Let’s flash back to 2016, shall we.
It was not the best of years for just about anyone and I was looking forward to escaping into the world of Halloween Horror Nights, albeit a little bit nervous. I was having a hard time being in crowded places. I was making small trips to Disney here and there but would leave once I started to feel anxious and on the verge of panic.
I had fallen in love with Halloween Horror Nights in the previous year and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from enjoying it.
I was, however, reluctant to go anywhere near the Mel’s stage this year. HHN25 was home to Jack’s Carnival of Carnage which was a stage show featuring Jack and his daughter Chance torturing different victims to death. It was a great show that I had watched and photographed many times.
Now, I wasn’t as tuned into the event back then as I am now. Otherwise I would have known what Academy of Villains was and would have shown up sooner to check it out.
But I didn’t.
As a matter of fact, I avoided the Mel’s stage for almost two weeks before I friend told me that I really needed to check it out. I was still reluctant because being crammed into a crowd wasn’t high atop my list of things to do.
Then I caught it.
I happened to be walking through the Vamp 55 scare zone when one of the House of Fear shows was about to begin. I decided to stand back by the stage manager’s booth where the crowd wasn’t as thick and I watched.
For the following show I decided to get closer.
I got to the stage well ahead of the crowds and settled in. As people started to move in, I’ll admit that I was starting to regret my decision but I held strong. My anxiety was in full force as we got closer and closer to the show starting and I was beginning to think that I wasn’t going to be able to handle the crowd, the noise, the whole thing.
The show started.
I escaped into the viewfinder of my camera and found myself beginning to relax as I fell into the rhythm of taking pictures of the show.
I was hooked and I wasn’t going to let my brain get in the way of it.
It took a number of visits to the stage to finally grow comfortable with the crowds but I took control of my anxiety and was able to sit back and enjoy the show.
Over the course of the run I had the pleasure of getting to know the cast through the power of social media. Their talent and passion were electrifying and they were great fun to chat with. As we neared the end of the run, I was lucky enough to meet CJ and Krystal aka Pharside and Phoenix, the husband and wife team that founded and lead the group.
I was blown away by just how kind they both were and was beyond thankful for the breath of fresh air that they had brought, not just to the event, but to Orlando as a whole. I honestly felt that it was something we needed.
It was something I needed.
This was the year that Academy of Villains brought new life into my world. It sounds super corny and I don’t really care. 2016 was a year I thought would destroy me and it nearly did. I lost a lot of myself in the wake of the shootings at Pulse and I was terrified that I wouldn’t get it back.
But they helped so much just by being here and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
I was even more honored when, just before the end of the run, I was invited backstage to meet the cast. It was seriously the highlight of my 2016 and it is still one of my favorite Halloween Horror Nights memories to date.
When it was announced in 2017 that Academy of Villains would be returning to the Halloween Horror Nights, I could hardly contain my excitement. I was beyond excited to see what was to come and the countdown to the opening night began in earnest.
And then came Hurricane Irma.
This is where the true brilliance of Academy of Villains shown through.
The “Afterlife” stage was damaged during the storm but that wasn’t going to deter the group from putting on a show. A temporary stage was set up for the group and they were able to put together a show from scratch in time for opening night.
It was nothing short of amazing.
My villain family was back with both new and familiar faces and the energy they brought with them was infectious.
As the run continued, it became apparent that the stage damaged by the storm wasn’t going to be repaired in time to bring “Afterlife” to life. The damaged stage was removed and a new one was brought in its place. Sadly, “Afterlife” was dead- however new life came from the wreckage and The Irma Show was born.
It would have been so easy to phone it in and just perform a simple set each night to make it through, but that’s not in the nature of Villains. Instead, they worked hard and put together and amazing show AGAIN. From scratch they brought this new show to life and gave it their all, every show, every night.
They did that for us.
This was the year that they taught us to never give up. To never let the idea of giving up enter our minds and to give 100% no matter what.
It wasn’t the show we were promised but in the end it was so much more.
It was what we needed.
I got to know the new cast of characters quite well and grew closer with those returning. It was truly inspiring getting to see them every night and have the opportunity to chat with them when time allowed. Some of the House of Fear folks that didn’t make the show this year, came to visit and it was so wonderful seeing them again.
It was all but certain in my mind that Academy of Villains would be returning to Orlando for HHN 28 but it wasn’t until the official announcement from Universal that I started celebrating. I was beyond ready to see what Cyberpunk had to offer.
This year, the Villains would be taking over the stage that housed Bill & Ted for 26 years.
People. Were. Pissed.
They can get over it.
Let’s talk about 2018.
If I thought 2016 was rough, I didn’t know what was coming in 2018. Hard as I tried to keep a positive outlook on the year, I was failing at every turn. In all honesty, I didn’t think I was going to survive the year. My depression was getting the best of me at every turn and I found myself living in a darkness that I never thought was going to end.
In June, I truly thought I was going to end up in the hospital again. Back in 2017, I self admitted when I started to experience blackouts and the urge to start cutting myself. I wrote about it in a post back then when I was finally willing to face the issues I was dealing with.
But these feelings were all back and for the first time in over a year, I was giving serious thought to hurting myself. Depression, anxiety, stress- they were all getting the best of me and my brain wanted out. Not to die, but for the pain to just stop. Because that’s what I’ve discovered is the true nature of suicidal thoughts- we don’t want to die, we just want the pain to stop. I wrote about this in another post that I hoped would help people going through the same things.
2018 has not been my friend.
Flashback to opening night of Halloween Horror Nights 28. I’m met at the entrance to the Fear Factor stage by Mimi. Mimi is easily one of my favorite human beings. We met through Disney back when I moved to Orlando and bonded over Academy of Villains back in 2016. The two of us had an equally shitty year and were ready to be reunited with our Villain family.
The two of us held hands as we made our way into the theatre.
We were blown away at the transformation that had taken place there. You couldn’t even tell it was the Fear Factor stage. It had become the world of Cyberpunk. The world of our Villains.
I will fully admit that I cried.
All at once, the weight of a terrible year was lifted away and I felt like I could breath for the first time in forever. I was seeing old friends and meeting all new ones. My heart was full to the point of bursting. I felt whole again.
My friends like to poke fun at me for my love of Academy of Villains. They know if they are trying to hunt me down at HHN, there’s a good chance they’ll find me waiting for the next show.
That’s fine. I own it. I’m a superfan through and through. Hell, I dedicated my 13th tattoo to them!
The deep-down reality is that, time and time again, Academy of Villains has saved me. Through them, I faced my anxiety head on to be able to enjoy theme parks again. I found inspiration and hope through tough times. I found light in seemingly endless darkness.
In the past few years I have lost so much. I’ve lost friends to the hands of a madman with a gun. I’ve lost family. I’ve lost relationships. I’ve lost myself.
But I’ve found something so amazing, so inspiring, so magical.
I am beyond thankful for my Villain family and they love and friendship I have gained over the past three years. I have found myself inspired and excited to carry on. I’m so thankful to Phoenix (Krystal) and Pharside (CJ) for not only what they have created, but for their friendship.
I’m thankful for Francis, Gabe, Phuoc, Sakura, and Jansenn for enduring the Florida heat three years running. For Marlon and Renee for their triumphant return. For Nadeem and Austin for trusting we weren’t going to throw another hurricane at them. For Ben, Martin, Alinah, Oscar, Kendell, Somar, and Ruthie for coming into our world and blowing us away.
And again and more importantly, I’m so thankful to Krystal and CJ. Thank you for this family. Thank you for the love you have shown me not just this year but for the past three years. Thank you inspiring me, motivating me, and challenging me.
Thank you all for every hug, every shout out, every high-five, every game of backstage peek-a-boo. Thank you for keeping me going.
So there you have it. I’m a Villain through and through. The Villain life found me and I am more than happy to embrace it.
Embrace what makes you happy. People may not understand. People might make fun of it. People might judge it. But it’s your life and your happiness. And that’s all that matters.
Villains vs Everybody