Dragoncon 2009

Dragon Con.
Those words ring out through the world of geek fandom like an innocent but determined war cry. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, imagine that one house in the neighborhood that really goes all out for Halloween. Now imagine the house next to it is doing the same thing except it is celebrating Gene Roddenberry’s birthday. The next one down is sponsored by Nintendo, and so on.

To paraphrase Ted Raimi from a previous year’s festivity, Dragon Con is its own community. You don’t have to be a freak to enjoy it, but it helps you understand it. Being from Louisiana, I find it comparable to Mardi Gras, except while the New Orleans visitors seem content to wallow in semi-controlled depravity, Dragon Con attendees arrive in the thousands to turn Downtown Atlanta into a four day Salvador Dali painting of surreal celebration.

The news covers the event, and they certainly can’t resist making fun of the grown adults dressed like cartoon characters. They get a laugh at our expense, and why not? The rationale behind creating an outfit meant to resemble Tetris pieces is an unquestionable punchline. We know. We’re used to it. But we also know that you’ll miss us when we’re gone.

But my soapbox seems to be buckling under my weight with all of the free brochures and books I have crammed into my backpack. So I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey beginning with the Marta train pulling into the station near Peachtree. I’m here with my wife Sarah on a Friday afternoon. Sarah has never experienced Dragon Con before but she’s certainly heard plenty about it since the time we were only dating. We step onto an escalator that may very well have been rescued from the Tower of Babel, all the while feeling the mood of a metropolitan city transforming into the calm before the carnival.

We arrive at the top where a plain clothed gentleman sporting seventeen cameras waits patiently beside his significant other, a medieval princess in a sophisticated fuchsia gown and tiara. Sarah smiles at me and announces that she has arrived at home, serving as a delightful reminder of why I fell in love with her.

We emerge on the streets of Atlanta to all manner of pirates, vampires, superheroes, and Starfleet officers. There are women with fake mustaches and men in miniskirts. Sarah and I get turned around amidst the wonder and approach the nearest pink haired goth for directions to registration. A note to any first timers who get lost, everyone who has bought a ticket to the event is ready to offer aid. People go to this thing to connect with other people. It’s the first lesson in why the world of Dragon Con is better than real life. Anywhere else, a hooded samurai is a threat. Here, he’s an attraction.

We find our home base and get our badges with the coveted ‘press’ ribbon attachment and proceed to the E-ticket of the convention, the Walk of Fame. Dragon Con is one of those rare occasions where you can shake hands with actors you’ve seen in dozens of films and writers you’ve collected in dozens of titles. In past years I’ve had the fortune of startling Chris Owens, confusing Jason Mewes, and thanking Teryl Rothery for single handedly making me an anime fan. This year is different however. Sarah and I are on a self guided mission to find out what various celebrities love about horror films.

Our first stop is the man himself, Malcolm McDowell. The first thing you notice about McDowell is the inherent kindness in British gentleman demeanor. It’s much easier to see H. G. Wells from Time After Time in his eyes than Dr. Tolian Soran from Star Trek: Generations, and the sadist Alex DeLarge of A Clockwork Orange is nowhere to be found. Our conversation is simple. McDowell is a fan of the old Wes Craven pictures, particularly Freddy Krueger. I walk away from the table feeling a childlike joy at having shaken hands with the actor who I had just watched the night before in Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Sarah melted with glee.

Dragon Con has seen fit to create a Spin City quadrant of the Walk of Fame with Barry Bostwick and Alan Ruck seated next to each other. I’ve always admired Bostwick. The Rocky Horror Picture Show may not have catapulted his career, but I maintain he walked out of that movie with his dignity intact, in high heels no less. Bostwick holds the Saw series in high regard, mainly for the talent of Tobin Bell. Bell, it turns out, was his son’s football coach and Bostwick admires the degree of patience to which Bell showed his son.
I’m somehow not surprised to hear that Tobin Bell is a kind man. When Sarah and I checked in at the media office and informed them we were from horrornews.net the Dragon Con staffer chuckled at how normally dressed we were. He commented how everyone he had met in the field of horror seemed so peacefully professional. He’s right of course, and at this point in the convention I begin to wonder why that is. Maybe I’ll have the answer before I have to return to the real horror, the workplace.

But for now, we’re meeting Alan Ruck, who is instantly recognizable as Ferris Bueller’s neurotic friend Cameron Frye. I’m feeling a little daring, so I mention that Sarah and I saw him recently in I Love You, Beth Cooper. Ruck seems to brace himself for the impact as I think we’re all aware the movie wasn’t very good, but I tell him how wonderful his performance was in the movie. He throws his arms up in a victory stance when he finds out he was our hero of the picture. Ruck has a lot of favorites in the horror industry. The Changeling, The Exorcist, and Rosemary’s Baby all get their respects. I’m particularly pleased to hear Ruck cite the 1963 version of The Haunting starring Julie Harris as a favorite. I often use the 1999 remake as an example of how a special effects budget can actually hurt a horror movie’s tension.

Sarah and I scope the Walk of Fame looking for Brad Dourif. His name was added to the guest list less than a week before the convention and we’ve decided to try to persuade him into letting us interview him for the website. Sadly, his name is nowhere to be found among the tables.

However, we suddenly spy Eric Roberts, who you may remember as Sal Maroni from a little known flick called The Dark Knight. We introduce ourselves and ask if he minds us asking him a question. “As long as it’s not hard,” he jokes with us. Roberts is a fan of all wolfman movies starring Lon Chaney Jr. It’s always nice to see the classics get a nod. We follow up the question by asking what he feels the attraction to horror movies is. Without a second thought he beams, “They’re fun. It’s an adrenaline rush.” Kind of like making a brief connection with a charming film actor. Having four truly wonderful encounters at the Walk of Fame, I see Sarah ready to just grow wings and fly. You’ve got to love Dragon Con.

The walkways are feeling a little packed at this time. We knew what to expect, but the crowds are still a bit jarring. We head down to the exhibitor booths at the Marriott. This is the equivalent of a fantasy bazaar. The place is packed with vendors selling artwork, comics, costumes, books, contact lenses, swords and knickknacks. If you come to Dragon Con without a costume and you just can’t take the peer pressure, this is your transformation agency. You can change species in this hub, which appears to be immune to the economic crisis. You can dig up DVD’s of cartoons older than you are. You can invest in collectable cards. All of that and we even find Waldo among the other shoppers.

So what do you do with the remainder of your evening? Check out the art gallery? Sit in the 24 hour anime room? Listen to a live band in one of the four hotel courtyards? Or maybe follow one of the programming tracks laid out for every personality type, including American and British Sci-fi, Anne McCaffery, Filking, Gaming, MMORPG’s, Star Wars, Star Trek, X-files, StarGate, Tolkien, and writer’s workshops? You’re hard pressed to find an avenue in geekdom that isn’t represented at this convention.

Sarah and I opt for Plan Omega Thirteen, we go back to the hotel and get some rest. After all, tomorrow is Saturday, the day of the 8th annual Dragon Con parade. The Walk of Fame may be the head of the convention and the exhibitor booths the heart (or possibly the other way around) but the fans are the circulation, and the Dragon Con parade honors the creativity and fervor of passionate Dr. Who doubles and video game stand ins. Sometimes you watch the show, sometimes you are the show. There’s plenty of spotlight to go around.

Sarah and I are back in the Walk of Fame. We’ve had no luck so far in locating Brad Dourif, but we have our press ribbons to fall back on, and later we’re planning to ask the impressively helpful media room for assistance. For now we’re approaching Karen Allen, who I shouldn’t have to tell you is Marion Ravenwood in the allegedly continuing Indiana Jones franchise. Allen has one of the most recognizable smiles in film, which makes it ironic that I will always think of her as the woman who socked the foley artist out of Harrison Ford. Her favorite horror film? The Shining. The celebrities here have wonderful taste in film.

Next to Allen is Bruce Davison, who at the premiere of the first X-Men film I proudly wore my Senator Kelly for President button. Like Alan Ruck, Davison is a fan of The Haunting with Julie Harris. It really is a wonderful piece of cinema. The best horror films are timeless, I wish more video stores had a copy of that one.

Garret Wang, best known as ensign Harry Kim from Star Trek: Voyager points us to the Phantasm series. It’s wonderful to hear Phantasm mentioned as I’d completely forgotten about that one. We ask Wang what he thinks the attraction to horror films is and he explains how so many of the traffic delays in L.A. are the result of people on all sides of the interstate stopping to look at accidents. “People have a morbid fascination with blood, gore and death.” Too true. I never really get into sports but I’m a sucker for watching the highlights of players getting seriously racked out there.

Richard Herd, whose credits include just about everything sci-fi including Star Trek: Voyager, V, and Sea Quest (I’ll always remember him as Captain Galaxy from Quantum Leap), greets Sarah and I exuberantly referring to us as the dynamic duo. Herd is a fan of anything classic in horror, in particular The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a name I’ve heard but I know nothing about. I’m certainly intrigued though, as I understand this was the film that served as the horror film model for many decades. On horror Herd says “A good one like Psycho is things that move you and frighten you. You have to hit people when they least expect it.”

Sarah and I have a date with the cast of Cinematic Titanic and we still want to track down Brad Dourif, but as we turn towards the Walk of Fame exit we’re surprised to come face to face with Jason Voorhees veteran Kane Hodder, who is as big a guy as you think he is and much friendlier than you’d expect a sans hockey mask Jason to be. I guess horror actors really do work out their demons as their jobs. Hodder’s favorite horror film is The Exorcist, and who can blame him. “People love to be scared,” he tells us, “otherwise theme parks wouldn’t exist.”

By this point the hotels and streets are almost packed to excess with knights and Final Fantasy teammates. We feel a little out of place without swords. We pass Nightcrawler, two Mystiques and Smurfette and not once do I say “Why so blue?” You’re welcome. People are swapping stories about who they’ve met and what they’ve bought. It’s several hours away but we overhear several discussions about the 12th annual Dawn look alike competition. Sarah and I grab a hotdog from one of the hotel vendors and find as close to a quiet corner as possible to breathe for a moment.

I take a moment to reminisce about past year’s conventions. Sarah and I are sitting in the spot where I was standing about five years ago waiting with hundreds of others to meet Ray Park. Ten minutes into his scheduled panel discussion the mob of us found out he was unable to attend Dragon Con that year. I remember the mass of attendees was understandably disappointed but amazingly quick to accept the inevitable. There were no tantrums, no outbursts, and if anyone was really heartbroken they kept it to themselves. Suffice to say I’m quite proud of my geek tribe.

Down in the media center, everyone who is working there is in really good spirits, and substantially helpful in connecting us with Brad Dourif. The information volunteers are very good at what they do, but of course they’re only able to answer questions the convention has provided them with answers to. The media center has phone numbers, and moments later Sarah and I have a date with the talent behind Chucky. We genuinely feel like journalists now. I met Brad Dourif at a previous Dragon Con and I know what a kind man he truly is. Sarah’s heard that story many times and she’s as thrilled as I am.
A few stormtroopers and a Gandalf later and we’re in the audience of the Cinematic Titanic panel with Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl and Trace Beaulieu. The MST alumni are sharp, a perfect blend of quick wit and cordiality and they function wonderfully as a unit. Sarah slips over to get the team’s autographs while I sneak back into the venue to hear Terry Gilliam and Neil Innes reflect on the days of Monty Python. It doesn’t hit me at first that I’m watching the heroes of comedy back to back, but this is a monumental occasion for an aspiring comedy writer like me. Only at Dragon Con.

The interview with Brad Dourif is the highlight of the convention (see our separate posting on horrornews.net) and we come out of it chattering to each other like children who have just met Daffy Duck. We vow to each other that next year we are going to reserve a room at the Hyatt so we can factor out the hour it takes us to get from the fun stuff to our hotel room.

Let’s face it, you can’t do everything at Dragon Con. It’s a feat to do ten percent of what there is to offer, but you leave the place with a story you can lord over the people back home. Sunday morning we check out of the hotel and can’t resist making one last trip onto the premises. The streets are still busy but noticeably less crowded by comparison to yesterday. There are fewer costumes as well. You might think the convention was winding down, but in truth this is the calm between two storms. Bars stopped serving alcohol last night at midnight, so you know people got loaded up. Also tonight is the masquerade, and the attendees are feeling their mortality, so they are resting up for the event. If you don’t know what they masquerade is, imagine the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in one room. It’s a big deal.

Sarah and I unfortunately won’t be here as this is our farewell to the world of the surreal, and we’re absorbing anything we can to carry us back into our regular schedule. We pass a family of four, and the dad who is clearly in his element is keeping track of the points earned in spotting lightsabers. It sounds like his up fifty points over his daughters.
We poke our heads one last time in the Walk of Fame and spy an opening at Doug Bradley’s table. Bradley has the distinction of playing the character Pinhead in (so far) eight installments of the Hellraiser series. His favorite horror film is Bride of Frankenstein. “Most us of who are playing monsters in film are in Karloff’s shadow,” he explains. I ask him what they attraction to horror is and Bradley cunningly turns the question back on me asking what I think the attraction to comedy is. I say that in our daily lives we feel a strong amount of tension and comedy allows us a relief from that by piercing our shell. “Comedy and horror are flipsides to the same coin. Comedy is based on other people’s misfortune. Horror is all about the doors that say ‘Do Not Enter’.”

His point echoes in my head as Sarah and I wait patiently for Crow versus Crow, a joint panel between Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett. Ten minutes into the schedules panel an endless line of people is still stuck outside the door waiting. What are we waiting for? We don’t know. Our irritation builds as we begin to wonder if the panel has been cancelled. Then I overhear the paramedics are inside. It’s almost an uncomfortable thought how the news relaxes me. Knowing that someone might be hurt somehow justifies my inconvenience. And I’m waiting to see two comedic performers no less. I’m going to be thinking about Doug Bradley’s words for a long time.

Sadly the panel is over too quickly and we’re on our way back to car and the realm of normalcy. For geeks, Dragon Con is our own private holiday which unfortunately only occurs as frequently as any holiday, once a year. We’re proud of who we are and we know how to show it. Now that our comic books are dominating box office revenue and tough guys like Vin Diesel admit to playing Dungeons & Dragons, we’re no longer just the weird kids on the bleachers.

Sarah and I pass a married couple in Starfleet uniforms just as an Atlanta driver calls to them “I’m with you man! Star Wars is awesome!” to which the husband responds cynically “Yeah you’re real close pal.” No hard feelings non-geeks, but we’re making fun of you too.

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