When you think of science-fiction and horror conventions, an image of the gathering usually comes to mind: that of pasty-faced zombies who've spent too much time in front of the tube watching bad slasher flicks and "Star Trek" reruns.
Or perhaps you imagine lunatics roaming the halls of a hotel dressed in Darth Vader costumes, vampire capes, Klingon makeup and bondage outfits, calling room service and asking for a "Romulan Burger." And let's not forget those sickos who wear hockey masks and wield chain saws and machetes.
Well, you've got it all wrong.
That's what Gary and Sue Svehla say. They should know. The two are founders of Baltimore's Horror & Fantasy Film Society and have been holding film conventions for eight years.
"We tend to attract people in their early 20s to people in their 50s, but mostly baby boomers," says Mr. Svehla. "It's a more sedate crowd."
This weekend marks the return of their "Fanex" convention -- three days of movies, panel discussions, memorabilia displays and auctions designed for the serious horror film fanatic.
And they do mean serious.
"We're one of the only conventions that focuses on classic films from the '30s to the '60s. We're not into splatter and gore," Mr. Svehla says. "Most shows don't appeal to what we like. Other shows focus on a party-type weekend where the booze flows and people are running around. We have fun, but we don't get too wild."
In fact, the Svehlas seem to be the opposite of what a "typical" horror film fan is supposed to be. He's an English teacher at North County High School in Anne Arundel County. She's the pleasant voice residents at Dunfield Apartments hear when they call maintenance and say the garbage disposal needs repair.
They're nice people. They have lives. But more than anything, they have an intense passion for old films.
"When I was a kid, I would watch anything -- I just loved movies," Mrs. Svehla says. As for today's horror films, she says, "If you watch a film from the '40s, you can see that they were written so much better. . . . Today all you get are special effects."
Mr. Svehla agrees. "This is the worst era for horror films today. We've started turning out trash. . . . Movies today have the special effects and the makeup, but they don't have the heart or the soul of the classic films."
At the age of 13, Mr. Svehla started a movie fan magazine called Gore Creatures. Thirty-one years later, he is still producing his movie 'zine, now called Midnight Marquee. There are almost 4,000 subscribers to Midnight Marquee and, according to Mr. Svehla, the numbers keep growing. "It's been a real labor of love," he says.
The Svehlas met, not so surprisingly, at a film convention. "I was setting up movies to show, and she was a friend of a friend," Mr. Svehla says.
"When we first started dating, we'd go out to the movies two times a week," Mrs. Svehla says.
They've been together ever since.
"My wife is very much a film buff," Mr. Svehla says, adding, quite sweetly: "We're really bonded together by our love of films . . . we've been married 10 years now."
The couple started the Horror & Fantasy Film Society for their similar-minded friends in Baltimore. After a few years of holding meetings and going to movies, they decided they wanted more. Tired of going to other conventions, where the focus was more on sales of movie memorabilia and not on the movies, the Svehlas decided to hold their own.
The first Fanex was in 1987 at a Howard Johnsons. With a budget of $200, the event attracted about 150 people. This year, about 1,000 people from across the United States, Canada and even a person from Japan will converge at the Sheraton Hotel in Towson for Fanex 8. The budget is more than $15,000.
Fanex, of course, isn't the only sci-fi and horror convention that hits town. They include "Shore Leave," which attracts a loyal sci-fi and "Star Trek"-loving crowd; and "Chiller," which focuses more on today's horror movies. But Fanex keeps away from current movies and television shows. Instead it stays rooted in the past, when horror movies were more about suspense than hatchet-wielding madmen.
In keeping with Fanex tradition, the focus of the convention will be on movies, movies and more movies. "We show more movies than any other convention," says Jim Clatterbaugh, Fanex chairman. (With the popularity of Fanex growing, the Svehlas this year got some outside help to run the event.)
A horror film buff himself, Mr. Clatterbaugh says he wants people to know that Fanex really is a different experience. "I've been to a lot of conventions. They're done on a very big scale. They're not very personable. Sometimes, the guests don't even talk to you or sign autographs," he says. "At Fanex, our guests are accessible. You can see them walking around, at the bar, in the restaurant. You can talk to them at our panel discussions."
One of the guests Fanex visitors may be able to rub elbows with is Veronica Carlson, star of such films as 1968's "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave."
That film, along with most of Ms. Carlson's work, comes from England's Hammer Studios, which produced horror films in the 1960s and '70s. Hammer movies are the focus of this year's convention.
The 1930s are often regarded as a golden age for horror films, with such actors as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff setting the precedent for what a horror film should be. Hammer Studios brought a second golden age in the '60s, says Ms. Svehla. Actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing became the Lugosi and Karloff for that generation.
"The thing that was special about Hammer films was that there was no overt sex -- no nudity," says Ms. Carlson, speaking from her home in Hilton Head, S.C. "There was a safe horror about them. . . . There was nothing too graphic. It was fantasy horror."
This is Ms. Carlson's third Fanex convention. "I keep coming back because of Gary and Sue. They are really special people," )) she says. "I thought I left the world of horror until I met them. The people who attend these things are wonderful . . . they are the complete opposite of what you might think a horror film fan might be. They are intelligent and sensitive. . . . I could not believe it could be that way."
FILMS AND FANTASY
What: Fanex 8 film convention
When: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. today; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. tomorrow; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Sheraton Baltimore North, 903 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson
Tickets: Weekend pass $25, $15 for children; today only,$10, $5 for children; tomorrow only, $15, $10 for children; Sunday only, $10, $5 for children; available at the door
Call: (410) 665-1198