King Henry VIII was on the throne, working his way through Anne Boleyn on his wife-littered path to notoriety. The village of Scarborough, England, was under siege, not from power-hungry French or Spanish kings but from a virus of unknown origin. Without warning, entire families turned into zombies, gnashing at each other until every household was infected. And Whiskey Grimes, monster hunter in training, was on the front lines of the resistance.
Grunting and groaning like the achy-breaky undead that they were, a family of newly minted zombies staggered toward spry warrior Whiskey, stumbling across the grassy yard of the local sword smith. To Whiskey's right, a fortune-teller seemed bemused by her predicament; Whiskey took solace in the seer's indifference. "Surely, if I were destined to be maimed, the fortune-teller would be preparing to come to my aid," thought Whiskey—or she would at least call Ye Olde 911.
Whiskey stood at the ready, slightly crouched with her right hand hovering over the mallet she would need to drive sharp wooden stakes into zombie brains, ensuring their return to their natural corpse state. But as their glazed expressions came ever sharper into focus with each step, Whiskey was paralyzed by flashbacks of the traumatic night when her family was consumed by the zombie virus, dying and then becoming terrifyingly resurrected before her very eyes. She remembered looking back as she ran from her small English village, recalling the all too vivid and painful image of her loving father tearing a massive chunk of flesh out of her mother's arm with his rotten teeth.
Scarborough Renaissance Festival
And so Whiskey fled these approaching zombies and hid behind the nearest tree. She could only hope that her mentor, the legendary Sir Daniel Raptus, could save them both from the heinous plague of zombie undeath. Just in time, Sir Daniel swooped before the zombies, black cape casting a long shadow in the setting sun. Still dripping with the fresh blood of their kin, the zombies halted at his command. Sir Daniel had vanquished these kinds of creatures before and would again. After all, it was his duty as the world's most famous slayer of monsters and hunter of ethereal beings. As for Whiskey, she would maintain her title: Magnificently Mediocre Monster Hunter in Training.
That is perhaps how the great zombie plague of 1533 would be remembered were it to be immortalized on parchment in the Mythical Monster Museum, an immersive magical attraction at Waxahachie's Scarborough Renaissance Festival, which is often called Scarborough Faire. But what really happened on one pleasant weekend in May 2008 was slightly less dramatic: A girl in a velvet corset ran from a family of wrap-around sunglasses enthusiasts, ducking and covering as a towering man in a wide-brimmed black hat looked on with feigned dismay. The corseted girl was me, and the family had been enticed into mock zombification for my monster training education by my instructor, the man in the cape known as Sir Daniel Raptus.
'Tis the beauty of the Ren fair. If you'll pay $20 to walk around and look at blown glass, overpriced swords and people in feathered caps, you're likely to do just about anything for entertainment—including act like a zombie. Lucky for this family, they encountered the best thing about Scarborough—the mythical monster hunters played by artists-actors-designers-craftsmen-and-special-effects-gurus Daniel Carro and Allen Hopps. As Sir Daniel Raptus and Magnus Krane, respectively, the men spend eight weekends a year slaying monsters and educating the public on the potential dangers of fairies, ogres and vampires.
Their jobs combine live theater, improvisational comedy and on-the-spot family counseling as they wander the festival giving impromptu lectures, executing slapstick bits and making the occasional child cry for no apparent reason. Ever brave and courageous, Raptus, the God-fearing medieval superman, and Krane, styling himself a 16th-century Crocodile Hunter, agreed to take on an apprentice in this reporter. They dubbed me Whiskey Grimes (named for my cat) and armed me with a rusty ax. I wanted to specialize in zombie hunting, and I knew I would be able to find no better teachers than these. But more than having the knowledge necessary to save myself and others from the brain-num-num-numming hordes, I wanted to possess the power held by Raptus and Krane: the ability to entice both the cynical and the credulous into moments of pure belief in their realm of monsters and ghosts.
In the most dangerous assignment of my career, I embedded with Raptus and Krane, vowing to face whatever came our way. There would be times of trial, encountering trolls and vampires with sinister plans and barely beating out World of Warcraft geeks in monster trivia contests. Most disconcertingly, I would begin referring to the entire event as "Faire," the painfully nerdy, assumptive term with no preceding article used by regulars to mean a field full of corseted women rather than a place with corny dogs and cotton candy. My mouth, busy with monster business, just couldn't be bothered to say the whole thing.
But the ultimate challenge for this fledgling monster hunter would be a battle of summer blockbuster proportion. Magnus Krane, captured by a 10-foot-tall ogre, would have to rely on his pupil to rescue him from certain death. Would Whiskey Grimes rise to the occasion, becoming the fearless monster hunter she dreamed of being? Or would she fail miserably, leaving her mentor to die at the hand of a bloodthirsty beast as people sipping from Styrofoam cups of Dr Pepper looked on in horror? That would all depend on my ability to suspend reality.
"It is escapism," says Carro of their Faire adventure. He's based in Orlando but, as Hopps' best friend and monster museum business partner, he comes to North Texas every spring for a spin as Sir Daniel and a good long visit with Dallas-based Hopps. The Mythical Monster Museum, now in its fourth year at Scarborough Renaissance Festival, is the product of years of the kind of "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" speculation favored by those for whom comic books, monsters and superheroes could never be too real. The pair honed their imaginations together in their 20s when they worked together on Florida tourist attractions. Carro and Hopps have little patience for folks who scoff at the very tangible world of magic contained within the walls of their museum.
"I want to prove that there's magic in the world," says Hopps, a statement I'd normally be quick to dismiss as fluffy schlock dripping with Disney-esque pap if it weren't coming from a bearded, burly, wolfish man who creates said magic by sculpting models of trolls and ogres so fearsome that kids who are way too old to be scared by such things refuse to enter parts of the monster museum. It is one thing to let oneself be mentally whisked away by J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, or some other author with initials and an overactive imagination, and it is another to physically find oneself surrounded by house elves and golems, looking into the face of a man who swears he brought them there himself.
The magic lies in the moment when a surly dad finds himself enthralled by a detailed examination of werewolves or a child refuses to pass by the live troll cage. Sure, the smile of a child is always magical. But his terrified cries? Purely priceless. Certainly, Hopps' intention isn't to incite terror, but he and Carro have pulled off a remarkably effective, spooky bit of realism. Just two guys putting in years of work, spending untold hours sculpting, animating and drawing, with the ultimate hope of creating an Orlando theme park-quality attraction in North Texas.
"Wouldn't it be great if we could build a cool world for people to come and visit?" Hopps remembers musing when he first thought of the idea for the museum in 1995. And with thousands of words explaining each slain monster, brilliant details like a beast scat display and a seemingly endless body of slaying and vanquishing knowledge available in the minds of Carro and Hopps, the Mythical Monster Museum is perfectly real for anyone willing to entertain the idea that in an alternate universe, two monster hunters named Raptus and Krane spend their lives slaying all that is evil before doing what any good monster hunter would—return to a somewhat stuffy manufactured building in Waxahachie and put their trophies on display.
There are three kinds of people who go to Renaissance fairs. The first group includes my mentors, people like Carro and Hopps who get paid to dress up in period costume and develop intricate characters that make the experience come alive for patrons. They are dorks, and they have figured out how to make a living off it.
The second group has cash to burn, a kid or two, and a free weekend to dedicate to the frivolous pursuit of goofiness. They are dorks, and they are happy to help other dorks make a living off their shared dorkitude.
And then there are the others.
The third group spends many hours and dollars adorning themselves in costumes that may or may not have anything to do with medieval history so that they may walk around the fair grounds saying "Huzzah" or "Die, stormtrooper, die!" or whatever phrase they have determined is relevant to the day. They're the kind who "bring their anime to the Ren fair," as Hopps puts it. These are the dorks without whom festivals like Scarborough Ren Fest would merely be amusement parks, rather than bastions of escapism. These dorks want to be among the cast, not merely entertained by them. I must avoid being one of these dorks.
"We portray; we don't pretend," says Carro, stressing the difference between the kind of dork I'm supposed to be as Whiskey Grimes and the kind of dork who wants to wear chain mail while chugging a Bud Light in his Ray-Bans. With a full court, including King Henry and Queen Anne Boleyn (played for the last 20 years by Allen Hopps' wife, Shannon, who has ruled at Scarborough for far longer than the real, ill-fated Queen Anne sat on England's throne) as well as ladies-in-waiting, guards and foreign dignitaries, Scarborough Faire is one of the best-respected Renaissance fairs in the country. The players are experienced actors and, most important, grown-ups.
"You know you're in trouble when King Henry is 17 years old," jokes Hopps, who started by performing all over the country at fairs as an experienced stilt-walker. Up to 12,000 visitors a day trudge over the 35-acre fairgrounds, open weekends through Memorial Day. Scarborough is now in its 28th year and getting bigger with each spring. And it's a family business—the same two families have owned and operated the fair since its inception.
Mid-afternoon on a Saturday, Sir Daniel and I are making fairgrounds rounds, stopping women who treat Faire like Halloween. That is, they use it as an excuse to dress like a slut or, in Faire parlance, a tart. They favor fairy wings and corsets and must have their "papers" to avoid being arrested or fined by Sir Daniel, who does not allow troublesome fairies to gad about without proving their innocuousness. (Fairies are cute but hardly good-natured, a fact that comes as a surprise to most monster museum-goers who tend to forget that Tinker Bell was a selfish bitch.) They can pick up registration cards at the museum, and many Faire fairies carry the cards with them in pouches, should they be stopped by Raptus or Krane.
Standing near one of the Faire kitchens, Sir Daniel and I are picking out patron targets when we spot Sir and Lady Furry, a couple clad exclusively in animal fur, with white fuzzy bra and miniskirt for the woman and a fur kilt for the gentleman. They have gone all out...except for the elaborate plastic stroller pushed by Lady Furry. Their baby babbles happily, enjoying all the modern conveniences of bottles and diaper bags, unaware that his parents had time to fashion form-fitting fur swimsuits but couldn't be bothered to throw even a fuzzy blanket over the pram. Anyone missing a new human, circa 2008? There's a kidnapping cave couple on the lam.
I'm taking it all in on my first tour as Whiskey Grimes, Magnificently Mediocre Monster Hunter in Training, and the prospect of running up to patrons and asking them if they've had their children tested to see if they're goblins, a favorite monster hunter bit, is decidedly scary. Not because I fear rejection from unbelievers intent on mowing me down in their hunt for a turkey leg, but because I'm afraid of getting the lore wrong and disappointing Sir Daniel. We spent months planning costume and character, and to really be magnificently mediocre would break my dorky little heart.
My journey into extreme nerdery began with a routine trip to Scarborough last May, a place I was sure would be full of easy targets for a surly journalist looking for a story. But fate brought me to the Mythical Monster Museum and Sir Daniel, who steadfastly refused to break character as I attempted to interview him. What did he do during the week? Vanquish ghosts. Where did he live? Nocturne Keep, the castle inside Scarborough Renaissance Festival, home to the monster museum. Why did he dress all in black? Because ghosts see in the negative, thereby making him glow with threatening light-power. Also, it's slimming.
A year and several hours-long phone conversations on the art of character-building later, I stood in the attic of Nocturne Keep, holding still while Raptus and Krane tossed axes, mallets and belts my way, fastening me up with several pounds of monster-hunting accoutrements and placing a black beret on my head. Costume in place, I was ready to transform. But into whom?
I have never been particularly fond of my surname, but ever since I came home from the pharmacy with a bottle of medicine for my cat that read "Whiskey Grimes," I knew I was on to nomenclature of greatness. Whiskey Grimes: wizened gold prospector or world-weary bluegrass banjoist? When Dan Carro heard the animal's name, he immediately suggested it for my character. After all, Indiana Jones was named after the family dog.
As for my personality, we decided I would be a kind of medieval Trinity à la The Matrix, using my innate talent to conduct thorough monster ass-kickings in an attempt to avenge the death of my family, killed years before by the zombie virus. One of my first tests would be to tame the monster museum's "live" troll—a gangly guy in a big-eared, long-nosed mask constructed by Hopps.
"Whiskey!" Sir Daniel summoned me from the back of a pack of museum-goers that included a solidly terrified schoolboy who had to be coerced into the dark bestiary where the troll is kept. One of Sir Daniel's favorite bits is convincing frightened children to face the troll with courage, but this boy refused to put his hand in the cage.
"Demonstrate for this young man how to tame the troll!" Sir Daniel commanded, and I strutted toward the cage confidently, keeping an eye on the boy, who was even closer to bursting into tears. We had talked about Whiskey Grimes as an unstoppable, if green, badass anxious to hone her fighting skills on offending creatures. But as I watched the schoolboy shudder in fear, I knew one-upping him would only make him feel worse.
So I let my whole body have a shake, as if preparing myself to jump off a tall high-dive. I turned in a circle, hand pressed to my forehead in a display of worried panic. Then, I clapped my left hand over my eyes, shoved my right hand in the cage, and waited for the troll to strike. Just before he was in nibbling distance, I shouted as Sir Daniel had instructed me: "GET BACK!"
The troll retreated, and the little boy, emboldened by my cowardice, put his own hand in the cage. His shout was fierce, if shaky, and Sir Daniel grinned as the troll made for the cage corner.
Turns out, Whiskey Grimes is not a badass, but a presumptuous know-it-all and fraidy-cat eager for approval. Sounds suspiciously like someone I know. But with no rehearsal and only a vague idea of who the monster hunter inside me would be, Whiskey Grimes' entire character burst forth in a 10-second bit that defied months of planning. So goes the unpredictable life of a monster hunter.
Wandering the expansive grounds is exhausting, and after a day of staged jousts, swordfights and proclamations, the Scarborough cast kicks back with a little post-Faire tailgating. Shannon Hopps, Queen Anne, likes to unwind with a folding camp chair, a strong Cabernet and some stinky cheese. Ethan, the museum troll, likes tallboys and standing up after a long day of crouching. Dan Carro sips diet soda. There is laughing and giggling and flirting, and everyone is refreshingly normal for people who spend their days talking in fake British accents.
And then there is the "Junk." I have been instructed repeatedly only to call it the "Junk," because my preferred term ("Carnie Camp!" whispered in an excited hush) is highly frowned upon and, admittedly, incorrect. Just behind the cast tailgating party, the "Junk" is where traveling Ren fair shop owners and artisans go at the end of the day. The sword makers, leather masters, iron workers and costumers who sell their wares at Scarborough often travel across the country all year long. Their place of refuge here is this pseudo-outdoor bar where dreadlocks are the fashion and for some, teeth are optional.
Cast members do not tend to mingle with Junkers; the two parties ominously separate after hours, as if those who dwell in campers could never have anything to discuss with permanent structure owners, despite their shared familiarity with men in tights. I am discouraged from going into the Junk alone, and so I take my protector, Sir Daniel. We stand in front of the bar, a kind of houseless porch, glowing warmly with yellow light. It is only a matter of moments before we're approached by a mulleted boy who appears from behind a picnic table.
"HI!" he exclaims, running to Dan as if toward a long-lost and well-loved uncle. Dan clearly has no idea who the kid is.
"It's ME!" the boy insists, puffing up his chest. He was a guardsman last year, he reminds Dan, who suddenly remembers and gives him the same beaming smile bestowed upon the frightened troll cage boy. Dan asks him what he's been up to lately.
"Trying to get my horses back together," the boy says. Oh dear, I think. What doth go on in the Junk?
"Did they have a fight?" I ask the kid, who replies with a plaintive "No," before explaining: Back home, wherever that is, heavy rains have forced his horses into two different pastures. This is all the information we get before the boy zips back to his picnic table and the minstrel on a nearby stage starts up another woeful tune.
Everyone knows and likes Sir Daniel Raptus—even the Junk-dwellers—though they may not know Dan Carro at all. Raptus and Krane are Ren fair BMOCs, constantly being solicited for autographs and pictures by admirers and fans they barely remember but who hang on their every word. Kids send them drawings, and busty wenches call their names from hundreds of yards away. 'Tis a dork's dream. And even I got a little taste—of popularity, not busty wenches.
Day 2 of magnificently mediocre Whiskey Grimes got off to an excellent start with a monster quiz show conducted by Raptus and Krane on the west side of the fair. Our roving pack of monster hunters, which includes a sometime sea-creature slayer who calls himself Captain Graves, stopped a family in the lane for a little monster hunting Q&A. It came down to me and an American Eagle-clad teenager who looked far more likely to spend his Friday nights sneaking Boone's Farm into football games than memorizing monster facts.
Turns out, the kid was a World of Warcraft geek who puts the kind of effort into fighting swampwalkers and gnolls that I put into tackling Law and Order marathons. But when Magnus Krane asked him how Beowulf slew the beast Grendel, the kid was at a loss. "I haven't seen that movie!" he bellowed. Whiskey Grimes was enraged!
"Beowulf is no film! It is the finest of classic Old English poetry, a rollicking tale of monsters slain and ladies wooed!" I hollered. Or, so Whiskey Grimes guessed, since neither Whiskey nor Andrea had ever seen or read it. In the lightning round, I could not come through as the Ren fair dork I needed to be. Indeed, I couldn't even come through as the half-educated English speaker I claimed to be. I knew nothing of Beowulf's smooth slaying moves, conquering Grendel by tearing his arms off.
But I did know which soulful satyr god played the flute, and with a decisive shout of "Pan!" the game was mine to win. Take that, gamer nerd. Ren fair dork 0wnz j00. Further victory came soon after, while walking down the very same lane alongside Sir Daniel, a swagger in my bucket-booted step.
"WHISKEY!" shouted a middle-aged woman with a heavy Spanish accent, excited not about the sweet alcoholic nectar but about me, Magnificently Mediocre Monster Hunter in Training. Sir Daniel stopped in his tracks. When patrons remember your name, you've arrived.
"That is so cool," he gushed, slipping briefly out of character to congratulate the both of us—Whiskey and Andrea—on a job well done.
But being a monster hunter isn't all sex and slaying, parading around like a super smooth agent of the forces of good. It's a life of tough trials and lonely nights, not only because hanging out at Ren fairs is one of the best ways to ensure that you'll never get laid by a man without a ponytail again. And it's hard to start a family when you know how risky it is to bring into this world a child who could be stolen by a hag or transformed into a changeling.
It is, however, all worth it when a grown man in a baseball cap asks, "So, your concern is with vampires?" when he sees the stakes strapped to the sides of my legs. Or when a young mother with a baby far too young to care brings her kid in for a tour of the museum because Sir Daniel has advised her that the baby could have goblin blood. People turn to monster hunting for different reasons. Sir Daniel loves the look of wonder in a child's eye. I, on the other hand, prefer to incite the willful suspension of disbelief in adults who really ought to know better.
Just when I thought I'd hit my stride at the end of my first weekend as a monster hunter in training, Raptus and Krane told me of my final task: To become a full-fledged monster hunter, I would have to rescue Krane from the clutches of an ogre that he would allow to catch him. I would have to use my wile and skill, combining physical agility and monster knowledge to free my mentor. This would be much, much harder than defeating a World of Warcraft nerd in a game of words.
'Twas one week later in the year 1533. The village of Scarborough, having recently been cleansed of its troublesome zombie population, had but a moment's rest before another beastly plague befell it. A local ogre had been driven out of the nearby mountains by its clan because of its exceedingly bad breath (and the degree of badness of breath here cannot be understated if we are to believe an ogre was excommunicated because of said breath, as ogres smell terrible and terribly.) The people of Scarborough had but one choice: to call in a monster hunter.
Well, they had three choices, really. Magnus Krane, Sir Daniel Raptus and Whiskey Grimes were all available, as they'd hung round the village post-zombie vanquishing for a little monster hunter R&R, taking in the air and smashing fairies to pieces. Once the ogre began terrorizing the village, however, the fairy-smashing got put on the back burner (of the wood-burning stove). Ever reckless, Magnus Krane decided that Whiskey Grimes, monster hunter in training, should be the one to slay the ogre as part of her final lesson. Ever unorthodox, Krane decreed this test would be conducted under the most dangerous of circumstances: He would allow himself to be captured by the ogre, and it would be Whiskey's duty to track the ogre back to his lair, slay the beast and set Krane free.
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Against his better judgment, Sir Daniel agreed to the plan, despite assuring all that it was folly: Not only would Whiskey receive a failing grade on the assignment, but Krane would likely lose one to three limbs in the process. Brave Krane wandered round the village unarmed, boasting of his innate tastiness, and was swiftly scooped into an iron cage by the great green ogre. Supervised by Sir Daniel Raptus, who would in actuality be totally inept in an ogre emergency because of his specialty in ghost-vanquishing and general unfamiliarity with beast-slaying, Whiskey tracked the ogre into the hills as it stumbled back to its lair with Krane encaged.
Whiskey crept. She sneaked. She ooched. She loaded her mostly trusty blow-dart gun with poisoned darts that would tranquilize the ogre in his lair, just as she'd been taught by her instructors. And just at the right moment, just when the ogre turned his broad back, exposing his shoulders and making himself a prime target, Whiskey wasn't paying attention. But at the next-to-right moment, when the ogre was at a slightly less ideal angle, she spat out her poison darts in quick succession, bringing the ogre (and the cage it was carrying containing Magnus Krane) tumbling to the ground.
With several swift whacks of her axe, Whiskey severed the ogre's head and ran into the village of Scarborough with it lifted high above her head, proclaiming her success. She and Sir Daniel exchanged medieval high-fives. The town rejoiced. And Magnus Krane was stuck back in the ogre's lair, left to free himself from the cage with great difficulty. He arrived in the village of Scarborough some hours later, weary and covered in ogre's blood. He gave Whiskey Grimes a passing grade, but barely.
It was a fine way to end my monster-hunting education, shooting wooden darts at an ogre, yet another special effects wonder courtesy of Allen Hopps' endless dedication to creepiness. And the sweet little Faire kids enjoyed tossing the great foam ogre's bloodied head around after I emerged victorious from the beast's lair behind the monster museum. But the best was yet to come: At the end of the Faire day, I was hustled up to the front gate parapet to fire off the closing cannon, bringing another medieval weekend to an end. Nothing blew up, and everyone walked away with their limbs. Indeed, everyone in Scarborough lived happily ever after—except for the ogre. And the zombies. And the gremlins. And the fairies. And the trolls. And the banshees. And the kraken. And the area's surrounding craft and building supplies—for Raptus and Krane will stop at nothing to slay and display every evil beast that walks (or floats, or flies) upon the earth.