Lost Souls Swimming in a Fish Bowl

I spent much of this weekend (Sept. 29 – 30, 2012) at ScareFest in Lexington, KY. It’s a convention for horror fans and ghost hunters. I’ve written about the latter, particularly in Gothic Realities, and being one of the former has shaped my entire career.ScareFest seems like my natural environment, yet I more often attend other gatherings, similarly devoted to exploring the pleasures of cultural production, that have never felt nearly as comfortable.

I like being a scholar, so unless a conspiracy of events forces me to change callings, the not-quite-comfy academic conferences will continue to spur most of my non-family travels.At these conferences, academics spend enormous sums of energy trying to prove they share their colleagues’ ample measures of cleverness; generally, this effort involves applying fashionable ideas to reliable texts. Despite my misleadingly loveless description of this smarty-pants ritual, I often enjoy it. I like listening to and talking about what others think about cultural objects. Inevitably, though, I sneak off to my hotel room or some other secluded place for virtually every meal, thinking I really ought to be more social but not really knowing how. I’ll have french fries and read one of those horror novels that many scholars consider beneath them.

At ScareFest, I felt no profound need for sequestration with fried potatoes. I was surrounded by stars and other evocations of the films that inspired my peculiar fascination with the macabre, and I felt ready to chat with everybody. Although the two most prominent headliners at this year’s ScareFest had to cancel, for me, the real stars turned out to be the other fans.

In the interest of full disclosure, and also to set the scene, I’ll admit that despite ScareFest being a fairly natural habitat for me, I had an ulterior motive, a design to see if one or more people might take an interest in my books (if you’re here because you picked up one of my flyers, you rock!). I’ve been to many a fan-devoted convention, but my first ScareFest was also my first time on the other side of a vendor’s table:

Standing at one of those tables, behind stacks of books waiting like puppies for someone to bring them home, was kind of like being in a fish bowl. To be clear, my metaphor is not (yet) mixed–it was the kind of fish bowl set up in pet stores behind displays of puppies. I don’t know if the other tables’ actually-famous folk (OMFG, Tony Todd was just down the aisle!) also feel like fish… nor do I know whether fish enjoy looking out at the people who look in at them… but before this unmixed metaphor stretches beyond the breaking point, which will occur after T-minus four paragraphs, let me get to the payoff.

Which is that the moments I spent chatting with the people who stopped by to glance at books and enter the drawing for free stuff–most of them didn’t buy anything, and that was okay–were, on average, more enjoyable than the celebrity Q&As I’ve waited hours to see. Instead of making me stand in line for hours, these chat-worthy people just filed by, some in glorious costumes, some just their glorious selves, as if they were the ones on display. I met self-proclaimed mediums, fellow film experts, and some of the creepiest-looking clowns I’ve ever seen. And whoever thought of being nice to fish? Well, apparently these people did. Aside from some obligatory Twilight-bashing, which is as formative for the fans of “real” horror as the Mormon vampire saga is for the twi-hards now coming of age, conversation dwelt solely on the good. “I love the old Universal horror movies!” “Vampires are kind of my thing.” “You guys are awesome!”

That last comment came from an adolescent (or nigh-adolescent) girl who stayed interested in my stuff even after she saw the prices and knew they were college-level reading, but she was, quite rightly, more interested in the compelling tales sold by my fellow BlackWyrm novelists Georgia L. Jones and Christopher Kokoski.Georgia, Christopher, and I have very different world views and day jobs, but since we all scribble about monsters and struggles for survival that occasionally offer insights in addition to bloody spectacles, our bowl positively bubbled with interaction. We heartily agreed that the girl who spoke of awesomeness was pretty darned brilliant herself.

Fish bowls are highly predictable. Seaweed or other life-like contrivances sway with the currents created by filters and other mechanical stimuli. Plastic characters may or may not swim around. Castles and other settings provide different paths to explore. At the bottom, there’s not much more than colorful rocks. Sometimes they’re even red.

Horror movies, horror stories, and the communities that form around them are a motley bunch, demons and fairies and slashers and ghostbusters and women in black and lots of people in jeans and t-shirts that advertise favorite films, bands, or witticisms. e.g. “Dead girls do anal.” The diverse carnival of freaks (of whom I am one) comes together not as different but to be about difference, to be radically different in a way that makes us all the same (“one of us!”). So goes the horror movie, and so goes the horror fan, each a site delighting in the predictability of connecting with others via the things that might otherwise push us apart. The fish bowl’s sides cordon off bulging-eyed gawkers. We wonder whether the strange creatures on the other side of the glass might be more free than we are.

BOOM! No more fish bowl. Maybe Mr. Myers had the right idea:

Talking to you is way more interesting than talking to myself. What do you think?