Midsummer Scream draws enthusiastic howls, record crowds

2019 edition of haunt and horror convention excites fans, industry

AT: Dean Lamanna

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Southern California welcomed Halloween almost three months early as the third annual Midsummer Scream horror fan gathering and haunt attractions trade show winged batlike into the Long Beach Convention Center Aug. 3-4.

Showcasing all things gruesomely fun with a dash of celebrity (including genre screen icons Elvira and Sid Haig), a generous dollop of cosplay and plenty of haunt attraction news, the annual event was as much an entertainment experience as an opportunity for networking and pitching products. Rolling out more the 350 vendors exhibiting monster masks, scary costumes, nightmarish dolls and gory makeup, plus a cavernous Hall of Shadows housing full-scale mazes and panel discussions featuring top haunt creatives from the likes of Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios Hollywood, it was fan service as art form. 

The concept has been wildly successful. In its fourth year, the show, founded by David Markland, Claire Dunlap, Gary Baker and Rick West, drew 30,000 attendees — nearly quadrupling its 2016 debut-year tally of 8,000.

Speaking with Amusement Today inside an office overlooking the bustling, 100,000-square-foot convention center floor, West, the show’s creative director, noted that “freakish” is the word he usually hears when observers discuss Midsummer Scream’s explosive growth. 

“It’s uncommon in this industry, and we’re very proud of that,” he said. “People ask, ‘What’s the secret sauce?’ And we’ve said this for years: We create the show that we want to go to as fans. If it’s going to be something that we think is pretty cool, then we figure there’s a few other people that’ll think it’s pretty cool. It’s not rocket science to us.”

He added with a laugh: “It’s more fun than IAAPA, that’s for sure.”

Frightful stirrings

Midsummer Scream is a second full-time job for West, who works in themed entertainment and attractions as a show writer and creative director. Planning the convention, he said, “is an 18-month process, so there is very little down time. But the entire team loves doing this. We all have different backgrounds and strengths, but we do, as a united group, approach this as creating a themed entertainment spectacle.”

The effort extends to the show’s floor crew of 300-plus “White Bats,” who direct and inform attendees and generally help keep the event running smoothly.

“We have training and orientation like theme parks do for all of our frontline people,” West said. “Most conventions would just say, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you a free T-shirt and make you stand here all day.’ And that’s their training. But here, it really becomes a family. People come back year after year to be with us.”

The kinship of horror fandom, for West, runs deep. His own interest in pop culture and things that go bump in the night developed during his 1970s-80s Southern California childhood.

“I was that kid who was never afraid of anything,” he said. “I grew up watching the original Halloween films and A Nightmare on Elm Street and all that. And as far back as I can remember, I would drag my grandfather all over the Inland Empire looking for every haunted house we could find.”

His passion crystallized 25 years ago with his founding of a fan publication called Theme Park Adventure, which was retired last year. It covered not only the usual amusements but haunted attractions such as Knott’s Scary Farm and, eventually, neighborhood Halloween haunts.

West’s love for the genre appears to have served Midsummer Scream and its attendees well — setting the event apart from other fan shows, such as Comic-Con, with a defined focus.

“A lot of people go to Comic-Con, but it has become like when you go to Las Vegas and there’s a buffet at every resort,” West said. “When you come here, your main course is Halloween and your dessert is horror. And it’s no accident that you’re here — if you’re here, you’re a fan.

“I call it the Island of Misfit Toys. We all come together and it feels like a homecoming. It’s a great crowd, and there’s an electricity in the air that you can really feel.”

That bracing current extended to Midsummer Scream’s exhibitors.

Ralph Koeniger, owner-operator of Pensacola, Florida-based BoneWare Cutlery — reusable, lifetime-warranted, human bone-shaped plastic utensils designed for party and attractions industry use — told AT that the event was a great opportunity to promote his year-old business. “We’ve gotten plenty of interest from theme parks, gift shops and party stores,” he said.

Safety in scary times

Before the conclusion of Midsummer Scream 2019, attendees found their social media feeds filled with the horrible news of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Which raised an important question: How does this high-profile, heavily visited event handle security?

“Security, obviously, is our first and foremost concern,” West said, explaining the show’s deployment of magnetometers and extra security personnel outside and inside the convention center’s entrances. “We approach anything we do like a theme park or a big spectacle, and we take it very seriously.”

The production team’s caution extends to costumes and accessories. “We have a lot of cosplayers who come in, and we message out very clearly that no guns of any type are allowed in the building or they will be turned away. We had one guy who wanted to come in as the character Ash from The Evil Dead. He wanted to have just the butt of a shotgun sticking out. We said no.”

West and his partners are grateful for the relationship Midsummer Scream enjoys with the City of Long Beach. “It’s symbiotic, really, now that we’re bringing in crowds and putting heads in beds. Businesses recognize and appreciate us. We’ve had restaurants that have brought pies and little welcome bags over.”

In addition to being embraced by the city, he said it was “gratifying” to be loved by the haunt and horror community.

“When you work on a project for so long and you sit back and see thousands of people streaming in and having a great time, it’s not only a proud-papa moment — it’s very humbling.”


This article appears in the OCTOBER 2019 issue of Amusement Today.
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