The creators of Once Upon a Time are popping their collars, bloodying their hands, and spooking things up with their new Freeform series.
Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, and Ian Goldberg took the stage at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas, on June 11 to premiere their new series Dead of Summer, a 10-episode thriller about a haunted summer camp, premiering June 28 on Freeform. During the panel, moderated by EW’s Natalie Abrams, the trio explained their big inspirations following the well-received debut of the pilot episode.
“We love ‘80s horror and we love [the] ‘80s teen [genre], like John Hughes movies or Say Anything, and one thing we noticed was that both genres had the same archetypes: the jock, the stoner, the cheerleader,” says Kitsis. “We thought, let’s mash them up. The flashbacks are a perfect way to dive into the John Hughes side of the characters, and the camp is the perfect place to kill them.”
So, here’s the part where we explain that the series follows a group of counselors whose perfect summer at a rural Midwest camp in 1989 is upended by the rise of dead bodies, spooky spirits, and a general ancient evil. The pilot episode reveals more than a hint of the supernatural wonkiness surrounding Camp Stillwater, where a series of horrific murders were committed years earlier, resulting in the camp’s closure — and its new reopening by former camper-turned-camp director, Deb (Elizabeth Mitchell). Among the cast of horrified counselors: Once Upon a Time‘s Elizabeth Lail, Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin), Ugly Betty’s Mark Indelicato, Alberto Frezza, Eli Goree, Ronen Rubinstein, Amber Coney, Paulina Singer, and Zachary Gordon.
In terms of specific influences, Horowitz cites The Shining, Halloween, River’s Edge, Heathers, and Pretty in Pink. “We’ve always worn our references on our sleeve,” he says. Goldberg adds, “It would be hard to not be inspired by Friday the 13th in terms of summer camp horror. We’re doing something different from that, but that was definitely an inspiration.”
But the creators were clear that Dead of Summer isn’t a TV rehash of the bloody classic, despite any surface similarities, and a lot of that has to do with the show’s structure: Each episode features flashbacks to one character’s backstory. “It’s not a slasher show,” says Kitsis. “It’s supernatural, so you’re going to see that the themes from their past, the things that haunt them, their demons, will literally manifest themselves on the island.”
“A big touchstone for us in the writers’ room is The Shining. We talk about the camp like the Overlook Hotel: It’s a place with a lot of dark history, and scary things can manifest in a lot of different ways,” adds Goldberg. (“But,” Kitsis says, “there still could be an axe murderer!”)
Kitsis explained that the series will be similar in nature to anthologies like Fargo. “Every year’s going to be a different year, so season 2 might be 1970, season 3 might be 2004. If we did 1970, that might be the year of Deb. In 2004, it might be someone’s child. They’ll be linked through the history of the show, but every year will be different. Mark [Indelicato] is Blair, but next year, he could be a completely different character in 1970. He could be Blair’s dad.”
The trio also explained that not everyone will be dying left and right, as with certain other shows in the horror anthology genre. Kitsis elaborates: “If you just start killing everybody in every episode, you will actually find yourself detached, because who wants to befriend somebody that’s only going to leave them? My favorite TV shows are the ones that, when somebody dies, it really… evokes some emotion, and that’s what the John Hughes side of the characters is for. You really get to know these characters and fall in love with them so that if they get axe-murdered, you’re going to cry.”
Horowitz adds: “We want you to fall in love with the characters before we kill them.”
Dead of Summer premieres June 28 at 9 p.m. on Freeform.
Entertainment Weekly is on the scene at ATX in Austin, Texas. Go inside the TV festival with all our coverage, available here.