This story is part of Happy Camper, a package about classic summer camp style in all its glory.

I never went to camp, but why did I need to? I saw everything I needed to know about the experience in movies like The Parent Trap.

Camp, as far as I knew from the original 1961 film and its 1998 remake, is a place full of net-windowed, raised cabins, uncomfortable steel-framed beds, and prim white uniform shirts. There were differences between the movies, to be sure: While the 1961 version with Hayley Mills was set at the fastidious Camp Inch, 1998’s Parent Trap, starring Lindsay Lohan, took place at the slightly more fun-seeming Camp Walden, located somewhere in the woods of Maine. (In reality, both films’ camp scenes were shot at actual summer camps in California’s San Bernardino Mountains.) Mills’ Sharon and Susan spent their sleepaway months canoeing on the lake and discussing the merits of Ricky Nelson; Lohan’s Annie and Hallie passed the hours fencing, playing poker, and gazing at a picture of a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Minor differences aside, the plots of the movies—and the vibes of the camps—were essentially the same. Both Camp Inch and Camp Walden had a cafeteria made of logs with a big stone fireplace set near some sort of lake, which, if you were lucky, had a boys camp on the other side. 

The 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, starring Lindsay Lohan as identical twins Hallie Parker and Annie James, celebrates its 25th anniversary in July 2023.

The Parent Trap universe is a place where friends will cut your hair and pierce your ears and both will turn out okay, but also a place where girls are absolutely awful to each other, trading snide barbs and dumping syrup and goop all over the ground of already ramshackle wood cabins. (To be fair, the 1998 version, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, was much more mild, abuse-wise, than the 1961 movie, which is full of looks-based insults and an icky scene where the back of one of the twins’ dress is cut off at a dance, exposing her underwear to a room full of strangers.)

Movies like The Parent Trap presented the rustic outdoorsiness of camp as the quintessential American teen dream. Anarchy is in the air from the second a kid steps off the bus to get a cabin assignment, and adult supervision is buffoonish at best. (Don’t even get me started on the absurd cruelty of throwing two quarreling campers in an “isolation cabin” out in the woods.) To me, sitting in my parents’ basement, watching Hayley Mills and subsequently Lindsay Lohan prance around on a forest bed of pine needles, camp was a place full of camaraderie and excitement, where you could learn to fence or dish over a secret stash of Oreos or Fig Newtons—arguably two of the most classically American cookies.

In 1994’s Camp Nowhere, a group of young friends devise a plan to trick their parents into sending them to an adult-free summer camp of their making.

While some of what I saw in The Parent Trap wasn’t all that universal—my parents, for instance, hadn’t split around my birth, then callously separated me from my (nonexistent) identical twin—it was the universality of the experience that made it feel both so appealing and so foreign to me. Who were these kids who didn’t mind mosquito bites and loved to poop in a latrine? I needed privacy to get dressed, was a picky eater who would certainly starve in a mess hall situation, and wasn’t exactly stoked about entering into a “forced friends” situation, let alone spending weeks if not months eating, sleeping, and showering with a bunch of random-ass girls I barely knew but had to share a cabin with. On the other hand, if heaps of kids across America were going off to summer camp every year (the American Camp Association estimates that roughly 26 million kids go to around 15,000 different overnight and day camps every year), then why wasn’t I? What secret tween and teen rituals was I missing, and why were my parents, in their infinite wisdom and frugality, holding me back?

It’s hard to know the answer, ultimately, but I’ve spent the years since wondering what could have been. Would I have met my soul sister at camp, à la The Parent Trap, or would I have ended up taking a sudden swim after some jerky campers flipped over my canoe? Movies like Camp Nowhere and shows like Bug Juice and Salute Your Shorts made me sure that if I went to camp, I would have surely been noticed by a guy—something that certainly wasn’t happening at my school—an experience that would culminate in some tiny but thrilling kiss after a climactic “last night of camp” dance. Even Camp Candy, a Saturday morning cartoon featuring the voice of the late John Candy, tried to teach me about the formative importance of Color Wars, a no-holds-barred, multiday capture the flag–style game that I just knew I’d be good at if I ever got the chance.

The 2001 comedy Wet Hot American Summer follows a group of camp counselors each trying to complete their unfinished business on the the last day of camp in the hot summer of 1981.

I don’t know if summer camps are a uniquely American experience—I don’t think the British are super into bunk assignments and s’mores, but I also wouldn’t put it past, say, the Swiss to send their kids into the wilderness for kicks. Still, summer camp movies certainly seem unique to American culture, or at least our wider understanding of it. Perhaps that’s because America, with its vast expanses of wilderness, has a long history of telling stories about coming of age in the great outdoors. Hollywood has produced hundreds if not thousands of Western pictures romanticizing not only the idea of rustic and youthful individualism, but also pictures of flickering fireflies and the sounds of a babbling brook.

To be truly American, these movies tell us, you have to return to the outdoors. Unfortunately, I just loved the idea of camp (and my parents basement) more than what I assumed the actual reality was. And while I may never have gotten to sit on a log around a fire telling scary stories or taken part in my very own version of Wet Hot American Summer’s big, year-end talent show, at least I could watch all of that go down on screen, where two Lindsay Lohans could endlessly spar in a forest while I sat on a couch.

Top Image Courtesy Everett Collection

Related Reading:

Relive Your Summer Camp Glory Days With These 10 Woodsy Getaways

32 Camping Must-Haves for Your Next Outdoor Adventure

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