In a room full of gorgeous, nearly stark naked models, a horrifying clown named Snappy commands all the attention. Stubble pokes through the black face paint across his jowls, contrasting his satiny costume of whimsical colored shapes. He would terrify John Wayne Gacy.
“I’ll go over the rules,” he says in a percolating rumble. “There are no rules.”
It’s a sweltering Saturday evening in June 2013, and a photographer named Laura and I have been assigned to cover the Masquerade Ball at the Midwest Haunter’s Convention, the country’s largest Halloween-enthusiast brouhaha. We are on the second floor of the downtown Hyatt Regency in a private conference room where models are being covered in intricate designs of otherworldly inspiration by some of the most talented body-paint artists in the industry. They are preparing for the Body Art Fashion Show while Snappy, aka program director Keith Newsome, sporadically inserts his guidelines and dark humor.
The models stand at attention, some on chairs, some with arms spread, some with legs akimbo, while the artists apply the final hour’s worth of finishing touches, this after four previous hours of work.
“This is the best part-time job in the world,” says Margi McGuire from the Central Ohio Face Painters Guild. She delicately brushes black strokes onto the lower back of model Lyndi Grossman. The black outlines separate interwoven feathers of blue, green, purple, yellow, and pink, the plumage of her three-headed Bird of Prey design that wraps around Grossman’s body and face.
One station over, Dutch Bihary deftly airbrushes alien skin on model Rae Stassi. He sprays white ovals between golden ridges on his artwork, inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing. An assistant stands on a chair and teases Stassi’s hairdo into gravity-defying spikes amidst bristly red spider legs that sprout from her head. Vacuum tubes made from foam latex spiral down her left side. The gaping maws of razor-toothed extraterrestrial mouths emerge sporadically from her skin.
Stassi smiles through pointy, artificial cheekbones. “I can’t wait to go out there and strut his stuff.”
Lacrishia Garver, formerly with Columbus’s Dolls of Evolved, has become Kabuki Psycho, a scorching red, black, and white demon. Her contacts – flat black pupils and opaque sky-blue irises encircled by more black – give her the appearance of a woman possessed. She says that the artists want them to put a little of themselves into the characters, but ultimately they are just clay. As we finish talking, she bursts into a fit of laughter as her artist, Pashur, playfully torments her with the pssshhht pssshhht pssshhht of his airbrush against her thighs. He wants his clay to have some fun.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
A guttural howl reverberates down the sloped glass ceiling that provides a view of the southern sky from the towering second-floor bank of escalators. Laura thinks it sounds like vomiting. The metal steps carry us upward, and together we ponder what unseen hell awaits.
We step into the Grand Ballroom foyer at the terminus, where we are greeted by what appears to be two dozen Hollywood horror movies being shot simultaneously, some kind of goddamned orgy of mayhem, a cacophony of shrieking and hissing and moaning emanating from grotesque creatures that stagger about draped in all manner of blood-spattered garments.
It doesn’t take long to spot the source of the aggressive howling – a beast of a man with a fake-looking beard and an upper jaw of rust-colored teeth strapped across his nose and mouth. He wears a sleeveless leather duster decorated with what appear to be small hanging bones, and he drags an iron pickaxe through the room in menacing fashion.
We are in the midst of the opening round of the evening’s first event, the Scariest Character Contest, in which unimaginable monsters crawl into being, inhabited by their creators via Broadway-caliber method acting.
A woman in a polka-dot dress gazes with soulless eyes, her black hair tinged orange near her ghost-white face, black veins spidering over her entire body. She looks like Ellen Page’s corpse, reanimated after being left to rot.
A life-size homage to The Alien spreads its 12-foot wingspan, cranes its neck toward a host of photographers, and opens its jaws to reveal glowing teeth.
A Greek statue approaches stealthily, advancing only when he thinks I’m not looking. Save for the movement, he appears carved from marble. Slowly, his hands extend toward me. His fingers inch toward my throat, less than two feet away. People begin to gather. I sidestep him and scamper off.
I find Laura, the two of us in the minority among scant other tourists, those with cotton clothing hiding ordinary skin with no deformities; we are the freaks here.
The Greek statue lurks over my shoulder. I motion furtively to Laura. Shoot him, I scream telepathically. Shoot him now! She whips out her camera and fires a volley, capturing him mid-slink.
The doors to the Grand Ballroom swing open, and the madness gravitates inside to the pounding disco-metal of Rob Zombie’s “Dracula.”
From Monsters to Men
The Body Art Fashion Show takes the main stage first, and the host screams into a mic like Sam Kinison in a business suit. The models vogue to a barrage of camera flashes and catcalls from horny creeps.
Next, the Miss Scary Midwest Pageant celebrates the region’s most heinous woman-creatures. To honor the convention’s 10th anniversary, all six contestants are winners from previous years. A Vaudevillian, four-person circus sideshow called Canabel wins, and it’s unclear which of the members is even female. Or human.
I take a break and approach two security guards to ask for directions to the bathroom. I receive bemused stares, and finally one says, “Over there,” pointing to a corridor a floor below. The other smirks through mirrored aviator glasses. I glance at a badge on one’s shoulder – Pennsylvania State Security. Dammit. They’re characters. Real blends with artifice, and I’m beginning to lose track of the difference.
Finally, the Scariest Character Contest overtakes the main stage. During the free-for-all in the foyer, a group of judges wandered through the mass, rating characters’ preshow performances and costumes, dispersing invitations for the best 10 to showcase their acts for the whole crowd.
Dr. Dad wins, and he gives a tour-de-force stage performance, gyrating like a lanky, high-speed Gary Busey. He spouts advice about dangerous tools while his own massive head wound oozes. He unleashes random bits of fatherly gibberish while spraying – and occasionally drinking – from a bottle of Windex.
As the night wears on, though, shreds of humanity begin to seep through. It’s the witching hour in reverse; the beasts are slowly reverting to their natural state.
Laura and I relax at a circular table full of characters. A talkative zombie named Alex sips red cocktails, and as he gets drunk, he begins facetiously hitting on a man in a blue dress, who comprises one half of a duo portraying the girls from The Shining. A man named Juan sits to my right, dressed as the victim of a demon butcher. His elaborate costume makes it seem as if the demon holds his severed head and detached arm, but he’s still able to operate his drink glass – a key functional feature. After awhile he leaves to change into shorts. Alex the zombie polishes off his cocktail and heads for normal pastures as well.
“Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the megahit on the dance floor, and everyone knows the whole routine by heart. The bloodstained faces are now awash in bliss.
Across the room, The Alien has removed his head. His name is Mike Wills, and he’s a 45-year-old computer science engineer from Cincinnati. He made The Alien suit himself out of hardened foam, acrylic, vinyl, Christmas lights, springs, and women’s tights from Goodwill. Once he saves up enough money, he wants to open a haunted attraction of his own, but until then, this is his release.
He stands with his wife by his side as fans intermittently sidle up to ask him questions and take pictures. He rests, an approachable man with a content smile on his face, an alien head under his arm, wearing the skin of a monster.
Since its humble beginnings at Cooper Stadium in 2003, the MHC has grown into one of the largest conventions of its kind. This year’s event takes place June 6-8 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center and Hyatt Regency. For more, visit www.midwesthauntersconvention.com.