Monster Camp: Attack of the Living Nerds

“Oh boy, sleep! that’s where I’m a Viking!”
–Ralph Wiggum

If you want to jump around in the woods with a toy sword and whack people dressed up as lizard men, have I got the film for you. Or if you want to laugh at the people who spend weekends doing this, you will also be entertained beyond belief. The true story of that Cheeto-encrusted World of Warcraft player from South Park and his descend into madness, and the life-affirming tale of a young girl who escapes the event horizon of a life of nerdery.

“Careful! He has obviously eaten someone already!”

If you’re not familiar with the Geek Hierarchy, please click the link and take a gander. LARPers, which stands for Live Action Role Players, are people who dress up in costumes and play RPGs, role-playing games. The most famous is Dungeons & Dragons, but take any nerdy genre like science fiction, horror, or zombie hunting and you’ll find a LARP for it. I first heard about them from a ‘net friend back in the day, who acted in a mystery-style one at a hotel during a science fiction convention. In fact, it’s not much different than one of those “Murder Mystery Dinners” except the dinner will be cheetos and Mountain Dew, and your ‘actors’ will be pimply, pasty fat nerds straight from momma’s basement. For the record, I have never played or even observed one. I consign my nerdery to occasional die-rolling drinkathons with a small group of high school friends for fun and nostalgia’s sake.

The old arrow through the eyebrows gag

Monster Camp is a documentary about a group in Seattle who run frequent games of a fantasy LARP called Nero, and the players who flock to live the Dungeons & Dragons dream. Much like my preamble to the Chiller Theatre Expo invasion, if you ever feel like you live a wasted life, this documentary will cheer you up better than a handful of happy pills. While Cullen Hoback’s film does focus on the unapologetic nerditude of its subjects, by the end there is a glimmer of hope, and even some sympathy.

What, you’ve never seen a guy with scales before?

We’re introduced to the concept when a gaggle of guys dressed in shabby costumes cavorts out of the woods to harass a small group of people dressed in ramshackle Rennaissance Fest gear. Cowboy drover coats and frilly pirate shirts a la Seinfeld mingle to create the fashion of an imaginary fantasy land culled from their imaginations. A state park becomes peopled with Lesser Fin Folk, or merman type critters, darklings and other creatures from fantasy classics with new names, to appease the copyright laws. Our intrepid heroes put up a good fight, swinging their padded toy swords and calling out “4 normal!” or “2 magic!” as they mimic casting spells by throwing little tied-up bundles of birdseed at their targets. LARPing in Seattle is biodegradable, at least. If they miss any “spell bags” during cleanup, a squirrel will feast on their playthings.

Attack of the Dream Moth

The group sadly does look like a Hogan’s Alley of nerd stereotypes. There’s a corpulent, bushy-bearded fellow who, like most of the LARP gang, is obsessed with the World of Warcraft online video game when he’s at home. There’s a fellow who has no job and plays video games all day in Mom’s Basement. There’s a lonely, homely girl without many friends. And the long-haired guy who looks in shape and out of place here, but who’s just so into fantasy that he’s still an outsider. If you took a Renn Faire and shook it, this is what would fall out, minus the odd Ye Olde Turkey Legge and Dixie cup of mead. Their social skills are lacking, but only a few incite that bully gene to cock your fist and inflame the desire to inflict a swirlie. They are no more obsessed than the pet lovers of Erroll Morris’s Gates of Heaven, or the film make in Chris Smith’s American Movie, and they’re a lot less dangerous to themselves than Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.

The real lord of the rings

Those are all better documentaries than this, but this is a solid effort from Cullen Hoback. I hope he continues making films. He manages to engender empathy for these outcasts, even as they bicker over rules or other ephemera. Each of the players gets a small cameo interview, where we learn some of their background. One woman is wheelchair bound and loves that when roleplaying in this way, no one sees her as just another handicapped person. She also craves the human contact, for otherwise she has one good friend and a dog for company. While home alone, she can escape in fantasy novels, but at “Monster Camp” she meets new people with common interests. And gets some fresh air.

Together we will rule the forest as father and son

This particular Seattle LARP costs $60 per play for a weekend. The “story” must be written; people must be recruited to dress in monster costumes, for the players to whack with nerf swords; and I’m sure they have to pay the state park to reserve it. The game itself is sold in book form, but that is the rules; the “Dungeon Master” as they’ve been called since D&D days, does the story-writing. And it takes its toll; this game seems to involve well over a dozen people, and they’re all depending on him for their enjoyment. The looks of shock and disappointment on the players’ faces when the folks who run the game say they want to give it up are real. In the end, our WoW-obsessed redbeard ends up buying the storyline for an undisclosed amount, so the game can go on.

The true fate of Violet from Willy Wonka.

So the story has a happy ending; what touched me most was the afterword, when one of the socially crippled young women says she finally is going out, with friends she met here, to do something as mundane as bowling. That was a huge accomplishment for her, and if you imagine how sheltered your life must be to be so excited about bowling with a few friends, you can feel a glimpse of the loneliness in these people’s lives. Having grown up a bit extroverted but also interested in some classic nerdy pastimes, I’ve always wondered if the socially maladroit are more easily lured toward escapism, or if obsessing on escapism is what makes us socially inept. I think it can be either or a bit of both. So whether you’re a nerd or not, Monster Camp can be entertaining; either to mock and laugh at those who take fantasy and escapism one step beyond, or to relate to the strange things they do to escape lonely reality. When the one girl escapes the obsession and makes that one small step for man, but a giant step for nerd-kind- in going out with friends to go bowling- it’s hard not to crack a smile, and hope that she won’t be that crazy lady upstairs who dies alone with 40 cats feasting on her corpse someday.