The creators of Once Upon a Time are trading fairy tales for nightmares with their new ’80s summer camp horror series Dead of Summer.
Set at the idyllic Camp Stillwater, supernatural forces create a summer of pure evil — but not without a little fun. “We love John Hughes and we love John Carpenter,” EP Edward Kitsis says of their inspirations for the Freeform series.
As the series kicks off (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET), viewers will find that this isn’t the first time Camp Stillwater has been plagued with tragedy. Even after a slew of horrific murders committed years prior resulted in the camp’s closure, former camper-turned-camp director Deb (Elizabeth Mitchell) has enlisted a new generation of victims counselors played by Once Upon a Time’s Elizabeth Lail, Zelda Williams, Ugly Betty’s Mark Indelicato, Alberto Frezza, Eli Goree, Ronen Rubinstein, Amber Coney, Paulina Singer, and Zachary Gordon.
As viewers discover what brought each character to camp via flashbacks (à la Once Upon a Time and Lost), the show ultimately tells a story about identity. “Everyone goes through this coming-of-age thing where you’re trying to figure out who you are, who you could be,” EP Adam Horowitz says. “There’s an excitement to that, and there’s a terror to it — that terror becomes personified and something these characters have to deal with.” EW sat down with Kitsis, Horowitz, and fellow executive producer Ian Goldberg to get the scoop on what’s in store:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for a summer camp horror show come from?
ADAM HOROWITZ: We all went to summer camp separately. We all were involved with murders at our summer camps. We all were exonerated.
EDWARD KITSIS: That’s not true; I was involved with a demon and an exorcism. Adam had a murder.
HOROWITZ: The relief of the exoneration led us to have this guilt that’s been in us for years and made us say it’s got to come out on the television.
KITSIS: The demon was actually possessed.
HOROWITZ: The reality is that Ian is still possessed.
IAN GOLDBERG: Provides good fodder for the show.
KITSIS: Honestly we were all at summer camps, and we’re at a point our lives where we’re looking back. We loved John Hughes and we loved John Carpenter, and one of the things we noticed in both genres were the same archetypes: the jock, the slut, the mean girl, the stoner. So often in a horror movie, you don’t care about the first four people that die, it’s just the final girl, as they say. We wanted to do a show about identity, because when we talked about those genres and camp, the thing we liked best about camp was the freedom — the freedom to be yourself. At camp, you got to just be who you wanted to be. With the kind of storytelling we do, where we show you a crazy world and then flashback, it was an opportunity to discuss identity in a fun way and really get to know who were these archetypes before they got to camp, and what makes them tick?
HOROWITZ: We had been talking about this actually for a few years, and then it finally started to take shape, and we saw a way to do this show as 10 episodes. We have a vision, should it succeed and the audience wants more, for how it could go to different seasons and tell these contained stories in a smaller episodic scale. That was really appealing for us as storytellers. While there is some DNA with Once Upon a Time in it, it’s really stretching other muscles and doing other things that we’re really excited for. It was also super personal in a way, not because we were possessed or killed any one or anything like that, but because we did go to summer camp. Everyone goes through this coming-of-age thing where you’re trying to figure out who you are, who you could be. It’s actually the one time in your life where you really can sort of define it. There’s an excitement to that and there’s a terror to it — that terror becomes personified and something these characters have to deal with
Will each episode feature a flashback, like Once Upon a Time and Lost?
HOROWITZ: Yeah, it seemed to really lend itself to the story to look back at these characters as we spend time with them in their 1989 present-day. When you come to camp, you can be whoever you want to be, and that means that who you present isn’t necessarily who you really are.
KITSIS: Or it is really who you are, and you’ve been hiding it.
HOROWITZ: Exactly, so the flashback structure really lent itself to showing you what these characters once were. Everyone on this show has a secret of some sort, and it’s a way for us to start to reveal those secrets and have them come forward in the present as they deal with crazy supernatural horror and terror.
GOLDBERG: Where the horror manifests is you see what their secrets are in the past, and we see how that affects the characters in the present. There’s also something about the place that forces those secrets to come to the surface and for the characters to confront them in hopefully scary ways.
KITSIS: That’s a good point, because people see it and go, “Oh, it’s a slasher thing.” But it isn’t a slasher thing, it’s much more supernatural in a way that Overlook Hotel in The Shining was. Each episode is going to focus on one character, their flashback, and they will literally have to confront their demons.
Would you consider this more monster horror or supernatural horror?
HOROWITZ: I’d say there’s elements of a lot of different things in it, but there’s a supernatural force in this story that motivates a lot of the things that go on.
KITSIS: I would say one of the things that we loved about Lost, and you see it on Once, is that with Lost it’s one week it could be Sayid and it’s an Iraqi soldier story, Sawyer’s a con man, Kate’s a fugitive. It was never just doctor show, cop show. Same with Once Upon a Time, we got to touch on every fairy tale and every world. That’s what we wanted to do here with this mash-up of horror and supernatural, and at the same time, get our favorite John Hughes, ’80s, Say Anything moments in, as well as our iconic coming-of-age. For me, camp is where I met life-long friends, it’s where I had a lot of my firsts, and the summer of ’89 has a special place in my heart.
GOLDBERG: There’s an expectation people have when they hear summer camp and horror. They instantly go to Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp, people getting hacked up. We didn’t really want to play with those expectations and give people something different.
KITSIS: What you see at the beginning and think you know is absolutely not what you’re going to know at the end.
Could any of these be real-life forces, not just supernatural?
GOLDBERG: Well, there is a human element that you will see come into play.
HOROWITZ: There is a mixture of things going on. There’s a very real human element, there are human forces at play that are people who are motivated by very human desires and fears and all those kinds of things. In addition, there is a real supernatural force at play that is something that our characters all struggle to understand. Hopefully by the end of the season they will understand it, and the audience will understand it and be pretty scared and excited.
Are you also pulling from some of the fun summer camp tropes like things we saw in Meatballs?
KITSIS: We’re absolutely doing iconic camp moments. As we say, every episode has great horror moments, has great teen coming-of-age moments, and it has great camp moments, so we’re absolutely going to be doing color wars, capture the flag, overnights, swimming at the dock, all the great camp things. Every episode will be thematically linked to the character, but we’re still going to have the fun of camp, because we didn’t just want it to be, “Oh god, this place is horrible, I can’t wait to get out.” As crazy as some of these places are, you want camp to be as inviting as Storybrook was.
HOROWITZ: I don’t know if we’re going to go as broad as something like Meatballs, but what we love about a movie like that, though, is that it does capture the real sense of fun and excitement of being away from your parents for weeks on end. That element plays an important part of the show as we toggle between characters that end up being there for the summer, coming of age, and dealing with the horror of it.
Aside from both Elizabeths, any chance to see any other Once or Lost alums coming on?
KITSIS: Charles Mesure plays the Sheriff, who played Black Beard. Did we have any Losties or Oncers?
HOROWITZ: There’s a storytelling spirit that is shared in the basis with working on all those shows.
KITSIS: When you have great working relationships with people, both collaborative and creatively, everybody will always want to work together. Again, this is our third show with Elizabeth Mitchell. We wrote the role for her. It’s our second show with Elizabeth Lail. We literally wrote the role for her.
HOROWITZ: The genesis of this show is an idea we were talking about, and then we had both Elizabeths on Once and we started to see them in those parts, and then we really started to write them, and thank god they both said yes to doing it.
Will the first season span the summer? What is your plan for future seasons?
KITSIS: Yeah, so every year will be a new year. So season one is 1989, season 2 could potentially be 1970. We could do a year that’s 2004 and then go back to 1948, but you will see touchstones, because sometimes it could be the kid of the counselors you saw or we could go back. In episode 6, which is Elizabeth Mitchell’s [big episode], we flashback to her summer in 1970, so we’re going to see other times of camp.
GOLDBERG: It’s mentioned in the episode, or at least in the signage on the camp, that the camp was founded in 1924. You also see that the history of the lake goes back even further than that. We would love, if successful, to jump around to different eras. We have a plan for how they can all tie together to wrap up to a conclusion that I think would be a lot of fun to do.
Dead of Summer premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on Freeform.