Summer camp, whether you grew up going to months-long summer camp or day camp, is usually a pleasant experience. The food might be terrible, but you’re making memories. But beyond the camp chants and tie-dye, camp can be a place of anxiety, high emotions, and isolation. In film, summer camp and horror have been working together since 1980’s Friday the 13th. Most summer camp horror films are slasher flicks, gory and violent, relying on dread. What is it about summer camp that makes it a great setting for horror?
For many kids, summer camp is their first major separation from their family. Kids and teens are usually overtired, hungry, and overheated. Cliquish behavior in new camp friends is isolating. Camp counselors are often teens or young adults themselves. Big groups and low supervision just add to the general eeriness of seldom used cabins, overgrown woods, and deep lakes. Everything about traditional summer camp, from the enforced cheer and silly games to the ghost stories around the campfire, needs only a slight adjustment to become something much darker.
These summer camp horror novels explore isolation, anxiety, and coming-of-age tropes. This ain’t your horseback riding, archery, and friendship bracelet summer camp. I hope you have extra batteries for your flashlight.
You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight by Kalynn Bayron
Charity’s summer job has her playing the part of the “final girl” in an immersive slasher-themed summer camp experience. When Charity’s co-workers begin to vanish, and one is killed, the lore of the camp becomes eerily real. During the last weekend of the experience, Charity and her girlfriend Bezi are left to survive the night, with a killer lurking around camp.
The Lightness by Emily Temple
This is the book that inspired this post. Think The Secret History meets summer camp meets Buddhism. After a tough year, Olivia enrolls in a summer Buddhist program for troubled youth. Quickly, Olivia becomes enmeshed in a mysterious group of girls obsessed with the ideal of literal levitation. Lyrical and dreamy, this book presents true-to-life horror.
Brain Camp by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan, and Faith Erin Hicks
Camp Fielding promises to turn misfits into prodigies. When Jenna and Lucas turn up for the summer, they immediately see something’s not right at Camp Fielding. From the lights in the woods to the weirdly docile campers, Jenna and Lucas have some investigating to do before it’s too late!
The Lake House by Sarah Beth Durst
When Claire arrives at a remote summer camp, she brings her anxieties with her. The camp has been burned to the ground, leaving only Claire and two other girls alive. After finding a body in the woods, the girls realize they’re the prey, and there’s no escape.
Camp Slaughter by Sergio Gomez
When a couple of college friends rent a cabin in the Pennsylvania woods, they have no idea of what’s in store for them. According to local legends, the campground is nicknamed “Camp Slaughter.” Nearby, a cannibalistic man waits for his next victims. Styled after ’80’s slasher films, this novel is a gory thriller.
The Campfire Collection by R.L. Stine
Would this even be a summer camp horror list without Goosebumps? This spine-tingling collection includes The Curse of Camp Cold Lake, Ghost Camp, and Welcome to Camp Nightmare. Perfect for recalling around the campfire, these stories will have you sleeping with your flashlight on.
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Every year, scoutmaster Tim leads his scout troop on a summer trek in the beautiful Canadian wilderness. When a man stumbles onto the troop’s site looking disturbingly unwell, it’s evident that something has gone terribly wrong. The man’s misfortune spreads quickly through the troop, making their annual camping trip a trip from hell.
Primal Animals by Julia Lynn Rubin
It’s finally time for Arlee to spend a summer at college prep camp, Camp Rockaway, but when she arrives, it’s nothing like she imagined. Other campers are cold to Arlee at first, until she’s invited to join their elite circle. Arlee can’t shake her paranoid feelings as her new friends continue to ask more of her.
Camp Firwood by Boris Bacic
When Kevin is sent to Camp Firwood as punishment, he’s never heard of The Trial. Disobedient campers are sent into the woods every two weeks. The goal: survive the night. Kevin’s not worried. As more and more campers go missing, Kevin realizes how dangerous the woods really are.
Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi, Translated by Nathan Collins
This collection of short stories isn’t set at summer camp, but the title story is the perfect mix of summertime nostalgia and gore of horror stories. After two children accidentally-on-purpose murder their friend, they make increasingly fanciful plans to dispose of the body. The narrator, of course, is the slain friend.
Before you pack your duffle and sleeping bag, be sure to check out these camping horror novels for more reading inspo. Stock up on s’mores supplies for ghost stories around the campfire, or just a good book for cabin time. Don’t forget the sunblock and mosquito repellant!