In 2021, Paris Hilton spoke on Capitol Hill about the trauma she endured at a camp for troubled teenagers in Utah.
“I was strangled. Slapped across the face. Watched in the shower by male staff,” she shared.
So begins the Netflix documentary “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare,” which offers an origin story for Hilton and countless other teenagers’ experiences within the United States’ “troubled teen” industry. As “Hell Camp” reveals, there was one man pushing the growth of supposedly rehabilitative sleep-away programs for misbehaved youth: Steve Cartisano.
An Air Force veteran, Cartisano charged parents steep prices to send their children to a 63-day program at the Challenger Foundation in Utah. Teens were kidnapped from their homes in the middle of the night and jetted off to the desert, where they were forced to hike 500 miles in exhausting conditions. Moreover, they were often victims of emotional and physical abuse from camp staff. One 16-year-old camper, Kristen Chase, died of heatstroke while at Challenger. Cartisano was found not guilty for her death.
Beginning with Challenger in 1989, Cartisano’s various camps — including a boating camp in the Caribbean and a third in Samoa — were the subject of intense media scrutiny and a criminal investigation. He died in 2019 and was never convicted for criminal charges. Cartisano’s legacy lives on as many copycat camps, like the one Hilton attended, are alive and well to this day.
“Hell Camp” features now-adult survivors of Cartisano’s camps looking back at the traumatic experiences they endured at the hands of staff. Director Liza Williams spoke with Variety about the process of bringing their overshadowed stories to light.
What brought you to this story and made you want to tell it?
One of [Story Films’] executive producers Bruce Fletcher found an article in The Guardian newspaper, which is the third person-piece by Nadine, who is one of the contributors in the film. And she laid out her experience on Challenger. He obviously was really interested in what’s happened and was quite shocked by her experience. And as he delved a bit deeper, he discovered her story was part of a much, much wider story. In Britain, we don’t have a troubled teen industry, it’s quite a strange concept to us. So it was probably a bigger thing to us than it would have been to an American, really, because a lot of us had never heard of it before.
What was the process like of finding the various interviewees? Was it difficult to get them to come on camera and talk about their experiences?
Yeah, it was. There was an awful lot of people that had been to these camps. So there was lots and lots of people to contact and try to get to. And our producer Charlotte did a fantastic job speaking to as many people as possible. Because obviously even the people that didn’t appear on camera that we spoke to for research were still hugely important to us to understand the wider story. It was tricky to convince a lot of people to speak — obviously, their experiences were really traumatic. But I think a lot of them felt that they really, really wanted wanted to set the record straight, and a lot of time had passed. They were full- fledged adults now. And they wanted to put it on the record really, because obviously, these camps still exist. And I think a lot of them felt that they really wanted to try and make a difference for people that might be going on similar similar camps now.
What do you hope people will take away from watching the film?
More widely, the film is about parenting really, and the relationships between parents and children. When we started making it, I thought it was going to be a film about really badly behaved teenagers. Sometimes that is the case and parents were really tearing their hair out and didn’t know what to do about their child that was putting themselves in danger. But there were other examples where it felt that the child just had a really bad relationship with their mom or dad. The communication had broken down and I think that’s really sad. A lot of people we were speaking to hadn’t really done anything that bad, they just were having a really tough time. That was really hard to hear — that they were having a really tough time and then they were put in a situation which obviously made things 10 times worse. So it was interesting to explore that with people. That wider issue of of parenting and how difficult it can be, but also how difficult it is to be a child and to not have that relationship with your parents.
Rather than the camps, what kinds of resources do you hope will be available to teens going through difficult times?
First and foremost, you want the parents to actually take the time themselves to help their children or to build that relationship with their children. I think sometimes people feel that they can farm it out to somebody else to try and solve the problem…Parents need to take the time to spend time with their children and and to understand what is at the root of their behavior.
I do think that probably part of the problem with some of the teenagers that were sent to the camps in the ’80s or ’90s is probably some of them had quite serious mental health problems, behavioral problems that maybe weren’t diagnosed or understood at the time. You’d like to think that those things are better understood now, but I’m not really totally sure if they are or if the right treatment or help is given to the children. It’s tough for me to say.
The documentary concludes with an allegation of sexual assault against Cartisano made by a woman who attended one of his camps as a teenager. How did you decide how you would include that in the film? Did you discover any other allegations against him throughout the research process?
Obviously, we interviewed Kinney and when we were speaking to Kinney, she actually told us about this allegation. We believed her. She made this allegation and we decided to include it because we believed her.
What information did you find out that you weren’t able to fit into the film?
I suppose there’s more backstory to a lot of the grown-ups that we interviewed that would have been nice to include. But it was tricky. You don’t always have the time. What’s happened to them once they’d grown up — but I think you get the gist of it. It stayed with them all and it’s had a big impact on who they are now.
You include a lot of archival footage from ’80s and ’90s talk shows. Did Cartisano being on these shows make the camps more popular or did it make people more skeptical?
I think it created an awful lot of publicity. And I think Steve knew how to market the country well. I think he’s very good at that. And I think it’s “All publicity is good publicity,” isn’t it? I think it was a time where there was definitely a generational gap between parents and their children. I think that parents were panicked and worried about what their children were doing…It was sort of Nancy Reagan-era “Just say no,” there was a lot of worry about drug taking. And I think that this tapped into that, this seemed like a solution. And I think that he was able to use those talk shows very well, even though in a lot of them, they’re sort of hammering him a little bit and they’re saying that they’re controversial. I think it meant that people found out about them, and then that they thought that they found a solution.
Looking back on the process, what was the most surprising thing you discovered while making the film?
I think it was that when we spoke to a lot of the kids that they really weren’t that badly behaved and they weren’t doing anything that, by and large, would warrant punishment. I think that was surprising. I thought that we were going to be speaking to a lot of people who were [getting into] really dangerous behavior or had really serious drug issues, or were on the verge of going to prison. And by and large, that wasn’t what we were faced with. It was often kids that were depressed or they were running away from home, which surprised me and was interesting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.