07 December 2009

The Best Con Story Ever...

Or at least that's what the sign said when I first met the storyteller. The year was 2003 and the con in question was AnimeNext, at the Rye Hilton in Rye NY. I forget now what he was wearing, or if he was even cosplaying. No, what I remember about him was his giant sign, suspended over the main hallway in front of the dealer's room: "Best Morbid Con Story Ever: $1." And the crowd of people around him, all holding single dollar bills and looking expectantly towards the man, hoping that the story was not only as promised, but indeed worth the full dollar.

Now I am not one to spend my money on such things. I also have rather good hearing. So, perching myself close by, with my back to the crowd, I waited for him to gather everyone's money and closed my eyes, focusing on the sound of his voice.

"So there was this anime convention, and this guy was there, and he was a first time attendee, and as a lot of noobs do, he wanted to cosplay."

There was a murmur of assent from the assembled crowd. Yes, a lot of first timers do like to cosplay, I myself was decked out in the garb of one Tommy Vercetti from GTA: Vic City. And the storyteller went on.

"But he didn't want to half-ass it, he wanted to go all out, so he decided to go...as Devilman."

A laugh this time from the crowd. Yes, Devilman WOULD be a challenging costume to pull off. I know I've only seen it once.

"So he buys a professional makeup kit, spends months working on the costume, so it's totally perfect in every way. Horns, fangs, contacts, body paint, extra hair, the works. it takes him over and hour to apply it all, and he's riding down to the con floor, feeling very proud of himself and looking forward to all the attention he was surely gonna get."

Ah, personal recognition, the hallmark of the first time cosplayer. Choose something big, something flashy, so you stand out like a sore thumb and smile as they snap your picture. It's easily one of the most gratifying things you could ever do, and indeed it is part of the allure of cosplay itself. And how can you go wrong with Devilman? Done right, that one will make you a legend.

"Well, at the same time this con was going on, the hotel had rented out one of the upper floors for a church convention."

The crowd, including myself, all groan in unison. Now, a lot of us see where this one is going...

"Well, the elevator stops on the fifth floor and this little old lady is standing outside, holding her bible and dressed in her Sunday best. She sees him standing there all by himself. Her mouth open a little."

Wait for it...the anticipation is building, we all know what is about to happen. Or at least, we think we do.

"In a moment of brilliance, the guy looks at her and says, with a totally straight face, 'Going Down?'"

The tension is broken by a near universal exclamation, be it "oh no" or "oh my god" or the ever popular "oh snap."

"The lady just stands there, mouth open, as the doors close. He finishes his ride down alone, laughing at what he had just done. He meets up with his friends, gets a few pictures taken of him, and they all head out for breakfast."

We think it's over.

"Maybe an hour later they all are back at the hotel, and they see this huge crowd surrounding an ambulance."

So quiet you could hear a pin drop. I'm positive most of us already know what the guy is going to say, but we wait patiently for him to say it anyway.

"One of the guy's friends goes over and talk to a guy in the crowd and comes back. When they ask him what happened, he says 'Well, they found this old lady up on the fifth floor, she had a heart attack and died waiting for the elevator.'"

The crowd explodes with laughs and more exclamations of shock. As for the storyteller, he just grins, folds his hands and waits for this crowd to leave and the next to return.

This is possibly the most famous of all con stories. I tell it at every convention. And there is always one person there who has not heard it, a few who have, and more who just want to hear it again. It's funny, dark, very morbid, and the closest thing the convention scene has to an Urban Legend. It's very easy for one storyteller to claim it happened at this con or that con, but nobody can tell exactly where it started or about whom it refers.

I tried over the years to find the origin of this tale, and got as far back as a sci-fi con in the 1980s, with the cosplayer in question dressing as the demon from the Tom Cruise movie "Legend." Which is fitting, seeing as how this story has become a legend in its own right. There are plenty of variations to the tale, but the core of the story remains true and speaks to several of the central tenets of congoing: cosplay, fame/infamy/credibility and culture shock.

Cosplay is, of course, the most visible aspect of conventions. In my research, over 90% of my respondents (near 96% counting females alone) stated they cosplay, and love it. And those cosplayers cited a variety of reasons why they cosplay. While "recognition" was not the most mentioned one, it took its own fair share of the replies. Surprisingly, the majority of first time congoers were also cosplayers, who spent a good deal of time working on their costumes. They put in solid effort, and were glad when people recognized it.

Infamy and credibility go and in hand. With this tale, the character in question chose his costume because it would grant him a degree of "immortality" within the con sphere. He wanted people to see his costume and tell people about it. He spent hours working on it, chose one of the flashiest and most intricate designs in anime, and made sure it was perfect. He wanted to be more than just a first time attendee, he wanted to be "The Man." So he went about securing what he needed to become such a person. Idea of personal infamy goes far at conventions. You can see it in the large, cumbersome or intricate outfits. You can see it in the person who tattoos Renji Abarai's designs on his body, or the girl with fang implants so she makes a convincing vampire. You see it in the cosplayers who elect to portray people outside the popular or famous shows, or even anime in general. (While I most certainly cannot account for my other fellow Doctor Who cosplayers, I know that for me playing a rare Doctor stems at least in part from wanting people to recognize me and take a picture. Immature, yes, but I do feel an elation when a girl looks me over, squeals out "Oh my god! The Ninth Doctor!" and proceeds to take a dozen shots of me.) The desire to obtain, and maintain, credibility and fame runs deep in conventions, whether we desire it there or not.

Finally, the story represents another hallmark of congoing, one which I have touched upon in other entries, that of culture shock. For those who do not know, culture shock springs forth when one culture, usually the dominant or "mainstream" one, encounters another culture that is markedly different from it. Wall Street vs Street Punk, American vs Immigrant, Amish vs English, these are all examples of culture shock. The dominant culture sees something it does not understand and either becomes enamored by it, or frightened of it, and seeks to impose itself on the other culture. Sometimes culture shock is violent, sometimes it is peaceful, but it always results from one culture meeting another that is very different from its own. In this story, the cosplayer encounters the religious woman, and there are plenty of ruminations to be made about this chance meeting: a god-fearing woman faces "the devil," a "normal" person meets a "deviant," a "moral" person meets a "troublemaker," there really is no way to definitively label the encounter aside from culture shock, and it leaves for the imagination to decide what is going on in the woman's head. He know what the cosplayer is thinking, as his reply to her appearance is obvious enough: he wants to have a little fun. He is trapped in the moment and does not think about the ramifications of his actions, he just acts. And we see how it ends. This is a textbook example of culture sock gone horribly wrong, and to the listener, it can either be wickedly funny or absolutely horrifying, based in part on how the listener chooses to interpret the scene, and to which direction their own moral compass points.

That said, I found the story to be hilarious. I laughed with all the others. I didn't worry about whether or not it happened, it was just good fun, and I appreciated him sharing it with us. And I, in turn, love to share it with others. It represents what we all know, or perhaps have experienced, about cons and interactions with outsiders. I gathered plenty more stories like it during the past year, which I plan to share here as well.

And before I left, I made sure to give the guy his dollar. He earned it.

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