At the end of Nothing but the Night, a group of small children curse the Christian God and take a swan dive off a high cliff, plummeting to their deaths on the rocky shore below.
Some folks will find this conclusion shocking. Having been to Evangelical summer camp throughout most of my early years, I found it pretty par for the course.
Christian summer camp is hard to explain to people who haven’t been to Christian summer camp, in probably the same sense in which David Wain points out that those of us who didn’t grow up attending Jewish summer camp miss about half the jokes in Wet Hot American Summer.
If you frequent Twitter, which I don’t, you may have heard some of the horror stories that come with Christian summer camp: That it’s a petri dish for patriarchal ideologies. That it’s a place where children go to lose their individuality, to be hammered into shapes that suit the goals of the Christian Nationalist Industrial Complex while being purged or shamed or cajoled out of their own dreams and desires and identities. That it’s a place where kids are sent to be manipulated into conformity to their parents’ regressive worldviews.
The list goes on.
None of those things are exactly false, but, in standard Twitter fashion, they are all catastrophically simplistic.
There are plenty of problems with Christian summer camp, no doubt. Not least that they are often just, Frankly, embarrassing. It’s a place you go where Professional Christians utter sentences like, “God should be present in the bedroom,” and other stuff that makes God sound like a sex pervert, or a sycophant, or that one kid you begrudgingly let sit at your lunch table because you’re just not really sure what he’s going to do if you don’t.
That’s the problem.
But on the whole, Christian summer camp tends to have the opposite effect you’d expect. The whole project is a minefield, but a different mind field than the exvangelicals who swarm the interwebs seem to think.
For one, Christian summer camp is, like, unnaturally hornt.
One of the most memorable Summers I ever spent was at a certain very famous Oklahoma Christian Camp, following around a girl named Iggy who had a biting fetish. Literally. I came home in August with a chest covered in teeth marks and an absolutely unswerving devotion to this nerd girl I had just met. We spent that whole year texting constantly – during school, after work, through the night – talking about pointless nothings while I fielded anonymous threats from unfamiliar phone numbers orchestrated by her boyfriend, some bruiser type guy, as she told it, who insisted that he knew where I lived and was going to come “teach me a lesson.” The lesson never did come, although that particular relationship eventually exploded into a million pieces, abruptly and inevitably.
A different summer, at a later date, when I had a better head on my shoulders, a girl from church befriended a guy from the cabin next door. They spent the week together. He sat with us at lunch, joined us during worship, answered every question during the Bible study, and attempted unsuccessfully to solicit nudes roughly every day.
One girl from my cousins Church sought me out every single year that we were there, embarking on a four-year quest to win my heart. So did a guy named Desmond. So did a different guy, at a different camp, named Matt. None of them succeeded, of course, and the list goes on. Christian summer camp is weird.
All of this is to say, whatever merit there is to the standard “Christian summer camp is oppressive” narrative, and there is plenty, the most obvious quirk that comes with Christian summer camp is the way it is tends to facilitate debauchery, often precisely the sort of debauchery it’s designed to replace.
That’s not actually a mark against Christian summer camp, though. It’s probably just inevitable.
The reason should be pretty clear: They’re kids. They’re away from home. They spend a week having their emotional strings plucked by inspiring orators and musicians. And they’re mostly unsupervised.
It’s not Lord of the Flies, obviously, but it’s a far cry from Utopia. The underlying reason is very simply human nature. This is how we work. It’s always how we work. And until Elon Musk starts manufacturing manual upgrades we can plug into our brain stems to alter our reflexive natures, it will always be the way that we work. There’s a hard-nosed wiliness to everyone, even kids.
Which brings us back to the bloodthirsty children from Nothing but the Night. They are characters from a goofy horror movie, obviously, but they point rather poignantly towards that truth. Over the course of a fairly brisk 90 minutes, we watch them hack, suffocate, and incinerate their way through any adult who stands in their way. Some of the kills are particularly creative, and director so and so does a remarkable job imitating the aesthetics of the old Hammer classics. It’s truthfully not a film with much to say, but that works very much in its favor. Nothing but the Night is unpretentious. Its rather shallow subtextual undercurrents play all the more vividly because of it.
There has been, for some time now, an unspoken consensus, that kids can’t be bad.
As in, they can’t be genuinely bad. As in, they can be selfish, they can be pitiless, they can ignore the world around them or fight and claw for what they want because they haven’t developed the basic moral awareness or received the necessary socialization to be able to distinguish between what they should do and what they absolutely shouldn’t, but they can’t be actually, really, unambiguously bad – like, “the wages of sin is death” bad, like “you are a danger to yourself and others” bad, like, “never talk to me again” bad.
Since the Victorian period, or thereabouts, we seem to have grown enamored with the notion that the only kind of bad a kid can actually be is the kind of bad you explain in protracted science-y language that doesn’t mean much besides, “This kid needs an occupational therapist.”
Nothing but the Night makes a gleeful mockery of that consensus.
So does reality.
I had my own sojourn with an occupational therapist as a kid. I don’t recall everything that led up to it, because I don’t actually remember that much from those years, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, to my recollection, was a particularly unusual day in PE.
We were playing a game in which we all sat in a circle, one kid ran to the middle, and spun around while we sang a whimsical song about boiling them alive together. I don’t think kids play that game anymore.
For some reason I remember this particular episode vividly: I turned to the kid sitting next to me, his name was Colby, and I said, “At my old school, we used to play this game, but we would sing a different song.” I started singing Livin’ la Vida Roca, which was on the radio at that time. He nodded, but didn’t really react.
Without the slightest bit of malice, but wanting to get more of a reaction out of him, I decided to put my hands around his neck and use every ounce of my strength to slam his skull against the gym floor. I did so a couple of times.
No one really noticed, and he didn’t say much in reaction to that, either. I realized in that moment that I had done something wrong, and, more importantly, and I had done something that could get me in trouble.
I tried to avert the coming crisis by pacifying Colby. “How can I pacify Colby?” I thought, albeit in 7 year old language. “Yes, I’ll sing to him.”
So I started singing to him. Livin’ la Vida Roca.
I guess it worked, because without crying, or yelling, or anything at all, Colby sat quietly, crossed his legs again, and continued humming along to the cannibal song as the other kids played the game.
Unfortunately for me, the assistant gym teacher, Miss Amy, noticed that I was singing Livin’ la Vida Roca instead of singing the song about cooking and eating my friends, so she stormed over to correct me. Once she arrived, she noticed Colby rubbing his head in visible pain. She asked what had happened, and then she pieced the plot together, and then she grabbed me by the arm, lifted me up off the floor, and carried me – still dangling – to the principal’s office.
The principal, whose name I don’t recall, listened carefully as Miss Amy told the sordid story of my gruesome assault on Colby. She then looked at me, very calmly, and asked, “Is this true?” At this point, naturally, I was bawling my eyes out. Not because of regret, but because I was certain I was off to the wood-chipper after this one. I don’t remember whether I fessed up on the spot or tried to pretend I was framed, but whatever I did, it didn’t work. They called my mom and brought her up to the school to sort me out.
It’s important t bear in mind that this was all about 2 years after Columbine, meaning that nearly every grown up in the United States of America had a condition you could call “Columbine Brain.”
And Columbine Brain is relentless: Got a boy who doesn’t talk much? That’s a Columbine waiting to happen. Got a boy who likes roughhousing? That’s a Columbine waiting to happen. Got a boy who can’t sit still during class? That’s a Columbine waiting to happen. Got a boy who “doesn’t really get math”? That’s a Columbine waiting to happen.
These were the days of Everything Is Columbine And I Am The Brave Educator Who’s Going To Avert It In A Blaze of Glory, and I was the newest Columbine lamb to the Columbine slaughter.
Except, like, this was probably not a false alarm.
I choked a kid. And then slammed his head against the floor. Just to do it. Purely out of curiosity. It wasn’t a quick temper type thing. There was no fuse and match. He just had a head that seemed especially breakable, and I just happened to be in the mood to break it. Colby came out alright, he wasn’t seriously hurt, but he easily could have been, and it would have been entirely my doing. If you were looking for a next-gen Columbine kid in the making, I was a pretty reasonable target to place in your crosshairs.
As a result, I spent the next indeterminate period of time seeing an occupational therapist. I loved that. Not least because it meant getting out of school early on Thursday afternoons. My mom would pick me up before lunch, we would go to Boston Market (because I had weird taste for a seven-year-old), and I would play with toys for an hour or two while a matronly lady with a PhD probed my inner thoughts and desires and motivations.
In the end, I turned out just fine. More than fine, actually. I have a good life. I did not develop into the kind of malevolent sociopath that my teachers feared. I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a better timeline. The last 26 years have gone about as well as I could reasonably ask for.
But, and this is very important, that has not been because, after experiencing some hiccups early on in life, I’ve reverted to my natural course, defaulting to that baseline human goodness that holds us up and sets us right. That’s not how that goes. Because my early years were not a hiccup. The violent outbursts, of which The Colby Incident was not the only one, were not unnatural detours that I took before arriving at my True Self, becoming Who I Was. They were, very straightforwardly, the fruits of my nature at the time. They were who I was. I did the things I did because they were the kinds of things that I would do, at the time. And if something hadn’t changed, they would have continued to characterize my life. I would have gone on to wreak more havoc. There would have been other Colbys. In another universe, the Columbine alarmism that placed me on my Principal’s hit list may not have been entirely off base.
Moreover, I benefited significantly from the relative spaciousness with which kids who looked like me are dealt in American culture. Plenty has been written about the way that post-Columbine alarmist culture effectively imported the extreme hostility and suspicion we have long inflicted on children of color in urban public schools over to young, white, male children in suburban enclaves. There is nothing new about treating children as potential criminals. The shift after Columbine was simply to broaden the net to include a handful of vaguely anti-social white children as well. And even then, had I done exactly the same things as a child of color, I would probably have spent my 18th birthday in a juvenile detention center.
But beyond the dumb luck and racial preferentialism from which I benefitted, there is also the less obvious factor: Sanctification.
“Sanctification” is the term that we use for the process where God uproots your scoundrelness. He takes your bad and turns it good, albeit slowly and painfully and almost imperceptibly. It’s not a Regarding Henry typed process where you wake up one day a different, and better, person than you were the day before, it’s a Jean Valjean type thing, where the priest tells the cops he gave you all the silver and then you pledge your life to him, and then you change your ways, one begrudging departure from skullduggery at a time.
Put it very simply, I was very bad, not in spite of human nature but because of it, even as a child, and my badness was more pronounced, even, than most people’s badness, and yet, the very good news for people like my young self is that the stories and the promises sketched out in the Christian scriptures are actually true.
They’re actually on offer. They’re actually available, to be claimed and enjoyed and transformed by. Not even the grist from the Columbine Alarmist mill is doomed to despair. We do not have to resign ourselves to cursing God and plummeting down the cliff. Because we do not live in a faux Hammer film. We live in a universe that quite literally exists upon the promise of redemption.