Like almost every year since its inception, I spent the weekend at Spooky Empire, the horror convention that has been an October staple, then later on, a spring and October staple in Florida for over fifteen years! Let’s see how it went:
What’s up, Horror Bound loyals? Let’s talk Spooky Empire, Florida’s Premier Horror Convention, shall we? But I don’t want to talk about just this year’s spring show, but rather, Spooky Empire in general, since this will be its first mention here on the website. I’ve split my coverage into four parts because I feel it warrants it. Let’s dive in.
Spooky Empire started waaaaaaay back in 2003 by husband and wife team Petey and Gina Mongelli. I can’t remember where the idea came from, but Petey told me the story once in the past and it had something to do with a storage space auction and stumbling across some vintage rock show props or similar to that effect. But, he’s a good friend of my sister-in-law so I don’t want to mess up the history, so I’ll just leave it at that. Maybe I’ll try to nab him from his busy schedule for the October show and get the full story for you all.
The very first event was held in their hometown of Ft. Lauderdale where it appeared for its inaugural year, before moving to its current home in the tourist district of Orlando. I know for sure I wasn’t at the first one, but I can proudly say that I have been to almost every one since, especially the October events. You see, when Spooky premiered in Orlando it was in October with the intention that maybe attendees could pair their con weekend with Universal Studios’ annual Halloween Horror Nights and make a whole multi-day experience out of it. Plus, it allowed for some great cross promotion with HHN attendees who maybe never heard of the horror convention happening just down the street at the tiny little Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive (what the locals affectionately refer to as the “tourist district.”). When the multi-year host resort had to undergo major remodeling a few years later, the convention hopped around to other hotels in the area, even making a brief appearance at one of the largest convention centers in the country, The Orange County Convention Center.
By the time that initial resort had reopened, a location that many of the Spooky loyals were still nostalgic about, the con had grown too large to return to that original host facility. Thus, Petey and Gina launched the Spooky Empire May-Hem event in, you guessed it, the month of May because that was the official half-way point to Halloween. The spring show became known as the smaller “fan based” event that the die-hards would remember from the original days at the original location. Once Fan Expo bought the rights to the largest and longest running pop culture convention in Florida, MegaCon (another Orlando staple), and moved it from its usual Feb/March slot to the coveted Memorial Day weekend position in May, the much smaller Spooky Empire May-Hem, in no position to compete, began to float their spring show around the March and April months and also dropped the cleverly named May-Hem and changed it to Spooky Empire Retro, then finally simply Spooky Empire. This also became the accepted nomenclature for the larger flagship event in October as well (after some litigation over the name Screamfest that the October show originally was referred to as). You may also see it on the Interwebs as: Ultimate Horror Weekend, The Dark Side of Comic Con, and/or Florida’s Premiere Horror Con.
But Spooky Empire has a reach that far extends outside of Florida and well outside the history of conventions that specialize in Horror, I would even venture to say it was one of the first of its kind and probably established a whole entire new genre of fan convention. It was the first convention I ever went to that kicked off with an annual Zombie walk to officially open the event every year. The first con I ever attended that included a separate tattoo artists room that has not only become a standard each year at Spooky, but that I believe even started the entire trend of whole tattoo aisles at other genre fan conventions across the country (aside from actual specific tattoo conventions… they have been going on for decades of course). And due to Petey’s earlier career in live music event production, the first con I ever went to that included Hard Rock and Heavy Metal artists on its list of media guests. Yes, that’s right, guests the likes of Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Phil Anselmo, Joey Belladonna, and even the legendary Zakk Wylde have all spent time in the autograph table and photo booth across the years.
Speaking of guests, this year’s spring event was in no short supply. There were no rockers, but there were wrestlers, clowns, and witches, oh my! The one thing I’ve always respected about Spooky is their knack of getting a good mix of guests from icons, such as Bruce Campbell, George Romero (R.I.P), John Carpenter, and last year’s Elvira, to those newbies from the hottest up and coming properties also. Before Norman Reedus was charging 100 bucks for an autograph that you had to wait over two hours in line for, Spooky had him come by during production of season two of The Walking Dead and he was charging like 30 bucks and the line was less than ten minutes long. Just months after Stranger Things became the hottest thing on Netflix, Spooky had all the kids from the cast appear at their big event. When Taika Waititi was creating a directorial buzz for Thor: Ragnarok, Spooky had Jonathan Brugh and Ben Fransham from Taika’s hilarious 2014 mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows, at their October event and they even appeared in character all weekend. Yes, even during their ridiculously funny panel.
This year was no different and I was there specifically to meet, see, and take photos with two guys from my personal favorite horror film of 2018, Terrifier (note: yes, I know on IMDb it’s listed as 2016, but it was doing the festival circuit for a while before it was released to the public). Star, David Howard Thornton and director, Damien Leone were both on hand all weekend for autographs, selfies, and a panel. Thornton even did a limited photo op in costume as Art the Clown! At the panel, I even got the scoop on the continuing trilogy, yep, that’s right, the trilogy of films that will now make up the Terrifier franchise. A sequel had been previously announced, but Damien seemed to drop the trilogy announcement bomb on the unsuspecting, yet totally psyched, Spooky Empire crowd (see video below).
Spooky also loves to do cast reunions, complete with an interactive Q & A panel, at most of their events. In the past we’ve had both Halloween and Evil Dead cast reunions and this con was no different, featuring not one, but two cast reunions in the form of Cujo and The Addams Family film franchise.
Other notable guests this season included: Fairuza Balk from The Craft, WWE Wrestling Hall of Famer, Mick Foley, the incomparable Cristina Ricci of Monster and Lizzie Borden Took an Axe fame, Terminator 2, Pet Sematary II, and American History X star Edward Furlong, and finally, legendary scream queen, Dee Wallace, whose screen credits are too numerous and too renowned to list here.
Definitely one of the things that I feel makes Spooky so unique (and what we look forward to the most), is its vendors room. Year after year, it amazes me how there is something for everybody in the merch room, as well as the ingenuity, creativity (yes, lots of these are hand made), and originality that some of these vendors display. Sure, you have the licensed horror tees on display and for sale, as well as the “hard to find” DVDs/Blu-Rays and booths displaying all manner of toys and action figures. But the real gold lies in those vendor tables that have created something from scratch that fills a need the typical horror fan never even knew they had.
Would you like a lampshade emblazoned with whatever your favorite horror imagery is, complete with matching base? They got that. How about some throw pillows with Jason Vorhees’ pretty face on it? Yup, got that too. Perhaps a zombie or vampire kewpie doll for that little horror tyke in training? Suuuuure thing! One of my personal favorite booths to visit each and every event, regardless of whether it’s the spring or October con, are my friends at Coffee Shop of Horrors. Not just because their coffees have such clever names as V for Vanilla Cinnamon, Judge-mint day, or their espresso blend, Zombie Dirt, but because they always have free coffee brewing all day, every day of the con. And trust me, it helps when you’ve been there since the doors have opened or if you were up too late at any of the various Spooky Empire late night parties. I recommend the Black Dog, a Costa Rican blend, if you like your coffee non-flavored, and if you like a sweet after dinner dessert blend, may I recommend the I Want to Believe, Bob’s Banana Crème Pie blend and yes, it does taste like a bundle of delicious yellow bananas smashed into a creamy confection. Yum! They had some prime convention real estate this go around, right at the main entrance to the dealers room, a position they have loyally earned after countless years at the con. Stay tuned to this here very website for my future sit down and interview with Coffee Shop of Horrors co-owner, Nick Sindicich (the Santa Claus looking fellow, if St. Nick was a big, burly biker dude, in the image below).
But the most talked about facet of Spooky Empire, the one thing most attendees and vendors look forward to the most, what they are most famous for (or is that, infamous) and sometimes to their detriment (more on that in the conclusion), are the wild and crazy parties. One each night starting with the pre-con meet up party the Thursday night before the official opening day of the event.
In general, Spooky caters to an older crowd than most other fan based conventions, mainly due to the nature of the source material. Most horror movies, the good ones anyway, are rated R and thus, usually contain adult content like violence, nudity, and mature themes. Plus, the modern age of horror, at least what it represents today in film and television, started in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s and the viewers of those materials are now in their forties and fifties. This is why one will find the various mobile bars scattered around the venue (although I found the best selection of beer to be at the poolside cantina ;).
Also, the horror community is a very tight knit group and, like many other pop culture loving groups, enjoy the camaraderie that coming together with others that share the same interest as you brings. We are one of the most dedicated and passionate fans in the world. So what better way to come together than to share a toast or two poolside while the likes of Metallica, Combichrist, and Marilyn Manson pump through the patio speakers.
In a word, the Spooky parties are legendary in their own right and known far and wide. I was at a horror convention in Essen, Germany back in 2012 where all four of the original Cenobites from Hellraiser were in attendance, and when I mentioned having seen them before at a Spooky event, Doug Bradley could only reply, “Oh, man, Spooky Empire. That pool party. Wow.” So notorious are the parties, that word has it the reason the con bounced from hotel to hotel during the renovations of the original resort (and somewhat still to this day) was because the parties had become so panned around the area by previous hosts of the convention, their reputation spread like wildfire.
I didn’t include any pics of the parties from this most recent event because I didn’t attend any this time around. Besides, what goes on at these parties wouldn’t be fit for posting on most sites on the web without it being flagged for some kind of inappropriate content. Just sayin’ ;)
Which brings us to the end of my feature, friends, and to the future of the Spooky Empire brand. Never strangers to trying something new (search: Spooky Empire and Halloween Extreme team-up, Spooky Day in the Parks 2017, or Krampus Night 2018, personally hoping that last one is an annual occurrence, it was a blast!), over the weekend of this years spring event, it was revealed, via a very conspicuous graphic on the back of the show’s program, that the big October convention would be moving to Tampa this year. Maybe every hotel in Orlando has finally put the ban on Spooky Empire and Petey and Gina need to move it someplace where their reputation hasn’t quite caught up with them yet. Maybe it was too many of those raucous and debaucherous parties. Maybe it’s all the controversy and drama that sometimes comes with the brand (just Google “Elvira Funko Spooky Empire 2018”). Or maybe it’s just a simple scheduling conflict. Who knows? Whatever the reason, I’ll take my Spooky Empire events just as they are, warts and all, because that’s how we like it. There’s definitely an advantage to having it in your backyard, but I’m sure we’ll be attending at least one day in Tampa for the October iteration. It just wouldn’t feel like a complete October if we didn’t.
If you’re curious about the brand and/or the cons, including when the next ones are happening, maybe plan you’re next vacation around it, keep up to date with all things Spooky Empire on the web at SpookyEmpire.com and all over social media @SpookyEmpire.
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