‘Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare’ Explained: Is Steve Cartisano Dead?


Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare is a 2023 documentary film on Netflix that presents a shocking tale from late ’80s and early ’90s America that is really uncharacteristic of the festive times all around. In the face of rising drug problems among teenagers, with youngsters turning delinquent, some parents sent their kids to wilderness camps, which essentially promised to reform them through extreme physical training and exercise. Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare effectively brings out the horrific environment created at these wilderness camps and is a fairly moving watch overall.

What was Steve Cartisano’s Challenger Foundation?

The main plot in Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare is centered around a man named Steve Cartisano and his supposed desire to help teenagers correct their lives and put them on the right track. The man himself had a very challenging childhood, as is spoken of in the documentary by his ex-wife, Deborah Lee Carr. Right after his birth, Steve was given away by his parents to a different woman who lovingly raised him until he was two, and the parents then again took him back from her. This was not a very healthy move, for they were really unable to provide any safe or healthy space for the boy to grow up in. The mother was a heroin addict who eventually died when Steve was just seventeen, and the father was always very violent and abusive, leaving young Steve with no parental figure in life.

The man eventually found his life’s purpose after joining the US Air Force, where he spent a number of years serving the country. It was finally in 1988 that Cartisano started the Challenger Foundation in Utah, a business that ran camps in the outdoors for delinquent teenagers who had become addicted to drugs or had gotten involved in a life of crime and violence. As stated in numerous television programs at the time, Steve Cartisano did not believe in the effectiveness of therapy or communicative remedies when it came to setting wayward teenagers on the right path. Instead, he stressed the need to make such youngsters understand the weight of their judgments and decisions and forcibly make them realize the privileges of their usual lives by taking away such luxuries.

America in the 1980s was still extremely troubled by teenage drug abuse and related violence and crime, which ensured that Steve’s Challenger Foundation received quite a number of enrollments during the initial stage and then grew immensely popular over time. The Netflix documentary begins with the account of a woman named Nadine, who had been sent to the wilderness camp during her youth, and her traumatic experience of being taken there itself speaks a lot about how this camp was. One night, when her parents were not at home, two intruders broke into Nadine’s home and kidnapped the girl, taking her over to the camp, where it was finally revealed that her parents had paid for this entire kidnapping. Teenagers whose parents wanted to send them to the wilderness camp had to go through this specific traumatic experience of being kidnapped and taken away from home in order to reach the place.

Once at the Challenger Foundation wilderness camp, which was situated somewhere deep into the rocky mountain deserts of Colorado, life only became harder for the kids. There was no luxury or comfort at all, as the only shelter was a blanket laid on the rocky ground, which served as their beds, and food was heavily rationed. Everything that they had to use, including food, had to be worked hard for and earned, and it was a very common practice to make the teenagers walk for miles before they were given any water or food. The rationed supplies of food could not be shared, and those who failed to complete their tasks were simply kept without any meals throughout the day. These hardships were presented as the harsh reality of life, and each youngster had to spend at least 63 days at the camp, after which Steve Cartisano and his other associates, who worked as camp leaders, decided whether they were ready to go back to normal lives.

There are a number of adult individuals who have faced all these hardships at the Challenger Foundation program and who accept the great help that this organization has provided for their lives. The problem of teenagers turning delinquents was massive in America at the time, with many regularly stealing and committing other crimes to collect money to buy drugs. For many of the teenagers sent away to Cartisano’s program, they would have surely ended up in juvenile prison very soon, had they not been kidnapped away to the camp and made to realize the worth of their lives. Many swear that their lives turned around only because they were made to go through the physical and mental exercises at camp, and to them, the Challenger Foundation was a real lifesaving organization that helped them immensely.

What were the teenagers actually subjected to at the Challenger Foundation?

However, along with teenagers who were almost on the brink of losing balance in their lives, others who were simply considered too rebellious by their parents were also sent to the Challenger Foundation wilderness camp. Even those considered too lazy or disinterested in education were also sent along to experience a traumatic couple of months. In reality, the Challenger Foundation camp was a space of extreme toxicity, where mental and physical assault and abuse were very common. After his first business ran into some legal trouble, Steve Cartisano went on to change the format a bit by replacing the open Colorado desert with a ship sailing all over the Caribbean islands, but the toxicity of the experience remained constant.

As is evident from the interviews in Netflix’s Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare, the camp leaders who were appointed by Cartisano and his associates were not always monitored or vetted properly. Cartisano himself would be away for most of the time, leaving the camp to be run by these employees, and the initial trouble began with them. When an angry teenager refused to get out of bed and hike the extremely long distances, he was tied to a rope and dragged across the rocky ground. The incident led to some extremely serious injuries, and the boy had to be admitted to the local hospital to be treated in an emergency state. In fact, physical assault was something quite common in these wilderness camps, as they were often made part of the institutional rules of the place.

After his time in Utah and then the Virgin Islands, Cartisano started the HealthCare America program, in which he took wayward teens on a ship across numerous islands in the Caribbean region, making the kids build their own settlements. In many ways, this camp was no different from forced labor camps, for the teenagers would only receive basic amenities after they worked terribly hard throughout the day. When considering that Cartisano was essentially running a business out of the misery of teenagers, his intentions seem all the more muddled. Despite claiming to be very concerned about the state of American youths, Cartisano’s habit of lavishly spending money on personal pleasures like houses and cars very much showed how he used troubled kids and their worried parents to make money for himself.

If the rules at the previous Challenger Foundation camp, like not providing the participants with basic items like water or toilet paper, were preposterous, the rules and regulations at the HealthCare America program were even more bizarre and shocking. A participant recalls how she was hogtied by her fellow camp members, on the orders of the leader, and then humiliated throughout the punishment process. Another part of the program required participants to spend time by themselves on the other side of the island, among local villagers, and a woman recalls how she had to face sexual assault by the village head during this time. It is needless to say that Cartisano and his team failed to practice the very accountability that they wanted to preach among teenagers. In an even more shocking turn, a woman at the very end of Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare reveals that Cartisano himself had sexually assaulted her during her time in his camp.

What finally happened to Steve Cartisano?

It did not take very long for Steve Cartisano to get into trouble with the law, as a teenager named Kristen Chase collapsed and died during a hike conducted at Challenger Foundation camp in 1990. The prosecutors in Colorado filed charges of negligent homicide against the man, for it was most likely that Kristen had died because she had not been given water at a time of emergency. Soon, a few other lawsuits, by other participants and their parents, against Cartisano also followed, as they all claimed to have been physically and mentally tortured by the man and his organization. However, the charges could not be proven against the man, as it was stated that Kristen might have died from some other physical complications unrelated to the long hike. Ultimately, Cartisano was able to walk free, but his license to run the Challenger Foundation business was revoked.

Within some time, Steve Cartisano returned to the scene with his modified wilderness camps in the Caribbean, and the man seemed to grow even more reckless during this time. He used the governments of the smaller nations like Guam and Costa Rica to make a shelter for himself and carried on his tortures against teenagers. Whenever the law or American authorities tried to get hold of the man, he would flee from one island to another on his ship, along with the youngsters, essentially keeping them hostage. It was only when the father of a participant captured a video of the true state of things in the wilderness camp that Cartisano’s image was finally tainted. Even then, he tried to stop the video tape from leaving the island and reaching the US, but it did manage to cause his downfall.

However, the tumultuous times of the early 2000s helped the man escape the law for a final time. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the USA got more embroiled in counter-terrorist activities, and nothing serious ever happened to Cartisano in legal terms. In a cruel twist of fate, both his son and daughter became wayward drug addicts in their teenage years, and he had to send his son to his own camp in the Caribbean. This did not work as planned, though, as the son is still in prison, much like many others who returned to their wayward acts after returning from wilderness camp. Steve Cartisano developed colon cancer, and he ultimately passed away in 2019. Unfortunately, his acts and decisions have led to an actual industry of wilderness camps in the USA, where parents still forcefully send their teenagers to face hardships, exposing them to dangers of all kinds.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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