The Sheffield sisters hosting a weekend of pure horror

Yorkshire is to host a new, US-style convention that gives horror fans the chance to meet their heroes. Tony Earnshaw reports.

TERROR TREAT: Texas Chain Saw Massacre star Gunnar Hansen will appear at HorrorCon. Picture: British Film Institute
TERROR TREAT: Texas Chain Saw Massacre star Gunnar Hansen will appear at HorrorCon. Picture: British Film Institute

It is an accepted fact among hardened movie buffs that with sufficient planning (and money) it is possible to spend one’s entire life hopping from one film festival to another. But the traditional film festival is steadily giving way to a new phenomenon: the film and TV convention where the focus is less on watching movies than on meeting the stars.

HorrorCon gets under way this weekend at Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, headlined by author Dacre Stoker, the great grand nephew of Dracula creator Bram Stoker. The line-up also includes make-up wizard turned actor Tom Savini and the likes of Bill Moseley from The Devil’s Rejects, Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree and Gunnar Hansen, better known as Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

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Once upon a time their names might not have filtered through to mainstream fans, but the explosion of DVD, Blu-ray and downloads has ensured that even the most obscure horror, fantasy and sci-fi films are assured of a wide audience. It has meant that Savini and Co have crossed over from ‘cult’ to conventional, picking up a voracious and obsessive fanbase along the way.

The concept of the ‘Con’ originated in the United States, spreading to the UK in the 1970s. But what was once a modest, small-scale operation has evolved into a mass-market business; the San Diego Comic-Con regularly attracts upwards of 130,000 delegates.

The attraction is based around exclusive previews of new films and TV shows, guest appearances by the stars and, most importantly, the chance for fans to meet and greet their heroes.

HorrorCon isn’t looking to emulate Comic-Con – at least, not yet. Sheffield sisters Gill and Wendy Bell recently left long-term careers in healthcare and the civil service. Seeking new inspirations and “looking to do something completely different”, they looked to Wendy’s love of all things horror.

“Wendy is very knowledgeable about the genre. She’s been a fan for a long time,” says Gill. “She identified a gap in the market and we decided we wanted to run an event like those in the US, but for horror.

“We had no idea where to start. But it was Wendy’s vision and being a fan she knew it would go down well. We modelled our plans on events in the United States and took it from there.”

The sisters’ blueprint was based around two key elements: the event had to offer value for money, and the guests had to be sufficiently well-known to justify the charge made for their autographs.

It is this element that has given some conventions a bad name. There have been cracks about the ‘con’ in convention – not surprising when some stars can charge £75 for a signature.

But the Bells are mindful of the criticism. For them it was about providing a service. One of the earliest guests who signed on was Dacre Stoker.

“We didn’t want it to be a film festival because there are lots of those,” says Gill. “This was a different idea: to do it like an American-style convention. Dacre Stoker wanted to know our background to find out if we were worth bothering with. He felt we were worth investing in and has been very supportive.”

HorrorCon expects to attract up to 5,000 people. They will be offered movies, make-up demos and a battalion of artists, authors, comic book writers and even a zombie horror band.

Plans are already afoot for 2016. Gill talks about building a brand – running a main convention with smaller events in between. And defiantly in Yorkshire.

“We are from Sheffield. Why should everybody have to go down south to have some good things happen?” she asks. “We have got some good venues in the north and an international airport over the hill. Sheffield is a great place. Why should we make it difficult for ourselves?”