It'd occurred to me that this entire article could've been published in a red font face. But you see how annoying it is to read, so we'll ditch it. Not that it wouldn't have fit, as this double-length special feature breaks down an all-new experience for yours truly: My very first horror convention. Every geeky male hobby has its convention, from E3 for video games to the San Diego Comic Con for Batmaniacs. And it's a sliding scale of loserosity from there. I'd have to imagine that attending horror conventions ranks particularly low on the list of things capable of raising one's social status, but screw that -- this was a damn fun time.
Let's preface: I'm not a horror fanatic. I'm more of a dabbler. I'm into the big franchises and the shitty direct-to-video affairs with equal lust, but compared to 98% of the hundreds of people at the convention, I was just a poser with nothing better to do that weekend. Mostly true, but if there's anything that'll make a casual gore enthusiast swear their eternal allegiance, it's a weekend full of Betsy Palmer autographs, old Fangoria magazines and sharing elevators with the kid Chucky was always trying to possess. Here's the story...
So, a few friends and I booked the trip months ago. I can't remember the specific details on how we even found out about the convention, but it must've been screwy because there's no way any of us were actively searching for one. The whole thing just kinda happened. There's only so many times you can stand Atlantic City, I guess. Stationed at a nearly-ritzy Hilton in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, I admit to a certain amount of apprehension as we pulled up to that hotel. Horror freaks were crawling all over the parking lot, and I wasn't sure if I'd thought this whole thing through enough. You must understand, I'm the kind of person who skips once in a lifetime concert opportunities because I'm afraid of what kind of people I might have to stand or sit next to. A whole convention full of folks who were obsessed with stage blood seemed overwhelming, and yes, it took us "normals" a little while to get used to everything.
Called the "Monster-Mania Con," the event completely overtook the hotel -- a point that will become important later. It was a pretty friggin' huge Hilton, with loads of conference rooms, halls and whatnot. And the horror stuff was just everywhere. Stars from every horror franchise imaginable were on hand to intro movie screenings and sign autographs, outnumbered by those who came to see them, who in turn were only outnumbered by those who came to sell horror-related collectibles on picnic tables over in the so-called "dealer room." I went into this thing expecting a pretty half-hearted effort. I had no idea there were so many people devoted enough to this sort of thing to warrant what we saw last weekend. Now I do. It makes me happy. It makes me want to murder your damned family.
When we got into the hotel lobby, it immediately became clear that the weekend would be memorable, regardless of whether the thing sucked or not. The beauty part was, we'd booked a room at the very hotel all of this was happening at. So many attendees had to travel to and fro throughout the weekend, but us? When we were bored, we went upstairs, got hammered, took a nap and regained our interest. We could meticulously map out which events were interesting enough to come out from our cave, dodging all the b-level junk for more bouts of drinking and ordering overpriced turkey clubs from room service. Just awesome, and they had a special rate going for convention attendees to boot. Plus, we were at a danged horror convention. We could set fire to the room and spray-paint limericks about strawberries all over the ceiling. The staff would never notice -- they had their hands full.
After checking in, dropping our stuff off and drinking enough to remove any lingering inhibitions, we dipped back into the lobby, traded in our tickets for trusty shower-proof wristbands and, for about 72 hours, pretended that nothing in the world mattered outside of horror movies.
What you're looking above was our first sampling of the convention -- dealers littered a long hallway that leaded to a huge room full of more dealers, meaning just one thing: This would be an expensive weekend. You'd be surprised at how much cool horror shit is out there. Just to convey the flavor of the event, the first table I saw sold hundreds of zany, evil cosmetic contact lenses. The girl working that particular booth sat stone-faced for the entire weekend wearing what appeared to be contact lenses with little skulls and crossbones on 'em. She's why I don't sleep at night.
When I say "horror convention," it's more of a generalized theme than something that pertains only to movies. Basically, anything that would appeal to someone who liked horror movies was on sale here, regardless of whether it had anything to do with Freddy and his rock band or not. For instance, Star Wars figures were all over the place, marked up from their retail of six bucks to 12-15 a pop, because even toys that are brand new and still in mass production are considered rare if you can't find them on your first trip to Uncle Bill's Toy Palace.
Still, horror was Conky's secret word of the weekend, and most of the stuff on sale fell under that category. Many dealers created cheap little signs reading "GREAT FOR SIGNING" and stuck 'em on various toys, dolls and memorabilia. It seemed pretty dumb at first, but hey, most of the junk I had the celebs sign came from the dealers here. Can't have a memento chest full of signed napkins, y'know?
I've mentioned how the convention overtook the entire Hilton. You had to feel bad for the poor souls who were booked to stay there for other reasons. You'd occasionally spot frantic old ladies scurrying out the front doors only to find a thousand maniacs waiting on line for Robert Englund's autograph before collapsing to the floor, feigning heart attacks so the hotel staff would have to come rescue 'em. It gets worse. By Saturday afternoon, a new kind of party arrived at the Hilton. A wedding party.
Not kidding. Not making it up for effect. Not exaggerating to be hilarious. Come Saturday, a horde of completely regular people in completely fancy clothes arrived, and you can bet that the Hilton's gonna be in fucking court soon trying to defend their right to rent out the 10% of the hotel not swarming with blood and gore to a poor family who wants to celebrate a wedding and not tell them that one minor little detail -- the one about there being a friggin' HORROR CONVENTION going on during the same weekend. And this wasn't a wedding party from the frat -- we're talking nice, normal everyday families full of small children who fear lots of things, especially things that look like what you're seeing in the photo above.
On Sunday morning before heading back home, we're all chilling in the lobby, drinking bad coffee. I spot Jason and Michael Myers -- Jason looking particularly ghoulish -- coming from a mile away. We're all excited, but they're walking so...god...damned...slow. Eventually, interest wanes. We turn our attention to a married couple and their small daughter -- members of the wedding party -- temporarily stuck with the freaks. They're waiting for an elevator. It comes. They hop in and press the button, but the doors don't close. Thirty seconds later, and the doors are still wide open. In the history of untimely elevator glitches, this was the most untimely. The couple tried to yank their little blonde princess to the back so she'd stop peering at all of the "scary folk," but then, it happened. The doors remained open for so long that Jason and Michael Myers had enough time to make to the elevator. Turns out, they were headed back to their room.
The blonde girl spots them, and just as she's disappearing behind her mother's legs, the doors begin closing...but Jason was too close, and pulled out that old trick where you stick an arm between the doors to make 'em pop back open. I don't know what happened beyond the time that the doors finally closed with the whole gang inside, but I can tell you this: That little girl will never be the same.
Shown above is a picture of the real dealers' room, so large that no one photo can possibly convey its...uh, so largeness. This was hog heaven for me, a person who likes horror, likes buying stuff, likes sifting through various boxes for hidden treasures. A person who has absolutely no concept of money or why purchases should be debated internally for at least ten seconds before moving forward. I'm not broke, but I'm close.
The dealers were great for killing the assorted downtimes before Q&A sessions, movie screenings and other events. Most of the time it was just for lazy browsing, but on occasion, some overpriced hunk of horror history would grab your attention, grab your head, turn your head into a claw and yank your wallet out. I'm not broke, but I'm close.
A lot of the dealers sold the exact same crap -- it was mostly a matter of who was selling it cheapest. Still, if you were willing to dig deeper and risk getting bumped in the head by the ass of someone scary while crouching, wonderful things could be found. Hidden under a tablecloth were the boxes shown above, one hocking old horror movies on videocassette 3 for 5 bucks, the other selling random fast food toys at a dollar a pop. Nothing remarkably interesting was found in either box, but the thrill was in the hunt.
Course, dealers and whatnot aside, the reason so many people went to this thing was to see the stars of horror's yesteryear. The guest list was insane -- you had top dogs like Robert Englund (that's Freddy) and Doug Bradley (that's Pinhead), but you also had...well, actors who played "lesser characters." For every Elvira, there was an old lady who shared three seconds of screen time with Frankenstein in some movie from the 1400s. Yet, nobody on the guest list was lacking for attention. They had the kid from the first two Child's Play flicks -- even he was swarmed. There was no such thing as "b-level" or "c-level" -- if someone appeared in a horror movie, they were treated like gold and made a shitload of money. We decided to adhere to the atmosphere and start rubbing some elbows...
We first hit the smaller of the two autograph rooms on the second floor of the hotel, improperly referred to by so many as the "mess-a-zine." Read, dammit. The smaller room was no less busy than the big one; in fact, since it was mostly populated with the event's female guests, it was probably even busier. The lovely lady you're trying to face-place up above is Lisa Wilcox, start of A Nightmare On Elm Street IV: The Dream Master and whichever one came after it. She's had a busy acting career, but it goes without saying that the Elm Street flicks were her chief roles.
So, here's how it works. Each actor/celebrity/whatever sits at a small-to-large folding table, size dependent on how many fans they're expecting. The prices aren't cheap -- almost everyone charges twenty bucks for an autograph, including Ms. Wilcox. On the other hand, for twenty bucks, they'll autograph whatever you want, take as many pictures as you want and chat it up however you want. It's not a case where they get your cash and immediately dismiss you for the next customer, so nobody ever feels like a sucker. Whether there's a line of 2 or 200 behind you, the people you're waiting on a John Hancock for never rush your little stupid Kodak moment.
Lisa's table setup was indicative of everyone else's table setup, so let's review the bullets by number...
#1: The Star. Can't have an autograph table without someone there to, you know, autograph shit.
#2: The Pictures. You can bring anything you want for the actors to autograph, but if not, they supply any number of 8x10 pictures, sometimes nice and glossy, sometimes printed out off of shitty computer equipment.
#3: Sharpies. Oh, the amount of egg on any actor's face who forgot their Sharpies was enough to fuel a breakfast birthday party at IHOP. Lisa came more than prepared with Sharpie markers in every color, giving her the ability to sign black things, white things and red things with equal legibility. Go Lisa.
#4: Cell Phone. The stars' only lifeline to a world other than this, it's important to have a phone on hand in case they need to make a sudden escape, or if they want to order pizza without having to return to their rooms, thus losing about 200 bucks worth of signatures.
#5: Side Business Junk. Many of the stars haven't had any acting gigs for years. The majority have moved onto other things, because there's only so many horror convention autograph signings you can swell a bank account with. A virtual lifetime has passed since the movies we know a lot of these folks from debuted. Rather than waste the event sheerly for their own nostalgia factor, many try to get the word out about their new endeavors. A whole bunch of the guests have turned into musicians of varying degrees of success, while Lisa makes "Toe Brights," fancy rings for your fancy toes. According to the site, Sarah Chalke wears Toe Brights. If that's not an indication of a venture worth championing, I should lower my glass. Here's to you, Lisa!
Betsy Palmer, Queen Awesome:
Whenever we reviewed the guest list before the trip, one name always stood out: Betsy Palmer, who played Pamela Voorhees, the surprise killer in the original Friday the 13th. Jason's mommy! From the few interviews I've seen her take part in, it was obvious that Betsy was a true character who wasn't afraid to take a big crap on the very movie people remember her for. When it came time for her Q&A session, we were all over it.
Just one small detail: She wasn't alone. See, this was a "Mother & Son Reunion" event, with Betsy accompanied by Ari Lerman, the guy who played the aquatic, young Jason Voorhees for all of two seconds at the very end of the first movie. While it may seem ridiculous for this guy to have any kind of continuing notoriety for a role so incredibly small, I admit, there's a certain fun factor involved with meeting the guy who, technically, was the first of many incarnations of Jason Voorhees.
So the Q&A session starts, and we realize a couple of things off the bat. Betsy has only seen the original F13 twice, never saw the rest of the series, and, for the most part, has no understanding of the F13 flicks' charm or why they mean anything to fans. Openly admitting that she only took the role to pay for a new car, Betsy thought the script was "shit." Given the group sitting in the audience, such words would normally be treason, but Betsy had too much spicy Sophia Petrillo action going on for anyone to be anything but enamored -- even as she proved incapable of letting anyone finish a sentence without interrupting to tell her version of the story, or in the worst cases, other stories entirely. Such instances came off more hilarious than rude, and I'm guessing Ari was just fine playing second fiddle so long as he got to plug all of his music projects before taking off.
Ari also offered his own personal theory on what the Jason of Part I was meant to be: A mutant, amphibious creature who somehow managed to live at the bottom of the lake for all of those years. Though the sequence Jason appears in during Part I was intended moreover as a dream sequence, Ari refused to let go of the idea that he portrayed some kind of vengeful frogman. He also kept referring to Betsy as "Mother," which was pretty cute the first six hundred times he did it. I kid. Real nice guy who gets a gold star for doing a couple of freebie autographs here and there.
After Betsy and Ari wrapped up their dog and pony show, the convention staff took the reigns and put on a Friday the 13th DVD. The overall effect of screening these movies was somehow lost after seeing the DVD menu screens. Not that there was any way around this, but the idea of seeing all of these films on the "big screen" again was kinda hampered by the fact that, well, the "big screen" waddn't all that big. Another room had a substantially larger screen, but in every case, it was a flashback to grade school assemblies. The films were great nightcaps, though, and on Saturday night, they did a big production for Rocky Horror, complete with scantily clad cast and a whole bunch of shit being thrown from one side of the audience to the other.
Originally, the screenings felt like a big deal to me. That's what I was looking forward to the most. When you're actually there, though, surrounded by all of this crazy pandemonium, it's tough to dedicate yourself to 90 minutes of quiet time while everyone else is having wild parties in the other rooms. I didn't watch a single movie at the convention. Frick that, I've got the DVDs at home. When Betsy made her exit, so did we.
We'd been there for a while by this point -- long enough to have felt out the event and know exactly what level of stupid drunkenness we could get away with. Like I said, the group I was with all love horror movies, but not to a point fanatical enough where we were sure we'd have any fun at the convention. Our backup plan? A bottle of Sebor Absinth. Absinth/Absinthe has been romanticized in movies for a long time, especially over the past few years. Allegedly downed by some of the world's most brilliantly twisted authors, absinthe used to be full of all sorts of spicy meatballs that were said to cause heightened awareness, hallucinations and a bunch of other junk that may or may not be made up. That kind of absinthe is gone forever, but Sebor's version is widely considered to be the best of the upstarts. And it is. A much goofier, wild drunk than any other type of liquor I've gotten sick on, the licorice-like green firewater quickly turned me into a hood-wearing, stuttering, hopping mad demon with a digital camera. Obviously, this was the perfect time to track down ol' Betsy for an autograph.
Meeting Betsy Palmer in the flesh was going to be a surreal moment under any kind of circumstances, but meeting Betsy Palmer punch-drunk on absinthe is the greatest accomplishment of my entire sad life. She didn't bat an eye, so I guess she's used to being accosted by hood-wearing, stuttering, hopping mad demons with digital cameras.
Damn, this lady is just aces. I know there's some cynics out there reading this thinking that Betsy should just be glad that anyone was paying any attention to her at all, but screw you. She could've went through the motions. Could've been all "hey how are ya" and not really interested in striking a rapport on anything but the most basic level. It wasn't like that at all. What we found was this charming, engaging, absolutely sweet woman, and yes, she was there to make some bucks, but she was determined to have a good time doing it. For twenty clams, I'm not sure how many other people in the world would've put up with me considering the state I was in at this particular point in time. I mean, I was standing there snapping pictures like I was trying to break some kind of photographical speed record, with total disregard for how the pics turned out, grunting and swaying back and forth throughout the process. Betsy kept her game face on. I'd purchased the official Pamela Voorhees doll a few hours prior, and that's what we had her sign first. But I wanted more. MORE.
Betsy had a number of 8x10" photos out on display, and I totally didn't mean to pick the one that had to be the most insulting for her to sign, but how could I resist? It's Pamela Voorhees' corpse head from the climax of Part II, and I didn't notice it at the time, but Betsy was totally dressed to match. She scribbled something about the sweater in the 8x10 looking like a pile of whipped cream. Perhaps she too was reeling from the effects of Sebor's froggy juice.
I know I'll never see Betsy Palmer again in this lifetime. I'm still shocked that I saw her once in this lifetime. There were murmurs that this was her last convention appearance ever, but maybe she says that at every convention to encourage more autograph purchases. Point is, I'll never have the chance to make her sign a picture of her prop dead head again, and this is the kind of opportunity we really need to jump at more often in life. Stop, smell the roses, make Palmer sign dead head. Write it down.
We had a few minutes to kill after what's now known as the Palmer Incident, so we strolled back to the dealer section. I've spent my life so wanting to feel like I belonged, and I'm confident I belong at a place where it's perfectly natural to sell rubber severed body parts and absolutely nothing else. My home makes me wear cheap bracelets all weekend to prove I belong, but that's okay. I've learned to accept it.
One of the most popular items on sale at the convention came from the booth above. This prop-collecting dude got his hands on the sweater Englund wore during filming for Freddy Versus Jason, and instead of parading the thing around horror conventions for the next thirty years looking to find a buyer for this mega-expensive collectible, he hatched a plan that has the shyster in me bowing down: He simply cut the sweater into tiny pieces and sold said tiny pieces at twenty bucks a pop.
Click here for a picture of one of the sweater pieces, placed nicely on a frame-suitable Freddy-faced backer with a spot to have Robert Englund sign, assuming you were willing to pay another twenty bucks and wait in line for sixteen hours to get at him. Fans went wild for these things, and even I toyed with the idea of buying one for a few minutes before deciding that there was no mantel with which to hang it over in our apartment -- the eternal ruination of everything I really want to buy. I don't know how much an intact screen-worn Freddy Krueger sweater would go for, but chopping the sweater up into little twenty-dollar pieces must be infinitely more profitable. The person behind this scheme just bought his very own solid gold island.
Some of the dealer booths were pretty unique -- this one especially, whatever the hell it is. For whatever amount of money one wanted to donate, the people running the show would take a picture of you in an electric chair as a costumed spook pulled the switch. It's true: Life is all about the little things. Some go to Santa at the mall for their yearly novelty photo. Others go to electric chairs at horror conventions. We've all got our vices.
Believe it or not, this evil clown is just one of several people I spotted who spent the entire convention on stilts. There weren't an incredible amount of dressed-up characters, but those who came masked didn't skimp. You had giant red devils, green-faced ogres and even a medieval knight with a side biz. Some of the costumes were worn to lend some promotion to low budget horror-related projects, but other characters were just regular fans who wanted other regular fans to pay more attention to them than the other regular fans. Or, maybe dressing like scary freaks was just their thing.