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The gentle giant of horror movie fandom

The buzz in the halls and seminar rooms in the Days Hotel Timonium was far more dramatic than the budget hotel surroundings. In one corner, an intense discussion of body-snatching ghouls; in another, a debate about globe-eyed beings from outer space.

But there was no hint of alarm. The only invaders in sight were 500 of the nation's most hard-core monster fans, who had gathered to talk, fantasize and debate all things gory at the 17th annual horror film convention, or "con," known as FanEx.

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Over three days last weekend, well-dressed women and tattooed men in leather vests met in harmony with frail and pale sci-fi geeks in a fanatic's paradise. Some were there because the very sight of Frankenstein makes them shriek with joy. For others, it was the Creature from the Black Lagoon that sent chills up their spines. Such differences in opinion made for some feisty exchanges when the con's philosophical monster wars, er, debates, began.

Many convened in the "Skipjack A" seminar room for a panel discussion that would attempt to answer a long-debated question: Which demise, loss of identity or possession, would be a fate worse than death? Voices were raised and hands were waved. No opinion was deemed definitive, but a good time was had by all.

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And when the sun rose again on another day of FanEx fun, the varying factions of monster fans came together once again at the ground-floor meeting space. But this time it was to give hero worship to another horror figure, North County High School English teacher Gary Svehla.

Svehla, the editor and publisher of horror fanzine Mid-night Marquee and the convention's organizer, has been a force in the monster nerd scene since he began putting his encyclopedic knowledge into print 40 years ago, when he was just 13.

Each issue of the twice-yearly magazine is packed with more than 120 pages of feature articles, historical analyses and cultural criticism of classic horror films. And though many writers now regularly contribute to the publication, Svehla's voice can still be heard in each issue.

"He's like the grand old man" of horror fandom, said his wife, Sue Svehla, who has been his creative partner for about half the magazine's life.

On Saturday, she sat close by her husband as the silver-haired bulk of a man regaled the crowd with tales of the magazine's making. He told light-hearted stories of his formative years as a horror buff -- he vomited after seeing Horror of Dracula for the first time. He recalled the time more than 20 years ago, when acquaintance, horror buff and Mid Mar fan Gene Klein -- aka rocker Gene Simmons of Kiss -- sent him a letter.

"Guess what?" the correspondence began. "I'm a star."

For the assembled horror buffs, Svehla is a star, too, and the normally sedate publisher seemed to bask in the attention, growing increasingly animated and charming as he addressed them.

But it's not a desire for the spotlight that fuels the Baltimore native, says Sue Svehla. He convenes the con to feel connected.

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"He's in his glory, with all the writers coming in to the convention," she said. "They'll just talk for hours and have the best time."

For some, FanEx is an escape from reality. For Svehla, it's a yearly reaffirmation of his passions, an annual nod to his life-long fascinations.

A real fanatic

In the world of ego-driven cons and fanzines, where genre snobbery, trivia battles and intellectual one-upmanship are standard, Svehla's annual event stands out from the fray.

Although he'll admit to possessing a knowledge of film history that borders on expertise, the unaffected Svehla is quick to make conventiongoers, young and old, neophyte and veteran, feel welcomed and appreciated.

"It's like old friends having a really long party," said Sue. Svehla fan, FanEx panelist and screenwriter Sam Borowski agreed.

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"I think it's the most unique of all the conventions. Gary's thing has a real quaint feel to it," said Borowski, who has attended five FanEx cons. Svehla, he said, has "a real following" but remains accessible to his fans.

"Whether you're on a panel or you're just a guy who comes to the show every year, Gary treats you the same, and Gary remembers your face."

That's because Svehla, who considers himself "just another fan," is keenly aware of what it's like to be feel isolated by his fascinations.

In the late 1950s, Svehla thrilled at scenes from The Revenge of Frankenstein and other classics made by the now legendary Hammer Films studio. But that excitement gave way to feelings of loneliness when the boy realized his obsession with horror movies was not shared by his peers.

Growing up in the Overlea section of the city, he would count the hours, "waiting with bated breath" until another issue of the pioneering fan magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland appeared at the local comic stand.

"Some kids played cowboys. I played Count Dracula," said Svehla, who, with the help of a tablecloth cape, would regularly practice his Nosferatu impression in his parent's back yard. But the growing monster worship came with a price: the consternation of his mother and friends.

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"I just kind of felt like, gee, is this just me?" he said.

The years of misunderstanding caused the preternaturally creative and hopeful kid to reach a turning point. At just 13, he started a "little mag," the only way he could think to find friends who shared his love of Frankenstein, Dracula and other hero monsters.

"I guess the word would be enthusiastic," Svehla said, describing his early business strategies.

His father, Richard, was amused by the young teen's new goal and said he was glad to see his son adopt such lofty publishing ambitions. But though he knew Gary was "more on the literary side" than other boys his age, he didn't believe the project would get very far.

"I didn't take it seriously. I said, 'Son, that's great. It'll keep you off the streets.' I figured he'd have something to do when he was younger and then grow out of it and move on to other things."

And, in fact, the modest Svehla said it wasn't until more than a decade later that he'd realized his goal of "connecting to an outside circle of friends."

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"I wasn't just weirdo monster boy" anymore, he said. "This was bigger than me, and bigger than Baltimore."

'Labor of love'

Thirty years after that epiphany, Svehla continues to publish the mag that links him to what's now a national, underground network of friends.

His fanzine, which changed its title from Gore Creatures to Midnight Marquee in 1976, sells about 10,000 copies each year. Still, it's yet to make a notable profit, he said.

"It's just a labor of love," Svehla said.

But its profitability aside, his fanzine holds a unique and influential place in the world of many horror fans.

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Actor and producer Mark Redfield said as "the biggest fan," Svehla has served as a conduit and inspiration for other aficionados.

"When you have a love of something, you're always looking for like-minded people to share that love with. And Gary has allowed that to happen for many people. He's allowed so many other fans to have access to stars," Redfield said, among them actor Christopher Lee and Academy Award-winning stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen, who brought monsters to life in pictures like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and Clash of the Titans.

The opportunity to connect with their heroes in the intimate FanEx setting has led many to become devoted to the convention -- and to Svehla.

Others, however, have taken the product of his time-consuming and expensive mega-hobby a little too seriously. Artistic differences or minor philosophical disagreements have caused some disgruntled fans and fanzine contributors to end friendships with him; a few have even threatened his safety. Sue said that one man threatened to would blow up their house after they cropped his original artwork so that it would fit onto a page.

"The man was a little erratic," Svehla said dryly. "But he was an artist, remember."

Even those sorts of tribulations haven't stopped the ever-positive Svehla, though he admits his sensitive shell has hardened slightly since the early days when he duplicated copies of Gore Creatures by hand or hectograph.

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Now, he's just glad that the dialogue between fans is continuing.

"The important thing is to hear something," he said.

Like Svehla, the active fan base for vintage horror is slowly creeping toward seniordom. And the younger population is, at best, marginally interested in monster movies. So in closing his speech in the tiny FanEx convention room, a wistful Svehla was sure to thank anyone and everyone who ever thought fondly of monsters in film.

He thanked "every reader who had ever paid for or traded for a copy of the mag."

He thanked every contributing editor, artist or critic.

He thanked his dad and Sue.

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He thanked his friends and all the conventiongoers.

Midnight Marquee and FanEx, he said, "provide a forum to keep these [films] alive." But they also keep a dwindling group of "monster people" feeling alive, too, he said.

"It won't change the world ... or find a cure for cancer, but it does make a lot of people happy, and I'm glad for that."


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