Spooky Empire has come and gone for another year and this fall show was truly the perfect way to close out the Halloween season. Last year’s October event was, for many, a bit of a misfire. For me, personally, it was certainly far from my favorite Spooky Empire I’ve attended, but the March show was a considerable step in the right direction and this past weekend might have been the most well organized and clearly laid out Spooky I’ve ever attended. Right off the bat, though, we should talk about the change in venue. While the spring show is almost always at the Whyndam, the October show bounces around quite a bit, and has landed in a different location around Orlando almost every year. This year was a noticeable change, then, as the event moved to the Tampa convention center. It’s roughly an hour-and-a-half difference, but still a considerable one for attending all four days. But to be fair, it certainly gives us Orlando folk insight into what the trek has been like for people from Tampa in every previous year.
Having said that, the convention itself was actually incredibly well laid out and easy to navigate once there. MegaCon can, for example, be extremely hard just to find your way into thanks to the overwhelming size of the Orlando Convention Center, but Spooky Empire was incredibly well marked, easy to find, there was no trouble finding the ticket area or finding a way into the convention. With the bigger October shows, there’s usually quite a bit going on, much of it in different areas, so it’s been a little difficult to pin down where everything is happening in the past. Yet despite the larger size of this year’s venue, it wasn’t difficult at all. Everything clearly had its own area. The major celebrity panels happened in the ballrooms, the creator’s track panels had their own area, the costume contest had its own area, the film festival had its own area, and it all made everything feel very organized in a way that I appreciated.
Like most larger conventions, the celebrity guests and vendors shared the same floor. There were a lot of diverse vendors this year, from the always reliable Grindhouse Video and Vinegar Syndrome to dozens of people selling handmade art and jewelry, even locally brewed soda. For those (like me) always on the lookout for weird old merch, toys or comics, there was no shortage of that, either. As for the guests, like every Spooky Empire, some drew more of a crowd than others, and like every year it was sometimes a bit of a surprise to see who attracted a huge crowd and who didn’t. For people like Elvira, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, it was no surprise to see the long lines they generated. But last year at Texas Frightmare, I literally waited hours to meet Clive Barker and this year, not only did I get to simply walk right up to his table and speak with him with only one other person in front of me, but I never saw an actual line at his booth the entire weekend.
I got to spend time meeting and/or catching up with a few other guests as well, briefly talking Hellraiser, painting and her iconic role as Kirsty Cotton with Ashley Laurence, chatting about horror literature and some of her fantastic work with Hellraiser II’s Barbie Wilde and the FX of the recent Puppet Master movies with Tom Devlin.
The film festival is always a highlight of the October show for me. I think it’s one of the major things that separates the larger fall event from the smaller spring one. It helps Spooky Empire to feel more deeply entrenched in the horror community as a whole, and I think it’s a great opportunity for independent filmmakers to showcase their work to new eyes and hopefully gain some exposure. While it’s tough to watch everything with so much else going on throughout the weekend, I always recommend that people support the film festival and see as much as they can. This year, I tried as I always do, to fit in a couple of the short film blocks, but there was a bit of a hiccup. While what I saw was great, there were a couple of mishaps just over the course of one block.
First, a cringe-worthy situation that couldn’t really be helped, as a con-goer just walked in into the middle of the block and decided to take people’s hard work, their extremely low budget short films—some of which were screening for the very first time—for his own version of Mystery Science Theatre. It was a very weird, tone deaf riffing that was thankfully cut short as the guy eventually left. But the far bigger issue is that the block of monster shorts I attended was cut short due to a playback error, which had apparently happened to another short film block the night before as well.
Some of the celebrity panels were incredible. The Friday the 13th Part VI reunion was a joy to see, especially as they talked up the talents of their director, Tom McLoughlin. These sorts of reunions can often fall into a kind of sameness as so many cast members do so many shows, but for Cynthia Kania, who played Annette, it was her first convention ever. That’s a true rarity for a Friday the 13th cast member these days, and even more surprising in that she’s married to Vincent Guastaferro, who played Deputy Rick Cologne in the film and has made several convention appearances.
Both the Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell panels were incredible highlights of the show. Bruce was no surprise, as I’ve seen a couple Bruce Campbell panels in my day and I know how they go, even though it had been about a decade since I’d seen him in person, it went exactly as I remembered. He knows how to play to a room, he knows the convention crowd and knows how to roll with the unavoidable weird questions rather than let the room fall into an awkward silence as normally happens.
Raimi was a bigger surprise for me as I’ve never seen him in person. Even though I’ve seen dozens of energetic and entertaining interviews with him, they were mostly from when he was in his twenties promoting the Evil Dead movies, so I had kind of expected someone at least a little exhausted by the studio system. I’m very happy to report that he has absolutely not lost a step. He was entertaining and had terrific banter with the moderator, really played to the audience. No real news was broken during the panel and I didn’t really expect any. Of course, because he has directed three Spider-Man movies, Raimi was drawn into the somehow still-raging Scorcese debate (as the director expressed his opinion that superhero movies were essentially theme park rides rather than cinema) and Raimi respectfully avoided the question by simply pointing out that he didn’t really kick off anything, as his movie was only one in an already longstanding tradition dating back to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie.
I also attended the always-great Danielle Harris’ panel. After seeing her so many times both in person and in documentaries and bonus features, it’s amazing that she doesn’t look bored to tears talking about Halloween 4 and 5. But she got to talk about some new things as well, including something she’s just now preparing to launch on Facebook, a new series titled Commenterrors in which she and a guest will watch a different horror movie each week and provide commentary while allowing fans to watch along in a sort of communal viewing party. This is a really smart move given the success of Joe Bob Briggs’ Last Drive-In on Shudder. Joe Bob was also attending the convention, dressed appropriately in a pumpkin suit, while Diana Prince (AKA Darcy the Mail Girl) went all-out with her cosplay every day of the con, just as she does on the show.
The creator’s track panels were of course smaller than the larger celebrity panels, but no less fun. The panel on podcasting was particularly great and—along with many others throughout the weekend—featured our own Zena Dixon as a panelist. The thing I loved about the podcasting panel in particular, though, was that we got to hear about what different things worked for different people, no one was really rehashing the same advice or story, allowing people hoping to get into podcasting to get a few different ideas about what might work for them.
I will admit that part of what made this Spooky Empire so easy to navigate is that it felt a little under-attended. Much of that could be attributed to the larger venue of the convention center, but it was definitely noticeable. Nothing was empty, but it definitely did not draw in a massive crowd. Given how many people are attending locally, one has to imagine that it has something to do with so many Orlando residents who would normally attend the show deciding to sit this one out. Still, the distance is my only real complaint and it’s only a personal one. This was a really well-run Spooky Empire, one of the best I’ve attended. And after the troubles of the 2018 show, it’s great to see such a stacked show (there were things going on pretty late into the night, every night) that is so well run and it only makes me that much more excited to see what else Spooky Empire has in store for the future.