Ghosts, dead bodies, and '80s fashion haunt a staff of new camp counselors ready for their worst summer ever
Credit: Freeform/Katie Yu

Ah, summer camp! That classic magical time when old men play pianos, camp directors dig up secret boxes, and distressed girls are repeatedly forced into the woods — alone — to accomplish maintenance-related tasks despite enduring increasingly traumatic events.

Welcome to Camp Stillwater, where it’s the summer of 1989 and a slew of counselors have just arrived for what’s going to be the “best summer ever,” which is a phrase people traditionally only use to describe what ends up being not only one of the worst summers ever, but also one of the worst seasons in general. Based on the promise of dead bodies, ghostly spirits, and limited VHS tapes and landlines, Dead of Summer will deliver a great summer for us — and a terrible one for the counselors at Camp Stillwater. I will strive to recap this summer’s most entertaining slasher with only as much sense as the show itself strives to make for its viewers.

The camp, to our knowledge, was closed for an unspecified reason in 1984, and long before that, it was home to a series of horrific murders ostensibly committed by a fancy old-timey piano player (who, for purposes of this recap, we’ll call The Fancy Old-Timey Piano Player). In the series’ opening flashback, a gang of torch-bearing men burst into a candle-lit cabin and apprehend the Piano Player, shouting “Where are they?” before the camera cuts to a ton of dead bodies bleeding out in the lake. Fun!

In the present day of June 1989, the camp’s preparing to reopen for the first time in five years, thanks to the efforts of a former camper named Deb (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell). She’s apparently sunk everything she has into this venture, and as the counselors arrive, she offers them a warm welcome: “You can find out who you are here.” And oh, how accurate that motto will soon be, as every episode flashes back to a different character’s history — and how their demons will quickly manifest in this secluded Midwestern hideaway.

Let’s meet those haunted counselors now and weigh their odds at surviving this awful summer:

Our primary protagonist in this hellish forest nightmare is Amy, the new girl who’s never been to camp before, but decided to become a counselor thanks to the encouragement of her dead best friend and a very well-designed brochure. Amy is shy but thoughtful, and she’s no stranger to adapting to uncomfortable new situations. Case in point: She mysteriously had to start a new school in the middle of senior year. (The immediate theory here is something happened to her father that was either murderous, tragic, or murderous-slash-tragic.) It’s at the new school where she meets Margo, and… Well, more on that later.

Campfire Prediction: Amy lives throughout the summer. I mean, obviously, right?

One of Amy’s immediate antagonists is Jess, whom I spent a large portion of my notes calling “The Hot Girl” because I wasn’t sure of her name until about three-quarters into the episode. Jess is your standard summer-camp vixen who flaunts her body freely (Freeform-ly?), but gets jealous when others flaunt theirs. She seems to get along with everyone — even Cricket, her ex-best friend from camp who fell out of touch when she went to college —but Jess instantly dislikes Amy, long before she wins the attention of Jess’s former summer-camp lover.

Campfire Prediction: Jess is the third counselor to die during the summer, perhaps or perhaps not in a freak accident involving hot-pink neon.

Cricket is Jess’s former camp friend who also seems to be a perfectly enjoyable presence for everyone. She’s rude to Amy in their initial interactions, making fun of her for dressing like Yogi Bear, but by the opening of camp, she’s brought the new girl into the mix. Cricket harbors some deeply rooted insecurities that she exhibits by writing promiscuous messages about herself on old cabin walls, to build up her own reputation as the camp sexpot she perhaps never was.

Campfire Prediction: Cricket almost makes it to the end of the summer, but is tragically cut down when the ax murderer mistakes her for an actual cricket.

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Drew, who arrives late to camp after missing the bus and doesn’t do much else to win favor with the rest of the counselors. He largely keeps to himself but seems intuitive and intelligent (his knowledge of Victorian death portraits is both creepy and welcomed). He’s also keeping his gender identity a secret — Drew is a male-identifying transgendered woman and takes late-night showers in the infirmary.

Campfire Prediction: Drew makes it to the end, along with Amy and Deputy Garrett. Why? Because.

There’s Alex, a preppy lover who gives off major entitled rich-kid vibes but might actually be stealing clothes from people; Blair, who’s currently just a one-note gay kid; Jason, a one-note burnout; and Joel, a former Cabin 10-er who fancies himself the summer’s official documentarian, but whose camera footage has turned him into both an accidental Peeping Tom (he caught Deb changing, which she was super into, so he returned for seconds, which she was super not into) and an accidental paranormal investigator (his camera catches the ghost of the Old-Timey Piano Player as he appears behind Amy before one dramatic skinny-dip sesh).

Campfire Predictions: Jason dies first, then Blair, then Alex and Joel in a joint murder involving their six-packs.

NEXT: This one time, at summer camp, I found a dead guy in the lake

From here on out, this is the story of Amy and her terrible, horrible, no good, very bad first day as a camp counselor. Almost immediately after the counselors arrive, the scares come — and they’re as random as they are frequent. But like any good horror movie, they don’t phase our heroine, who isn’t above going to get firewood alone when a sneaky round of “Not it” forces her out into the forest during the first campfire. (Her sheer acceptance of “Not it” as a valid reason to go into spooky woods is where Amy and my similarities end.)

Amy’s spooky encounters — which should make it progressively clearer that nobody should be okay sleeping in this camp — are as follows:

1. During her trek into the woods, Amy does that standard horror-movie thing where she only sees things in the beam of her flashlight—fun things, like a deer and a tire swing (but, sadly, not a deer in a tire swing). Suddenly she bumps into Dave, the creepy groundskeeper, who warns her, “Leave now. The longer you stay, the worse it’ll be. You have no idea what this place is.” Okay. But Amy doesn’t go back to the campfire and tell everyone what just happened, because that would be far too logical.

2. Instead, it’s the next morning, and the girls are waking up the boys with water guns! Then they’re setting up the archery field when, lo and behold, Jess discovers the gutted body of that very same non-swinging deer. It’s not just dead, but straight-up sliced open and probably organically reorganized for maximum feng shui, like if someone did a Pinterest board of Bambi’s intestines. Amy decides it’s time to tell everyone about running into Dave, but Deb dismisses Dave’s supposed threats with a casual “It’ll be fine” and “We have a lot of work to do!” I’m With Her, indeed.

3. The second night of pre-camp, everyone goes swimming in the lake while Joel films all of it, because that’s not weird. In the camera, Joel notices the ghost of the Old-Timey Piano Player standing behind Amy as she’s changing into her swimsuit. Before he can say anything, Alex pulls Amy off the dock into the lake, where Amy proceeds to open her eyes under the water — which is now perfectly clear, like a cool Caribbean sea — and come face-to-face with Dave’s decomposing body.

Enter: The cops, including a wizened old sheriff (who will definitely not live longer than midseason) and a handsome young deputy named Garrett, who’s keen to investigate the funny business at Camp Stillwater and leave his mark on the department (his father was a sheriff but died in the line of duty years prior).

4. Amy’s bad luck continues when, in the middle of the night, she decides to venture back out into the woods alone to get water. (Kudos to Amy for not letting things like butchered animals, madman threats, and dead bodies keep her from those Reese Witherspoon nature walks!) Amy runs into Garrett, who’s off duty and wandering the forest looking for clues. They investigate the gardener’s cabin, but almost as soon as Garrett discovers a secret room filled with weird things like skulls, potions, jars of human fingers, and books (books!), the cabin catches fire and the two flee, with Amy now officially having had more bad experiences at camp than good ones. There’s nothing like arson to say “I enjoy my time as a counselor here.”

Before they exit, Garrett has managed to swipe three antique photographs showing dead bodies — including the Old-Timey Piano Player — as well as a map of the lake. On it, there’s a beast, and at the heart of it…the camp. Cut to: Deb digging up an old box, which obviously means Deb is far creepier than her casual summer plaids would suggest.

NEXT: Margo vs. shingles

That night — less than 24 hours after Amy has found a dead body in the lake and survived a fire — the power goes out, and just guess who the gang of jerk counselors elect to go fix the circuit breaker?

So there’s Amy, increasingly traumatized but never showing it, who’s sent to the basement to go flip a switch. Thankfully, preppy Alex has stepped up to accompany her, and the two share a very brief kiss. Amy initially pulls away, but suddenly remembers her best friend, Margo — who encouraged her to “do things that scare you” — and goes back to kissing Alex. (For what it’s worth, Margo’s example of a scary thing was going to camp, but sure, let’s apply that flashback here.) Suddenly, a ghost of an old woman scares Amy into a wardrobe, where other ghosts of fashions past force her into a fetal position in the corner. Alex rescues her, but for how long?

It’s flashback time.

This episode is all about Amy’s demons, and none is more on her mind than Margo Tate, the first friend she makes after moving to her new high school. Though their initial courtship was rough — Margo only befriended Amy after she proved herself to another mean girl — the two became fast friends, and suddenly Margo’s inviting Amy to sip orange juice on her porch and Amy’s encouraging Margo to sneak out and party.

Tragedy strikes at the party, as the cops arrive and Margo rushes up to the bedroom to try and escape, unseen, so as not to harm her future at a college education. In a horrifying turn of events, Margo falls through the window, and Amy can’t hold her for very long. She grabs her bracelet, and Margo slips through it, slides down the roof, and drops two stories below onto the cruel, cold cement. Yikes.

Back in the present, Amy has run off after her embarrassing moment with Alex. She skipped breakfast. And then it’s suddenly nighttime again, and Amy sees Margo’s ghost stalking her across the grounds. As she runs through the woods, Margo chases her, and eventually Garrett also joins in the chase. Now remember, all Garrett sees is Amy shrieking and running from absolutely nothing, so it’s somewhat jarring he’s so level-headed in the ensuing conversation once he catches up to her.

Amid visions of grubby wet hands grabbing her ankles, Amy falls to the floor of the dock and cries out, “I couldn’t save her!” And Garrett, having just watched a girl run a mile screaming out into the air, very calmly says, “Whatever happened, I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.” “She was supposed to be here,” Amy cries, and Garrett replies, “Don’t let what’s supposed to be stop you from what really is.” Man, you can’t buy that kind of instantaneous, sagacious, I-completely-understand-where-you’re-coming-from wisdom.

Suddenly, the other counselors come running past and jump in the lake. Amy laughs off her traumatic ghost experience and joins them, because since when does she let tragic events affect her logical behavior?

In the episode’s epilogue montage, Garrett goes off to do paperwork, but he’s stopped by Jess, who reveals herself as his former camp girlfriend. Deb examines the old box she’s dug up, which may or may not hold every single clue to every single mystery of this summer. Drew takes his shower (and, earlier, sees a dead girl with a balloon, which is fun). Cricket calls herself a slut. Alex cuts off the tags of clothes in his trunk that bear other people’s names. And Joel’s camera once more catches the ghost of Old-Timey Piano Player watching the kids swim in the lake — where he probably, definitely, almost certainly murdered a bunch of kids a century earlier.

Welcome to Camp Stillwater! We don’t make much sense, but we do have moderately lighthearted and appropriately mysterious Freeform-sanctioned fun.

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