Pop culture conventions were once fringe events catering to a particular segment of the population. Today, San Diego Comic-Con is one of Hollywood’s biggest marketing venues, attracting more than 165,000 attendees in 2015.
Atlanta’s DragonCon is the Southeast’s equivalent, taking over that downtown over Labor Day weekend. Charlotte’s ever-growing, 34-year-old HeroesCon and fantasy-focused ConCarolinas create playgrounds for comic book and speculative fiction fans locally, but the landscape for a more film- and TV-oriented gathering was ripe here when director/producer and magazine publisher Eben McGarr and his partner Joe Moe considered creating their own horror-themed convention.
This weekend their Mad Monster Party celebrates its fifth year at the Sheraton Hotel uptown with genre icons Linda Blair, Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, and director George Romero, pro wrestlers Chyna and Kevin Nash, and – given that it’s Easter weekend – a few attractions for kids. (The latter includes a Sunday Easter egg hunt, Magic Castle magician Zabrecky, and appearances by the actresses who voiced young Elsa and Anna in Disney’s “Frozen” movie.
“Spending so much time in the horror community, I met people from the Carolinas who travel all over the country for conventions. People would say, ‘I wish there was something here,’ ” says McGarr, who lives in Los Angeles. “I guess I just heard it one too many times.”
Charlotte’s central location and – at the time – budding film industry made it a suitable location for what McGarr had in mind: a more intimate setting with a variety of unique opportunities for fans. He wanted to create an alternative to the bigger conventions where “It feels like you’re going to Walmart. You’re in a convention center and celebrities have these handlers in giant booths.
“Our shows are more intimate. We keep them in a hotel because celebs end up hanging at the bar and you run into each other at the elevator,” says McGarr, describing the sort of experience fans could have 15 years ago at DragonCon, but not as much now that it’s grown.
In addition to panels, Q&As, vendors, costume contests and autograph signings, some special guests don their iconic costumes for unique photo ops. For instance, Tom Savini will revisit “From Dusk Til Dawn’s” Sex Machine this year.
“Mad Monster is for sure one of my favorites,” says actress Dee Wallace, one of 2016’s guests and star of “E.T.,” “The Howling” and “Cujo.” “It is so well-run and well-attended. A lot of actors don’t really like to do these. I like mingling with fans, getting hugs and hearing stories how my movies have affected them. It empowers me.”
She hears most often about the aforementioned films as well as “Critters,” “The Frighteners,” and Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” and “Lords of Salem.”
“Every once in a while someone will ask me about some obscure television show,” she says, laughing. “And the fans can find pictures and posters that we don’t know exist. At every show I go, it’s ‘Where the hell did you find this and how do I get one?’ ”
Despite its more intimate feel, growth is important to attracting bigger-name celebrities, adds McGarr.
“San Diego and DragonCon generate a lot of money through tourism. That’s the model we tried to explain to the city,” he says. “The entire city gets behind those events, and because of that it’s able to grow and you’re able to draw larger guests.”
Mad Monster Party
When: 6-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Sheraton Hotel, 555 S. McDowell St.
Admission: $25-$35 for single-day tickets; $50-$60 for weekend pass.