She can be reached at DC.in.Detroit [at] gmail.com
13-15 September 2013
Lexington Center, Lexington, Kentucky
When I first learned about the ScareFest a few months ago, it interested me right away. It's not just a horror convention, and it's not just a paranormal convention; it's a horror and paranormal con — the peanut butter and chocolate of the darker interests.
The con has made its home in Lexington, Kentucky, for the past 6 years. It's a drive I've made before, and September is my favorite time of year — in every part of the country — so cruising I-75 for 5 or 6 hours seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The room I booked, only about 2 miles from the convention center, was cheaper than any random farm country rest stop flop of recent memory, so I drove down a day early to settle in and be wide awake for Friday's "Black Carpet" media preview.
ScareFest includes a pretty long list of celebrities from the subcultures, coming in not only for talks and panels, but autograph tables. Opening day — not coincidentally Friday the 13th — featured the arrivals of (most of) the listed guests, and I was told this would be the best opportunity for photos and interviews.
This was a new one for me. As many media events as I've attended, I've never been invited to a red carpet. Not being particularly celebrity-minded, I wasn't sure I'd even know what to do, frankly.
There was one element of the red carpet that had me basted in anxiety the night before: Malcolm McDowell.
Effectively the headliner of the event, McDowell is also well-represented in my home in the form of several framed foreign-language posters from my favorite film, A Clockwork Orange. I've been looking into those peeled eyeballs since I was a teenager, and the notion of looking directly into those bright blue glassies — and having them look back! — was incredibly intimidating.
Judging by how much of a goofus I was later in the weekend, it was probably for the best, then, that McDowell was not present at the red carpet itself.
After a couple of hours of awkward photography (see photoset below), I was free to roam the vendor galleries. At any horror convention, there's a big emphasis on pop culture stuffs, and ScareFest was packed with fun, hand-made goodies, being sold by talented, friendly people. In the hour before the doors opened to the general public, I had several excellent conversations with vendors, authors, and representatives of the Livington Fayette County Health Dept.
The paranormal was represented on the vendor floor as well, which made it more than just a pure shopping experience. Sure, many of the tables were manned by people selling their books, but there were also a lot of groups there just for a presence. I had a friendly conversation with Steve Rogers and Shawn McMahon of the Into the Dark Radio podcast, who just happen to be from Toledo, Ohio, a mere 45 minutes from Detroit.
And, of course, folks like (local weirdmeister) John E.L. Tenney, who had a whole table with virtually nothing but his business cards.
Then there was this walking nightmare, Circus Envy, who has every intention of coming to Detroit for Theater Bizarre this year, so watch out for that. (Everyone with Circus Envy was actually quite nice, and even gave me some super-disgusting liquor. And sold me a dried-up chicken foot.)
I also had a long talk with Jason McLeod, author of Dark Siege, about a case he investigated in Connecticut, involving everything from ghosts to demons.
I make no secret about the fact that I am a classic skeptic. I do enjoy talking with people on "the other side" of the paranormal fence about their experiences and beliefs, and how they got from one to the other. Like most philosophies, "believers" vary widely across a gradient scale. In my experience, a lot of paranormalists are much closer to skeptics than either seem to recognize — we are most all bundled somewhere toward the middle.
McLeod was an interesting man to talk to, as we touched on topics from the differences between types of entities, to the "law of attraction." If not for the extremely loud electric chair directly next to his table, I'd have loved to have stuck around and picked his brain.
It can be a delicate procedure for me, talking with these "paranormal investigator" types. There's no doubt in my mind that many of them have zero belief in the interpretations of these experiences of theirs and are just having a bit of fun. I mean, how many times can you say, "What was that!" and "…and there was nothing there!" before even your own bullshit meter pings off the charts? I don't even have a problem with that, for the most part — if you enjoy running around in the dark, scaring yourself, have at it.
It's the people further on the other end of the spectrum that make me curious.
I didn't come to any conclusions about McLeod, except that I'm quite interested in reading this book of his. With 3 days of con to go, it's important to prioritize one's spending, so I didn't buy an autographed copy while I was there. I read everything on kindle these days anyway, so it's on the list.
The other, more significant (to me) component to any good convention is the talks. To my great shock, ScareFest didn't have a spreadsheet grid available for seminar-scheduling — maybe I'm just spoiled by the nerdy cons I often attend — so I had to make my own. At most times, there were five concurrent talks: four in smaller rooms, and one in the Big Room. A time-sorted spreadsheet is vital.
Friday night was about the horror pop culture, with the Friday The 13th panel, featuring Kane Hodder, Tom Morga, Ted White, Sean Cunningham, and Adrienne King, being front and center. For those not keeping track, that's 3 different "Jason"s at one table. The group told tales of the various movies, but I confess, it was difficult to keep my eyes off Kane Hodder. He's a hulking man with a growl of a voice (whose cussing became a running joke), but more than that, he just plain looks insane half the time.
Seminars, movies, demos, and magic shows continued for the next couple of hours, until it was time for the Friday the 13th Bash. Michael Jackson impersonator or not, by that time I was ready to wrap up a long day.
Saturday's first seminar wasn't until 11:30, which shows ScareFest's understanding of its audience. This set is more sunset than sunrise, unless they're still up from the night before. While the Josh Gates Q&A dominated the big room, I decided on the "Unlock Your Psychic Potential" talk with Pat Bussard. Although it was an interesting talk, I'm going to put this down as a bit misleading in the title. I was expecting something more hands-on. What I got was a primer on the different types of psychic abilities (clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience, claircognizance). How does one "unlock" one's potential? Be less fearful. The end.
Immediately after that talk, I scooted into the big room for the Malcolm McDowell Q&A. McDowell has done, at last count, 62,437 movies, but it's a slam dunk which couple people are going to ask most about. In situations like this, I always wonder at what point the Q&A subject wants to jump out of a window before having to yet again answer the same questions about the same roles. Not only has McDowell starred in a couple of massive cult hits, but he's worked with some of the finest directors in filmdom — he's really going to stand for being asked yet again about "Singing in the Rain"?
Perhaps I'm projecting, but this is why I generally avoid interviews with artists whose work I enjoy. I've mentioned this before in my article about the terror of speaking to JJ Burnel, but it makes me nervous that a perfectly natural amount of over-it-ness from an artist will poorly color my future enjoyment of his work.
He entered alone, and stood at the table at the front of the room, rather than sitting down. No handlers, no one to lob questions to him, or to select from the audience. Just him.
After a quick anecdote about how he had to miss last year's event because of a detached retina — "The doctor said 'oh my god, it's that guy from Clockwork. I tell my patients have you seen A Clockwork Orange? Cuz that's what you're gonna go through!'" — he warmed us up with this:
"I'm only going to take intelligent questions. And I am going to be the arbiter of whether they're intelligent or not. Who is going to be the first?"
Way to put the audience at ease.
Though clearly a joke, I can't say that McDowell was exactly an easy Q&A subject. He was quick to explain to one person how wrong she was in suggesting his characters from If…. and ACO shared much in common. And in a particularly prickly moment, he answered the question "what was it like to work with Stanley Kubrick?" with the rejoinder, "Is that a serious question? …Not really, it's not a serious question when we only have an hour. What do you want me to say? He tap-danced brilliantly, he had a great intellect, he couldn't cook…" When the questioner interjected, "Was he a jerk?" McDowell retorted, "NO, he wasn't a jerk! Of course he wasn't a jerk. Have you seen the movie? How could he be a jerk? I couldn't give a performance like that for a jerk. He was an extraordinary man, of course."
While this could easily have seemed an uncomfortable moment between "star" and "audience," it was so honest, I was impressed rather than repelled. Even though I'm sure he was answering questions he's addressed hundreds of times before, there didn't seem to be a canned answer in the lot. I was also pleased and touched to see the fond reverence he still holds for his most well-known roles.
After Malcolm McDowell, I intended to remain in the big room for the Chip Coffey "Gallery Reading." This is the side of the "paranormal" that I do take issue with: specifically, "mediumship." Because I take issue with it, I wanted to sit in. Although I've never seen any of Coffey's, I find gallery readings mindboggling. How can anyone take seriously a so-called sensitive standing in a room full of 200 people asking if anyone is connected to someone with "a J name"? It would be laughable if not for the fact that so many people in pain are being taken advantage of, and kept from moving through their grief.
It turns out, there was an additional $30 fee to attend this gallery reading, and as it would be coming out of my own pocket, I decided to save the budget for something more fun. So, I have nothing to say about Chip Coffey.
One of the concurrent alternatives was Patrick Burns with "Conspiracy Theories: Why Rational People Believe Crazy Things." I was a little surprised to see this on the schedule, being a topic more apparently suited for a skeptics convention. It was a decent talk, too, essentially about why being "on the inside" feels good, and why we sometimes have to use common sense to fight against that.
This took me right up to 3pm, at which point the fact that I hadn't yet eaten was becoming audible. The smallish Lexington Center contains its own food court, which was a huge convenience. Unfortunately, it seemed none of the half-dozen fast food counters had been warned that the entire convention was going to want sammiches at 3pm, leaving me in the unenviable position of having to wait in line for Arby's. (No slight against Arby's, but it's not something I'd usually wait a half-hour for.)
On the topic of standing in line, let me talk for a moment about "Star's Row."
At the back of the vendor hall, several tables were set up for celebrity autographs, with a lot of space for queueing. The ScareFest website was very upfront about the fact that celebrities would be charging for autographs, providing a fee schedule and explanation:
Please note, that at their sole discretion, guests may charge for their autographs and/or photos in this area. Expect long lines for some of the more popular guests. Line-skip privilege will be awarded to all Platinum Ticket holders.
Autograph PricesMalcolm McDowell – $30 (on most items)
Sam Witwer – $40
Sean Cunningham – $30
Sam Trammell – $30
Rutina Wesley – $30
Janina Gavankar – $30
Jim Parrack – $30
Jessica Clark – $30
Most other stars will average between $20 – $30, and are often not disclosed until the day of the show.
First of all, how does Sam Witwer rate?
Autographs are really not my thing. Standing in line for an autograph seems bizarre to me, and paying cash money to stand in line for an autograph is double-plus bizarre. I understand, to a degree, why collectors do it. I also fully understand the superstitious magic involved in handling an object touched by a hero — and what is an autograph other than authentication of contact with that person?
However, it also changes the atmosphere of an event. By putting someone like Josh Gates (who seemed, by and large, lovely and friendly) on a pay-to-touch level with Malcolm McDowell — or even Sam Witwer, PBUH — you wind up with situations like one reported to me wherein Gates refused a candid photo with a fan in an off-con social environment. Although many of the speakers and known personalities at the con were friendly and available, it wouldn't surprise me if there are contract riders prohibiting those charging for autographs from doing freebies on the side. This means that even though you're in the room with these people, you're never really "socializing" with them. There is always a barrier between "celeb" and "pleb," which I find naturally rankling.
It caused some internal strife for me, as I found myself standing near Malcolm McDowell's signing table, with a me-made mask in my bag, perfect for autography. But I just…couldn't…do it. I was happy to stand nearby and watch the glowing faces of those who did wait, though, as McDowell was generous and charming, taking the time to call back people who had forgotten to have a photo taken.
On the other hand, I am the media, so I took advantage of a break in the action between end-of-day radio interviews to slide up to Mr McDowell, and extend my hand. As he took to shake my hand, the air went still and silent, until I was hit with the shock of those eyes turned on me.
He smiled warmly at my mildly stunned expression, which I'm sure he's more than familiar with. My only goal was to tell him I've enjoyed his work, which I did by way of saying, "You portrayed one of my two favorite film characters of all time. There's Karloff's Frankenstein, and your Alex."
In response, his eyes briefly flashed, and he said, "Oh wow what a lovely thing to say! Thank you."
And I thought, a-ha! I at least said something he probably hasn't heard 500 times already this weekend. (It also happens to be true.)
My last seminars for Saturday were Bishop James Long speaking on "Demonology And Possession" and John Zaffis on "Haunted Collections."
Long was a tough choice, because opposite him were "The Vilisca Axe Murder House" and "The American Werewolf," both of which had delicious potential. But when I found that Long's talk had been moved from a side room into the big room — which he filled — I knew that was my spot.
Long is another of the type about which I'm unsure. He claims to do exorcisms: real-deal, cast-out-the-demons exorcisms. But his presentation, which included audio and video recordings of supposed demonic possessions, felt like he was teaching a lesson on Dungeons & Dragons. It was simultaneously fantasy-fueled and blasé, such as when he told us how his found his car with all four tires slashed "at the point they met the pavement." I find it extremely difficult to believe that someone with hands-on knowledge of demons, which are chasing him around to the point of giving him flat tires from hell, would be spending ten minutes in a Kentucky conference hall, showing pictures to strangers. There's a fundamental disconnect here that I cannot get past.
Now, I'm not saying it wasn't entertaining.
Without question, part of the aim of his talk was titillation, as he went on at length about a woman being torn open "at both orifices." (Did I mention this was the only 17+ talk of the weekend?) But how can one reconcile real-time demonic harassment with dog and pony shows?
Speaking of dogs and ponies, John Zaffis spoke to another full room (he was in a side room, but I suspect had the space been available, he'd easily have doubled the audience) about his decades of collecting haunted, possessed, or otherwise cursed artifacts, which mostly seem to be pre-creepy dolls. He has a television show, of course, because why not?
In Zaffis's case, this hobby of his obviously predates any desire or opportunity to be on TV. He's a good storyteller, and I suspect that the stories behind the people and their feared objects would be much more interesting with less EVPs and FLIR. But then it would be on Syfy, would it?
Saturday night was the costume party and contest. There were a number of people in the hall in some pretty extensive costumes, so I expected the contest to be a highlight. Maybe it's the northerner in me, maybe I was lost, but when I didn't see anything going down by shortly after the scheduled 8pm contest time, I hightailed back to my hotel to make my own costume change.
I didn't bring anything elaborate with me for costuming, just a long, hooded and tattered cloak I made some time ago, crawling with little plush rats (what a week that was, sewing dozens of felt rodents). When I got back to the hall, there still wasn't much going on in the foyer area. I'm not sure if that's because a lot of people were still inside the vendor area, or if maybe the partiers were all on the pub walk.
I decided to walk the couple blocks to the Kentucky Theatre instead, for their midnight A Clockwork Orange showing, which was to be followed by a late night theater "ghost hunt," lead by our old friend John E.L. Tenney. It was another long day (and there may or may not have been a flask under my robes), so when ghost hunting time came about, my eyelids were getting pretty heavy. After a little bit of chatter and a short tour of the theater house, I was done for, and still had to walk back to the convention center. It was 3am by the time I got back to the hotel.
Sunday morning came far too early for me. So much so that my first act was to call the front desk and request a late checkout. I was exhausted, hungover, and more than likely demonically possessed — and Sunday's seminar schedule was light — so I decided my best course of action was to skip the last day and head straight home while my head was still more or less in the game. By noon, I was pointed northward, 80mph the whole way home.
This was the 6th ScareFest, all of which have been in Lexington. According to the attendees I talked to, it's been great, and has grown, every year. I heard from one family for whom the con has become a yearly mother-daughter tradition, and I can see why it would be: Lexington is a beautiful, charming, clean, smallish town, easy to get to and easy to get around in. The convention itself was well-organized, with much variety of vendors and speakers, with extra entertainment everywhere you looked.
As an added bonus, I believe this is the overall cheapest convention I've ever traveled to, transpiration and lodging included.
ScareFest 7 dates have already been announced (September 12-14, 2014), and I can easily see this being a trip I'll make again.
Who wants to carpool?