The fans behind FANtom Fest, Scranton’s newest horror convention
Organizers discuss their unlikely love for the genre and how this three-day event came together
When interviewing Nico Nice and Rachelle Criscera, one can’t help but deviate from the subject at hand to talk at length about pivotal scenes in horror movies or relate experiences meeting the stars of those films or ardently compare similar movies in the genre. It comes with being a fan.
Horror fans are a particularly passionate bunch, and nowhere is that more prevalent than at conventions across the country dedicated to the mainstream smashes and cult classics of macabre cinema. It takes a certain kind of person to appreciate and respect these monster masterpieces, and Nice and Criscera are unquestionably two of them, but it requires a whole other level of dedication to take on the enormous task of organizing such a gathering.
FANtom Fest, the newest horror convention to come to Scranton Oct. 3-5, is exactly what the name implies – a festival founded by fans for fans. Nice was originally adamant about calling it “Fright Fiends Horror Weekend,” but Criscera shot it down. He’s glad she did, as this moniker is much more meaningful.
“I was at work one day and it hit me – FANtom Fest,” Nice said proudly.
“We really wanted for the show to have something for everybody. That’s why, if you look at our logo, the “FAN” in FANtom Fest is capitalized because it’s about the fans. It’s a very fan-friendly show – that’s what we want to get across. We did this for you guys, not just for us.”
Like a restless phantom, horror movies have followed Nice since his childhood, though he only started embracing them later in life. At first, they did their job and actually frightened him.
“I was very scared of them when I was a kid. It was so bad I couldn’t watch ‘Ghostbusters’ when it first came out because of the ghosts. ‘Thriller’ scared me. But, ironically, the only thing I wasn’t scared of was ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ ‘Child’s Play,’ and my all-time favorite horror movie, ‘An American Werewolf in London.’ Weirdest thing, I know,” he acknowledged.
He has his mother and Michael Jackson to thank for that.
“Werewolves are my favorite movie monster. Ironically, I could not watch Michael turning into the werewolf. I could watch the whole zombie scenes and not be scared, but that werewolf scene scared the shit out of me. Back when ‘Thriller’ had just come out, Michael was [famous for] ‘Beat It,’ “Billie Jean,’ and then to see him doing that was like, ‘What the hell?’
“But on the flipside, when that came out and it had the making-of feature right after, my mom said, ‘I want you to watch it,’ and I fought with her. ‘Nope. Not happening.’ She sat me down and made me watch it. I freaked out like I normally did, and she’s like, ‘Now they’re going to show you how they did it.’ And then when I saw that, I got over it, right then and there. I was like, ‘Can we watch it again?’ and she was like, ‘I knew that was going to happen.’ We wore that tape out.”
That led him to “An American Werewolf in London” because it was also directed by John Landis, but he never truly got over his fear until he started working at the now-defunct Suncoast Video in the Mall at Steamtown at the age of 21.
“I was new and I had to make some kind of common ground with them, and they all loved horror movies, so [my friend/co-worker] Blake was like, ‘Dude, you should just buy all the horror movies that scared you as a kid and just watch them by yourself and see what they do to you now,’ and that’s how I got over it – and I enjoy them now. Ever since then, I can’t get enough of it.”
“I’m very similar. I never watched any horror when I was a kid,” Criscera admitted.
“My sister didn’t watch horror movies, so I didn’t watch horror movies. When I got into high school, I had some friends that I made that got me into punk rock music, alternative music, and then horror movies and things like that. I never knew about all this stuff when I was growing up.
“It’s not until I met Nico that I’m really getting into it now. He’s opened me up to a lot of different stuff. I just saw ‘Sleepaway Camp’ for the first time this year. Yes, I knew who Freddy Krueger was and where he came from and Michael Myers and where he came from and Jason and Leatherface, but I never actually watched the entire series of any of them. He got me into them more.”
Taking after those horror icons, there’s no stopping them now. Nice used to manage the store while his co-workers traveled to New Jersey for Monster Mania and the Chiller Theatre Expo, but now he and Criscera attend them regularly, though they look at things a bit differently from other attendees.
“We didn’t just do it just to go. We were taking notes mentally. We were like, ‘Hey, if we were to ever do one, this could work. This wouldn’t work.’ Stuff like that. We were observing more than anything else, seeing the whole process from the other side of it as well. That was kind of where the ball got rolling,” Criscera pointed out.
With so many locals traveling states away for conventions, why not bring more here? Purposely aiming for October so as not to compete with Infect Scranton in September, the original plan was to hold their own convention at a hotel in Carbondale, but their plans grew bigger and bigger, forcing them to relocate to the Hilton Scranton & Conference Center.
A ‘Dream’ guest list
The major draw of any convention is typically the celebrity guests, so Nice started securing theirs with connections he made as the co-host of an Internet radio show. Interviewed by Florida-based radio host LadyAslan when he was working on a horror film of his own, he became friends with her, starting “The Asylum Radio Show” together in February.
One “Asylum” interview with a particular guest, Felissa Rose of “Sleepaway Camp” fame, went so well that Nice asked if she would be interested in appearing at and helping out with FANtom Fest. Her “Camp” co-stars Jonathan Tiersten and Frank Sorrentino joined soon after, this being Sorrentino’s first con ever.
“If it wasn’t for them initially saying yes and saying, ‘Here’s what I can do for you,’ it probably would have fallen apart already,” Nice noted.
“Honestly, it’s that initial foot in the door that you need, and once your foot is in the door, you can just walk right in. One person knows another person knows another person. Then you start actually meeting these people and conversing with them, so then their gears start turning and they’re like, ‘Hey, let me get you this person. Let me get you this person,’” Criscera added.
At this rate, they’ve split that door open like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” securing Jeffrey Combs, star of “Re-Animator;” Rochelle Davis of “The Crow;” William Forsythe of “The Devil Rejects;” Lisa Loring of “The Addams Family;” Kristi Angus of “Jason X” in her first con appearance; A. Michael Baldwin of “Phantasm;” scream queen Linnea Quigley; Tiffany Shepis of “Sharknado;” Santiago Cirilo of “The Walking Dead;” Michale Graves, former singer of the Misfits; and plenty more – including a reunion of the entire main cast of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master,” minus Robert Englund.
“We actually had a completely different guest list from what it is now. Not that I wasn’t happy with how the guest list was going, but I kind of wanted to make this one very special, come out of the gate swinging, so we ended up securing the cast of ‘The Dream Master,’” he said with a satisfied smile.
“It’s only the second time that’s happened, ever. The first time was at Spooky Empire in Orlando. This is something really, really special that people need to come out and come see. When are you going to say you saw them all together like that again?”
Fans have already purchased tickets from as far away as Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky, and Missouri for this opportunity alone, though Nice was looking to shoot even higher for his first convention.
“I really had my heart set on a ‘Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter’ reunion because it is the 30th anniversary this year of the movie. For some reason, I was only maybe able to secure one person if I was lucky, so I decided not to do it. I wanted them all there. We really had our heart set on a big ‘Devil’s Rejects’ reunion, too, and that fell through,” he lamented.
“We were supposed to get a lot of people from ‘Freddy vs. Jason.’ A few of them fell through due to shooting, but they were grateful because even though they couldn’t come this time, they came out and said, ‘We cannot wait until next year. We’ll be there.’ So if you’re willing to come next year, that’s a name on our list that we didn’t have yesterday,” Criscera noted.
That’s right. Even after cancellations and miscommunications and struggling to find funding wherever they could, they’re already thinking about next year – even turning this into a biannual event.
“For me, it’s so surreal,” Nice beamed. “I wake up in the morning and I’m like, ‘This is my life. This is awesome.’”
A frightening family
The benefit of a convention like this isn’t just hanging out with movie stars – it’s finding the meaning in that connection. Nice easily recalled many of his favorite celebrity encounters, but meeting classic WWF wrestler and “They Live” star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stuck out in his mind as one of the most emotional.
“My mom passed away in ’99. Our thing was she got me into wrestling; she got me into a lot of stuff that I’m into now. Piper was always someone that we loved and respected, so when I met him, it was kind of like if she was with me. The emotions took over and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is really happening.’ He saw that and he was like, ‘Are you OK?’ I’m like, ‘I’m fine. It’s just that you’re awesome and I grew up on you and you’re one of my favorite wrestlers of all time,’” he remembered, almost reliving the moment right there.
“I can’t imagine what’s going to happen when I meet Hulk Hogan at Chiller.”
Experiences like these changed Nice’s perspective on these actors, and now that he’s dealing with them from a promoter’s viewpoint, his perception has evolved further.
“It makes you respect a lot of them more because of the fact that they do these shows. I know some people will be like, ‘Oh, they’re doing it for the money.’ That’s not entirely true. Yes, they’re charging for the autograph. Why do they charge for the autograph? I don’t know. I never bothered to ask; I don’t feel like it’s my business to ask that,” he said.
“A lot of these people love to talk to their fans. They love to be able to sit down with them and chat with them and have a genuine conversation.”
Hanging out with fellow fans and sharing these moments can be just as important to convention-goers, where long lines and late nights in hotel lobbies can turn into long-lasting friendships.
“Conventions are like families. These people come together for the same purpose – for the respect of the genre. They want to meet their heroes, and they always have a good time,” Nice emphasized, also crediting Criscera’s actual family – her mother and her sister specifically – with a lot of extra support.
This convention family has grown exponentially within the last year for both organizers. From The Ghouligans, a group of New Yorkers who dress up like monsters and make a campy Internet show in the vein of “The Munsters,” to professional pumpkin carver Ian Fetterman to Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, their guest list has become their list of personal friends, who have all helped to attract vendors and other guests to this first-time show.
“We have a pretty good lineup. Actually, no – we have an excellent lineup,” Nice enthused. “For a first year show, we really lucked out.”
There’s also movie screenings, Q&As, VIP parties, and the first annual Deatherman Short Film Festival, named after Scranton filmmaker Bobby Keller’s shot-on-VHS short horror film that will play Friday night.
“The ‘Sleepaway Camp’ Q&A is going to be very… interesting, to say the least,” Nice commented, emphasizing the actors’ tendency for candor.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff on ‘Sleepaway Camp’ and we’re going to talk about that. It’ll change a lot of stuff [for fans].”
As things begin wrapping up on Sunday, there will even be a raffle for autographed memorabilia and other prizes that benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“We’re hoping a lot of people come, No. 1, to really just enjoy it, to come and meet some of these horror heroes that we all have. We also really hope we can deliver to St. Jude,” Nice said.
“We’re not looking to turn a profit. We’re looking to break even. That’s something out there, maybe in the future,” Criscera continued.
“We just want it to go smooth and come out alive.”
At a horror convention, that isn’t necessarily a guarantee, but that’s the risk you take when you run into the old house instead of getting out. They wouldn’t have it any other way, though, because that’s what the genre is all about – facing your fears and overcoming them.
And after all that work, just kicking back and enjoying yourself.
“We just want to enjoy it,” Nice concluded. “If we can enjoy it, we know we did good.”
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, adequate photographer, podcast co-host, and practicing poet. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.