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At Mad Mobster's peculiar crossroads of real and imagined horrors

As geeks descend on this weekend’s Wizard World Comic Con Fan Fest, we wade into the morally murky serial-killer culture of a far more unusual convention, the Mad Mobster True Crime & Horror Expo.


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On Friday the 13th of February, a veritable holiday for horror fans, a lanky man whose face is plastered in black-and-white corpsepaint breezes through the downtown Hilton on Michigan Avenue wielding a chain saw. "Killer" Kyle Skogquist, the 33-year-old guitarist for long-running Twin Cities horror-metal band Impaler, is on the hunt for Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, the psychopathic killer with a mask made of human skin, in the 1974 cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Upon locating Hansen, Skogquist presents the actor with the beat-up chain saw, a green Poulan 306A that's nearly identical to the piece of machinery Hansen wielded in Texas Chainsaw. Impressed by the resemblance, Hansen signs the guide bar—writing "Leatherface" beneath his signature—and poses for a photo.

Today Hansen and Skogquist are among hundreds filtering into the Hilton to attend the Mad Mobster True Crime & Horror Expo. The Valentine's Day weekend event is an atypical gathering, even among the weird, widening net of fan conventions, which range from a horror VHS collectors' convention in Pennsylvania to the San Diego Comic-Con—a behemoth that over its 45-year history has evolved into a launching pad for major film and TV projects and attracts more than 130,000 attendees. In its inaugural year, Mad Mobster stands out from the pack because of its unconventional blend of fictional and real-life horrors.

"This is the first time we're combining true crime with horror," says co-organizer Kevin Blanchfield, who believes the convention to be one of the first of its kind in the U.S. Its first year went well enough—a three-day attendance total of about 2,000 people, in the dead of winter, no less—that Mad Monster, the horror-focused California entertainment company behind the expo, is bringing it back to Chicago next year.

Mad Mobster's celebrity guest list includes the usual actors beloved by horror fans—Hansen, Brad Dourif, who voiced murderous red-haired doll Chucky in every Child's Play movie, and Kane Hodder, who played unstoppable killer Jason Voorhees in four latter-day Friday the 13th films. Given equal billing are big names from the true-crime realm, including former FBI special agent Virginia Curry and Columbine High School shooting survivor Richard Castaldo, who is paralyzed from the chest down after suffering five gunshot wounds.

The requisite Freddy Krueger sighting; part of a Bonnie and Clyde display - PARKER BRIGHT
  • Parker Bright
  • The requisite Freddy Krueger sighting; part of a Bonnie and Clyde display

The expo's panels take place in one of the hotel's "continental" rooms, where the grim subject matter being discussed feels out of place in a setting with gold lamé on the walls and a dozen chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. A talk about what it's like to portray murderers onscreen features Hodder (who also played serial killer Dennis Rader in 2008's straight-to-video release B.T.K.) and fellow actors Steve Railsback (the titular body snatcher in 2000's Ed Gein) and William Forsythe (John Wayne Gacy in 2010's Dear Mr. Gacy). To get even closer to the nefarious individuals mentioned on the panels, attendees headed around the corner into a small room dedicated to artwork, letters, and other paraphernalia connected to the likes of Gacy, Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, and other convicted murderers, as well as a display of items that belonged to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

The idea of bringing under one roof the horrors of the big screen with the horrors of real-life crime came, Blanchfield says, during a discussion at a Phoenix convention run by Mad Monster, founded by fanboy Eben McGarr in 2011. Chicago's Mad Mobster expo—its name inspired by the city's organized-crime history—is the newest addition to Mad Monster's growing mini empire, which includes a magazine, a radio show, and two annual conventions in Phoenix and Charlotte. Blanchfield and McGarr say there's a natural bleed between the worlds of horror fiction and true crime. A childhood fascination with horror flicks eventually led McGarr to dig into the real cases that inspired movies such as Texas Chainsaw. "Doing independent research," he says, "names like Ed Gein become household names to you."

Commingling the ethically questionable world of true-crime culture with the gleeful public display of obsession that a traditional horror fan convention offers, Blanchfield and McGarr are sensitive to the fact that Mad Mobster can give off the wrong impression. "We're not celebrating the crimes or the perpetrators," McGarr says; rather, their interest is analyzing the relationship between gruesome crimes and the films they inspire. "It's not about serial killers, it's educational, about how [similar crimes] can be prevented," Blanchfield says. "That's what the panels are about—figuring out what the serial killers are thinking and what their lives are like."

The intellectual curiosity fueling Mad Mobster seems sincere, but it can be difficult to discern just by glancing at the list of guests. If there is an academic desire at Mad Mobster to learn from past horrors, it's constantly undermined by the convention's main objective: entertainment. This is a place where marquee attendees—even a victim such as Costaldo—are called "celebrities."

Kyle Kuchta, who directed a recent documentary on horror conventions called Fantasm, says he had an averse knee-jerk reaction to the Mad Mobster lineup at first blush, but warmed to the idea after reading more about it. "Horror has always been an escape, but when you relate that to true crime there's not an escape—that's reality," he says. "I don't think there's fans of true crime, but there's interest in what evil exists in the real world. 'Cause we can make up monsters, slashers, and ghosts—but when it actually happens, you want to learn why. It's human nature to be curious."

What's creepier: the animal handler with the tarantula hat, the zombie lady, or that hotel carpet? - PARKER BRIGHT
  • Parker Bright
  • What's creepier: the animal handler with the tarantula hat, the zombie lady, or that hotel carpet?

One variable that helps make Mad Monster a less tough pill to swallow is that most of the true-crime discussions focus on the past; the years since, say, Gacy's 1978 arrest allow attendees to more easily distance themselves from the very real savagery he displayed. Similarly, it's easier to talk about Chicago's bygone mob history—Capone! Bootlegging! Tommy guns!—than the unyielding gun violence presently plaguing Chicago's poorer neighborhoods, a topic that never comes up throughout the Mad Mobster weekend.

Much of the focus is on serial killers, whose violent compulsions are a perplexing puzzle some guests are driven to piece together. One of the expert panelists is local filmmaker John Borowski, a lifelong horror fan who's made documentaries on early 20th-century serial killers—H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Carl Panzram. Borowski traces his fascination with real murderers to his teenage years. Two men Jeffrey Dahmer killed in the summer of 1991 were from Chicago. "I had the unfortunate incident of seeing the actual Dahmer photos that he took of his victims, 'cause my friend's father was a detective at the Chicago Police Department, so he had the file," Borowski says. The incident propelled him to begin studying serial killers, research he's continued to do professionally. "In my films I go into the psychology of these serial killers—interviewing experts, forensic psychologists," he says. Borowski's most recent doc, Serial Killer Culture, focuses on people fascinated with real murderers, which includes long-running Chicago "murder metal" group Macabre. Another of the film's subjects, local author and cartoonist Hart Fisher, joins Borowski on a Saturday-evening panel about the peculiar subculture of true-crime fans and "murderabilia"—the name given to the general commercialization of art created by (and other items connected to) murderers.

The taboo nature of collecting, trading, and selling murderabilia is impossible to separate from its niche appeal. And this affects the economy of the murderabilia marketplace, where the value of items is directly proportional to the infamy of the former owner. The gentleman helming the Bonnie and Clyde exhibit, for instance, is hawking an index card containing a small swatch of underwear that Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos wore while on death row—a keepsake available for $30. A large portion of the "Murderabilia and Serial Killer Culture" panel circles around the ethical quandaries of being obsessed with people who've destroyed the lives of others.

No one is better versed in the culture of murderabilia than panelist William Harder. He owns the California-based, one of a handful of sites that sprang up after eBay banned the sale of murderabilia in 2001, a move precipitated by pressure from the director of Houston's Crime Victims Office, Andy Kahan, on behalf of victims and their families. Befriending convicts through prison visits, phone calls, and letters has helped Harder amass a large collection of his own, and he has brought a portion of it to Mad Mobster. It's all in 17 display cases, most of them organized in frames filled with drawings, inmate ID cards, and prison letters. Harder's also Xeroxed dozens more letters—from big names such as Ramirez to less noted criminals such as Jesse James Hollywood, who is serving a life sentence for ordering the murder of a 15-year-old in 2000—and put them in lime-green binders that attendees are flipping through.

Harder's table-top displays hold snapshots of the collector alongside inmates, most notably Charles Manson. All the murderabilia exhibits are in the small lobby-level Buckingham Room, which has been redubbed the "Manson Exhibit" for the weekend. Harder has also brought CD and vinyl copies of Manson's bizarre folk recordings to sell, and some of his prized Manson yarn art, including a large white spider with a red swastika on the abdomen—though he doesn't want to part with that item. "A guy offered me $6,000," Harder says. "I declined."

The true-crime-expo version of a concert tee - PARKER BRIGHT
  • Parker Bright
  • The true-crime-expo version of a concert tee

Harder says he got hooked on collecting memorabilia from convicted killers after stumbling upon some of Ramirez's artwork online during a fit of depression in 2000. The discovery lit a spark in Harder, who tracked down the prison number for the "Night Stalker" in hopes of sending him a letter. "When I got that first [return] letter, it was like Christmas I was so excited," Harder says. "It made me so happy, and that's why I do it—otherwise I wouldn't." He's well aware that his collection may seem bizarre or macabre to those outside of Mad Mobster. "This is not a glorification exhibit. There is nothing here that says that it's OK to kill people," he says. "I don't believe in harming anything. I don't wear leather, I don't eat meat, and I don't support the death penalty. It's not OK. This is just what I'm interested in, and unfortunately that interest ties into other people's misfortunes." Harder offers a pithier retort during a Saturday lunchtime panel focused on the relationship between murders and modern American history and culture: "Just because you collect stamps doesn't mean you love the postman."

Collecting stuff is a central component of Mad Mobster, as are the words "monster" and "human." The terms get batted around during many of the panels—mainly to remind attendees that even though a mass murderer like Gacy was rightfully branded a monster, he was nonetheless human.

Monsters, humans, and collecting coalesce on the "Vendor Floor" in the massive lower-level space known as Stevens Salon D. This is where collectors buy stuff from the humans who played monsters in movies. Septuagenarian Night of the Living Dead cowriter John Russo, in from Pittsburgh, is selling original items from the filming of the 1968 horror classic—$30 for a check, $100 for a screenplay. One table over from Russo, character actor Jon Polito flogs photos from his appearances in Seinfeld, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and more convention-appropriate films such as the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing, and offers to take selfies with attendees for $20. On one end of the room Hodder's got a pile of Jason machetes, but on Friday the 13th his table goes dark; instead he dons the Jason costume—makeup, hockey mask, and all—to take photos with fans for $200.

At one point on Saturday, Hodder is in Stevens Salon D posing for a selfie with a fan and a tarantula provided by the animal handlers who are set up across from his table. Uncoordinated moments like this are part of the appeal. Conventions are where you can see the humans who played monsters doing the most human things. Walking past "Leatherface" Hansen as he takes a bite out of what appears to be a panini, I am certain there isn't a trace of human flesh in the sandwich.

The rest of the floor is a tangle of horror-centric sights: a table with mini figurines of characters from popular pictures and cult obscurities (e.g., 1982's Basket Case), a display of prop hearts and assorted bloody creations from a Bloomingdale, Illinois, effects company, a pair of young girls getting made up—one to look like a zombie and the other a Tim Burton-esque doll. But the convention's true-crime elements come into view from the margins and pop up unexpectedly.

These girls got Cokes and makeovers—one to look like a Tim Burton-esque doll and the other a zombie. - PARKER BRIGHT
  • Parker Bright
  • These girls got Cokes and makeovers—one to look like a Tim Burton-esque doll and the other a zombie.

It's not just the section where John Borowski and Hart Fisher sell DVDs and books on serial killers. Wednesday 13 of metal outfit Murderdolls displays Gacy's "Sex Skull" drawing, which its owner says is one of three known originals of the creepy image that depicts a pile of nudes clinging together to form a giant skull floating above what appears to be a pool of blood. Nearby tables are cluttered with movie posters, dulled Jason machetes speckled with fake blood, and assorted trinkets—the most chilling of which is a pennant emblazoned with Gacy's smiling visage and the words "John Gacy's Finishing School for Boys." A quote running along the top of the flag reads: "My students are the building blocks of the foundation"—a grim reference to the building contractor's method of burying victims in the crawl space of his Norwood Park home.

The table handlers and celebrities are friendly, personable, and, with days dedicated to sitting in one place, happy to chat. But the most interesting discourse happens on the panels. It's not always educational or informative; a panel on Zodiac featuring two actors with minor roles in David Fincher's 2007 film, Richmond Arquette and Charles Fleischer, reveals little about the movie or the murders that inspired it—though at one point an attendee dressed as Leatherface asks the actors if they think the original Zodiac killer will be caught. Fleischer even pokes fun at his and Arquette's appearance at the expo as he sits down for the conversation: "Nothing is more official than talking to actors talking about a movie talking about a mass murderer."

The panels are where the horror-meets-true-crime experiment comes to fruition, and the best ones fall on the side of reality. Former FBI special agent Virginia Curry, who's already appeared on panels about conspiracies and murderabilia, hits the ground running with her talk early Sunday afternoon. Among the anecdotes in her arsenal are stories of tracking down a drugged-up Hells Angel responsible for stealing art, being a consultant for Miss Congeniality, and helping Roy Hazelwood, the pioneer FBI sexual predator profiler, develop a violent crimes database.

During Castaldo's heavy Saturday-evening "Columbine Survivor Q&A" event, Mad Mobster moderator Levi Tinker, an announcer for TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly known as Grauman's Chinese Theatre) in Hollywood, approaches each question with a mix of courtesy and trepidation, particularly while asking Castaldo about the day of the shooting and his life since high school. No other person at Mad Mobster bridges the gap between true crime and horror quite like Costaldo: a horror movie fanboy who's also a top-billed guest and panelist because he was the victim of a horrific crime. Castaldo had attended a couple horror conventions in the past, but he wanted to come to Mad Mobster in part to clear up some of the myths that have persisted since the Columbine massacre—or at least set the record straight on his role in the lead-up to the shooting. "The one thing that bothers me the most is that people think they [Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold] were somehow avenging the bullies that bullied them," Castaldo says onstage. "I didn't do that. I think I was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Shortly after Castaldo exits the stage he's approached by an attendee wearing a black T-shirt with an image of "Dimebag" Darrell, the Pantera guitarist who was shot and killed while performing with Damageplan in 2004. The attendee asks Castaldo to pose for a photo with him, and bends down next to Castaldo's wheelchair. "You're the real hero," he says to Castaldo. "If I could give you my legs I would."


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