Roanoke’s MystiCon sci-fi and fantasy convention takes fans to another world

May 4, 2012

I went to one of those small colleges that generally tolerated everything, where a spirit of inclusiveness was hammered into you. There was a club on campus called AOKP, or the Artorian Order of the Knights of Pendragon, which was a closed-doors sort of group, except for late nights, when members would take over the grassy quad near the language building and spar with foam swords while wearing tunics. I’d walk by them after playing the video game 007: Agent Under Fire for five hours and think, Wow, what a bunch of nerds.

It was an unjust criticism, sure. But there has always been a hierarchy to uncoolness, and video gamers such as myself weren’t at the bottom of this food chain — we were strongly in the middle even then, before smartphones and tablets gave everyone the portability and connectivity to play anywhere. But people who dressed up as medieval royals and spoke in Old English were most assuredly near the bottom.

I hadn’t thought about AOKP for years until I attended MystiCon, a science-fiction, fantasy and horror convention in Roanoke aimed at dragon enthusiasts, zombie experts, vampire buffs, steampunk devotees and space opera nuts. MystiCon took place earlier this year at the Tanglewood Holiday Inn, a 195-room hotel that overlooks a stretch of road riddled with strip malls and power lines. When I arrived, people were gathering at midnight for a seance in Room 438.

I waited for the elevator nearest to the lobby, and when the doors opened, a man stepped out and stared at me. “Never leave the boat,” he blurted out. “Absolutely [expletive] right!” and then he walked away. I stepped into the elevator, slightly confused, and realized that he hadn’t finished paraphrasing the quote from “Apocalypse Now,” which ends, “Unless you were goin’ all the way.”

The con program book referred to Room 438 as “Strange Aeons LARP Headquarters.” “Aeons” is Latin for “lives” or “beings” and, more important, is a reference to the H.P. Lovecraft story “Out of the Aeons.” (Lovecraft was an early-20th-century horror writer, and his foundational work, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is an old stone tablet for many contemporary horrorists.) LARP stands for “live-action role-playing,” a game in which a player takes on the guise of a self-created character and interacts with other LARPers to solve puzzles, gather items or just hang out. The game was to last the entire weekend and was refereed, or narrated, by a storyteller named Jestin Jeffries, an affable 38-year-old with a long face and a drape of burnt-blond hair.

As a player, Jeffries assumes a character that he has cultivated over 18 years of LARPing. “It started off as a werewolf,” he said. “My buddies, who were all playing vampires at the time, decided to turn me into a vampire. . . . It’s just one of those happy accidents.”

Jeffries stood on one side of Room 438 wearing a silver mask, a black top hat and what looked like a fitted undertaker’s coat. All the furniture seemed to have disappeared, and the room was swollen with role-players. Immediately, I felt as if I were back in college, surrounded by AOKP members, but I wasn’t here to judge — I was here to see what I could learn.

Strange Aeons is a storytelling group from Staunton, Va., and, as the name suggests, develops story lines with supernatural elements of horror. (One such story line, which was not in play that weekend, involved Albert Fish, an early-20th-century child rapist, murderer and cannibal.) The seance in question was a bridging of two role-playing worlds: the LARPers and the SHLARPers, or superhero live-action role-players.

The SHLARPers were more cheerful and colorful in their costume choices; one was a hulking mass of paramilitary dress, with a white pith helmet and a fake assault-looking rifle that was painted gray with a gold-colored barrel and magazine.

A long rope cut Room 438 in half, and a dark sheet hung from the rope as a barrier between the LARPers and SHLARPers. At midnight, a LARPer began the seance to the sound of giggles and indistinct chatter. The room’s mood, which verged on a delicate line of caffeinated hyperactivity and polite respectfulness for the game, was shattered when a cellphone rang out with the unmistakable gut punch of the rock band Nickelback. Someone from the SHLARPer side yelled, “It’s a call from the great beyond,” to which someone else replied, “I knew Nickelback would be there!”

Jeffries, a Marine Corps and Army veteran, shouted for everyone to maintain order. He then laid out the conditions for intermingling in the role-playing world; these groups were distinct and separate until Jeffries and his fellow LARPers merged them. Jeffries explained a set of technical regulations no less conditional than an advanced mathematical proof, and people quickly left to play in the hotel’s corridors and rooms.

***

In the past decade, conventions aimed at the traditional nerd/geek demographic (gamers and comic and anime collectors) have bloomed exponentially. PAX East, a gaming con in Boston, had 75,000 paid attendees for its blitz of games last month. Comic-Con International, the well-known industry event at the San Diego Convention Center first held in 1970, is expected to draw more than 130,000 people in July.

Those two cons have become some of the largest entertainment trade shows in the country. MystiCon, which held its first con last year, is on a much smaller scale. This year, there were 866 registered attendees, though that was double the number anticipated by convention planners. In fact, the number was more surprising given that another similarly themed con had taken place the previous weekend in Roanoke. SheVaCon, in its 20th year, had migrated from Staunton a few years back in search of larger facilities and bills itself as “Southwestern Virginia’s premier sci-fi, fantasy, and horror convention.”

“While there are a lot of similarities,” said MystiCon president Carla Brindle, “the difference really comes down to guests and programming.” This year, SheVaCon’s main media guest of honor was Jeremy Bulloch, the “Star Wars” actor who played — but did not voice — Boba Fett in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” MystiCon countered with Nicki Clyne and Richard Hatch, actors from the Syfy channel’s “Battlestar Galactica.”

So for not one, but two weekends a year, Roanoke morphs into a fantasy hub, and the city’s hotels teem with the blue-haired, the caped and the chain-mailed.

***

MystiCon was spread out across the hotel’s ground floor, and each ballroom and ancillary room as well as every hallway and open nook of nebulous hotel space was dedicated to programming and discussion of science fiction, fantasy and horror: “Pixels vs. Paint,” “Sympathy for the Devil — Liking the Bad Guy,” “Anime and Cosplay — Why We Love It,” “UFO Investigations,” “Wrestling Panel,” “Explorations of Belly Dancing,” “When Did Geeks Get So Hot?,” “Do Southern Ghosts Drawl?,” “How the West Was Won and Lost in Space,” “Comics — Gateway or Roadblock to Reading,” “Romance vs. Erotica — How Much Is Too Much?” and “Hairy Guys as Slave Leia and Other Costuming Disasters.”

Matt Hulan, 42, a practitioner of 14th-century sword techniques and an English teacher at the Miller-Motte College campus in Roanoke, was invited to demonstrate skills based on the teachings of Johannes Liechtenauer, a fencing master from the Middle Ages. “It turns out that there are only so many ways that humans can move,” he said, comparing medieval sword fighting to aikido, a 20th-century Japanese martial art. “You have the same arm bars, and the same motions to dislocate elbows and the various things one does.”

After Hulan prepared for his demonstration, I noticed a Santa Claus doppelganger in civilian clothes at the next table over. He passed out head shots of himself dressed as Santa with vampire fangs. Sal Lizard, or Vampire Santa, is also CEO of Laughing Zombie Productions, his independent film studio. I didn’t linger at his table long, if only to protect my few remaining childhood memories of Christmas.

Down another hallway, Michael Bednar, 51, offered anyone strolling by the chance to sit in his “Star Trek” chair, a replica of Captain Kirk’s on the starship Enterprise. When Bednar asked me, I was too embarrassed. “No, thank you,” I said quickly. But throughout the con, I noticed that adults and children would pose for pictures in this imitation of sci-fi history, especially the adults, who were eager to model their Captain Kirk impressions for their friends’ cameras. I made a mental note to come back later and get a closer look. If I was going to try it, I’d have to build up to it.

***

In a room dedicated to comics and animators, I met David Quiles, 36, a comic book artist from Brooklyn. “I do a lot of demon art,” he said. “I do a lot of fetish/bondage. I do everything.” Quiles identified his artwork as underground, and his drawings were mostly of overmuscled men and impossibly bosomed women. He said conventions were his main source for finding customers, who generally request commissioned works that range from the well-known (Frankenstein and Luke Skywalker portraits) to the macabre (an attack by demonic piranhas, or a scene involving handcuffs and a dwarf). Quiles has sold his artwork at cons for 16 years and even attended an arts and crafts show in Allentown, Pa., last year looking for new clients. “It was well received,” he said. “And I was surprised.”

In that same room, standing as still as possible, was 16-year-old Ren Stogner, an incredibly convincing zombie prom queen. Stogner wore a light-colored prom dress soaked with red dye. Blood oozed from a gash in her forehead. She wore a whitish wig and a clay laceration beneath her neck that suggested the slightest tremor of pulsing.

Stogner was there with her mother, Sharon, who pulled out a picture of an arm on which Ren mimicked visible bone and necrotic flesh with acrylic paint and tissue paper. “She likes the flesh-eating virus,” Sharon said.

“For Halloween, which is like my Christmas, I plan for it all year,” Ren Stogner said. “We’re the house that all the little kids run from.”

***

In The trade show area mostly local vendors, such as Cosmic Castle, Frank’s Cool Stuff and Area 42 Games, sold woven dream catchers, “Hellboy” prop guns, glittery dragon T-shirts, silver skull ashtrays and kung fu movies. Among all those booths sat Nicki Clyne, a 29-year-old actor who played flight engineer Cally Henderson Tyrol on the “Battlestar Galactica” series reboot that aired from 2004 to 2009. Clyne was one of MystiCon’s media guests of honor, along with co-star Richard Hatch, who also appeared in the original ’70s TV show. And as part of her duties as media guest of honor, Clyne sat on panel discussions, did interviews with local media and signed autographs for $30 apiece.

Clyne invited me to join her, and when I did, I instantly saw the con from a whole new perspective: from that of an idolized woman. The moment I sat down, men of all ages, with children, and in varying stages of girth and baldness, would do a double take as they walked past her, only to walk by again a few minutes later, slower and closer. Clyne wasn’t dressed in her character’s more recognizable orange flight suit, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. Instead, she wore a black sweater and a bright orange scarf. One man, who left the hotel to find a functioning ATM (the hotel’s was depleted by mid-Saturday), returned with cash for his autograph.

When he approached the table, Clyne’s posture snapped straight. She recognized the man and said, “You made it back! I hope you didn’t have to go too far.”

The man’s chest puffed out slightly, and he boomed, “Yes, I crossed five dangerous roads!”

Later, another man approached. He looked over her table of head shots and stayed silent for a few seconds before launching into questions:

“So, you’re signing today?”

“How many episodes were you in?”

“Oh, really?”

“I’ve only seen a few episodes,” he claimed.

“How much are the autographs?”

“$30?”

The man considered the cost for a few seconds, then walked away. For all the sitting and male gazing she endured, Clyne really likes the con experience. “It’s like being invited to someone’s family dinner,” she said. “You get to enjoy all the intricacies and the complexities of their relationships, and the community, and get to be treated as a guest.”

Another man, whose badge identified him as Don, approached and asked me a question as Clyne was speaking to other fans.

“So what do you think about getting to hang out with Nicki Clyne?” he asked. “It’s pretty cool, ain’t it?”

At a con in the late 1980s, he told me, he spent time with actor Bibi Besch, who played Dr. Carol Marcus, Kirk’s love interest in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Don was dressed in a clean white shirt, but he wore a layer of solid gray makeup on his face that looked like chimney soot. He couldn’t restrain his smile as he remembered the scene. “I got, like, 30 minutes with her,” he said. “Alone.”

***

I found myself walking back to the captain’s chair, where a large man in overalls and with torso-length hair was crouched on the chair’s edge. His hands were on his knees, and his face struck a mock-seriousness that left his friends cackling. After he was done, I moved next to the chair, and several people gently urged me to “go for it.”

I slid in. Up close, the chair’s armrests were bounded by an off-white frame with clear-plastic toggle switches that were actually a joy to click. I put both my hands on the armrests, leaned back and felt uneasy about how uninhibited I felt. But the really odd thing was how these strangers looked at me, nodding their heads and smiling in approval. I had this inexplicable urge to say, “All hands on flight deck.”

***

On Sunday, when I went to my rental car, I noticed the following vanity license plates in the hotel parking lot: ODDJOB XL, XNTRIK, ADORKBL, WOEISWE, ANIME4U, TREEEEE and –SANTA–.

***

There were still a handful of hours left before the convention officially ended, so I visited the fifth floor to check out the video game room as a final indulgence. The room housed multiple TVs and gaming consoles. The selection of video games was impressive: There were several hundred, perhaps more than a thousand, cartridges cradled into plastic tubs and old diaper boxes. There were games for the original Nintendo, Sega and Atari consoles — a museum of ancient yet venerable systems. Most of the people I saw in the gaming room were kids, and they played on the newer PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 machines, which were hooked to flat-screens. The older systems were connected to chunkier, boxier TVs with poor screen resolutions.

As I played a session of Mario Kart 64 (a go-kart racing game featuring a pair of plumber brothers and anthropomorphic turtles), I saw three kids intently watching the screen in front of them, one kid mashing the buttons on his controller. Next to the three kids, playing on a different TV, was a gray-haired man in his 50s, sitting in a large leather chair. The man, with controller in hand, had fallen asleep, his chin resting on his chest. On the screen, Captain America and the Avengers were protected by a force field; enemies rushed them but were repelled back in a hypnotic loop. After a few minutes, the man lifted his face, and Captain America started to fight back.

He didn’t scan the room to see if anyone had noticed, as I would have. There was no embarrassed self-consciousness. He just went right back at it. And it occurred to me, then, that that was the crucial thing about hard-core, nerdy subcultures that I had failed to appreciate in college. Whether they had been covering themselves in fake blood since childhood or were karate-chopping the air throughout Bella Morte’s goth-metal cover of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” during Saturday night’s concert, all of these people inhabited the moment fully — they didn’t really care what anyone thought. And isn’t that, perhaps, the definition of cool?

When I sat in my car in the hotel parking lot, preparing for the drive home, I thought about what Sean McKittrick, a 24-year-old volunteer security guard, told me about cons. He was eating a slice of cake baked by MystiCon president Carla Brindle. The cake was sculpted to mimic the silver, contoured head of a Cylon, the artificial race of intelligent robots from “Battlestar Galactica.” McKittrick savored the last few bites and said, “It’s kinda interesting to go somewhere else other than just being stuck on Earth.”

George Gonzalez is a freelance writer in Washington. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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