"Definitely the Alien chest burster," said artist Lance Thingmaker, who had his surname legally changed to more accurately reflect his vocation. "Or the Thing. You know, the one in the snow?" Thingmaker was contemplating which monster scares him the most. "Or maybe Poltergeist," he added. "Though that isn't really a monster. It's more of a presence. An evil, menacing presence."
Thingmaker was manning a booth at Monsterpalooza. Now in its second year, Monsterpalooza, a three-day conference for horror fans, special-effects artists, film directors, actors and anyone else who got off on eyeballs in jars and prosthetic flesh, was basically an opportunity for people to get together to gross each other out. With so much terror assembled in one building, it begged the question, What frightens the frighteners?
Artist Bob Lizarraga thought for a while before deciding that the scariest creature ever invented had to be Mr. Sardonicus, whose face froze in a terrifying grin while he was robbing his father's grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket. "He saw the smiling corpse and was so shocked, his face got stuck like that. He had to walk around with a mask from then on," Lizarraga said, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
The Marriott Burbank Convention Center is normally a gathering place for the suit-and-tie crowd, but that weekend there were people dressed in black outfits so hideous, they could be their own worst nightmare. A few bravely insisted no monster ever scared them. Like illustrator Mike Sosnowski, they identified with the monster as outcast, as outsider. Classically misunderstood Frankenstein was their flag bearer.
"I never looked at monsters as scary," Sosnowski said. "They were more cool. Though, you know what did scare me were the birds in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Something in the natural world that freaks out randomly and kills you for no reason?" He shivered. "Now that's creepy."
Sosnowski paints skulls in cereal bowls, men being ripped apart by demons, a devil boiling mermaids in a cauldron, a coven of naked elf women about to deflower a skeleton, an ogre roasting its own severed hand over a campfire. But birds are creepy?
You had to wonder if nothing scares monster maniacs so much as the ordinary.
Night fell. The moon rose. People scurried back to their hotel rooms and homes and campers. The next day, they returned refreshed. In some cases, recostumed. Monster enthusiast Chris Hannan was dressed as a rotting businessman. But the day before, he was a zombie with a cane and several large chins, or maybe chains. It was difficult to understand what he was saying. The maggots on his face were distracting. The maggots (grains of uncooked white rice) wiggled as he talked. A few popped off, tumbled down his bloody shirtfront and landed on the carpet.
Every few hours, Hannan changed costume. His car, he said, is like a traveling Halloween shop. "Michael Meyers was the scariest," said Hannan. "No, no, Leatherface. Or the possessed girl in The Exorcist. No, wait, killer clowns. Anything clowns is terrifying." He couldn't make up his mind, either.
There was certainly plenty to choose from. One artist had even painted a breathtaking mural that stretched from one end of the auditorium to the other, a kind of Last Supper of monsters times a thousand. Sculptors and mask makers showed off examples of their work. It was positively French Revolution in here. Everywhere you turned, there were heads on spikes.
But there were heads attached to full bodies, too: The Wolfman and Vampira and giant gorillas and Hannibal Lecter and several species of extraterrestrial all rubbed shoulders in a temporary monster museum.
Killing time in the long line for the "Theater of Blood" fake-blood demonstration, Veronica Rodarte and Karina Villagrana admitted that very little scares them anymore, as they see monsters every day. The two young women were professional makeup artists. Rodarte had pink hair. Villagrana blinked rapidly; her false eyelashes were bothering her. "I don't know," she said. "Pumpkinhead, maybe?"
"Oh, I know, Zelda in Pet Sematary," offered their friend Poffo Ortiz. "She wasn't really a monster, though. She was the insane, deformed sister in the bedroom."
They turned their attention to Cinema Makeup School instructor Rhalis Kahn, who began to pontificate on the latest trends in fake blood, and on things you might not necessarily know if you hadn't made a career out of exsanguination. Things like, say, the fine distinction between maple syrup and corn syrup as a blood base. He slit some throats. Slashed some wrists. Punctured a jugular. People clapped. A few people yawned.
"H.R. Geiger's full-sized adult alien was absolutely terrifying. Because it's so phallic and biomechanical and organic," said sculptor Brian McCrudden, who was etching scales into a clay model of some octopus-type creature out in the hallway. You could make a monster, he added, dig into the darkest recesses of your psyche and dredge out the most gruesome, most soul-destroying critter imaginable, and it was still no guarantee that people would like it. And by "like it," he meant be frightened to pieces by it. Consequently, the smart monster maker simply had to find a way to be secure within his own self that his original, seven-eyed, tentacled, flesh-eating mutant from hell is just fine the way it is.
"Scariest? You mean besides the werewolf in The Howling, which I was in?" said actress Belinda Balaski. Besides 1981's The Howling, Balaski was also in the 1978 movie Piranha, in which she plays a beautiful but doomed camp counselor who gazes out onto the lake and has a sneaking suspicion that something very bad is about to happen. Then, the piranhas eat her in spectacular fashion.
The crowd of fans asking for her autograph had largely dissipated for the afternoon, and it was just her and her mom seated side by side behind a folding table. Balaski whipped out an old black-and-white photo of her with fish strapped to her chest. She remembered the director asking her to flail around to make it look like the fish are chewing her torso. She remembered the gaffer's tape sticking to her skin. She remembered a weird sound later on in the screening room. It was her. She was screaming. She was the only one doing so, the only one genuinely afraid.
"You see all this gray?" Balaski's mom asked now. She gently pinched a lock of her daughter's hair. "How do you think she got it?"
Others were even more closely in tune with what presses their fear button. Nearby, Josh Stanley was selling business-card holders made from dried chicken feet ("Mother nature makes 'em, and I finish 'em"). Asked what monster scares him the most, Stanley replied without hesitation, "My ex-wife."