By Jaimz Dillman
This year marks a pretty big anniversary for what’s become a staple here in Central Florida.
Spooky Empire, the dark side of ComicCon, celebrates 20 years this Halloween weekend and I got to chat with the madman behind it all, Petey Mongelli.
When asked how this whole thing started, Mongelli said. “I used to work for KISS and do their conventions. I wanted to do a rock n roll convention but the whole scene was dying. Seeing Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson doing horror I thought there may be something to it.” Zombie remains the white whale fans request to appear over and over. Mongelli says he wants Gene Simmons.
Starting with Screamfest, the convention eventually was just called Spooky Empire with bi-annual incarnations like Mayhem and Summerween happening halfway through the year. Mongelli said, “All the things we could think of to make it exciting.”
The weekend-long event has become a gathering place for misfits and outcasts. Those who live on the fringe of the norm, and like it that way. A pop culture, horror, and rock ‘n roll celebration, Spooky combines all things that are a little dark and different. With celebrity guests, q & a panels, after-hours parties, live bands, special performances, tattoo convention, film fest, car show, a massive vendor room offering one-of-a-kind finds, and one of the biggest costume contests around, there’s definitely something for anyone who wants to join in the macabre fun.
And the little monsters aren’t left out either. A Kid’s Zone with offerings for ghouls of all ages keeps Spooky a family affair. “We tried to keep the adult entertainment element out of things and reserved for the late-night parties. Parents can come with their kids, and yeah things may look a little scary, but these are the people who like that stuff.” Kids are also encouraged to dress up to trick or treat through the vendor room and show off during their own costume parade and portion of the costume contest that wraps everything up Sunday afternoon.
Over the years, Mongelli has seen growth in the horror market. “ We didn't start thinking it would go for 20 years. I remember the second year- we showed the Devil's Rejects trailer, and there was a line around the building, and thought- we've got something here. Used to be, only 3-4 conventions around the country all year. Now, it seems like there’s one every weekend in cities all over.”
Finding venues to accommodate the ever-growing experience, Mongelli has moved Spooky all over the Orlando area and even did a run in Tampa. “In Orlando, it's a corporate world. It's very hard to find a space cause other companies can buy you out of your space. We go back to the same venues 'cause they can accommodate us and they're available.” said Mongelli.
When asked what really got Spooky on the map, Mongelli said getting Robert Englund to appear- of Nightmare on Elm Street fame- really made attendance skyrocket. Heavy hitters like the cast of The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, reunions of casts from Rocky Horror Picture Show, Friday the 13th, Willy Wonka, and specialty panels from the artists who create creatures, the people behind HHN, and suit actors from movies like Godzilla, Star Wars, and Scream has given fans once-in-a-lifetime chances to meet and talk with their heroes. Now celebs know the name when Petey comes calling.
“Spooky isn’t like other conventions where you have to pay to even walk up to the table. We’re more like backstage at a concert. You can talk with anyone, and hang out with the celebrities at the VIP party, we even have celebs help judge the costume contest. It’s more of a relaxed atmosphere and a party.”
Though access to those celebs is pretty easy, lines are still a thing. The kids from the newest It movie and Stranger Things definitely caused a stir. Sometimes the celebs handlers request a separate space for their particular meet-and-greet, and the prices for autographs and photos are always set by the celebs and their team. But that’s all part of the experience, too.
“We have people who come back, year after year, like a family reunion. The Spooky Family is a real thing. We’ve had weddings, and babies, and come together when needed for our communities.”
Spooky showed support for Orlando after Pulse by letting all know all are welcome through their doors with a rainbow version of their famous Frankenstein logo. Pop-up markets were created after hurricanes and COVID-19 canceled events so at least the vendors could make some money back and attendees got a little creepy shopping done. More recently, longtime and loved volunteer coordinator Denna Beena- as she was known- lost her battle with cancer and the Spooky family was out in full force helping raise money at her memorial for her favorite charities.
Mongelli doesn’t work alone of course. His wife of over 20 years, Gina is with him behind the scenes and often putting out fires in command central at the hotels. Kim Wilson works to herd the vendors and organize that space, plus a plethora of volunteers, who come back year after year, and help in every aspect from handing out wristbands to directing the flow of foot traffic through the hallways. Even the Mongelli’s daughter has grown up learning the ropes and has probably met more celebs than she can count.
When asked what the plan is to celebrate 20 years this October, Mongelli said, “I haven't been doing a lot of interviews but working 24 hours a day to get this show done. It’s gonna be the same stuff, but more. More of everything. We’ve added a drag show this year, 3 stages, more music, bigger parties- just bigger and better!” All the mayhem starts Thursday, October 26 for early check-in and runs through Sunday the 29th at Hyatt Regency on I-drive. Discounted rooms and still available. And, as Mongelli says, “Come for the whole weekend. There’s no way you'll see it all in one day.”
Tickets are already on sale and VIP and hotel rooms are sold out but surrounding hotels still have rooms available. Regular admission tickets are available on the spooky website. All guest appearances, schedules, and info can be found on spookyempire.com.