Essays · Movies

The Great Movie Experiences of Fantastic Fest

We asked friends from around the Fantastic Fest community to share their favorite screening memories.
Fantastic Fest Memories
By  · Published on September 20th, 2019

It’s funny the way memory works. I don’t remember which one of that many flavors of world-famous Alamo Drafthouse boozy milkshake with which I almost redecorated one of their soft, red theater walls. But I remember the moment. It was a particular scene during the film Green Room — if you’ve seen it, you probably know the one. After a long day of making dairy-and-alcohol-infused mistakes, it was the worst possible thing to see on-screen. The memory of sitting at the far end of a row, wedged up against the theater wall, trying to best get my unnecessarily large body into the fetal position in my seat. I was sure this would be the first time I’d ever vomited during a movie. I didn’t, but it was close, and it’s a memory that will never leave me.

What I’m trying to say is that there are two things I took away from the experience: (a) I’m never reaching my arm blindly into a hallway full of Nazis, and (b) every once in a while, Fantastic Fest will get you — so look alive out there.

Looking back at the ten Fantastic Fests I’ve attended, there are plenty of these memories. The great screenings in this festival’s history. And while I wasn’t there when Paul Thomas Anderson showed up with There Will Be Blood in the early days, I remember what the Alamo’s South Lamar location smelled like the day my friend Luke Mullen, one of Fantastic Fest’s most recognizable beards, pulled me aside and said, “Hey, are you seeing something right now? Because you need to come into this theater over here.” That’s a thing that happens at Fantastic Fest — the longer you attend, the more likely you are to become someone who is known and seen by a community of people who love movies. What Luke knew about me at that moment is that I’ve got a soft spot for Canadian things. And that I’m not roaming the halls of Fantastic Fest looking for the hardcore horror movies. The screening was three episodes of the Canadian comedy Letterkenny, which at the time was only in its third season and was not available in the United States — it was a “Super Soft Birthday” screening, complete with hats and streamers and everything. Needless to say, it was exactly my shit. If you come to Fantastic Fest long enough, you stand a good chance at being present for something magical.

For the record, it smelled like queso. It always smells a little bit like queso. It wouldn’t feel right, otherwise.

Ask anyone who’s attended and they’ll tell you, Fantastic Fest is one of the best places on Earth to see a movie — which is why we asked friends and luminaries from around the Fantastic Fest community to tell us about their favorite screening memory. We wanted to provide a collection of these special moments from the past 14 editions of the United States’ biggest genre film festival. A collection of great experiences in moviegoing.

We not only hope that you enjoy these stories, but we’d also encourage you to give all of these folks a follow on Twitter so that you can follow along with the best of this year’s fest.

Lisa Gullickson, In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast (@sidewalksiren)


I love Fantastic Fest, but there is always an apprehensive pall that overtakes me the weeks before the event because of my emetophobia. What is that? Google it yourself. Just typing the v-word is anxiety-inducing. The Exorcist, The Sandlot, and Bridesmaids are all horror movies to me. I am not a squeamish movie watcher. There are images of violence that can flash before my eyes and I won’t even blink – I’ve seen bones break with a snap, entrails unravel like party streamers, I’ve watched people be brutally murdered by the undead, crazed lunatics, and cursed articles of clothing and that’s only Fantastic Fest. But by some quirk in my psyche, when someone loses their lunch, I lose my goddamn mind. I flinch. I yelp. It’s embarrassing and not fun.

Last year was an onslaught of v. By the sixth day, I had already suffered triggering scenes in Piercing, In Fabric, Apostle, One Cut of the Dead, and Strike, Dear Mistress and Cure His Heart and my nerves were utterly jangled. But I had fought hard to get into the screening of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer through tradesies on the app. I had survived the social anxiety gauntlet of awkwardly chit-chatting in the overly crowded lobby while I waited for my seating group Z, and I looked forward to the film. Kusama’s The Invitation was one of my favorite films of 2015 and I was eager to see Nicole Kidman take on layers upon layers of elaborate make-up to look like a regular person. Moments into the film, alarm bells went off in my brain and I assumed the position, with hands hovering beside my face but when it happened I couldn’t shield myself in time. Kidman takes a punch to the stomach and… I felt the hot prickle of hysteria rush over me. All of the oxygen was expelled out of my being and my chest tightened. I felt the familiar lump in my throat – a sob clawing to get out.

If asked, I would say my main criticism of Fantastic Fest would be that there is no place to have a good cry. To get the demon out of a panic attack requires sloppy, wet, toddler-like bawling and during Fantastic Fest, the South Lamar Alamo and the adjacent block is crawling with attendees. The saving grace is that they are all dweeby introverts like myself and they’d rather give the weeping woman a wide berth rather than offer any aid or solace, so I am left entirely alone as I take my meltdown on a little tour of the surrounding area and wait for the Xanex to kick in. As I finished my little promenade of tears and headed back to the lobby, I walk past an SUV and I accidentally made tearful eye contact with an arriving Jack Black. Weird Tuesday.

Marisa Mirabal, Birth.Movies.Death and /Film (@Marisa_Mirabal)

Geralds Game

After watching his eerie home invasion film, Hush, I was sold on the unique talent that writer/director Mike Flanagan possesses. When Fantastic Fest announced that the 2017 programming included his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Gerald’s Game, I immediately prioritized the screening and had full confidence that he could visually capture the internal dialogue needed to execute this movie. A Constant Reader myself, I loved how King’s kink-gone-wrong horror novel was deceptively gory and gruesome in its solitary storyline.

At the premiere, I was lucky enough to score a seat two rows in front of Flanagan himself along with cast members Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood. It was one of the most reactive screenings I’ve witnessed during Fantastic Fest. When that gnarly degloving scene occurred, the audience shrieked, gasped, and gagged. Among the audible repulsion, I curiously glanced back at Flanagan to see the guy smiling from ear to ear and giggling while everyone else was trying to keep their food down. It was the best audience reaction and director reaction I’ve witnessed to date.

After the movie came the sweetest moment I’ve ever seen following a premiere. I went to wait in line to congratulate Flanagan on the film, and the man in front of me was fighting back tears as he expressed to the director how much the representation of Maddie’s character in Hush personally meant to him, his family, and the deaf community. He thanked Flanagan endlessly for using American Sign Language and creating a protagonist who just also happened to be deaf. He praised Flanagan’s continuous effort to capture seemingly weak protagonists by giving them strength and purpose beyond what society stereotypically expects of them. It was a truly genuine and heartfelt moment to observe. Whether it involves gore, giggles, or gushing, it’s these kinds of emotional interactions between filmmakers and audiences that make Fantastic Fest both magical and memorable.

Germain Lussier, io9/Gizmodo (@GermainLussier)


Imagine sitting down for a movie. You don’t know what that movie is but when it’s over you realize you’ve been watching a secret sequel to one of your favorite movies of all time. That’s what happened to me when I first saw M. Night Shyamalan’s Split at Fantastic Fest, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater.

Back in 2016, Split was the Fantastic Fest secret screening. Which, all things considered, was a decent surprise. I liked M. Night Shyamalan, James McAvoy, and the trailers looked cool. I was in.

After watching and mostly enjoying the film, the film reached its penultimate scene and I noticed a few notes of music. Those notes of music, at least to me, were instantly recognizable as James Newton Howard’s score from Unbreakable, a scored I adored and listened to regularly for almost 16 years.

I heard that music and sat up straight in my chair. I felt my friend looking at me strangely. “Let him show the world how powerful we can be,” says McAvoy’s character, Kevin. That, coupled with the music, lead me to lean over to my friend and say “Holy shit, it’s an Unbreakable movie.”

Now, I can’t be 100-percent sure of this next part—the other 300 Fantastic Fest attendees in that theater were all very film savvy—but it’s distinctly possible I was the first person in that room to put this together. In fact, to this day, my friend swears that I was. If that’s true, since this was the film’s world premiere, it’s also possible I may have been the first general audience member to figure it out in the world. Unlikely, but possible. I digress.

That idea of someone with power showing the world their true identity is the core of Mr. Glass’s beliefs in Unbreakable so I was sure Shyamalan was up to something related to that. I sat up further in my chair. The Unbreakable score then really kicks in as the “Split” title card comes up, marking the end of one movie but also letting the audience know something is still happening. It was at this point, I’d assume, other fans started to sniff out the twist.

The film cuts to a diner with a TV playing the news. Howard’s score continues to play. After hearing a report on the events in the movie, a girl says “This is like that crazy guy in a wheelchair they put away 15 years ago. They gave him a funny name too. What was it?” And then, there he was. The big reveal. Bruce Willis himself, reprising his role from a movie released 16 years earlier, to answer the woman’s question. “Mr. Glass,” he said, making all my Unbreakable dreams come true. The score crescendos and the credits roll.

I cheered. Loudly. I don’t remember much else. I’m sure there were tears (based on the fact that simply remembering the moment right now brings them up). I’m sure I said “I told you! I called it!” to the people around me. I may have even jumped out of my seat. It’s all a blur because, really, how do you react to something like that? When you find out the movie you’ve just been watching is actually a sequel to one of your favorite movies of all time?

But that’s Fantastic Fest. It’s about amazing amazing memories all around.

Jimmy Reed (@Lamarocket)

Deadly Games

2018 was my second year attending the fest. I usually pick the newer films over the repertory screenings, but last year I decided to take a chance on René Manzor’s Deadly Games AKA 36.15 code Père Noël AKA Dial Code Santa Claus. That screening was a revelation, like discovering hidden treasure with a room full of your best friends. Only instead of gold, we found the French Die Hard-meets-Home Alone mash-up we didn’t know we were missing.

And it delivered. We were treated to one surprise turn after another, like the unexpected Bonnie Tyler Christmas song that hits at just the right moment. This 28-year-old film played as though it was created to be unleashed in that theater on that night.

And then we were treated to an incredible Q&A with Mr. Manzor which managed to elevate the experience twice over. That score? Written by the Director’s brothers. The Home Alone vibe? This beat it to theaters. That amazing young actor? The director’s own son. The enthusiasm and excitement we shared with Mr. Manzor that night, celebrating his film almost three decades after he made it, is why this is the best film fest in the world.

Meagan Navarro, Film Critic (@Hauntedmeg)


By the time Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic coming of age story, Raw, screened at Fantastic Fest in 2016, the film had already developed a reputation. A screening at TIFF just weeks prior resulted in a couple of viewers fainting during the graphic bits and requiring medical aid. The exact type of thing that writes headlines and spurns the rumor mill. So, when my small spillover theater for Raw’s U.S. premiere began to fill up, there were more than a few apprehensive faces at the discovery of a screening food special; beef tartare. Dine on raw meat while watching Raw, a film about a young woman developing a taste for raw flesh? Why yes, that is the precise type of wry detail you often find at Fantastic Fest. My entire row looked at each other, grinned, and vowed to take on this culinary dare in unison. Before the screening had even begun, new friends were forged over beef tartare and cannibalism. That’s the magic of Fantastic Fest.

Matthew Monagle, Film School Rejects and The Austin Chronicle (@LabSplice)

One Cut Of The Dead

Considering that this will be only my third Fantastic Fest – and that I can barely remember the movies I saw in 2017, let alone the experience of watching them – I’m not exactly drawing from a deep well of memories. There’s also the boring truth that many of my favorite Fantastic Fest experiences involve introducing myself to other film critics or having an in-person conversation with people I’ve come to admire online. Would shaking hands with Amy Nicholson count as a standout festival experience? Maybe not for everyone, but it does for me.

Still, there is one screening that stands out a bit above the rest. Like many others, when I read the description of One Cut of the Dead, I immediately shifted it to the very bottom of my list. Zombie? Found footage? The notoriously tricky horror-comedy? I reserve the right to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any of these subgenres; add the three of them together and there was no way I was going to make time to see this film.

And I very nearly didn’t! What eventually changed my mind wasn’t the effusive praise of my friends – it was how they all began their recommendation. They told me how much I was going to hate it.

“Give it thirty minutes.”
“Don’t leave the theater right away.”
“You’re going to want to give up at about the 15-minute mark. Resist that.”

Even before the screening started, the Fantastic Fest programmer doubled down on this description by telling a story about the screener he received, complete with a sticky note that said, “Please do not turn this off right away.” Finally, the movie started, and my friends were absolutely right – I hated it with an unbridled passion… until about the 30-minute mark. Most fans now know that One Cut of the Dead is an utterly unique horror film and well worth the wait, but this kind of experience is the kind you only get with festivals. If it’s true that money won is twice as sweet as money earned, then unexpectedly good movies are certainly at least 50% more enjoyable than the most-anticipated selections.

Ed Travis, (@Ed_Travis)

Chen Zhen

I moved to Austin in August of 2010 and had purchased my Fantastic Fest badge before even making the move. I’d been in the city for all of a couple of weeks before I was thrust into an environment I’d only previously dreamed of. I’d left a career behind, had no prospects beyond “movies!”, and knew absolutely no one in the city. But I knew I’d moved to a city full of “my people”, and I believed that if I just put myself in the environments I’d been dreaming about and which led me to relocate halfway across the country, I’d get to know some folks and find a new and inspiring community. This has since come to be true, and Fantastic Fest has become an annual ritual celebrated amongst friends and fiends alike. “My people” indeed.

The magical screening that stands out most from that first Fantastic Fest I attended in 2010 was the absolutely fist-pumping Donnie Yen film Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zen. As an action film aficionado and martial arts maniac, these are the kinds of screenings I live for at Fantastic Fest. The film opens with a rip-roaring wartime set-piece featuring Donnie Yen swashbuckling around a massive set and the audience was absolutely electrified. At some point during the screening, I realized I was sitting only a few seats away from none other than Drew McWeeney, whom I knew only as Moriarty from Ain’t It Cool News at that point in time, and whom I virtually worshipped from afar. I’d relocated to Austin almost entirely due to the film culture that I’d read about and come to understand through AICN, the Alamo Drafthouse, and the Austin Film Society after all.

Towards the climax of the movie, Yen goes full Bruce Lee, with lightning-fast nunchucks, a white tank top, and even the signature “wah” vocalizations. I could barely keep myself in my seat. Fortunately, Mr. McWeeney was absolutely freaking out as well, and I felt a sense of permission to really let my fandom loose and, despite being largely alone at that first Fantastic Fest, I just knew I was in the right place and with the right people.

Emily Sears, Birth.Movies.Death (@emily_dawn)

Geralds Game

Some of my favorite Fantastic Fest screenings have included the surprise of a server dropping a mysterious drink in front of you right in the middle of a film. Sometimes the connection of what might be in the glass clicks immediately, like in The Guest when it arrived just as Dan Stevens ordered a Fireball before annihilating a few miscreants in a bar. Other times, you sit there staring at the random Dixie Cup placed before you during The Sacrament, wondering if you should take the risk of a sip in the dark. Whether you drink the Kool-Aid or not, these are the sort of fun, immersive details this festival excels at.

Trace Thurman, (@TracedThurman)


Part of the fun of attending a film festival is seeing films with your fellow cinephiles from around the world, so it’s ironic my all-time favorite Fantastic Fest screening was a much more personal and intimate experience for me. That screening would be an 8 am Press & Industry screening of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival in 2016, a wonderful but heavy film that isn’t necessarily something you want to just pop in at 8 am on a Monday.

Let me set the stage for you: I had gone to a midnight screening the night before and stayed out afterward to drink and chat with my fellow festival-goers. I didn’t get home until 3 am and I was….not sober (don’t worry, I took an Uber). I then had to wake up at 7 am to make my way back down to the theater for the 8 am screening. It’s not ideal to watch Arrival when you’re hungover and running on 4 hours of sleep, but there I was. I sat there for all 116 minutes of the film in a mostly empty theater (regular badge holders can’t attend P&I screenings), head pounding but still alert due to the 3 cups of coffee I had grabbed on my way in.

I’m not sure if the fatigue, the dehydration or the migraine made me more susceptible to the emotions the film was trying to bring out of me, but all I know is that by the time the credits rolled I was a blubbering mess of a human (I believe I tearily exclaimed “She’s still going to have the baby!” during the film’s climax as I continued to sob some more.). Being in a weakened physical and mental state somehow opened me up and allowed me to connect with the film more than I would have if I had been in peak physical condition. I sat through the entirety of the film’s credits and sobbed and sobbed until there were no tears left to cry. Were it not for the aforementioned circumstances I was in at Fantastic Fest, I would not have experienced the catharsis that I did that morning. It should have been a miserable experience, but it turned out to be one of the best movie-going experiences of my life, freeing me from the stress and worries I was dealing with at that time of my life. I’ll never forget it.

Matt Donato, Silent Night, Deadly Podcast (@DoNatoBomb)

Deadly Games

At one point in my life, I stood by a foolish film festival rule when scheduling watches. “Why see retrospective screenings when you could watch something new?” Sound logic, I thought. Pay attention to what’s next, be at the forefront of new release reporting. Then, last year, Fantastic Fest programmed Deadly Games (aka 3615 code Père Noël) and my eyes were forever opened. Not only did I break my golden rule, but I erased it from existence. This, dear readers, is how one movie forever changed my outlook on festival watching.

There was no way I’d be skipping Deadly Games, even knowing FSR’s own Rob Hunter would be sitting next to me. You see, I love me some “Christmas Horror.” So does Rob. We co-host a podcast with FSR minions Chris Coffel and Kieran Fisher about “Christmas Horror” called Silent Night, Deadly Podcast (seriously, we have a holiday-slasher problem). When we both heard that René Manzor’s 1990s gem would be playing Fantastic Fest almost thirty years later as its North American premiere (still unreleased), there was no option. Especially since I don’t have a region free player, this was my only way to watch Deadly Games.

As expected, Manzor’s “Home Alone meets Die Hard meets Rambo meets Christmas Evil” delighted an almost entire row of friends I’d convince to attend with Rob and myself. We imbibed, laughed heartily, and felt every chill in what’s now one of my favorite “Christmas Horror” films. Then René Manzor came out, entertained a Q&A, and ended with such gratitude shown towards the festival for bringing his movie to the US – finally. It is, quite honestly, the jolliest and most downright amazing experience I’ve ever had in a Fantastic Fest screening. Forever has my approach to festivals changed, just in time for the R-rated “Gore Cut” of Tammy And The T-Rex this year.

David Lawson, Producer, Rustic Films


To explain my favorite Fantastic Fest film memory, I need to explain a bit of history for context. It was clear by the mid-’90s that I was infatuated by movies. I was at the theater at least twice a week and would beg my parents to take me to the video store to rent sometimes up to 5 movies every weekend. in 1997, my mother got me Leonard Maltin’s 1996 Movie and Video Guide for my birthday. I still remember that gold and red cover and immediately thumbing through it. Every day I was digging into it and soon I wore out the pages. It was at this time that I learned that he had published other books on film. I was hooked.

Flash forward to 2016, I had produced a documentary called 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters and it was making its World Premiere at Fantastic Fest. Mr. Maltin, a longtime staple at Fantastic Fest, hadn’t gotten a chance to see it but was extremely interested in watching it, so we sent him a link. I’ll never forget the surreal feeling of reading his tweet and subsequent review of the film. Someone that taught me more about film than any other person enjoyed something I help create.

PHZ-Sicks, Filmmaker and Producer (@phz_sicks)

Tokyo Tribe

Fantastic Fest is filled with amazing experiences but one that touch me the most was the Tokyo Tribe screening from 2014. Being a rapper, my ears perked up once I heard that this was a Japanese hip hop musical from Sion Sono. I became a huge fan of Sono from seeing Why Don’t You Play in Hell? the year before so I was excited to see what this would be. I remember sitting in the crowd before the movie started and wondered in the seat of white faces would they understand this if it’s good and would do movie just be a caricature of tired Black stereotypes? Well, the crowd got on board and loved it and the film wasn’t a caricature of Black culture. Hearing Japanese being wrapped in the same style of Wu-Tang, Southern hip hop like Lil Wayne, UGK, Migos, and even West Coast rap was mind-boggling and amazing to me. I might not be able to speak the language, but I knew the lineage. It also featured one of the best long-running jokes since R100 that wrapped back around perfectly. I left that theater on a creative high and wrote what later became my song “Hurts” that night.

Tokyo Tribe, never ever die!

Brad Gullickson, Film School Rejects and In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast (@MouthDork)

Night Comes For Us

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to see a movie before others. You attend a press screening or get sent a link to watch on your laptop in a hotel room. The film seeps into your eyes, and your brain tickles with excitement. This movie is one of the good ones. Oh, god damn. This movie is one of the great ones. Holy shit, I can’t wait for others to see it too. I need others to see it, and I need to watch them see it.

I first saw The Night Comes For Us under such conditions. Alone, the movie rocked my cortex. Joe Taslim vs. an endless stream of henchmen and their fists, knives, and guns? Hell, yeah. Writer/director Timo Tjahjanto crafted a whole bloody affair purposefully designed to steal breaths from his audience while Taslim was ripping souls from their bodies. The film takes a few minutes for folks to get their seats, but once it pops off, the action never stops. All the Bs get exposed: blood, bones, and bowels. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for the right crowd, The Night Comes For Us infects with unparalleled frenzied response.

That crowd lives at Fantastic Fest, and having seen it alone, I knew The Night Comes For Us would only find its true enlightenment in front of the maniacs that flock to Austin. They did not disappoint. The first brawl involving Iko Uwais had them clapping, but by the time Joe Taslim snapped a cow femur into the neck of one unlucky goon, their screams were only matched by their frothing. Some movies are meant to be enjoyed through quiet contemplation. Other films demand Jerry Springer levels of participation. Not all movie theaters have such offerings, but the good citizens of Fantastic Fest know the score.

Darren Smith, In the Mouth of Dorkness Podcast (@TheDiscoDork)

Split Bruce

2017 was my first Fantastic Fest.  I’d heard countless glorious tales of cinematic wonderment goin’ down at South Lamar.  So many stories in fact, that by the time I attended, I was well versed in what to expect.  Tales of the secret screening had not alluded me, so I was very much looking forward to my first.  I love the mystery, the anticipation, the guessing of what could/would/should be shown.  Well, they mean it when they said “secret screening” as I had ZERO idea of what I was watching until a few moments into the film(only because I had seen the trailer).  So at that point, the secret is out of the bag — we’re watching Split. Cool. But man, shit was about to reach another level.

We get to the end of the movie, which has been great up to this point, and the audience has had a blast.  We were sold on Shyamalan’s return to form.  But he wasn’t done with us.  We cut to a scene at the very end of the film when a diner patron comments on a news broadcast that is referring to a character in another Shyamalan film.  We then hear Bruce Willis’ David Dunn say “Mr. Glass”.  We. Lost. Our. Shit.  I have NEVER in my 43 years of sitting in a theater, experienced a simultaneous crowd reaction of that magnitude. Ever.  I mean, we literally had the exact same reaction: “WTF?! “HOLY S#!+” “OH MY GAWD!” WHAT?!”.  Damn near every one of us. It was the epitome of why we sit in the cinema.  The communal experience.  The shared existence.  The validation of our fantasies, fears, and emotions.  “Oh, I’m not the only one who feels this way?”.  It’s the reason why I take my ass to the theater.  And it’s the reason why I’ll take my ass back to Austin.

Rafael Motamayor, Film Critic (@RafaelMotamayor)

Geralds Game

Fantastic Fest is known as the festival that laughs in the face of all those reports of people puking and fainting during a screening. The stories of ambulances being called during movies are baffling to an audience that is not only used to, but excited about the extreme and gnarly. I thought I was like that too, until I saw Gerald’s Game.

To be fair, by the time the world premiere of Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the Stephen King story started, I had only eaten a protein bar very early in the day, so my stomach was empty, but my hand was holding an adult beverage – because hey. it’s Fantastic Fest! As the movie progressed, I realized we were heading to a very unpleasant climax. By the time Carla Gugino’s Jessie decides to do the impossible and cut open her wrist to get free of a pair of handcuffs, I felt my vision slowly go dark, and next thing I knew my drink was on the floor and a few scenes had passed. I had completely fainted in the middle of the movie – and my friend, sitting right next to me, had no idea what had happened. I know associate every Mike Flanagan movie with me fainting at Fantastic Fest and all the comments I got later that week.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)