathly afraid of heights — there is an overreliance on disembodied screams and characters running around aimlessly in the dark.
And despite its length, which is a little over 200 pages, most of the paltry action happens toward the very end. A less patient reader may find themselves wanting to skip to the last chapter or two. One thing Camp Fear does get right, though, is how well it hides the antagonist in plain sight. Mark, Steve, Jordan and Stacey are clearly not tormenting themselves, and the two older counselors are barely around enough to warrant suspicion. Mr. Drummond is too obvious. That only leaves Linda, Paul and Terry.
In the middle of the coil, buried almost to the handle in the folds of the sleeping bag, was a butcher knife.
Taking another page out of Friday the 13th, the perpetrator is none other than the victim’s relative. Standing in for another Mrs. Voorhees is Johnny’s sister, Linda. The red-haired, outgoing counselor was in the clear before Mark’s acrophobic freakout while clearing the trails with everyone; he was too frightened to help an injured Linda, whose ankle wasn’t twisted after all. The villain’s endgame all along wasn’t to kill, but to embarrass the victims in front of everyone. From Steve’s meltdown over the snake to Stacey’s panic on the lake — why were these people working at a summer camp in the first place? — Linda wanted her brother’s bullies to feel as scared as Johnny did on his last night alive.
Camp Fear is not the most exciting story; it’s overlong, and once anything does actually happen, it’s contained to the last chapter. There are certainly more stimulating summer-camp horrors from this era of YA, but Ellis scares up some amusement, and maybe even a little suspense, at Camp Silverlake.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.