Zombies have long held my imagination as an unstoppable force that really is born from the same darkness as nightmares. I have watched several zombie movies and television shows, played countless zombie video games, and have read a number of zombie related books. I have taken part in zombie pen and paper roleplaying games as well as live action roleplaying games where I have participated as both a player and a zombie. I even helped design and run a theatrical for over ten years where zombies have somehow been involved in the annual theme. Amongst my friends I have been dubbed the “Zombie King” as I have turned into, for better or worse, the “go-to” guy on what to do if the dead should ever actually rise.
Therefore, when I learned that this year at San Diego Comic Con, there would be a bigger and better Walking Dead: Escape event, I knew that I might finally have the chance to put my zombie survival skills to the ultimate test. Could I make it through the legions of undead unscathed, or would I fall prey to the infection that had spread through San Diego? It cost $75 to be a survivor, $80 to be a zombie, and $20 to spectate. Although the price was steep, I feel it was well worth it in the end.
The event itself is a zombie obstacle course that is roughly 30-45 minutes in length. There are challenges such as chain-link fences and wooden pyramids that you have to climb over, broken down cars and hospital gurneys that you have to navigate around, several different areas that you have to crawl under, all while trying to avoid the 100 or so zombies that are awaiting to try and turn you to their side. The course itself is constructed inside of Petco Park in downtown San Diego, and uses all three levels of the spectator portion of the park to maneuver us around. During my run, the baseball field itself was reserved for a screening of Serenity, which was slightly surreal – we could see thousands of people calmly watching a movie, while our small band was running for our lives.
As I stood outside the park with 50 strangers, I wasn’t entirely sure what was to come, and a bit of fear crept in. We were warned, “not to get infected,” and that we would be scanned when we got to the evacuation zone. Up to this point, I had pharaonic expectations of myself. In my head, I saw myself summersaulting under the reach of walkers and army sliding through the tunnels. I would see every single ghoul well before I had to make a move and deftly dash by. I wanted to be the guy that all of the people at the end would cheer on to glorious victory as I was the sole survivor emerging from the physical crucible to tell the tale. I saw other survivors at that moment as competition and, especially in the case of one very large man wearing a “Hoof Hearted” T-shirt and a pair of slides, potential zombie bait.
Viewing my fellow non-zombies in this manner was very out of character for me. After all, my personal Dungeons and Dragon alignment is lawful good. As much as I would like to, I can’t be the bad guy. While playing Dead Rising, I’m the guy who would just beat a very difficult psychopath, only to die before I saved the game because I saw a survivor icon pop up on the opposite side of the mall. I’d be the guy who in a real zombie apocalypse would give the guy pointing the gun at me the benefit of the doubt, even though the Zombie Survival Guide says otherwise. In my head, if you are alive, you deserve to stay that way.
So when I first became aware of this obstacle course, I thought I’d be the one to go out of my way to help others. The more that survive, the better. In the previous year’s recap video, there was a living victim who was handcuffed to a rail. I envisioned myself in one fell swoop picking up a blunt object, destroying the hand cuff, and having the volunteer follow me to safety as a survivor. I’m usually only that epic in my head, so why all of a sudden I was in competitor mode was unbeknownst to me.
The lot of us were filled in on “rules,” that included “not pushing or hitting the walkers,” which drastically decreased my options. Then the gate opened and we filed inside. Immediately, we could hear a soldier barking at us on a loudspeaker, intoning that we were in a safe area. Petco Park was taken over as a government facility and as long as we stayed inside, we would be safe. All we had to do was trundle through to the other side of the park to be scanned for infection and then a helicopter would take us to safety. That was some pretty awesome ambiance. At this point, I found myself in the middle of the pack, which is where I told myself not to be, as I didn’t want to have my motion restricted. As people herd together it can be tricky to be precisely where you mean to be.
The gates were opened at the soldier’s command and we were met with a wall of fog. Course officials led us into the fog as the crowd collectively created a cacophony of fear muddled with excitement. After the first half of the group went through the portcullis, a poignant scream pierced the air from the left of the wave, as survivors from that side bolted toward my position in the middle. Then the same thing happened from the right. Through the mist I could see a large number of walkers coming through the turnstiles right at us. The Officials were shouting at us to turn around, but the poor souls in the back couldn’t hear and were still trying to push forward. Initially I thought this was just more atmosphere, but then I turned and saw that there were Officials behind all of us pointing toward a set of doors. Most of the people in the front were too busy trying to avoid the encroaching ghouls, so I was one of the few to actually see where we were supposed to go. I rushed to the door to find that it lead to a stairwell. A few others had escaped the initial chaos and were following me. Up we went.
Lesson #1: Unless you absolutely have to, do not run up flights of stairs during a zombie apocalypse. I don’t know why I did; it was probably that eagerness to be the survivor, but it was still a waste of energy. There was a ton of people in that fray and the zombies would have had enough to keep them busy for a long time. I don’t remember any of them following us, and even if they did, they’re super slow and have deteriorated motor functions. This was a 45-minute obstacle course, and I spent all my energy at the first leg. Granted I’m not in that great of shape, but still I hadn’t even passed that close to a zombie yet and I already felt like one. Several of the people that I would finish the course with muttered in agreement with me for the duration of the event, “Why did we run up those stairs?” Luckily we started our wave at 9:20 PM, so it was dark and cool.
As the few of us at the top landing were sucking air, we exited the stairwell to find an empty concrete path that under normal circumstances San Diego Padre fans would use to find their seating sections. Now it was a dimly lit corridor, but our only means of escape. I embarked into the darkness and found the first group of walkers. There were four staggering around in this narrow passage way. I sprinted, trying to use speed to get past them, but as they saw me, they reached out and closed in. Employing the best dexterity I could muster, I dipped, dove, ducked, and dodged past the walkers.
Nearing the final zombie in this area, I leapt left as another survivor rushed right. Our ankles collided. I was able to maintain my balance, but I saw this man starting to topple. Before he could hit the pavement, I managed to grab him and help him keep his feet, so we could escape the pursuing horror. We exchanged a simple “You all right man?” “Yeah I’m good, thanks,” and met each other’s pace. He wore a tan shirt, and hence force became known to me as “Tan Shirt Guy.”
There were still about 15 survivors in this early part of the course. Next, we had to crawl under steel grating, forcing us to the ground, where a soldier was already waiting. That soldier under the grating with us was actually a zombie, and we narrowly avoided his grasp. Zigging and zagging past a few more of the undead, we wound up at a water station, where we greedily gulped down the drink. Tan Shirt Guy was still with me. Two people he must have known arrived at the table about the same time. There was a man who was described to me as an actual doctor, and a man who looked to be in supreme physical condition, and was dressed as such. We all agreed it was time to move on up the malfunctioning escalator. Our group was set. Tan Shirt Guy, The Doctor, and Athletic Guy. I don’t know by what name they referred to me as when they told their version of this story to their friends and loved ones. I hope it was epic.
Lesson #2: The initial introduction to others during duress forces you into an instantaneous bond. I didn’t know these three men. Just moments before I helped stabilize Tan Shirt Guy, I had been in “Me, Myself, and I,” mode. I could have easily just let him fall and give me more time to get away from the undead. My lawful good alignment must have snapped into place. They could have thought of me as zombie-bait for all I knew. Even if you forget for the moment that this wasn’t the real zombie apocalypse, these three guys probably just wanted to have fun as friends, yet in this simulated survival scenario, there was a bond that developed as we helped each other. It became abundantly clear to me that as long as you are willing to pull your weight while working together, that bond can become extremely strong, extremely quick.
There were two specific zones that I will not soon forget. One was a very elaborate setup; the other was simply a single zombie. Both encounters etched into my mind complete examples of the type of humanizing moments that develop in a zombie uprising and how they can change your perception of individuals you meet during harrowing situations.
Looming in front of our company was a solitary snarling behemoth of a zombie. Clearly he was one of the first to get infected. His girth encompassed the entirety of the confined corridor. There was an attempt to lure him out into the vestibule where we would have had more room to sneak by, but this monster was having none of it. We decided to handle this in pairs. Athletic Guy was deft enough to get the zombie to swing at him and then he swerved underneath the creature’s grasp. During Athletic Guy’s feint, The Doctor squeezed past to safety.
Tan Shirt Guy and I undertook the same tactic, but this particular zombie must still have retained some of its memory because it would not budge. I even suggested trying to Superman dive under the creature’s arms, but that would put us in a prone state, which was not good. I remarked that if we wait for more survivors, maybe we could pass in the confusion, which twinged a moment of savagery within me that was greeted with remorse. It was then that Tan Shirt Guy said, “Here, you just go.”
Tan Shirt Guy approached the reach range of the ghoul and this time the walker responded. Tan Shirt Guy back peddled while staying close enough to entice the zombie to take one more shambling step so I could inch by, as my internal system flooded with relief. I ventured on looking to meet up with the others to find that the next leg of the journey required us to crawl under more chicken wire tunnels. There were three tunnels we had to choose from, a la “The Eliminator” from American Gladiators. I selected the right most crawl space and was about halfway through when it dawned on me that I didn’t wait for Tan Shirt Guy, or even attempt to try and distract the zombie for him after I passed. He said, “Just go,” and I did. My instinctual response was a mix of selfish self-preservation and adrenaline. I literally felt ashamed for abandoning my artificial savior.
Ahead I could see that The Doctor and Athletic Guy where already burrowing through a second set of three tunnels, and that a number of walkers guarded the entrance to where I had to go. I was in danger of falling too far behind and if I went back I may find Tan Shirt Guy as one of the enemy and put myself at further risk. It didn’t matter; he helped me and I wasn’t going to leave him. I looked behind me hoping that he would emerge from the passageway but I saw nothing. My heart sunk. Then my eyes darted forward again to find that Tan Shirt Guy was already in the second set of tunnels. He had made it! I kicked into crawling overdrive and had to tumble past a few more walkers to catch up with the gang. We did a quick spot check for blood and moved on to the second encounter that stuck out to me, which happened to be the most difficult area of the course.
What lay before us was a maze of large wooden crates masked by a haunting fog. At the start of this portion were three of these crates in a row, with small channels between them that we could fit through single file. Also in these channels were zombies. The moans of the undead let us know that the sheer number of them was not going to make this a walk in the park. We settled again upon the plan of going in twos, thinking a larger group would be easily spotted. Athletic Guy and I were to leave a split second sooner, as we were more mobile so we could hopefully find a safer path. My tandem took the left crate; the other two took the right crate.
Athletic Guy climbed up and leapt over the nearest ghoul in the channel. After he launched himself, I ascended to the wooden perch. As my eyes quickly scanned for a safe landing point, I froze in terror. From inside the box, a pair of hands grabbed a hold of the edge of the crate and was pulling a deformed face inches from my feet. My retreat was one of stumbled steps that almost sent me sprawling to the floor. That for me was the most terrifying moment of the ordeal.
Regaining my composure, I sidestepped to the box that The Doctor and Tan Shirt Guy had used and barrel rolled over it and head first into the fog. As my vision adjusted, I discovered four walkers besieging The Doctor and each blocked the only exits that I could see. Beyond us were more of the same in terms of wooden chests, dense fog, and legions of zombies. Tan Shirt and Athletic Guy were naught to be found.
The right most ghoul was lining up for The Doctor and hadn’t noticed me yet. It also left the largest amount of space between us and freedom. I yelled some nonsense order along the lines of, “Split him, you go left,” and made the demon aware of my presence by passing close to his ride side, which attracted him just enough to give us the room we needed.
Ahead of us a form materialized in the mist with a tan shirt. The Doctor called out, “Hey, it’s us!” He was answered by a growl. Breaking the fourth wall, I sadly remember shouting, “Oh you’re a zombie.” Shuffling feet echoed off the wooden crates and created a disorienting sensation. We were relieved by the efforts of Athletic Guy racing up to us and waving us on. He had found if we hugged the left wall, there was a relative path to safety. We followed him to where Tan Shirt Guy was waiting and we completed the crate maze.
Eventually we made it through the remainder of the obstacles to where the “Evacuation Zone” was waiting for us. Only a successful screening for infection permitted entry to the zone. The Doctor went first, was bathed in black light, and searched by a team of scientists. He was proclaimed clean, as was Athletic Guy. Tan Shirt Guy went ahead of me and when the UV light hit his back, I saw a handprint glowing that wasn’t visible to the naked eye. A report of “He’s infected,” and “He needs to be decontaminated,” filled the air. A third scientist took Tan Shirt Guy to the side while I was scanned. I was cleared and sent out of the tent to the “Escape Party,” signaling the course had ended.
Athletic Guy, The Doctor, and I gasped in the cool night air, wondering what became of the fourth member of our crew. Tan Shirt Guy appeared with a splotch of red on his forehead. He muttered, “They executed me.”
Lesson #3: Don’t give names until you know you’re in relative safety. If you concern yourself with life stories as the crisis begins, the depression that sets in as you inevitably lose those around you can be overwhelming. There is something more heart wrenching about saying, “Jerry didn’t make it,” than there is saying, “What happened to the guy in the tan shirt?” The bonds the four of us formed saved three because we took immediate action. We didn’t exchange names or any information because we all knew that survival was the only instinct that mattered.
We parted ways with me saying, “I’d ride out the apocalypse with you guys any day,” and we passed out fist bumps. We were at Comic-Con and could have easily traded a multitude of information to stay in touch. We walked off into the night knowing what we accomplished and that had it been real, the four of us had done everything we could have to try and protect one another. The simulated Armageddon instantly transformed me from singular minded survivalist to a group oriented player and showed me the value of taking that mindset should this ever actually happen. Had I not helped Tan Shirt Guy stay standing early on, he may not have helped me pass by the behemoth zombie. I felt like I merely offered a helping hand, but I’m certain that Tan Shirt Guy met his demise when he had sacrificed himself for me. There are good people in the world and it’s sad to think that it could take an undead uprising to bring that mindset completely to fruition.
The Walking Dead Escape was a tremendous experience both as an entertainment and an educational module. Maybe I’m the only one who looked this deep into the encounter. Maybe I’m the only one who cared enough to think about what I could learn about myself. But what I know is that I did learn and hopefully will be a little bit more prepared in the unlikely event I ever need to draw upon this moment in my life for real. I paid $75 for a zombie obstacle course and as I share my recollections with friends and family, I don’t dwell on the walkers or the physical test. I focus on the people that I needed to successfully make it through. I focus on Tan Shirt Guy and wrote this for him. He is a hero.
Cory Brin is a Halloween enthusiast and is the Assistant Project Coordinator at Gravestone Manor, Pennsylvania’s most unique Haunted Attraction. He also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University, a BA in History from King’s College, and is currently working on projects for the screen, the stage, and for print. Follow him on Twitter@corybrin.
(Photo from Inside the Magic.)