Monday, October 18, 2010

Con With The Wind

This past weekend, I attended my first horror convention in two years - Rock And Shock, in Worcester, MA. This is the seventh year it's been held and outside of my pass on last year's event due to family and money issues, I've been there from the start. Before Rock And Shock finally put a horror con in my backyard (I live in Western MA), from back in the early '90s my buddies and I used to travel to either Manhattan or New Jersey to attend whatever con we had decided on that year - either Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors or NJ's Chiller Con. Even after Rock and Shock made its debut in 2004, we still kept up our annual out of state excursions for a few years before it began to seem wiser (thanks to the expanding dealer space at Rock And Shock) to just stick closer to home. Now, even that is starting to seem questionable. While this year's Rock And Shock wasn't a wasted trip, it did make me realize that, for me, the heyday of horror cons is long gone. And man, I've gotta say that makes me sad.

To note the good things first, going to Rock And Shock meant I got to hang out with some friends who had a dealer table set up at the show (including a couple of the guys I started going to cons with back in the day). I also had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite bloggers in person - Emily, from The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense. And I'm also pretty pleased that I was able to fill the few remaining gaps in my Fango collection. So, all of that is good - certainly enough to justify the minimal time and money spent.

As for the bad...well, I think it's just a matter of times changing and myself getting older. In the age of the internet and DVD, the search for hard-to-find movies and TV shows just isn't what it used to be. Things are accessible now in a way they weren't before. Either people have the capacity to burn their own discs or they know someone who does. Back in the day, it was a truly big deal to go to a con. It meant I could finally get, you know, episodes of Night Gallery - a show that hadn't aired in syndication in my area since I was a kid. Finally having the opportunity to own stuff that was otherwise unavailable was huge. I remember how pumped I was to finally own a copy of The Boogens, which had been an early HBO favorite for me, or Deranged - the Ed Gein-inspired film that I had read about for years but never had the chance to see. When you left a convention back in the day, you left with stuff you had been waiting forever to own. Even if it was just a shitty VHS dub, you were psyched. In the back of your mind, you were already planning to search for a slightly better copy at next year's show. There's many movies that I bought year after year as long as I thought I was getting a slight upgrade.

I remember how exciting it was waiting for the doors to the dealer rooms to be open and to feel that incredible rush as you got your first look at what was on the tables. For years, I brought the same old backpack with me and after just twenty minutes, that backpack would already be stuffed to bursting with VHS tapes. After a few hours on the floor, my friends and I would break for lunch at a local Wendy's or something and compare our respective hauls. Then we'd mull over what was left that we hadn't bought that we might possibly want to go back for then we'd return to make a last round of the tables. After that, it was off to Penn Station to take the train back to Western Massachusetts.

Our trips were one-day affairs back then. We'd take the Amtrak out of Springfield, MA early in the morning and arrive in Manhattan a few hours later. By five o'clock that afternoon, if not sooner, we'd be on the train back. But even though we only hit the con for a few hours, it was an event that the whole calendar year revolved around. When we'd get back to my friend Marty Langford's house, we'd inevitably stack all our tapes on his living room floor and put each one in the VCR for a minute to really see how the quality was. If you happened to have a tape where it looked like you were watching the movie through a dirty rag (which most times was the case), oh well - it was nothing to complain about.

Today, I have very little patience with lousy transfers. We've been spoiled by the age of DVD and Blu-Ray. I used to think nothing of trying to squint through a cruddy dub of something but when I watch something now, I want it to look good. Great, if possible. So when I make my tour of the dealer tables now and see all the gray market discs spread out, I'm not that enthused. Of course, there's some dealers out there like Synapse with legit discs but it's all stuff I can get online anyway so it's no big deal to find it at a show. "It can always wait for another day" is how it feels now but that's not how it used to be.

I remember being in dealer rooms where there was no room whatsoever to move. It was shoulder to shoulder all the way. You had to push your way from one end of a dealer room to another. You emerged exhausted from cons like that. At Rock And Shock this weekend (and, really, at every previous Rock and Shock I've been to), it was all wide open spaces. Not a cramped moment to be had. Attendance could've been excellent for all I know (I saw huge lines for guests like George Romero) but I know that walking through that con, there was none of the urgency that I remember from the '90s and into the early 00's. I used to have to fight my way through a wall of people to see what a dealer had on their table. Now I can see it all from five feet back with barely a body standing in the way.

Conventions were still a blast for me up through as recent as 2006. By that point, the group of us that went together to shows had expanded by a few members and we were spending the weekend - or at least Saturday nights - at Chiller Con in New Jersey. In a lot of ways, those last few years were the best cons since my earliest cons of the '90s. I wasn't buying as much anymore but the trip was still fun, the old sense of camaraderie was there, and it still seemed like an event to me. It was so recent into the DVD era that there were even still a few diehard dealers still putting their VHS dubs out.

But Rock And Shock had started in 2004 and with my son having been born in 2005, the appeal of leaving town with the guys - even if just for a night - began to fade away and with the reasons to going to a show becoming harder and harder to justify, it became easier to just make my one and only con of the year be the nearby Rock and Shock. That meant there wasn't a big trip involved anymore - just a matter of a forty minute solo drive. But while it feels just like the old days to walk up to the DCU and see a big line of fans waiting to get in, the show itself is anticlimatic. Worth going to, yes, but nothing stellar. Even if I was still going to Chiller, I think I'd feel just as underwhelmed. It's just different now and there's no getting around it.

I hope that when my son is older, his interest in going to cons might revive my own interest. He's a budding horror nut (surprise, surprise) and to be able to see the con experience through his eyes should be fun. But even then, in the back of my mind I'll know that it will never be quite what it used to be. Every movie or show my son loves as a kid, he'll own on DVD - there's never going to be that nostalgic thrill of finally finding something that had been lost or unavailable for years. He'll already own it - and own it in a Blu-Ray special edition, or whatever the latest format is. Tomorrow, I'll be swinging by my local Best Buy to get the documentary The Psycho Legacy and the fourth season of Tales from the Darkside. That'll be more than I bought at Rock and Shock this weekend.

I think of riding on the train with my pals, heading back to Western MA from those early cons with a full backpack of videos and I think "those were great times." And man, they were - irreplaceable times. As a horror junkie, there was no greater "fix" to be found. Nowadays, I'm anxiously awaiting the release of Vampire Circus on Blu-Ray.

On the one hand, I'll finally own an amazing copy of a movie that I've always loved and all I have to do to get it is to order it online. On the other hand, the experience of opening up my mailbox to get that package likely won't compare with seeing that title handwritten on a VHS label and having to reach through a mob of fans to the dealer's table to grab it.


dogboy443 said...

Thanks Jeff,
You just summed up my past 20+ years in going to cons and how it's so different now. Even though I've done my fair share of Cons on both sides of the table, I do enjoy the buzz but the search and excited anticipation of items isn't there anymore. I had more fun this year going with my daughter to see a Ghost Hunter and to shake Adrienne B's hand and have a picture taken.

Mike Dobbs said...

Good post, Jeff. What I miss from earlier cons was the ability ot simply talk to guest without having the axe hanging over your head of having to buy an over-priced autograph.

The comic cons I went to while in college (1972-1976) and the early Chillers were like that – much more of a community.

Marty said...

It wasn't until Sunday that I even really walked the whole floor, and my only purchase? The 4th disc in the Indiana Jones DVD set, The Bonus Features, for $2.00.

Tomorrow for me will be the Apocalypse Now Complete Dossier and the new Psycho Blu-rays.

Jeff Allard said...

Mark, Mike, Marty - thanks for the comments, guys. Sounds like we're all on the same page here. Cons just aren't what they used to be - but at least we've got memories of better times, right?

Bob Ignizio said...

Couldn't agree with you more. Why would I want to pay some bootlegger 20 bucks for a DVD-R that may or may not work when I buy a legit DVD or Blu Ray for about the same, or download the torrent for free if it hasn't been released? I still like meeting the occasional celeb and getting an autographed photo, but I've definitely become more jaded towards the whole convention experience.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I just picked up Season Four of Tales from the Darkside and Season One of Bionic Woman. At one time, those would've been convention purchases. Can't say it isn't nice to get quality releases and not have to jump through hoops to get them but at the same time, there's no way to say that conventions serve the same function any more.