There’s a tale I frequently tell during “Con Horror Stories” that tends to get a surprised reaction from the crowd. It’s not a horror story, but rather one of those tales that illustrates the beautiful moment when con world and real world collide to the benefit of both sides. Given how many serial congoers and other attendees often speak of encounters that have ended poorly, the fact that the moment when con meets public can end in something positive is often surprising, and sometimes heartwarming (or at the very least refreshing).
This tale is one of the latter. Given the date and time of it also tends to increase the impact. I decided to finally record this one because it’s now a few weeks after Anime Boston, and this is one of those tales that I feel could only come out of that event. The fact that it happened at Anime Boston, the same year as the now-infamous “Hetalia Incident,” only speaks to the breadth of the community, and the nature of a certain other community that is known for being extremely welcoming.
I was standing in a church on Easter Sunday in 2010, because I felt guilty I was missing my regular service on account of an anime con. Not that I’m all that religious, but church on Easter was a powerful tradition in my family, and one that I gladly took part in. I had just finished giving a panel on Religious Aspects in Evangelion, and riding the high of the sacred, I decided to look for a service somewhere near the Hynes that would accommodate my need for some spiritual fulfillment.
The chapel in the Hynes was out of the question. It had been full all day, from the moment I got there until the moment I left to head back to NY. Cosplayers mixed in with regular people in their Easter best looking for a sacrament and prayer mingled and interacted favorably for the most part, with nary a disparaging word to be heard. Leaving the Hynes, the first few churches I came across either were between services, or only had one that had long been over. I wandered down Newbury and a few side streets looking for one that was still open. I found one near the public gardens, which was about to start its third service of the day, and slipped inside.
The pews were full, as expected, but there were still a thin rows of congoers clustered around the back wall. Nobody was really paying attention to us, and we were being reverential as the minister delivered a rousing sermon on the miracle of Easter Sunday and the redemption of mankind. He was pretty good, in fact, able to stir the crowd and keep my attention throughout the hour long service. The other AB attendees were enthralled as well, and casual glances at the faces of those who turned around to look at us showed they were curious, but not judgmental. Given some of the stories I had heard and seen regarding the close proximity of religious folk and congoers, this was an Easter blessing.
It was near the end of the service, and the minister had worked himself up to a fever pitch. He was raising his arms, speaking forcefully but also hopefully. He reached his climax with a powerful shout of “He Is Risen,” as so many do on that most sacred of Christian holidays.
At that moment, Jesus walked into the room.
Not Jesus, mind you- that would have made the news. But a congoer I had seen all weekend dressed as the Messiah, right down to the robe and real hair. He walked right down the center aisle and stopped in the middle of the room. Silence fell, as the minister just stared at him. The parishioners too, with wide eyes and a few jaws dropped open. I panicked. After all, I had seen some pretty scary moments earlier in the year at Katsucon where a man dressed as Jesus earned the ire of some “religious” youths. To his credit, Jesus sort of shrugged and smiled at the reverend. I will remember what happened next for the rest of my life.
The minister applauded. Slowly at first, then faster, shaking his head as a smile crept across his lips. His momentum had been broken in the most unorthodox way possible, but he didn’t care. All he saw was a young man dressed as the Saviour, and he applauded. One by one the others churchgoers began to follow suit, and the church filled with the sound of clapping hands.
Jesus got a standing ovation. And, at least in my eyes, Anime Boston received a validation that spoke more than all the positive reviews in the world.
Last May I wrote an article on the ways in which anime cons mirror sacred pilgrimages. I was hardly the first to point this out. My contribution to the scholarship of communal activity was just one more entry in the ongoing dialogue about the nature of fandom events and how they speak to those who attend. But one area I did not touch on actually speaks more powerfully about not only the appeal, but the nature itself, of the con as we know it. And it can only be explained properly through comparison- in this case somewhere along the same lines as the above story. Jesus got his ovation, but he also got something else.
I feel that cons and congoers often suffer from the popular misconception that they are in some way hedonistic and “godless.” Given the attire and attitudes of some of the visible layer at the con, this is hardly surprising, but also extremely unfair. While anime conventions might appear, at least on the surface, to be counter to widely held and “accepted” practice of religion, in many ways what goes on at the con is hardly irreligious. Nor is it a validation that attendees are all atheistic devil worshippers (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one). Rather, attendees at cons seek the same types of communal validation as anyone who chooses to partake in community activities, and are also possessed of a strong faith.
The fact that Jesus appears at the cons and more often these days and is the subject of respect among the congoers is one aspect of this. I have frequently overheard calls of “Hey Jesus!” in response to one walking by, followed by photographs and high fives, and once even the rousing chant of his name as he walked down the hall. Not a mocking chant, either, but the kind that would greet any superstar or celebrity. The fact that those same congoers pack into the Hynes chapel during Easter Sunday is another. I have encountered a fair share of openly religious attendees over the years, who greet people with a smile or high five, attend church on Sunday and still make it to the con afterwards is another. So right off the bat that notion that cons are an alternative to religion goes right out the window. While they might not be the visible majority of the weekend, they are far from uncommon, and are just as friendly and outgoing as any other attendee (one could say defying two stereotypes at once: the hedonistic congoer and the bible thumper...unless one happens to be cosplaying a priest, at which point the latter is completely acceptable. Or the congoer is an ACTUAL priest, which has also happened in my experience).
Among those attendees that do identify as being atheists (a few of them being close friends of mine), they are also very open to the idea of religion and the sacred, often choosing to attend (or give) panels related to sacred ideas, and approaching them with the same respect and due process as any other type of panel. Hell (dun dun dunnnnnn), even the attendance at such panels defies stereotypes- they’re not smatterings of bored attendees, but often packed rooms of eager faces looking to learn something beyond misdirection regarding baked goods. This is the invisible side of the sacred congoer, we don’t see it but it exists (much like the divine, if that is your persuasion).
Ignore, for a moment, the outward appearance of your typical anime con. Focus instead on the who and why- who is walking the halls, and why are they there. What draws them to the event? What do they hope to get out of it? How do they choose to express their participation and devotion? The answer, in a nutshell, is community. Friendship. New experiences. These three aspects of the con are more often than not the be all of a modern congoers experience and dictate how they go about participating.
This is hardly surprising, nor is it news. Veteran congoers have been debating the particulars of this type of practice for years, and its impact on the direction cons choose to take. But it also belies a (not so) subtle shift in the dynamic of the con- one that takes them away from anime appreciation and focuses more on the power of emotion as found within communal acts. Anime cons have come to possess an (often frenetic) energy that permeates the very air, and is itself intoxicating. Added to this the fact that these experiences can only be found within such a communal act, and it lends a sort of credence to the entire event. Cons, in their own special way, have become one of the powerful ways in which youth interact and make stronger bonds in this mediated world, stepping outside the computer and into the real world.
The same can also be said of religious gatherings. Now before anyone starts jumping on me for claiming that anime cons are the new religion, hear me out. Strip away all the sacred elements from a religious pilgrimage, and what do you get? Community activity centered around meeting new people, sharing new memories and appreciating a common interest that evokes emotion in the participant. At their most basic levels, pilgrimages are about community, and the emotion that springs up from taking part. And this emotion is both powerful, and intoxicating. It speaks to the pilgrim, and influences how they both approach and dictate their experience. Durkheim noticed this, Turner noticed this, Reader noticed this. And yet, for some people, this idea flies under the radar in the face of stereotype and misconception.
At its very core, are these two events that much different? The quest for acceptance and a sense of being “at home” is as much a part of fandom as it is of religion. Anime fans are, by and large, accepting and willing to validate the needs of their fellows. They have the potential to become a sort of surrogate family for those seeking a place to belong. They are willing to overlook differences and instead focus on the positive aspects of belonging. At the very least, they are willing to share a weekend with people they hardly know, and in many cases build bonds beyond the temporal nature of the event.
All of these same concepts exist in Christianity. In fact, if one looks back into the origins of the religion, these aspects form the core of what it meant to be Christian: love, acceptance, hospitality, community, bonds of friendship. This was what Jesus preached and looked for in his followers. This is what he treasured above all else. This is what a lot of attendees find at the con. And sometimes they also find Jesus, hanging out with Waldo and spreading good cheer.
For a closing though, think back to that guy dressed as Jesus for a moment, walking down the halls to cheers and applause. Was he dressed as Jesus just for the attention? That is indeed quite possible, and I will never know the answer. But were those congoers cheering for the guy in the Jesus outfit, or for Jesus himself? Well, a skeptic might say the former, but they weren’t chanting “Jesus guy!” They were chanting “Jesus.” Take from that what you will.