Forgotten States Road Trip: Part II – TransWorld 2018

I planned the Forgotten States Road Trip around TransWorld, since being in St. Louis already saved me about a thousand miles had I done these two trips separately. Although the convention itself was pretty damn good this year, I did not particularly enjoy my visit – for a number of different reasons. But through adversity, I can say that I learned a lot and I believe I’ve figured out how to get the most out of TransWorld in years to come.

Overall Assessment of the 2018 TransWorld Convention

TransWorld 2018On the whole, I was pretty impressed by this year’s trade show floor. “Robust” is the word that keeps coming to mind when I describe it. I felt like it had the same level of energy (or greater) as my first year in 2016. Which, of course, was a vast improvement over the yawn-fest that was 2017.

I was disappointed to see that two of my favorite vendors – Grim Stitch Factory and Hauntiques – did not make appearances this year. Pale Night Productions had a pretty lackluster exhibit, too, much to mine and everyone else’s chagrin. There was also the sense that several exhibitors were just not ready. I remember that well into the afternoon of the first day, Fog It Up still didn’t have its booth put together. Then there was the part of the Dark Zone that truly was dark – no display lights and no apparent representatives for Hazard Room or Fable Studios. At least, not during the times I was looking.

Despite these issues, the overall show floor was vibrant and… robust! In particular, Scare Factory redeemed themselves after a poor showing last year.

Why I Left Early

I always knew that bringing Remy with to TransWorld was a major gamble. Once I decided to make TransWorld a part of the larger road trip, I knew Remy had to come with me. I just wouldn’t leave her behind for such an adventure. But even if I was willing, I couldn’t afford to board her for so long. But I knew that meant four nights and four days of being trapped downtown, in a packed garage with no in/out privileges, and very little in the way of grassy areas for Remy to go exercising in.

I knew that she could handle long stretches of being cooped up in a truck. I also knew that she wouldn’t have much appetite and would resist going potty in the downtown parks. But what really alarmed me was that she wasn’t drinking any water, either. That’s when I knew I had to get back out on the road and in an environment where we’d have a little more space to stretch our legs.

It wasn’t the end of the world. I still got two days on the show floor, which was more than enough time to see all of the exhibitors and make decisions on purchases. I did, however, miss out on three nights of hanging out with friends, attending two social events (that I paid $70 for non-transferable tickets to attend), and joining St. Louis students on Saturday for the March for Our Lives.

Corporate-Consumer Culture

Many years ago – shortly after I moved to Green Bay, but long before I became a haunter – I visited three haunted houses one October. First, I went to Burial Chamber. They had this room, which I now know to be called a “vortex room”. It’s an elevated platform bridge that goes through a spinning tunnel that is painted and lit in such a way to induce acute vertigo. I thought it was the trippiest, coolest, and most awesome thing I had ever seen.

A couple weeks later, I went to Terror on the Fox. To my delight, they too had a vortex room, which allowed me to have that trippy experience one more time! But by the time I went to Green Bay Fear the following week and went through a third vortex room, the novelty had worn off.

I’m not knocking any of these haunts. Nor am I knocking the vortex room. But this experience illustrates a core problem I have with TransWorld. Haunt owners all buy from the same vendors. The haunt industry is not big enough or diverse enough, and so every haunted house attraction ends up being the same as every other, just re-arranged in different ways. Sure, there are quality differences between haunts. Some haunts can and do invest much more money than others. Some are much more effective in execution and creative design. But if we’re all being honest with ourselves, there are a lot more similarities between any two haunted houses than there are differences. And that’s really unfortunate.

Nowadays, I can’t walk into a haunt without instantly recognizing the vendors of props. And the reason they can be so recognizable is because they mass produce their products. I see corpses and props and costumes and masks that are perfect copies of items I’ve seen at TransWorld. They’re mass-produced. And any manufacturing expert will tell you that fast and inexpensive product replication is the key to profit.

I take a lot of pride in the fact that every corpse, prop, mask, and costume I’ve made has been a hand-crafted, custom piece. No two people possess identical products of mine, because identical products don’t exist. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine how I could ever turn a profit (even on the low budget I am willing to live off of) if I continue to handcraft every piece.

I had a great conversation with a representative from Reynolds Advanced Materials. They sell a lot of materials that I want to learn how to work with, including resin, foam, rubber, and silicone. They also offer classes. I’ll probably register for them. But their classes are entitled “Mold Making & Casting” and “Life Casting & Skin F/X”. Molds. Casts. Great.

Do I sell out? Learn how to make molds? Mass produce? Or do I stick by my guns and continue hand-crafting props?

Or should I even make a business out of my haunt craft?

This was my third year at TransWorld, but it was my first year as a non-attorney. Even though I was well on my way toward retirement, minimalism, and becoming a nomad last year, I was still working toward the goal. Now I am retired. Now I am a nomad. And now I am fiercely anti-consumerism. That’s given me some fresh perspective.

I was hanging out in the lobby of the convention center. A man – the owner/operator of a haunt – sat down across from me. He was on his cell phone, presumably speaking to a manager or business partner. He was talking about marketing techniques, customer retention, throughput, and maximizing profit. I was losing respect for him the longer I listened to him talk.

I get it. Technically, he’s a haunter, like me. He’s doing what he’s doing because he’s passionate about haunts. And I also get that he’s in business, needs to make money, and has to think about these things. But my god, what a turn-off. And that’s when I really started to feel like all of TransWorld is just a corporate consumer trap. Vendors selling low-quality products for way too much money. Haunt owners refusing to pay their builders and actors, depending entirely on volunteers (and then wondering why their volunteer staff isn’t loyal and reliable).

Maybe I should have my hobby be my hobby. If I try to make a business out of it, my customers will ruin my passion. If I try to make a job out of it, my employers will ruin my passion. Yes, it would be AWESOME to make money doing my passion, but not if mixing my passion with money is going to ruin my passion.

Personal Conflicts

Last year, I managed to get a nice group photograph of a large group of haunt friends in front of the St. Louis Marriott. This year, I was really hoping that I could get a photograph of my entire group of my closest haunt friends.

Unfortunately, Bones and Morgan couldn’t join us due to work conflicts. There was a third of our group gone.

Then I learned that – at some point in the last month – a “rift” developed between two more in the group. So now our group was torn in half. I’m not going to list names, nor am I really going to discuss any details. For one thing, I don’t like gossip. For another thing, this blog is not an appropriate place for gossip. And for another thing – I don’t have any details. I didn’t ask. It was none of my business. Though I’ll be honest – it’s not exactly difficult for me to guess what happened.

Drama sucks. And drama that splits up a closely-knit group such as this sucks extra. It cast a gloomy cloud over what was supposed to be a fun social event for us haunters. It forced some of us to choose who to talk to – almost to the point of taking sides – because we can’t get all of our friends into the same room together.

And look, I’m not innocent, either. There were people at TransWorld that I don’t want to talk to. But at least in previous years, those of us who went down to TransWorld were pretty much in agreement about who we wanted to hang out with and who we wanted to avoid. This year, the tearing apart of friendships and the creation of others has created a complicated and unsettling dynamic.

And I’ll be honest – I really do blame the sale of Terror on the Fox to 13th Floor for this. I can’t directly blame 13th Floor for all of the friendships that have dissolved in the past two years. Hell, I probably can’t blame them for any of them. The decision between two people to be friends or not is a personal decision. I am 99% certain that 13th Floor had nothing whatsoever to do with the recent rift I’ve been referring to. And I’ve maintained friendships with a few people in spite of them being affiliated with 13th Floor. But I do believe that the sale of Terror on the Fox to 13th Floor laid the groundwork for fractures and schisms. At the very least, I believe that more friendships would still exist today had the sale not occurred.

But regardless of who is to blame, the point remains that when two close, long-time friends (who are friends with so many others in the haunt community) split up, it really fucks up the dynamic for the rest of us. I’m not taking sides. I’m not mad at either one of them. I am just sad that this is the reality. It sucks. Fortunately, I was only in St. Louis for two days, so I got to limit my exposure to the awkwardness a bit.

TransWorld Is Too Damn Long!

Gawd, four days was too long, even during my first year at TransWorld.

At least back then, everything was new to me. I was like a kid in a candy store at Christmas. All the sweet stuff I was seeing for the very first time! Plus I had enrolled in 3 or 4 seminars and events, so I didn’t even get to be on the floor the whole duration of the convention.

And yet, it took me less than four hours to walk over the entire convention floor. Usually I review catalogs and notes the evening of the first day. Then I go back for an hour or two on the second day to make purchases and maybe stroll around to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I spend most of the rest of the time trying to invent ways to kill time until Sunday afternoon.

I understand why TransWorld schedules these things for four days – to accommodate people whose schedules aren’t as flexible as mine is. Some people can only be there for one or two days. Some can be there Thursday or Friday. Others have to wait for the weekend. So should I curtail my visits to TransWorld?

Nowadays, it doesn’t even take me 4 hours. 90% of the stuff at TransWorld, I’ve seen before. It doesn’t take 4 hours to check out the 10% of new stuff.

Well, if the convention floor was my only focus, then I would definitely shorten my plans next year to two days. Hell, I might even skip TransWorld for a few years so that 10% new stuff gradually becomes 30% or 40% new stuff. Or, if the corporate consumer culture of TransWorld is really getting to me, maybe I should stop going to TransWorld altogether!

Except, that’s not what TransWorld is all about. It’s a social event. What bummed me out about leaving TransWorld early this year was not missing out on the floor, but missing out on my friends.

But the social events aren’t the answer. I thought they were. I thought at long last that I could convince myself of the importance of networking and overcome my social anxiety. But not so. The organized events are pointless. They’re large, they’re crowded, and they’re noisy. Even if I find someone worth talking to, I can’t have a real conversation with them at these parties. I wouldn’t be able to hear them. So why am I pissing away $70 for event tickets that end up completely squandered?

Clearly, I need a new approach to TransWorld next year. So these are my goals for 2019…

  • Go to the trade show for a few hours Thursday morning.
  • Use Thursday afternoon/evening to digest what I’ve seen, to review my notes, to review catalogs, and make a purchase plan for day 2.
  • Take 2 hours Friday to make purchases.
  • Find something else to do Friday afternoon and Saturday. Anything else. Preferably in downtown St. Louis, since most parking locations don’t have in/out privileges.
  • Come back each evening, but don’t go to the organized events. Hang out in front of the Marriott. Hang out in friends’ hotel rooms. Drink. Get stoned. Whatever. Those are the social events I’m more comfortable with.

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