By Aaron Sagers
When it comes to towns known for being convention hotspots, Cherry Hill, NJ, doesn’t exactly come to mind first. It isn’t San Diego, New York City, Chicago or even Atlanta. But for a decade now, and over the course of 25 shows, Monster-Mania has turned the Jerz into a monster’s ball for horror nerds.
Like other fan expos out there, Monster-Mania mashes up fans, vendors, speakers and a hodgepodge of well-known and cult celebs in a hotel for a weekend of autographs, panels and copious drinking. In the case of last weekend’s Monster-Mania, held at the Crowne Plaza Philadelphia-Cherry Hill, it was about 15,000 of this assortment. And like other cons, the cosplay element displayed a crossover of fan cultures, where Freddys and Jasons are about as common as Doctor Whos or Stormtroopers – as well as the inevitable sexy or zombified versions of the above.
But what makes Monster-Mania so unique in the cottage industry of con organizing, which sprung up in the last few years, is how much this horror-themed event harkens back to the one-hotel-conference-room roots of local fan fests in decades past.
Sure, there are three packed main rooms and a hallway for vendors to sell toys and tees, two rooms full of famous faces and a lobby of lingerers, but Monster-Mania still feels intimate. There is a small community of guys selling their wares who know each other, and recognize the con regulars. Instead of a petty, competitive vibe, the sense of collegiality reigns. And while the autograph lines may wrap around outside — for “The Walking Dead” stars such as Danai Gurira and Michael Rooker, or “True Blood” actors Janina Gavankar and Jim Parrack – horror con mainstays Bill Moseley, Kane Hodder and Danielle Harris still draw the crowd.
Even if Lando himself, Billy Dee Williams, feels like a big deal considering the daily “Star Wars” headlines in the geek news, the small con vibe is by design.
“I was the first one in my group to have a VHS player, and I used to invite people over and have horror-movie watching parties,” said Monster-Mania founder Dave Hagan. “The whole intention was to make the convention a much bigger version of everyone coming over to my house.”
Hagan added that he also created the convention as a family business with his two sons, David and Douglas, and as a way to honor his father who introduced him to horror through weekly double features and matinees at the movie theater.
Instead of pursuing the “gold rush” of conventions, Hagan, who maintains a full-time job as a retail manager, said that’s why he hasn’t approached Monster-Mania as a profit-making business.
“I never worry about what attendance is going to be anymore; there’s a rapport between us and the people who come,” he said.
Lew Temple, who played the recently killed prisoner Axel on “The Walking Dead,” echoed this sentiment.
Temple said the fan community for his first time at Monster-Mania seemed close-knit. He also joked he thought Cherry Hill was an ideal location for Monster-Mania because of the marriage it created between North New Jersey, New York City and Philly fans.
“I’m not sure the two get along, but today they do,” said Temple.
Jokes aside, the fan community at a smaller con like Monster-Mania is achievable because there is a shared common space. There is a smaller con charm to seeing the guy who just took your impression for custom-made fangs, or the Zombie Princess Leia (or, officially, zombie cosplayer Rigor Mortis Rita) you got a photo with in front of a green screen, at the same hotel bar where everyone congregates. The overflow into the lobby is crowded but spacious enough that you can move and stabbiness doesn’t set in. This is perhaps as opposed to the big shows, like New York Comic-Con just two hours away in Manhattan. After a day of being packed together like sardines dressed as super heroes on the convention floor, attendees clamor for cabs to depart the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and head their separate ways, far away from nerd brethren.
The huge cons will always be primetime, and that appeal and cache remains – as does a special kind of energy that can’t be bottled — but Monster-Mania has the luxury of keeping its guests in a centralized location. And the result is that zombie fans and zombie-hunters celebs can hang together.
For instance, on the first night of the event, horror network FEARnet hosted a dessert party available at a higher ticket level. Clustered around the bar with admirers was Tyler Mane, aka the man who would be Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” series (as well as Sabretooth in 2000’s “X-Men”). After Hodder cut a giant decorative cake in the shape of a Jason hockey mask, Moseley massacred it in a brutal slash-and-serve movement to fans. Meanwhile, IronE Singleton – the erstwhile T-Dog from “The Walking Dead”—boogied on the dance floor with costumed attendees while costars Gurira and Scott Wilson looked on, posing for the occasional photo.
This level of mingling remains fairly unusual at larger cons. And the next day, even other celebs took note of it.
A self-described nerd who is an “obscene ‘Walking Dead’ fan,” Gavankar, who plays Luna on “True Blood,” said she “unabashedly geeks out” when she’s at cons like Monster-Mania and runs into actors from other shows she loves.
Even if “True Blood” or “Star Wars” is not really part of horror, Hagan said he enjoys the kind of crossover Gavankar speaks of because it is the evolution of conventions. He compared it to enjoying steak, pasta or Chinese food; you can have it all and love it without ever wanting to eat just one.
“Our main focus will always be horror, but if you get the opportunity to bring in Billy Dee Williams, the horror fan isn’t going to see a ‘Star Wars’ guest and be upset.”
“I love it,” said Williams about his fan interactions at the con. “It is keeping Lando alive.”
(And no, he hasn’t been approached about new “Star Wars” movies, but he wants Lando to return, still as a “hustler,” back on Bespin and “running Las Vegas because he was running Las Vegas before.”)
Still, Williams said he hadn’t seen any Lando cosplayers at Monster-Mania, nor had Temple seen any Axels, though he said he “sort of requested an Axel ’stache.”
But Rooker, resident troublemaker on “The Walking Dead,” fared better in cosplay for his character Merle. Rooker said he had encountered a number of fans with a “little merle” bayonet hand attachment.
Though he jokingly bemoaned the lack of left-hand turns in New Jersey – “I got lost for 45 minutes and I was only down the block” – he summed up that it is “good to be Michael Rooker, and Merle Dixon, at Monster-Mania.”
This is the kind of anecdote that makes Hagan smile. The traffic flow may be weird in New Jersey, but it is still easier than San Diego or New York.
San Diego and New York are the packed mega-plex IMAX theaters on opening night of a nerd movie. But Cherry Hill is the giant living room for Hagan, and Monster-Mania is the show he’s happy to put on for his friends.
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