As an event planner, Chapman has organized pop-culture conventions including HorrorHound, a blood-and-guts convention behemoth in the Midwest, which racked up around 35,000 attendees annually. Planning conventions about the stuff of nightmares was a dream job for Chapman, but he became uneasy when he noticed a pattern at many of these events.
“You pay money to get into the door. You pay money at the vendors. You pay money to get an autograph from a celebrity. You pay money to get a photo op with the celebrity,” Chapman tells New Times. “The conventions had become so successful, but they began to treat their audience and attendees like an ATM.”
Walking the showroom floor at these conventions, Chapman observed attendees lounging against the walls with nothing to do. He wanted to provide an enriching experience for them, even the ones whose pockets weren’t deep. Soon, an opportunity presented itself.
“I began to do some research, and I found out that Miami never had a horror convention,” he says. “Miami, the seventh-largest metropolitan market in the country, never had one.”
Chapman relocated to South Florida, severing ties with the conventions back home. A team of associates from the Midwest followed to help Chapman bring a Miami convention to fruition.
They quickly encountered a problem unique to the Magic City.
“I’m originally from St. Louis, Missouri. One of my people is from Indianapolis, Indiana. Another is from Columbus, Ohio,” Chapman explains. “If you suddenly moved to Columbus, Indianapolis, or St. Louis, then ran into us and said, ‘Hey, I’m into weird stuff — horror, goth, metal. Is there a place I could go where there’s people like me?’”
Chapman could easily rattle off a list of St. Louis venues and businesses catering to the blood-loving metalhead demographic. But he struggled to think of a single place like that in Miami.
Sinister Nights, slated for September 3-5 at the James L. Knight Center, will be that place.
“Even though it only happens once a year, maybe in the future it’ll happen twice a year, but we wanted to create a place,” Chapman says. “I named it Sinister Nights for a very good reason, and that’s that I didn’t want to limit it just to horror.”
Chapman feels that horror is unfairly pigeonholed by the public, often associating the genre as nothing more than cheap scares and bloodbaths. In reality, the genre encompasses more than that. Yes, the Nightmare on Elm Street series is horror, but technically, so are the serial-killer documentaries you frequently use as a sleep aid. And what about those true-crime podcasts that spice up your morning commute?
In planning Sinister Nights, Chapman wanted to include panels and events reflective of the genre’s diverse offerings. To that end, he has booked horror mainstays like the Night King himself, Richard Brake, and actor Dave Sheridan, who’s best known for playing Deputy Doofy, the con-man serial killer who fornicates with vacuum cleaners in the first installment of the Scary Movie franchise.
There will also be a slate of events convention-goers can enjoy free of charge, from a live recording of the Sunshine State-based true-crime podcast Full Rigor to a presentation of the five most haunted locations in South Florida to a uniquely themed party on Saturday night.
“Since we’re in Miami, I wanted to try something that has never been done before at any convention before that I’m aware of,” Chapman says. “We’re doing an '80s monster prom. Nothing but '80s music, '80s music videos. It’s going to be open to the public, so if you’re in Miami and you could care less about horror — that’s probably a lot of people — but you wanna go to some different, totally unique party because it’s Miami, you can pay money to come in just for the '80s monster prom.”
The journey to Sinister Nights’ inaugural convention hasn’t been easy. Originally slated for October of last year, the event was derailed by the real-life horror scenario that was COVID-19. Chapman regrouped and took the steps necessary to provide a safe convention-going experience for fans, vendors, and celebrity guests.
“The vendor and celebrity area is 24,000 square feet of space. So behind the scenes, as I was constructing the layout, there’s 20 feet of space between aisles, so there’s more opportunity to distance,” Chapman says. “There were a couple of celebrities that want people to wear masks. In the celebrity area where people come to get their autographs, we’re going to have a team of security. If there’s a celeb who requests to only do autographs for masked people, people will be informed upfront.”
The Sinister Nights website touts that “the tribe is coming.” That, Chapman explains, is a reference to the "tribe" of outcasts with fringe tastes — the kind of people who probably think Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor or who achieve bliss by listening to death metal.
Chapman remembers the guerrilla marketing campaign that went into the planning of Sinister Nights. He and his team visited comic book stores, tattoo parlors, and vape boutiques to drum up interest for Miami’s very first horror convention.
Chapman recalls one encounter at a tattoo parlor in Coconut Grove. As he entered the establishment, one of the employees clocked the event poster he was holding. They chit-chatted about guests when one name brought the conversation to a halt.
“'We got celebrities yadda yadda yadda — Richard Brake,'” Chapman remembers. “She screamed at the top of her lungs, ‘Oh my God, Benny!’ and she runs out the front door.”
The employee returned minutes later, shoving a large gentleman through the entrance and toward Chapman’s direction.
“Check this out,” she insisted. “Benny, show him!”
The large gentleman turned, and the entire back half of his right leg had a tattoo of the pale, blood-soaked face of Doom-Head, from Rob Zombie’s film 31, played by Richard Brake.
“‘I just finished this five minutes ago,’” Chapman remembers her saying, which only strengthened his belief that there’s a need for an event like Sinister Nights. “We talked to a lot of people in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach. It’s a large area of 7.2 million people, and because there isn’t a place to go where the weirdos hang out, we found out that someone could literally live two streets over from you that is into all the cool stuff you’re into, and you’ll never meet them.”
Sinister Nights. 8 p.m. Friday, September 3, through Sunday, September 5, at James L. Knight Center, 101 SE Second Ave., Miami; 305-416-5970; jlkc.com. Tickets cost $30 to $650 via sinisternights.com.