Michael Van Kerckhove
A Love Poem for Sleepaway Camp
Originally written for and performed at Flick Lit: Reel-to-Real Storytelling at the Logan Theatre, Chicago, May 11, 2016.
Winter into spring 1995, and I, twenty years old, am gathered in our late-night living room filled with Theatre Majors, passing a bowl after popping in our 89 cent VHS rental of our beloved Sleepaway Camp. We are either virgins or vets, either innocent to the ending I swear I won’t reveal, or we know every line, every moment, every murder. Every Angela stare, every weapon, every word. We’re at the infamous (to us) house at 4-2-4 Woodward, Kalamazoo, Michigan, a house of mirth and other substances. We sit in the easy chair or sofa, on flip-n-fucks or pillows, or the hardwood floor that smoke and youth, Zima and Honey Brown beer convince our bones not to care about yet.
This house is our rec hall; our Cabin 19; our never ending (seriously, never ending) softball game scene where token nerd Mozart collapses face first after catching that fly ball. It’s our roof top water balloon fight; our woods painted green to hide approaching off-season autumn. It’s our late night boat ride and swim back to shore where two girls play Leslie because the first one got mono; our short shorts and side ponytails; our real mustaches and fake mustaches on fake cops in real uniforms; our real life graffiti on old wooden walls reminding us of our own off-season camp days with family and friends where we’d add to the tags: [Redacted] was here but now he’s gone, he left his name to carry on, for those who knew him, knew him well, and for those who don’t can go to hell.
This house is the string wrapped around our fingers lest we ever, ever forget.
As Theatre Majors, we naturally cast ourselves, our classmates, our profs as we spin our own Sleepaway world: a Broadway musical with which to muscle our way into legend. Carrie as Judy and Joe as Ricky and Matt as Ronnie and Damien as Billy and Kathleen as Suzie, and so forth and so on. We never discussed passed this stage, never staged our fantasy numbers, never wrote the words or titles (as far as I know)—so tonight, this night twenty-plus years on, I dream of my friends and my forty-plus age. I break out my DVD and I Google a little. Though I’m not connected much to that online world as the only fandom I’ve ever needed is the one here in my heart that we created ourselves: our own par-tici-pation and reenactments and sneers. And so I unpack (but not hack) a handful of campers, paying the attention that this Gen X obsession deserves: their scenes, their songs, their stories.
Consider “Cornflower Blue,” a non-speaking extra, a camper adding atmosphere. With her toothpick frame, exploding blonde mane, and those knee socks, those pretty, light blue knee socks accentuating every knob, every bump, every bone of her pale spindly legs. Cornflower Blue and the rest of her crew of townies and other actors’ cousins running from the buses. Running, running downhill toward their imminent off-camera deaths! She flashes onto the screen, down, down into the establishing long shot of the camp before cutting back to the plot’s main action. And just before the camera cuts again, there she is again! And so proves that Cornflower Blue and her crew run an endless loop like some B-movie Sisyphus never really ever reaching their cabins.
And here is where she turns and busts forward, past Ricky introducing Angela to Paul her love interest, and sings her extra’s lament, her dream to cement her status as more than a nonspeaking girl on the sidelines, never part of the real action. A song the whole audience can relate to. She asks herself, how we might all ask ourselves if things would be different if things were different, “If I were the killer or killed myself, hung by my knee socks from the rec room rafters would this give you more reason to remember me, or at least increase my paycheck?” She sings of her secret mission to save her friends, to save Camp Arawak—this place of solace, this place where the campers dream of casting themselves as a band of theatre majors casting themselves as them in an endless loop of homage—from closing. This place far away from home where her father roams and mother moans and brother eats Styrofoam.
Oh, are you afraid no one loves you? Because we do, Cornflower Blue. We have given you a name; you are someone in our story.
Consider our favorite scene where mean camper girl Judy asks, Hey Angela, why don’t you take showers when the rest of us do? Huh? Are you queeer or somethin’? Oh I know what it is. You haven’t reached puberty yet. Is that it? I bet you don’t even have your period. And then Suzie, the nice councilor says, That’s enough Judy. Angela is allowed to shower in the morning or any other time she wants to. And then Judy ignores her and says, Yeah. She takes showers when no one can see she has no hair down below. And Suzie screams, Judy! And then Judy goes in for the kill with She’s a real carpenter’s dream! Flat as a board and needs a screw! Suzie: That’s enough! Judy: Fuck off! And then Suzie slaps her and Judy glares at her and storms off. And Suzie puts her hand over her mouth and stares off in anguish.
You’d think this would be Judy’s big number filled with a chorus of singing dreaming carpenters, but no, this is Suzie’s moment. A whole song slowing down the split seconds before this seemingly spontaneous slap where she celebrates her nice girl status, her defense of the underdog and the bullied and wonders, “Will I fall from grace if Ronnie or Mel see my handprint upon Judy’s face? Will this slap give me power? Will I like it? Would I do it again?” And then the music swells and the stage swells with a chorus of Suzies and Judys reenacting the slap and the gamut of feels: the shock, the regret, that power. And in her final verse, she asks, “Will I ever act again? Will I play another part? I know in my heart I’m more than just a Suzie, I can be a Judy too. Oh why don’t you see more of me on my IMDB? End scene.”
Consider Aunt Martha, Angela’s aunt; Ricky’s mother. My part in all this. Back then we considered her a “small non-singing role” near the beginning, fitting for my non-singing voice in this sea of musical theatre inclined friends. And then I’d step aside and let everyone else shine (minus my near-end reprise). But now, oh hell no. I mean, I still can’t sing, but this pivotal role deserves more. Back then we dubbed her Prozac Queen with her deceptive gender, wide eyes, flamingo-inspired voice, and iconic red and blue beret, blatantly holding her man (question mark) hands in full view to show us that string wrapped ‘round her fingers, lest we ever, ever forget.
When she closes that door, sending the kids off to camp, the scene won’t fade to the buses unloading their charges. No. That wouldn’t do at all. Here, she sings vague, menacing verses regarding practicing medicine and wishing for a little girl to call her own. Why I’m almost sure of it. Then deeper, and okay friends, this is me here, a dirge digging into finding my place, fitting in. Not always believing—even if that’s bullshit—that I’m important, doubting the part I play, feelings of feeling like I’m just outside everything. Back then for sure, sometimes now, definitely in the years in between. Oh, Aunt Martha will sing.
Sleepaway Camp, I love you for your earnest as fuck low-budget realness, that deep soul DYI giving us blatant murder dummy stand-ins and burnt latex skin puckering with gelatin. For in a way, realizing my dreams of making my own “Thriller” video with friends on Dad’s eight-millimeter when I was 8, or 9, or maybe 10. For not fearing gender-play and sexuality, tantalizing us into celebrating your gay (if strange) couple on our square TV screens. For realizing that you can’t shoot Braveheart in six weeks, so off-kilter schedules be damned. And that no money means no aerial shots and gore for days giving way to story and characters and questionable acting. For taking things serious enough to let your literal and figurative camp factors soar. For letting us laugh with you even if sometimes we’re laughing at you.
For 84 minutes at a time you brought us together, making us all a part of each others’ stories. And I will never, ever forget.
Michael A. Van Kerckhove is a native Detroiter, longtime Chicagoan, and new Nashvillian. He has shared work in many Chicago events including Essay Fiesta, Flick Lit: Reel-to-Real Storytelling, Is This a Thing?, Mortified, Serving the Sentence, and You're Being Ridiculous. And in Nashville at TenX9 Nashville and Poetry in the Brew. He has work published in Midwestern Gothic, Belt Publishing's Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, and in the Fall 2017 issue of Waxing and Waning from Nashville based April Gloaming Publishing, among others. If he were to describe himself in three fictional characters, he would choose Luke Skywalker, Edward Scissorhands, and Ally McBeal. Much more at michaelvankerckhove.com.