Why Horror and Sci-Fi Fans Love Tiki

Tiki plus fandom make a perfect escapism cocktail, and we explored the geeky, creepy, and Tiki connections at Inuhele, a recent Polynesian Pop event.

A gill-man looms next to a woman at a Tiki event
Photo: Nicole Powell/Ms. SwizzleStick

On a cold, wet weekend in Atlanta at the end of January, there gathered 600 colorfully dressed characters that included the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, Baby Yoda, Stitch, Indiana Jones, the Brady Bunch, Haunted Mansion Ghosts, a Yeti, zombies — and hula performers, Maori haka dancers, and countless bartenders serving up the alcoholic kind of zombie, along with many other cocktails. 

No, it wasn’t DragonCon, the Burning Man of nerdy events (“nerding man,” anyone?) but instead Inuhele, “Atlanta’s Tiki and Polynesian Pop Culture Event.” The three-day event is hosted by husband and wife team Jonathan and Allison Chaffin; he is the designer behind Horror In Clay, which creates horror-themed Tiki mugs and barware, and she is the curator behind MugCrate, the quarterly Tiki mug experience box. Similar to comic cons, this “Tiki con” — which grew out of the Chaffins’ own Atlanta Tiki Home Bar Tour —  features cosplay, parties, panels, crafting, costume design, live music, and a vendor room packed with artwork and crafts. There are also rum tastings and elaborately themed hotel room bars, each with specialty cocktails, many of which collect donations for various charities. 

Says Jonathan Chaffin, the home bar tour grew out of the Atlanta Tiki community’s “deep-seated love of art, hospitality, entertaining, and people,” which developed into Inuhele’s takeover at the Sheraton.

The overarching theme is the celebration of Polynesian culture, in addition to the Polynesian Pop lifestyle and cocktail movement that emerged with the end of Prohibition in 1933 (led by founding fathers Donn Beach/Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic Bergeron) — and which promised partakers the fantasy of escape to paradise in faraway lands. But Inuhele, similar to a handful of other events held annually around the nation, is likewise representative of a cross-section of pop-culture fandoms that have taken to Tiki.

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For a little background, “Tiki” refers to the first man in Māori culture, as well as a carved image of a god, and deified ancestors. As there has been more conversation about the sensitive celebration of Polynesian Pop, and “Tiki culture,” without appropriating Polynesian culture itself, there has also been a rise in the presence of horror and sci-fi-inspired “aloha wear” and art. Perhaps most famous amongst this movement is Josh “Shag” Agle, who displays at San Diego Comic-Con, and whose unmistakable work often applies a Tiki and mid-century modern vibe to iconic scenes (the Star Wars cantina, Disney’s The Haunted Mansion) and characters (Batman, Spider-Man). Another notable name is Jeff Granito, who has designed apparel giving the Tiki treatment to The Shining, The Munsters, and, again, The Haunted Mansion. The pop culture intersection with Tiki exploded onto the mainstream in 2016 with Geeki Tikis, the product line of drinkware, apparel, and accessories created by Brandon Giraldez and his Beeline Creative company. Having launched in 2016 with Star Wars Tiki mugs, Geeki Tikis now have more than 250 licenses from a wide array of franchises. Even pop culture collectible giant  Funko acquired collectible company Mondo in 2022, which itself launched its Tee-Kis in late 2016 with a set of Gremlins mugs.

Jonathan Chaffin’s Horror In Clay likewise received some mainstream nerd media attention in 2012 when he launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for his Cthulu Tiki mug, which was ultimately sold on the ThinkGeek retail site. 

“Geeki Tikis, Mondo, and Horror In Clay are just a few examples of companies marrying ‘geek’ pop culture and the tiki bar scene,” says Chaffin. “Even before Walt Disney decided to add a Polynesian experience to his theme park in 1963 tiki culture was enmeshed in the popular culture of America, appearing and incorporated into a variety genre-crossing shows and movies … Since the rise of the theme park and the haunted house, generations have fallen in love with immersive and themed environments, and that sense of wonder and immersion is intrinsic to a good tiki bar, making it an easy idea for people to connect around.”

At Inuhele specifically, the playful meeting of Tiki, horror, and sci-fi can be seen all around, from the pineapple-skull swizzles of Bare Bones Tiki, to attendees’ elaborately designed (and heavy) hair fascinators sporting entire designs of pirate ships, and homages to The Overlook Hotel, Baby Yoda, Lilo & Stitch, and Little Shop of Horrors. It is present in the work of artist and vendor Derek Yaniger, in his version of the skeleton band from 1967’s Mad Monster Party? “Little Tibia and the Phibbeans,” and in the graveyard themed “Spoo-Tiki” mug, and other horror-Tiki designs, of Pete Klockau’s The Black Lagoon Room shop. 

There was the meet-and-greet and “Tiki 101” talk held in a room themed to be Bikini Bottom from Spongebob Squarepants. Even the sounds of Inuhele, when they aren’t Polynesian or exotica, are representative of pop culture, such as with the horror surf-rock band The Creature Preachers, whose vinyl features a bloody cover with a gill-man, werewolf, and stitched together zombie woman all dressed in bathing suits.

If there is an unofficial mascot of Inuhele, it is The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The green-gilled cryptid from the 1954 Universal Monsters flick is paid homage to at every turn, even though there is no partnership between the studio and event. Along with beachwear-bedecked Frankenstein’s Monster and Bride, Sweet Siren Designs (aka Sara Yasmin) was selling “Mid-Century Swamp Couple” artwork and apparel featuring a Creature-inspired monster serving up a tropical libation in a clamshell to his bathing-suited beauty. Artist BigToe (Tom Laura) sold, amongst other glassware and artwork, a mug that resembled the bloody decapitated head of a Gill-man creature. And the “Ladies Who Tiki” community group hosted a “Cocktails in the Black Lagoon” room party complete with a full-sized Gill-man, along with a creature hiding behind a porthole and creature-themed cocktails. 

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One of those Ladies Who Tiki is Nicole Powell, also known as “Ms. SwizzleStick” in the community, and who served up drinks with her group while decked out in a sparkly green dress, matching wig, a gilly hand headband, and Creature pendant. She says she was introduced to the monster by her mom who introduced it to her home Tiki bar. 

As far as Tiki’s crossover appeal, she says, “Paradise can be a common theme that a lot of fandoms like to play with. Everyone can relate to fantasy and escapism, and Tiki is at the center of it all.”

Yet the Creature wasn’t the only Universal Monster represented at Inuhele. The Mummy was likewise the focus of a hotel room bar decorated to look like a tent set up on the excavation site of an Egyptian tomb. While Brendan Fraser’s 1999 The Mummy projected on the outside of the tent, the inside was populated by a sarcophagus and cocktails — such as the “God Bless the Queen” tea-and-gin drink, and chai-infused rum drink “Mummy’s Kiss” — by the Tipsy Tomb Raiders who warned, “Inhale and submit your soul to Ra.” 

The adventure theme continued just a few hotel patios down at the pop culture mashup party “Indiana Jones and a Very Brady Curse,” where bartenders/cosplayers served up The Famed Sidewinder’s Fang, and a tale about Bobby Brady’s cursed Tiki idol (inspired by the actual 1972 “Hawaii Trilogy” episodes of The Brady Bunch, featuring Vincent Price), and how he came to team up with the famed archaeologist. 

Nearby was the idyllic, and playfully dead, “Glamp-O-Rama Luxury Trailer Park,” where a family of camping skeletons in tropical attire barbecued, tanned themselves, and played horseshoes under the watchful, glowing gaze of a large Tiki idol. Hosted by Brian and Sara Hoffman, the author of the cocktail book “All Couped Up,” the Glamp-O-Rama follows the couple’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom themed room bar at last year’s Inuhele. 

Other hotel room bars that spilled out onto the patio surrounding the indoor pool at the Sheraton included a ski lodge motif that featured photo ops with a Yeti, and a gory zombie zone with viscera and body parts strewn about. Meanwhile, sponsor SelvaRey Rum hosted a tasting in its decidedly funky Vinyl Jungle Room with the music of co-owner Bruno Mars providing the soundtrack in surroundings that were unpretentiously cool and — like the rum itself — smooth.

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For Chaffin there is a serendipity to the rise of fan culture, along with people mastering the craft cocktails and the evolving complexity of at-home (and in-room) Tiki bars.

“Since the craft cocktail revolution in the early 2000s has made the libations of the Tiki bar more accessible, and advances in technology make Tiki bar theming more DIY than ever, more people are incorporating those elements into their other passions, be they Star Wars, Marvel, Game of Thrones, or other exciting genre tropes and properties,” Chaffin says.

Other sponsors at Inuhele reflected the pop culture fandom within the Tiki world. For instance, Alfred Brian Wheatley and Bunny Wheatley, owners of The Sorrow Drowner bar and immersive dining experience of Wilmington, North Carolina, hosted one of the many cocktail tastings at Inuhele. And along with spirits of the alcoholic variety, their libations include backstory as an ingredient. The Wheatleys both emerged from the film industry and The Sorrow Drowner — designed by former Disney Imagineer Brandon “Trader Brandon” Kleyla, who worked on both Trader Sam’s Tiki Bars in Anaheim, California, and Orlando, Florida — has a fictitious history dating back to 1893, and exists within a universe of expeditions, mystery, and curses belonging to “The Lemurian Institute,” similar to the explorers of Disney’s Society of Explorers and Adventurers.

Brian, whose Lemurian Institute alias is Edward Bartholomew Wheatley III, calls Inuhele his “local” Tiki event where he’s able to promote his business at a con he’d likely attend anyway. He says he has found the Tiki crowd to be “one big family” with subsets that include purists, or the “Disney/Adventureland fans” who all come together, and have a good time. 

From the perspective of someone who worked in the entertainment industry and is a self-described film buff, he believes there is a natural connection between pop culture and the Tiki lifestyle. He says he had an unpleasant childhood, and movies are his escape to leave that behind for a while, and there is a similar catharsis with Tiki.

“Tiki becomes this intersection because of the binding element in all of those things: escapism,” says Wheatley. “The thing Disney films, horror movies, science fiction, etcetera all have in common is fulfilling this need to get away from it all, for two hours at a time … stepping into a Tiki bar fires off those same neurons. It helps fulfill that natural feeling of wanderlust that most people experience while not having to actually fly to Tonga or Micronesia.”

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Host Jonathan Chaffin adds he views new concepts that push the boundaries of the immersive bar experience — such as the Star Wars-themed Oga’s Cantina at Disney World and Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge — are the “logical extension” of the Tiki bars established by Trader Vic and Donn Beach nearly 100 years ago.

Is there rum flowing at Inuhele? Most certainly. But the spirits of the event are not to be overshadowed by the spirited event itself, and the community of fans who blend together a cocktail with their love of Polynesian Pop and love of pop culture.