Spooky Empire recently celebrated its 20th year of delivering horror fandom to the masses with a monstrous weekend extravaganza that stared on Friday, October 27, and concluded on Sunday, October 29, 2023.
The renowned convention dominated the Hyatt Regency Orlando with a star-studded guest list of horror icons. And for the first time, Jason Vorhees (Kane Hodder), Freddy Krueger (Robert England), and Pinhead (Doug Bradley) were in the same room together! I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds cool.
The long-running convention bills itself as the “Dark Side of Comic Con.” It was my first time ever attending, and the event didn’t disappoint. The 3-day weekend featured an extensive list of panels with actors, creators, and industry insiders, a horror film festival, an onslaught of vendors, a massive tattoo festival, special effects exhibitions, and costumes galore from staff and attendees. Of course, the event’s biggest draw was the sheer amount of horror icons in attendance.
The convention boasted a roster of over sixty guests from various decades of horror films and television. Their top draws were Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Englund, and Cassandra Peterson of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark fame. Having recently read her memoir, I was excited to meet the queen of haunts, but the list didn’t stop there.
In addition to the aforementioned greats, they had Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, special effects legends Greg Nicotero and the Chiodo Brothers, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Heather Langenkamp, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2‘s Bill Moseley and Bill Johnson, An American Werewolf in London‘s David Naughton, Alex Vincent from Child’s Play, the voice of the Crypt Keeper himself, John Kassir, Nick Frost, Danielle Harris, Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, and many more.
The catch was that you’d have to be a millionaire to get all their autographs (more on that later). Admittedly, I wasn’t all that prepared for the big event. I didn’t attend Friday and opted for the weekend. The entire three days, I soon learned, were a necessity to make headway.
I arrived close to noon on Saturday and contended with a large crowd. The staff, however, kept the lines orderly and moving. Once inside the Hyatt resort and through the festival entrance, I witnessed a barrage of sights and sounds. Massive monster inflatables, an empty stage adorned with banners and blasting music, and a gaggle of lines were my introduction.
Countless eye-catching costumes were on display, some more impressive than others (the less said about the guy wearing the foam Lego brick the better). Jason, Michael Myers, and Leatherface were everywhere, and it was interesting to see all their different variations. There were a lot of Elviras there as well.
Perhaps most interesting were the couples costumes. I saw Beetlejuice and Lydia, Edward Scissorhands and Kim (both of which the female characters were portrayed by Winona Ryder), Candyman and Helen, and even a spot-on Hellraiser duo with Pinhead and female Cenobite.
Gore galore was displayed in many costumes. I felt under-dressed in my regular, boring non-costume attire. But I didn’t have time to sit around admiring costumes all day. I had a noon panel to attend with John Kassir, the Crypt Keeper.
They had no shortage of exciting panels on the schedule, but no matter how well I tried to plan, most of my time was spent waiting in lines for celebrity autographs. Out of the six panels I planned for that weekend, I only made it to two.
The John Kassir panel featured an insightful Q&A, where he detailed his early career and breaking into the business as a comedian “with no act” but lots of impressions. Growing up with HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, I felt my childhood come to life. And when it came time for audience questions, I wasted no time getting in line.
Panel on 10/28/23 featuring John Kassir of Tales From the Crypt fame.
I asked Mr. Kassir about the evolution of the Crypt Keeper from a restrained, quiet ghoul in the first season to the wisecracking, pun-making maniac in the later seasons. Kassir explained that advancements in the animatronic puppet over the years allowed for a more animated and expressive host. He also stated that showrunners wanted to explore what else the Crypt Keeper might do outside of living in a Crypt, hence the gleefully cartoonish persona he evolved into. To talk to an actor from a cherished show was worth the price of admission alone. But my day was only getting started.
I ventured into the vast autograph room, fully adorned with tables, banners, and celebrities. Some friends of mine were there who knew the general layout and had already done a bunch of stuff on Friday. The lines for Robert Englund, Cassandra Peterson, and Kiefer Sutherland wrapped outside the doors and were up to two hours long.
As I tried to take in the flurry of celebrity tables encircling me, I saw Greg Nicotero of The Waking Dead fame seated nearby. He was on my list. I asked him to sign my Blu-ray copy of Creepshow 2, a film he did special effects for before the establishment of KNB EFX Group. I thanked him forkeeping the Creepshow legacy alive with the current Shudder series, which I genuinely enjoy.
Author Shawn McKee (right) with Special F/X wiz Greg Nicotero.
Next up was a panel featuring cast members of 1987’s The Lost Boys. Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, and Billy Wirth addressed the packed room, recounting insightful behind-the-scenes stories, including paying tribute to their late great director, Joel Schumacher.
The Lost Boys panel on 10/28/23 featuring (from left to right), host Riki Rachtman, Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, and Billy Wirth.
I scheduled a photo op on a whim with Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, and Marley Shelton from Planet Terror, the first half of the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino magnum opus Grindhouse (2007). The photo cost me about what I had left to spend that day, so I proceeded to tour the vendor room for the remainder of the time with my delicious Nightmare on Elm Street rum and ginger beer mix in hand.
By Sunday, I arrived early with hopes of meeting Elvira and Kiefer Sutherland. Most of everyone else, however, had the same plan. Neither celebrity had arrived yet, which freed me up some time to see Doug Bradley, who just set up. I also had a busy panel list of separate Q&As with Kane Hodder, Rose McGowan, Robert Englund, and others. It all seemed doable…until it wasn’t.
Meeting someone of Doug Bradley’s stature was a bit unnerving. Even without the extensive Pinhead makeup, you could see the character in his startling, gray eyes. He was ever the English gentleman though, calm, and friendly.
I mentioned Anthony Hickox, director of the Waxwork films and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth who recently passed away. Bradley seemed to recall him with fondness. I felt thrilled upon getting a signed 8×10 Pinhead glossy and a picture with the actor. That was what it was all about. All the lines, expense, and planning came down to those brief moments where it was just you and the star of the films you love.
My excitement soon turned to trepidation when I learned that Elvira and Kiefer Sutherland had arrived. Their lines were long, their autographs cost $100, and they weren’t taking selfies. Pictures were, in fact, another commodity to be paid for separately in the designated photo op room. I passed both out of principle and financial necessity.
Besides, I had already scheduled a photo op with Danielle Harris, Jamie Lloyd from Halloween 4 and 5. I also knew Harris from her role as Bruce Willis’s smartass kid in The Last Boy Scout (1991) and many movies or TV shows she popped up in back then. She was incredibly kind in person and equally reciprocal when I thanked her for being there.
McKee with actress Danielle Harris, best known for her involvement in the Halloween franchise, including Halloween 4 (1988), Halloween 5 (1989), and Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007).
During The Lost Boys panel, Kiefer Sutherland made similar appreciative remarks toward the fans. “We’re only here because of you,” he said. “We owe all of our success to you and your interest in our work.” For such a big star, he showed the utmost humility. It was those moments that suggested it wasn’t just work for them. Some of them actually wanted to be there.
As the day ended, I had only the time and money to meet one more celebrity. Why not Kane Hodder? The actor and legendary stuntman who portrayed Jason Vorhees an unprecedented four times had me nervous in line. Would he crush my skull if I asked for a selfie?
He was candid, friendly, and funny despite being clearly exhausted by the end of the long weekend. When most others had packed up, Hodder remained even as his line grew. We all watched, starry-eyed and infatuated, as the supernatural serial killer from our youth sat only a few feet away. Our words exchanged with Hodder and the signed Jason picture said it all, we love these damn movies.
Author McKee with actor/stuntman Kane Hodder, best known for his portrayal of Jason Voorhees.
Spooky Empire and similar conventions have their fair share of headaches. At times, my impatience at long lines and disappointment of missing panels grew, along with anxiety toward my diminishing finances. Ultimately, the experience gave me a deeper appreciation for horror films and the talent behind them.
It is both a community and an art form for people to express themselves through. To truly enjoy these conventions is to immerse yourself in your surroundings. Next time, I’ll be more prepared.