Thursday, January 14, 2021

PhenomiCon: Conspiracy or Con?

Most fan conventions come out of existing social groups. Fan clubs, societies, and formal or informal circles of like-minded enthusiasts come together to create events. PhenomiCon was different; it was the convergence of disparate, sometimes diametrically opposed groups, thrown together in an specific time and space for a limited window of opportunity. If there was a common denominator, it was that most of us were participants in the Atlanta SF/comics fandom scene in one way or another, staffing conventions, vending in the dealers room, screening videos in the video rooms, organizing or attending events of all kinds. 

I was one of the organizers, and part of why I started this Atlanta Fantasy Fair blog in the first place was to have somewhere I could talk about PhenomiCon, not only as a seminal Atlanta fantasy/nerd convention, but also as a life-altering event in a way that only a nerd convention can be. Many, many other people made PhenomiCon a reality and my fuzzy memories of thirty years back should not be held responsible if their contributions aren’t given proper respect. Thank you all. 

So. It’s the late 1980s. Some of us had been getting into computers, the early internet, BBSes, hacking, and what was being called “cyberpunk.” Others had been publishing and sharing zines and zine culture. Others had been into the Church Of The SubGenius, the Principia Discordia, RE:Search’s PRANKS book, performance art, hoaxes and culture jamming. Some of us had been struck by Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy and, as an extension, the paranoid but fascinating world of conspiracies – JFK assassination conspiracies, UFO conspiracies, and the occult, mystical, secret society cycle of Freemasons, Templars, et cetera. This was all swirling around our various social circles at that time, and at some point the decision was made to host a festival that would combine all these interests and see who’d come, and what, if anything, would happen. 

We decided on a name – PhenomiCon. A date – November 1-3, 1991. A location – the Powers Ferry Holiday Inn at I-285 and Powers Ferry Rd. A color for the flyer – goldenrod. We held a promotional room party at DragonCon that crammed a hotel room so fire-code-violatingly full that people were standing on the beds, hollering at the ceiling, for no discernible reason at all. That somehow convinced us that we could put on our own show. Most of the prep for the convention involved getting together at somebody's house, writing copy for flyers, program books, and USEnet posts, and figuring out who we could convince to show up for very little money. Staff and attendees alike were a collection of everyone who felt marginalized by the nerd convention scene and by society at large - computer hackers, gamers, conspiracy theorists, underground cartoonists, hemp freaks, the extreme left and right meeting around the end of the horseshoe to complain about how they'd been mistreated. There was even some guy who really wanted to talk at us about the Amiga and the Video Toaster at length, but was unable to connect that to our event. That’s one thing we learned; an event with a vague mission statement and an air of excitement would draw promoters and hustlers like a magnet, wanting to attach their thing to your thing at your expense. 

PhenomiCon maintained a defiant and abusive attitude towards other fan conventions, which looks great on paper but is absolutely terrible in practice. Convention organizations have to use the same facilities, share the same staffers, vendors and frequently the same guests and panelists. Bad blood makes all this sharing more difficult. We should have been good neighbors and saved our attitude for the stage. However, we didn’t, and as a result other conventions in town either ignored or were actively pissed off at us. Not a great place to be.

Ivan Stang, Robert Anton Wilson, empty space, Robert Sheaffer

As the convention approached I and other organizers found ourselves in states of low-grade panic, occasionally ramping up into panic of the full-blown high-grade type. This was the first time I’d ever been anywhere near this level of event organization, an event that relied on a lot of moving parts, a lot of weird people showing up when they were supposed to and doing what they said they were going to do, and not suing the hell out of us if they happened to lose money or break their leg in the process. Thirty years later, details are fuzzy. I remember offering Rev. Ivan Stang a beer, because I’d forgotten the moving and very public acknowledgement of alcoholism he made in a chapter of his marginal culture guidebook “High Weirdness By Mail.” I remember the bands being a draw completely separate from the convention itself, which is obvious in hindsight but at the time blindsided me. I remember not having any idea of where one would get weed if somebody, say one of our guests, was to want some weed. I made some poor decisions that weekend, one of which involved me totaling my car the Thursday before the convention, which is why I went around that weekend with a big bruise on my face from where my head impacted my windshield as my car impacted the retaining wall of I-75. 

That first PhenomiCon happened, regardless of driving skills or panic. Robert Anton Wilson came and impressed us all with his wisdom while amusing us with his New Jersey accent. The Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of The SubGenius arrived with a giant Dobbshead, ready to Devival. Local occult rock act King/Kill 33 played their hit song “We Never Went To The Moon.” The panel rooms discussed fanzines, comics, Bigfoot, the Roswell Incident, Area 51, and the Christian Crusade to Stamp Out Science Fiction. The Conspiracy LARP game sent seekers throughout the hotel searching for hidden truths. The cult movie video room was where we learned the difference between "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Strangers IN Paradise". UFO theorists and skeptics organizations mixed uneasily. UFO skeptic Robert Sheaffer of CSICOP debated Robert Anton Wilson. And in the vendors room, the Libertarian Party offered their political orientation test to all comers (turns out we’re all various flavors of Libertarian, surprise!) 

RAW gets the spirit of Eris into his pineal gland

Other 1991 guests included characters like Milton William “Bill” Cooper, a UFO writer who would later go straight down the Illuminati-antisemitic-white supremacist-tax evasion rabbit hole and die in a standoff with police. Don Ware from the Mutual UFO Network spoke on UFOs and their implications on world religions. Robin Quayle talked about mutilating cattle. Mark Jaeger, Charlie Pilcher,and Caryl Dennis delivered a three-part panel covering a UFO History of the World, while marijuana enthusiast and Dr. Hook keyboardist Joe Ionno spoke about, and perhaps on, hemp. 

the Skeptics review PhenomiCon

Apparently there was a costume contest and an amateur film festival, but the SubGenius Devival was the highlight of the convention, filling the main event room. While most anybody who wanted to deliver personal testimony of how “Bob” had changed their lives was allowed to rant, both Robert Anton Wilson and Rev. Stang delivered top notch preaching, and I was shot and killed by Stang myself. 

Rev. Lefty Vacationland preaches the word of "Bob"

Obviously we were going to have to have another PhenomiCon. I forget why we moved from the Powers Ferry, but we moved to a venerable Atlanta hotel and event location which had started as a Dunfey’s Royal Coach and briefly became a Radisson before settling on calling itself the Castlegate Hotel & Conference Center, which is where PhenomiCon 1992 was held November 13-15. In the interim between PhenomiCons, the organization published a short-lived zine titled “Chapel Perilous” that served to promote the upcoming show, sell leftover 1991 merch, and engage the community that had survived the first P-Con.

PhenomiCon’s guest list expanded. Perhaps the star of the 1992 show was local Atlanta figure Kerry Wendell Thornley – author of the Discordian bible “Principia Discordia,” and possible second Lee Harvey Oswald. Thornley had served in the Marines with Oswald, kind of resembled Oswald, used him as the inspiration for a pre-assassination novel, had lived in New Orleans around the same time as Oswald, and sometimes believed he’d also been programmed as an assassin. Thornley’s Oswald novel “Idle Warriors” had just been republished by Atlanta publisher Illuminet Press (RIP, Ron Bonds) and Thornley’s self-published writings were freely available on the telephone poles in Atlanta’s Little Five Points. 

PhenomiCon 1992 t-shirt graphics

Other new guests included author of "Black Helicopters Over America" Jim Keith (who would die as a result of injuries sustained at Burning Man 1999), Gemstone File conspiracy researcher Stephanie Caruana, cyberpunk SF author Bruce Sterling, Apocalypse Culture writer & Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey, “Conspiracies, Cover-Ups And Crimes” author Jonathan Vankin, and “marginal culture” figures like Bob “Abolition Of Work” Black. The Rev. Ivan Stang would return with a crew of SubGeniuses including St. Janor Hypercleats and the SubG band “The Swinging Love Corpses.” 1992’s panels included “Vampires: Myth or Reality,” talks on UFOs and conspiracies and anti-work, an “Introduction to S&M,” “Atlanta’s Position in the New World Order,” and “Conspiracy-a-Go-Go.” One speaker showed a highlight reel of the Masonic imagery contained in Kubrick’s “2001,” and we found out that screening Russ Meyer films might draw an audience that was, shall we say, unironic in its consumption of adult material. 

they played for two solid hours

Looming over the 1992 PhenomiCon was a palpable feeling that the coalition between the hipster conspiracy tourists and the actual conspiracy nuts was collapsing. I mean, getting endless telephone calls from UFO kooks demanding to be read the entire schedule over the phone isn’t behavior that endears the community to convention organizers. Stang and Bob Black were then in a marginal-culture pissing match, which wasn’t helped when Phenomicon put them together on a panel. Were we trolls? (around this time a SubG artist mailed Bob Black a homemade explosive device consisting of a flash cube and some firecrackers, an act which can and will get somebody arrested.) Up and coming space-surf-rock band Man Or AstroMan? came to PhenomiCon for pretty much nothing – thank you, fellas, you’re still the best - to perform on the main stage after the Devival. However, the Swinging Love Corpses kept corpsing and corpsing and corpsing, their long-hair rock-star wigs falling onto the stage, the drone of their tuneless howling driving everyone out of the room, the failure of Phenomicon to grasp stage management as a critical part of live events becoming painfully apparent. So MOAM? set up in the hallway outside, in the downstairs motor lobby of the Castlegate, and they blew the doors off the place with a blistering set. Thanks again, guys. 

Picture late Saturday night in the wreckage of the main events hall at the Castlegate; the big-deal SubGenius clergy have left, the rock bands have packed up, all that’s left is garbage and techno-trash and staffers standing around in the middle of it all, wondering where the fun went. The organizers and staff were exhausted, irritated at each other, or had gone into thousands of dollars of debt trying to make the thing happen. Or all three. Maybe we’d proved our point with two PhenomiCons. Maybe it was time to hang it up and let the conspiracy win.

the breakout star: my vintage industrial lamp, shown here

Most of what PhenomiCon did - the UFOs, the Kennedy conspiracy stuff, the computer hacking, that whole Mondo 2000 smart-drink world, well, all that got mainstreamed pretty quickly. The big PhenomiCon events like the SubGenius devival and the edgy Masonic-imagery rock bands became yearly events at DragonCon. TV every week featured the paranoid rants of every flying saucer-obsessed P-Con guest on The X-Files or an A&E show about ancient aliens. The cutting edge computer stuff became something you could do at home by yourself over AOL. There was no need for us to have a PhenomiCon when PhenomiCon was happening all the time everywhere already. 

There was a half-hearted talk of a third show in 1993, but that didn't get any traction, and we did have one meeting about doing a show in 1999 or 2000, but the whole landscape of hacking, cyberpunk, UFOlogy and conspiratoria had all shifted too dramatically. A few high-profile hacker arrests, paranoid cult standoffs and terrorist bombings will do that to a subculture. Dampening any remaining enthusiasm was the sad truth that there's a big world of alien abduction experts, crystal healer past life channellers and Illuminati insiders all getting rich peddling patent nonsense to gullible suckers, and that's a world I don't want to even be tangentially connected with. One visit from the Men In Black was plenty! We’ve all seen firsthand in recent days what the mindless amplification of conspiracy thinking can do to public life, and PhenomiCon was a part of that, whether it meant to be or not. 

After the fact PhenomiCon became a legend of sorts, this mysterious event that came and went, leaving nothing behind but memories and debt. In its afterlife as a topic of USEnet forum posts, online columns and letters to fanzines P-Con assumed perhaps greater importance than it had in reality. PhenomiCon was referenced in a wide variety of popular and scholarly books, including Kembrew McLeod’s “Pranksters: Making Mischief In The Modern World,” “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy And Power In American Culture” by Mark Fenster, and Kenn Thomas’ “Parapolitics: Conspiracy In Contemporary America.” 

Mcleod's "Pranksters" covers PhenomiCon

The early 1990s might have been the only time a first-time convention could have attracted the guests P-Con did. In a few years most PhenomiCon guests would either command large speaking fees, or be unable to speak entirely, as in, a lot of PhenomiCon guests have since passed away. Maybe the stars really did align perfectly there for an instant, enabling us to conjure a big bubbling melting pot of outsiders all bouncing off each other. Maybe the world needed a space where flying saucer fabulists could spin their yarns while also being challenged by the audience, where the paranoid and the suspicious could get out of their bunkers and their own heads, if just for a weekend.

-Dave Merrill

Thanks to Ed Hill, Jason Finegan, Rod Ramsey, and especially Scott Weikert, for making it all happen


Rev. Susie the Floozie said...

Thanks so much for this rundown of this gathering of freaks that had such an apocalyptic impact on my future trajectory! I knew Scott Weikert from the AFF days and early Dragon*Con, and I supported his efforts to help pull off a minicon in Atlanta. But the irresistible lure of PhenomiCon 1 was that you were staging an actual SubGenius event just a few miles from my home. I'd joined the Church back in 1981, and for 10 long pre-internet years I'd been a bimbo in Limbo--I hadn't met anyone who was hip to the beat about "Bob". I was pining away to connect at last with my own kind...and BOY, did I EVER!!! Once I met Stang, I slid down that greased chute of Slack and never returned to PinkWorld. And I can't thank you enough for the part you played!

So...where do I send the flowers?

Vick D'Mental said...


I’m looking for information regarding a “convention within a convention” that happened in either 1986 or 1988 at one of the DixieTreks. You seem to know this turf pretty well. Any ideas what this might be?