You shouldn’t read this essay if you haven’t seen the ending of Sleepaway Camp, because you can’t talk about Sleepaway Camp without talking about its ending. In a lot of ways, the movie as a whole is pretty formulaic, taking advantage of all the horror tropes: Horny teens unleash their hormones at a summer camp. Someone gets bullied, and someone gets revenge on his or her behalf. All the most sexually active or aggressive characters, who also happen to be the bullies, are brutally murdered.
None of those things contributed to why Sleepaway Camp so notorious within horror-purist circles. But the movie isn’t popular because it’s any good. It’s popular because the last two minutes of the film are so bat-shit crazy.
That final twist is one that, if you go into Sleepaway Camp with a clear head, you’ll never see coming. Even if you correctly suspect who the killer is, you’d never guess why they’re killing off so many of the staffers and campers of Camp Arawak, who are all just trying to enjoy their summer and maybe get laid. Even without any context from the rest of the plot, the final scene is pretty fucking shocking and, once you’ve seen it, unforgettable.
But the infamous ending only takes shape because of what happens in the rest of the film, which, despite being poorly acted and full of predictably cheesy gore, takes on some interesting subject matter. It’s so unique that if you do a Google Scholar search, you’ll find a number of theses and dissertations that incorporate this low-budget, poorly rated film, all because of its complicated approach to gender and sexual identity.
Some academics claim Sleepaway Camp is transphobic, and it’s hard to argue when you see protagonist Angela/Peter Baker’s monstrous appearance on screen in the final two minutes — by the time you see what she’s got going on downstairs, she’s more animal than human. But to make this accusation assumes that Angela has agency, which she doesn’t. She didn’t choose to be a girl, she was forced into it by her deranged aunt Martha (played by Desiree Gould, an actress who some websites claim is transgender, but I couldn’t find any proof of this). And how long do you have to be told you are a girl before you start to believe it? Perhaps we should just call Angela “queer-bodied.”
Angela’s sexuality isn’t straightforward either. She likes Paul, until he tries anything even remotely physical with her. Then she shuts down. And her initial response to her nemesis Judy — Angela seems fascinated by her nubile bunkmate, the camp sexpot — could potentially be interpreted as physical attraction, especially when you consider the overtly erotic way in which she eventually murders Judy. Sleepaway Camp also plays around with notions of heteronormalcy. The seemingly straight dudes dress even more scandalously than any of the female campers, (except maybe Judy). Ron’s bulge, Gene’s belly shirt, and Bill’s daisy dukes are all burned into my brain; it’s like they came straight to the Sleepaway Camp shoot from a gay porn set.
Angela’s father, John, was gay, and catching him in bed with another man, which potentially led the siblings to try incestuous experimentation, is suggested as the origin story behind Angela’s murderous hangups. After the accident that kills John and the real Angela, we never find out what happens to Lenny, John’s lover, who may or may not have served some sort of parental purpose within the Baker family. Why did she end up with Aunt Martha and cousin Ricky instead of with him, besides, you know, the shitty laws regarding gay adoption back in those days or whatever? If Peter hadn’t ended up with Martha, she’d still probably be fucked up, what with losing her brother and father and all, but hopefully less murderous.
But that’s taking us down a rabbit hole where we won’t be able to find any real answers unless we can somehow talk to Robert Hiltzik, Sleepaway Camp’s writer and director, which isn’t going to happen before this essay is published.
Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.