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Camping With John Waters and His Band of ‘Filthy Freaks’

Hello, muddah. Hello, faddah. Here I am at Camp John Waters.

The kids are nice. Actually, they’re grown-ups, among them a vaudeville troupe from Montreal; a pair of bartenders from Key West, Fla.; burlesque dancers; nudists; and at least one pornographer. There are plastic pink flamingos outside the cabins, and the activities, alongside tennis and kayaking, include Scotch & Cigars and a campfire screening of “Female Trouble.”

Before the bus comes to take us home, here’s a recap:

The inaugural Camp John Waters took place at Club Getaway, which lets adults relive their sleep-away camping days. When this extra-campy theme weekend was announced in April, tickets sold out in days, with a waiting list 600 deep. (A 2018 edition was just announced.)

In came John Waters fanatics from as far away as Australia and Chile, towing beehive wigs and cat-eye glasses. On the bus from New York, we’d been asked to sign a standard Club Getaway waiver forbidding “excessive, inappropriate or disruptive actions.” It seemed like a lost cause.

Anticipation was high the first night, as Mr. Waters greeted the 400-odd campers under a tent, wearing a skull-print blazer and his trademark pencil mustache. “When my friends first saw the ad for this,” he told the euphoric crowd, “they said, ‘This isn’t true, right? This is a parody.’”

Pink flamingos dotted the campgrounds. CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
Alastair McQueen, left, presented John Waters with a portrait he painted with his genitalia.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
From left, Kurt Weidner, Tim Hurley, Louie Pearlman, Michael Malone and Michael Achille gather on their porch in the morning before the day’s festivities begin.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times

“The Pope of Trash.” “The People’s Pervert.” To his fans, Mr. Waters is a countercultural demigod, a dirty class clown at 71. His gleefully transgressive films, including “Pink Flamingos” and “Serial Mom,” created a topsy-turvy world in which gross is glamorous, housewives are homicidal, and the noblest title one can achieve is Filthiest Person Alive.

So it was only fitting that Camp John Waters had an upside-down spirit. “I hated sports at camp, so at this camp I think we should reward every team that loses,” Mr. Waters said, to raucous cheers. “This would be the camp where the fat people get picked first in dodge ball.” More cheers.

The campers, who paid up to $599, were a self-selecting group of exhibitionists and oddballs for whom Mr. Waters’s movies were a beacon of belonging. “We’re here to meet a bunch of filthy freaks, and maybe make some new friends,” said Jennifer Sisley, one of the Key West bartenders. “Everybody’s got a common interest.”

Alastair McQueen, a 28-year-old filmmaker, grew up in North Carolina and saw “Pink Flamingos” when he was 12. “My whole life was different after that,” he said, sneaking a cigarette behind the buffet tent. “That’s when I understood there were other weirdos like me.”

A rowdy game of Bloody Mary Bingo was held Saturday morning.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times

He was wearing cutoff jeans, a leopard-print V-neck and an eye patch (“I have pinkeye”), and had big plans for the Saturday meet-and-greet with Mr. Waters. “I’m going to paint a picture of him with my penis,” he said proudly. “And I’m going to have him sign my penis.”

Mr. Waters, as it turned out, had been a camper himself. From ages 8 to 13, he attended Happy Hollow, in his hometown, Baltimore, then went to a boating camp as a teenager. “I learned so much as a young man from summer camp,” he told the crowd. “I learned to smoke unfiltered cigarettes.” Then he mentioned other, less PG-rated activities.

He had a crush on one of his counselors, but the other campers didn’t beat him up for being gay, “because all the brutes thought I was crazy,” he said in an interview the next day. “I wanted to be a bad teenager. I remember listening to rock ’n’ roll secretly and smoking. Anything that was juvenile delinquent, that’s what I wanted to be.”

His fondest memory was Backwards Day, when campers eat dinner for breakfast and wear clothing backward. “It was the first surreal moment in my life,” he said, formative enough that it inspired a sequence in his 1977 film, “Desperate Living.”

Laina McWhorter rode an inflatable horse.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
A less-than traditional rendition of color war was played. CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
Pissy Miles performed during the drag brunch. CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
Scooter LaForge showed off a John Waters tattoo.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times

There was another special guest on Friday night: Mink Stole, part of Mr. Waters’s ensemble of misfit collaborators from Baltimore known as the Dreamlanders, including Edith Massey, Mary Vivian Pearce and the drag queen Divine, who famously ate dog feces in the final scene of “Pink Flamingos.”

Ms. Stole led everyone down to the boathouse for karaoke, where a guy stripped naked singing “Mack the Knife.” This was after Mr. Waters had read everyone a bedtime story (a particularly gruesome chapter from his 2014 book, “Carsick,” about hitchhiking across America) and promised, “I’ll be back here for the mandatory tick inspection.”

Saturday morning began with a 9:30 flag ceremony, where beer was served and an oversize bra was hoisted up the flagpole. From the lawn you could see the shimmering waterfront, framed by pine trees, log cabins and Adirondack chairs. “What’s the nudity policy?” someone asked over breakfast.

By midmorning, the volleyball courts and climbing wall were empty, but Bloody Mary Bingo was overflowing with people and drinks. (“We’re indoor kids,” one camper said.) Among the players was Randy Harrison, best known as Justin Taylor from the Showtime series “Queer as Folk.” He had come to Camp John Waters with his friend Jakey Hicks, a wig maker for Cirque du Soleil. “It sounded like the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of,” he said.

Nearby was Josh McCullough, who runs a Tumblr page called Trashy Travels, on which he documents locations from John Waters movies. The day before, he had made his 10th trip to Baltimore and finally found the house from “Serial Mom” where Kathleen Turner’s character beats a woman to death with a leg of lamb.

After a drag lunch, some campers gathered on the lawn for color war, while others joined the Baltimore Bar Hike, turning the archery range into a makeshift pub. At the arts and crafts table, projects included enemy bracelets and satanic Christmas ornaments.

Outside her tent, Dominique Maciejka, who owns a vintage-clothing store on Long Island, had set up a pop-up shop for those who forgot to pack their polyester onesies. “We have lace masks, rainbow suspenders, bow ties, sunglasses,” she said. “We have kaleidoscope crystal glasses, which are fun because they make you feel like you’re on drugs, even if you’re not.”

Mr. Waters did a spoken word performance.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
Beth Cross, left, helped Les Blow prepare for the Saturday night costume party. He was dressed as Jesus.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
Campers wore their costumes to dinner. CreditAndrew White for The New York Times

At 5 p.m., Mr. Waters held court at the central lodge for a three-hour meet-and-greet. Stationed at a table below crisscrossed canoe paddles, he signed everything from books to plastic dog feces.

As promised, Alastair McQueen brought a portrait of Mr. Waters painted with his genitalia, then asked for an autograph. “I can initial it,” Mr. Waters said, borrowing a line from Truman Capote.

Mr. Waters took pride in his outré fan base. “They’re people who still like to cause trouble, but are happy,” he said. “They don’t even fit in their own minority, like gay people who don’t get along with other gay people, or punks that are too weird for other punks.”

As the sun set over the lake, the campers gathered at the boathouse for a costume contest, judged by Mr. Waters.

Cat McCarthy, center, a burlesque dancer from Buffalo, dressed as Divine and gave a brief strip performance.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
The costume contest was followed by a dance party. CreditAndrew White for The New York Times

There were multiple Tracy Turnblads (the zaftig heroine of “Hairspray”), in headbands and roach-print dresses. A few people came as Johnny Depp from “Cry-Baby,” with gelled hair and biker jackets. (It’s the easiest thing for lesbians to pull off, one woman said.) One guy was dressed as an Odorama scratch-and-sniff card from “Polyester.”

The boathouse had been decorated as the 1960s dance-off show from “Hairspray.” As Mr. Waters looked on, contestants walked the stage and introduced themselves. (“Hi, I’m Jerry, and I’m the pervert from ‘Desperate Living.’”)

Cat McCarthy, a burlesque dancer from Buffalo, came as Babs Johnson, Divine’s trashy character from “Pink Flamingos.” Onstage, she raised a toy puppy above her mouth and squeezed peanut butter from its bowels. She was the first runner-up.

The winner (“because she looked the most like her,” Mr. Waters said) was Hannah Abelow, an artist and prop designer from Providence, R.I. She had come as Edith Massey’s character from “Female Trouble,” complete with feathered sleeves, blacked-out teeth and a hook hand.

Some campers stayed to dance, while others went out to the fire pit to toast marshmallows under the stars. Mr. Waters slipped out the back door and stood beneath the pines, elated. “It’s like Jonestown, but with a happy ending,” he said.

Campers roasted marshmallows under the stars. CreditAndrew White for The New York Times

Sunday was quiet, even wistful. Ms. McCarthy, still reveling in her second-place finish, taught an impromptu burlesque class on the basketball court. “Love your skin!” she instructed the students, having stripped down to panties and pasties and smeared herself with peanut butter.

A fellow camper approached her and said, “You are the filthiest person here.”

“Thank you!” she said, beaming.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page ST1 of the New York edition with the headline: At Camp John Waters, a Band of ‘Filthy Freaks’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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