Several weeks ago, the night before an early screening of "Pacific Rim," I could not sleep.
In the middle of the night I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming of the neon-colored images from the movie's trailer. I could not say why, exactly, other than that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" is about giant robots fighting a war against giant monsters and, despite being in my 40s, I have always had a thing for giant monsters.
Even as other childhood obsessions — "Star Wars," baseball cards, Judy Blume — collected cobwebs, for reasons I never quite comprehended I have remained embarrassingly devoted to monstrous spiders, radioactive lobsters and fire-breathing pituitary cases, preferably the Japanese brand.
So much so that, though "Pacific Rim" has been in theaters less than a week, I have seen it three times. So much so that my morning Internet routine now includes a scan for news about next year's "Godzilla" reboot.
Believe me, I would prefer admitting to an "Everyone Loves Raymond" obsession before admitting to a Japanese monster fetish. Nevertheless, last weekend, on a lovely summer day, I found myself in a hotel in Rosemont, holed up in windowless conference rooms at G-Fest XX. It's the world's premiere gathering of fans of Godzilla and other large monsters, or "kaiju" in Japanese.
I had hit rock bottom.
But for a reason: I wanted to understand why I still liked this stuff.
G-Fest, which has been in Rosemont most of its two decades, now draws about 2,000 fans annually; they buy from Godzilla collectible dealers, meet with kaiju film actors and show off homemade kaiju costumes, a relatively intimate get-together by comic book/geek culture convention standards. And so, on Saturday afternoon, I found myself watching as a man in a giraffe/lizard costume, J.D. Lees, the 58-year-old Canadian schoolteacher who founded G-Fest, battled slowly with a younger man in a gorilla/insect costume, Krys Baioa, a 23-year-old from Milwaukee, who, a decade ago, found his purpose in life at G-Fest. They were making a kaiju fan film for the festival, miming their way through combat moves in front of a green screen.
When I arrived, Baioa was lurching at Lees, who accidentally toppled backward, falling with a squish on his thick foam tail. The crew rushed in to help. Cameraman/Elmhurst native Billy Dubose shouted, "Cut!" Baioa's muffled voice could be heard behind his mask: "You OK?" he asked, staring into Lees' long dinosaur face.
"I can't see; it's awful," Lees said.
I stood to the side and watched with Sheri Baioa, Krys' mother. She has volunteered at G-Fest for years. Nearby was a model city ripe for destruction, its traffic cone-size electrical towers waiting to be knocked over. As big a fan of kaiju movies as I am, I told her I couldn't imagine going this far, spending time making a kaiju film.
She nodded sympathetically. "I know," she said, "but it happens."
She explained that her son got into giant-monster movies as a child, and at first she didn't understand the obsession or the appeal of the movies: "All he wanted to do was watch 'Godzilla.' He would tie a jump rope to his shirttails and say that it was his tail-tail. He was so obsessed, I thought he might have psychological problems. I called my health insurance company to see if they covered (treatment) if it got worse than this. He talked about Godzilla like Godzilla was a childhood figure other kids would know, like the Tooth Fairy. We had to explain that Godzilla wasn't real.
"I hoped for it to go away, but it didn't go away. So 10 years ago I heard about (G-Fest) and took him. I was worried that I was only making the problem worse, but I wasn't."
Krys, who chuckled at his mother's old worries about his childhood mental health, told me later that the first time he walked into G-Fest, he began crying. "Until I was 12, I was a disconnected Godzilla fan. I thought I was alone," he said. Eventually, a couple of years ago, inspired by their trips to G-Fest, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in man-in-suit acting roles. Despite the ubiquity these days of digital movie monsters, he has carved out a modest niche, appearing in short films and working at Disneyland as a character escort, shepherding Mickey and Donald around the park, expecting someday to climb into a character suit himself.
His mother is proud.
Wow, I said, as we watched the filming. What is it about giant monsters?
"To be honest," Sheri said, "it's such a part of our lives now, I've never stopped to think about that."
A confession: When I was 8, I didn't skip my best friend's birthday party because I was sick, as I instructed my mother to explain when he inevitably called, wondering where I was. On that Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s I was home, with the shades drawn, watching "Destroy All Monsters." It was there, with the weekly "Creature Double Feature," that I caught the kaiju bug, sitting through the camp of "War of the Gargantuas" and "King Kong Escapes," enduring the punishingly tedious plots of "Godzilla vs. Megalon," and "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" just to gape at 15 minutes of large dioramas being kicked apart by men in rubbery, dead-eyed costumes.