It’s been a while since I turned in some convention coverage. For the past few years, the economy has beaten down the convention circuit as brutally as it has every thing else, so the smaller shows have been forced to close their doors while many of the larger shows found themselves stuck in a kind of circular sameness, promoting many of the same guests, the same types of events, etc. Granted, in the horror world, it’s best to give the fans what they not only want, but in many ways expect, but that won’t ensure against the griping. As far as the conventions in the “middle” of the spectrum, the die-hard, hell-or-high-water shows personified by Cinema Wasteland, the rising costs of airfare may have forced a scaling back of guests, but our socialist/Marxist/capitalist society (depending on who you listen to on FOX News) hasn’t done too terribly much lasting damage. Like nature, fans find a way. They may not have as many oodles of disposable income as they had in the great con hey-day of the early aughts, but they’ll still buy their weekend passes to spend some time with celebrities and dealers.

Which brings us to a surprising success story amidst the broke-a*s horror community: Horror Realm. Whether through persistence, good karma, or blind luck, the two-year-old Pittsburgh-based convention has managed to buck the odds, the system and one of the least-supportive cities in the country, by putting on a consistently entertaining and unique fan-fave show.

Run by Rich Dalzotto, Sandy Stuhlfire and Michelle Linhart, Horror Realm sprang from the ashes of a previous incarnation run by a different group of hard-core pros for whom fate was not as kind. Under the control of Rich, Sandy and Michelle, their first H.R. con in 2009… well, let’s say that at first glance, you’d never know it was a first-time show. It was well-run, with most problems quickly hidden and fires extinguished. Their main headliners, including Kenny Foree (“Dawn of the Dead”) and Leslie Easterbrook (“The Devil’s Rejects”), brought in the fans and the vendors, weekend-long screenings and other participatory goodies kept them happy.

In 2010, they added additional high-profile guests—with a “Basket Case Reunion” of Frank Henenlotter, Kevin Van Hentenryk and Beverly Bonner—and even more events, screenings and musical highlights (like the “cabaret” version of The Zombie Opera and a live performance by actor/musician Hentenryk), but it was aided by something miraculous: the co-operation and eager embrace of the Pittsburgh horror community. While the Steel City loves its Pirates, its Steelers, its Penguins, in the past its paid little more than lip-service to its world-wide standing as “The Zombie Capital of the World”. Sure, hometown boys George A. Romero and Tom Savini make interesting color for the local papers and TV news at Halloween time, but who the hell cares about scary movie s**t when there’s sports to watch and Terrible Towels to twirl? At least, that’s been the apathetic attitude in the past.

But the Horror Realm family struck a chord with the die-hards in the tri-state area. Aided in particular by authors Tim Gross and Charlie Fleming (“The Bastards of Horror”) and Rick “of the Dead” Fusselman and Ed Demko of NTFS Productions, (as well as a generous “we’re all in this together” boost from Cinema Wasteland’s Ken and Pam Kish), and found a real grassroots boost. Not to be outdone by Egypt and Libya, Horror Realm used Facebook and Twitter to their best advantage, keeping the name in the forefront of the communal frontal lobes. It didn’t hurt that the crew found support in privately-owned local theaters, enabling them to stage special events and screenings, like the recent showing of “The Fog” in honor of Women in Horror Month at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont, just outside of Pittsburgh.

With additional support from kick-a*s haunted attraction “Scarehouse” and the “Zombie Museum” in “Dawn of the Dead”’s Monroeville Mall, Horror Realm tapped into something rare and considered nigh-non-existent: people willing to choose horror over sporting events and general Three Rivers apathy. By finding its own identity quickly yet still willing to experiment with all things that make horror awesome, the Realm may well be on its fast-track to a type of success found only—and at most “technically”—by the long-running Pittsburgh Comicon. In just two years, Horror Realm has become a show to make time for—not just for the convention-season nomads, but for Pittsburghers in general.

On March 5, Horror Realm experimented with a single-day version of their convention. Utilizing only half of a ballroom at the Crown Plaza in South Hills, their hotel-home, Rich, Sandy and Michelle packed in vendors, local filmmakers, headliners—Tiffany Shepis, Amy Lynn Best and a “Day of the Dead” reunion consisting of the extremely generous Lori Cardille, Anton DiLeo and John Amplas—and one lightning-in-a-bottle element unmatched and unable to duplicate: the “VH Room”.

Run by Tim Gross, Rick Fusselman and Charlie Fleming, “The VH Room” (named for a colloquialism unique to Tim’s mom) is essentially a “yinzer horror” democracy. They reach into a box filled with VHS-only horror garbage goodies and put the picks to a vote, resulting in the playing of “Blood Rage” or “Killer Party” or “Woodchipper Massacre”. After which, in many cases, the cassette is then sold to the first one who wants it. This participatory element brings to life an inexplicable aspect of the quintessential horror fan—the love of cheap, cheesy, predominantly 80s-lensed schlock unavailable on DVD. The chunky VHS format will live on forever as long as “Meateaters” never sees the light of a blue laser. And horror fans will fill the room, to view something special and arcane and almost taboo. All the time accompanied by the larger-than-life, usually beer-fueled personalities of their hometown hosts.

Horror Realm is also fearless when it comes to the avant-guarde. Though the “Zombie Haiku” competition welcomed only a handful of participants, readings from “Library of the Living Dead” authors, moderated by publisher “Doc Pus”, often drew respectable crowds as well as the curious head-poker passerby. And the highlight of the single-day show was an after-hours masquerade, the “Zombie Gras”, DJ’d by legendary spinner Zombo—and if you bought a T-Shirt from him, your song request was given priority. At the cash-bar party, beads were handed out (not earned traditionally though, tragically), costumes were donned (hands-down the winner was Michelle and her fabulous wedding dress and masque), a King and Queen crowned, and a pair of just-over-21 dancers who never stopped, never paused, and might have been robots, drawing the unquenchable ire of the older and less-energetic.

While single-day shows are less of a financial gamble than the traditional three-day events, its no less a crapshoot when it’s personally funded. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if the fans don’t wanna come to your show, you can’t stop ‘em. But there’s something about Horror Realm that finally got things right. After many years of non-starter shows like the Zombie Jambouree, Monster Burgh, and, yes, even my own Genghis Con, Horror Realm found a way to motivate and energize the Pittsburgh horror fans and have virtually ensured its survival, for however long it lasts. Hopefully it’ll go on as long as its shuffling mascot flesh-eating corpses, which is to say, of course, forever.

The next Horror Realm Con will be held September 16-18 at the Crown Plaza in South Hills, PA.

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