I’ve been to my fair share of comic book and anime conventions in my time (the former by choice, the latter work-related), but this past weekend’s Chiller Theatre in Parsippany, NJ marked my first journey into the wacky world of horror fandom. The term “horror fandom” probably brings to mind images of scary-looking long-haired metal types or pocket-protected introverts who obsess over classic monster movies. Pluck them from your mind and place them in a North Jersey Hilton alongside the likes of the Misfits, some Brady Kids, and the cast of the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what our Saturday was like.
About 150 horror fans were already lined up at the entrance by our 9:30 AM arrival time, half an hour prior to start time. On-line entertainment was provided by a staff LARPer named Animal (pictured below with an axe to my girlfriend Katie’s throat) whose position, according to the program guide, was “Falcon Keeper’s of the Front Gate”. He walked along the line promising beheadings to those who dare misbehave before the convention’s honored guests. We paid Animal our $30 admission fees and headed straight to the line for the Gary Busey room in which we patiently waited 90 minutes for his arrival. We spent the meantime chatting with our neighbors as the line quickly grew down the corridor and around the corner out of sight. The guy in front of us was a record collector who was there to get a poster of The Buddy Holly Story signed, the guy behind us (in attendance with his elderly mother who wore a homemade t-shirt featuring an image of Chuck Norris standing in front of an American flag, a machine gun in each hand [Norris, not the mother]) brought along his Lethal Weapon laserdisc. They related stories of Chillers past and broke down the autograph process for us newbies: celebrities charge anywhere from $20 to $100 for signatures, some charge for photographs while others allow them for free with the purchase of an autograph. They won’t always shake your hand and sometimes won’t even look you in the eye. “Patrick Stewart was a real dick,” the guy with the poster told us. “He charged $100 for an autograph and wouldn’t personalize anything” (meaning that he wouldn’t write “To Eric” in addition to his signature on his 8×10 glossy photos or whatever). He claimed that Fred Gwynne was also a dick, but the laserdisc guy disagreed saying that it had been a pleasure getting a copy of his Gold Key Munsters comic autographed by Herman himself. We were deep into a discussion about Abbott and Costello when the actor who played the pimp in Italian 80s horror masterpiece Demons walked by (looking exactly like he did 26 years ago) and the doors to the room finally opened.
Gary Busey was obviously the star attraction in a room that included the likes of Jake Busey (Gary’s son), Alex Winter (Bill of Bill & Ted), and all three segments of The Human Centipede. I wondered if meeting a celebrity in this environment would be less awkward than randomly approaching one in public, turned out it’s about the same. “Nobody gets you, but I really get you. I really get you,” confessed a flirtatious woman of about Busey’s age as she sat next to him for a $10 photo. “Great,” growled an unenthusiastic Busey. “I very much enjoyed your show,” said a squeaky voice that belonged to a nerdy middle-aged man in a Frankenstein t-shirt. “Apprentice?” snapped Busey in reference to his recent stint on Celebrity Apprentice. “No, I’m with Busey,” the man replied referencing the short-lived 2003 Comedy Central program. “Interesting,” replied an uninterested Busey. He seemed to like us though, Katie told him how much she liked him on Donald Trump’s aforementioned reality show and I lied and told him that we stopped watching it after he was fired. “You and a whole lot of others,” he replied, accepting my $20 for an autographed photo and $10 for the above photograph.
I came down with a short case of autograph fever following that exciting transaction. Within a span of thirty minutes I had signatures and photographs from a wide variety of approachable idols: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s P.J. Soles (pleasant woman, $20 autograph, free photo), Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook (crazy friendly, $20 autograph, free photo), former Go-Go’s lead and infrequent actress Jane Wiedlin (nice lady who was quick to speak about her collaborations with Sparks, my favorite band…$20 autograph, free photo), and the legendary Ernest Borgnine who encouraged my girlfriend and I to get married by way of a royal wedding joke that we wouldn’t decipher until much later in the day ($30 autograph, $10 photo, plus he invited Katie to get her picture with him for free though she had no idea who he was and has most likely forgotten everything I’ve since told her about him). I eventually regained my senses and we did the remainder of our stargazing from a distance: Loni Anderson, Dean Stockwell, Ellen Travolta, Bai Ling, the father from Family Ties…some looked more comfortable behind their tables than others.
The secondary attraction at these events after the celebrities is the vendor room where attendees can purchase anything from bootleg DVDs to pewter dragon statues to morbid Christmas ornaments. The aisles are narrow and the shoppers are packed tight, especially around the tables staffed by skimpily dressed goth girls. Legendary WWE wrestler Greg “The Hammer” Valentine sat behind a deserted table, his former tag team partner Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake stood nearby. The Barber smiled and greeted those who strolled by while The Hammer stared dejectedly at the floor wearing a look of defeat. Maybe he was reflecting upon his career, wondering how he ended up hawking autographs for $10 a pop while situated between the Manic Panic girls and some wildly dressed steampunk accessory dealers. The Hammer looked like a coward amidst the sea of smiling, enthusiastic celebrities. Selling out requires effort, as does admitting defeat or voluntarily lowering oneself to a level far below that of one’s higher paid peers. The only way a celebrity can survive these events is to put on a brave face and ignore the reality of their situations. To act proud and valuable and worthy of the admiration of these hardcore fans who not only provide the desired attention, but actually pay to do so. Fans are also required to ignore the obvious though the worth of these celebrities is often of a personal nature amongst these people, a concept that the stars themselves may not comprehend. It’s a symbiotic relationship, well-balanced in its reliance on a shared, intentional ignorance. This concept surely doesn’t apply to all of the celebrities though. Some of them, like the 94 year old Borgnine, must truly appreciate the loyal devotion and admiration of their fans, at least in a manner far above that of a The Hammer or a Patrick Stewart. At the very least he appears to.
The next installment of the biannual Chiller Theatre will be held this coming October.