My college could have doubled like all of The lord of the flies. I remember an M-80 that blew a locker off its hinges. I remember two of the biggest guys in school brawling in the hallway, kicking each other in the face with the toes of their cowboy boots. I remember beers shot under the bleachers, kids thrown in dumpsters, a chemical fire started in the store, and three kids who tried to kill themselves. I remember my teacher knocking me off my chair for talking during class. I remember the pentagrams and kiss my asss scratched in the bathroom cabins. I remember the bad things that happened in the back of the bus.
That was thirty years ago, before helicopter parents and anti-bullying campaigns, and the social agenda became the norm. But the sixth remains a vertiginous period of transition. There are no more playgrounds, because instead you pretend that you are too hard for playtime. There’s not a single teacher to care for you, as you navigate a maze of neon-lit hallways and become just one more nameless name on a list in a series of interchangeable classrooms.
And then there are the disconcerting, sometimes frightening physical transformations. The bones stretch. The voices drop. Increase in hormones. Hair and blood appear where they weren’t before.
You are not a child, but you are not an adult. You occupy strange and dizzying limbo.
High school may be the province of the horror movie, but somehow college feels more deserving. It’s the industrial threshing machine, the gate to the cemetery. Once you enter, a door slams behind you, and Santa Claus, crayons and swings, and Disney Channel are officially off limits.
This is the moment that I now live second-hand through my daughter. And that’s the knotty, transitional space that James Ponsoldt and I wanted to explore when we started writing the screenplay for Summer (which will premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival).
Four girls discover the body of a dead man. It’s the simplest distillation of a complex story, taking place on the last weekend before summer ends and school starts. The rot of autumn is in the air, as withered leaves fall from the trees and cold rains descend on the sun-fragilized courtyards. The days will soon darken as adulthood approaches.
I’m known for my horror novels and horror comics, but while writing this screenplay, I needed to code-switch. Consider the age of our eleven-year-old protagonists. They still retain a certain innocence and magic about them. They haven’t yet become the eye-rolling, phone-addicted, door-slamming, authority-defying, morally deviant teenagers who could live on Elm Street or work at Camp Crystal Lake.
The troubles our girls get into – and the monsters they overcome – have to be legitimately scary, yes, but understood in a whimsical way. As one character says, “Bad people are only on TV…right?” They know that adults are hiding things from them. They know that wreckage awaits them in the world. But the future is an abstraction. They’re still young enough to be anxious about changing into gym class and memorizing a locker combo for the first time. We are housed in the girls’ point of view, and for them, the magic is always real. Monsters are still real. But being an adult? It’s still a thunder laced with lightning muttering on the horizon.
The bad guys – or the monsters – are often the externalization of an internal wound. vampirism in Midnight Mass, for example, is analogous to the terrible and dangerous thirst for alcohol that led Riley Flynn to crash into another car, killing the driver. The Joker represents the chaos little Bruce Wayne experienced when his parents were killed so many years ago in Crime Alley, and his quest for law and order in Gotham is meant to remedy that.
In Summer, each of our four girls has their own fight, but the main problem comes from Daisy (played by Lia Barnett). His father, we learn, has disappeared. She does not know if he is dead. She doesn’t know if she was abandoned. We suspect that her mother, who falls asleep in a deckchair with a glass of vodka in her hand and the TV blaring, is hiding the truth from her.
But when she and her friends discover a body – clad in a dusty suit, collapsed face down in an arroyo – the corpse becomes a surrogate for her missing father. Daisy needs to know what happened to the dead man, because she needs to know what happened to dad.
And meanwhile, as the weekend wears on, a specter begins to haunt the girls. His face looks like something out of a Francis Bacon painting. Like a rain-stained newspaper. Like a half-erased blackboard. It appears in mirrors and windows. A half-glimpsed ghost of the ugly truths that patiently await them.
The code change I mentioned earlier applied not just to age, but to gender. Like all silly dads, I was thrilled to share essential books and movies from my childhood with my kids. But when we watched movies like support me, The Goonies, and Monster Squad—or when you read novels like The Hobbit— my daughter’s response was, “That was fun, Dad, but where are the girls?”
It was about representation, yes, but it was also about revising the horror tropes. We begin with a moment inspired by the shower scene in psychology– and completely defies audience expectations. The dead man’s ghost stalks the girls through a suburban environment – with some shots drawing directly from Michael Myers – but while we embrace fear, we defy victimization.
There are fart jokes and there are midnight sessions. There are TikTok dances and there are tear-streaked funerals. The film’s style, tone, and genre are intentionally fluid, as is the season we put it in, as are the eleven-year-old girls who are our main characters. We play with comedy, and we play with fantasy, and we play with outright horror. The jolt between these extremes is meant to be unnerving, like getting tickled one second and punching your stomach the next. Just like jumping out of the happy coziness of an elementary playground and rushing into a grease-stinking cafeteria where no one offers you a seat at their table.
The result, we hope, is a story that channels the coming-of-age journey of support me and the fleeting horror of Picnic at the hanging rock.
Summer premieres at Sundance on January 22 at 4 p.m. PST with a second screening on January 24 at 7 a.m. PST. Single screening tickets are on sale now, along with day pass and explorer pass options. Click here to buy now.