The tradition of telling ghost stories and urban legends around a campfire got an upgrade during the early 1980s when slasher films used campfire chillers to reveal the origin of their star killers. A campfire chiller is usually told by an authority figure to frighten or warn campers and junior counselors. While the authority figure details the killers origin in a raspy whisper, the camera pans around the group showing the young lovers holding each other in a tight embrace, a nurturing female squeezing a frightened child to reassure them everything will be okay, and the ostricized nerd/loser siting away from the fire. Just as the authority figure gets to the punchline someone (usually masked and armed with a nasty weapon) jumps out of the darkness and scares the holy hell out of the listeners. This person, once unmasked, is revealed to be resident practical joker.
The following films offer some examples of how the slasher genre used campfire chillers to terrify audiences:
Friday the 13th Part II: This is the most important campfire chiller in a slasher because it took the Friday the 13th films in a new direction and ushered in the era of Jason Vorhees. As Tom Savini is quick to point out in interviews, there is no Jason. The killer could be anyone until Paul (John Furey) tells the legend of Jason Vorhees. Jason, the boy who drowned, becomes Jason, the vengeful son killing campers for his dead mother. The spear Ted (Stu Charno) brandishes when he jumps out later finds its way into a couple of other campers. A gory,spiced up version of this campfire chiller makes an appearance at the beginning of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
Madman: This slasher classic starts off with two campfire chillers. TP (Tony Fish) sings a song foreshadowing the grisly fates awaiting the camp counselors. Max (Carl Fredericks) tells the story of the crazed farmer Marz only to be interrupted by wise-ass Richie (Jimmy Steele). Richie’s mocking of the Madman legends sets off Marz and leads to the deaths of the camp counselors.
The Burning: The Burning, like Madman, is inspired by the legend of Cropsy, a campfire chiller that has haunted summer camps for decades. The twist here is the story is told by Todd (Brian Matthews), the person responsible for turning Cropsy into a horribly disfigured killer. When the Crospy legend is told again after his death, it suggests Cropsy has gained a sort of anicdotal immortality. He lives on in the campfire chillers told at camps all across the country.
The Final Terror: Boone (Lewis Smith) tells the campfire chiller instead of leader Mike (Mark Metcalf). This shows Mike is neglecting his duties as head of the forest expedition to spend time with his girlfriend. The story is interrupted when joker/junkie Zorich (John Fredericks) jumps out of the dark. Creepy Eggar (Joe Pantoliano) also breaks up the festivities. The story suggests there may be more one killer lurking in the woods. And the other killer may be a member of the group.
The Prey: This is the only slasher on the list that doesn’t use a campfire chiller to explain the origin of the killer. The campfire scene starts with small talk, sometimes repeated, while the campers eat fish. Then, the resident nerd gives a brief history lesson on Greek myths in relation to the consilations. Eventually, Joel (Steve Bond) tells a Cliff Note’s version of W. W. Jacobs “The Monkey’s Paw”, a classic campfire chiller.
Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers: The film opens with TC (Brian Patrick Clarke) telling a ghost story but it’s laughed at by the campers. Phoebe (Heather Binion) knows a much scarier campfire chiller so she tells the legend of Angela and Camp Arawak. Young Charlie (Justin Nowell) adds a few urban legends surrounding Angela before Sean (Tony Higgins) completes the tale with the revelation Angela is free after undergoing a sex change operation. In an ironic twist, Phoebe’s portion of the story is interrupted by Angela (Pamela Springsteen) the killer instead of a practical joker. It’s significant the campfire chiller is told by the campers because it shows the rowdy campers are in charge of Camp Rolling Hills instead of the counselors. Charlie’s portion of the campfire chiller represents the crazy urban legends surrounding the original Sleepaway Camp and the folks involved in its filming.