Over the past few weeks since San Diego Comic-Con 2014 wrapped, I've often been asked what was my favorite part of the action packed weekend. It's difficult while still in the Comic-Con haze to answer that question without blurting out a half-dozen crazy things. But now that I've had some time for my mind and body to recover, I can say without hesitation that it was running through The Walking Dead Escape.
The event, which shoves participants into a massive zombie themed obstacle course, has been a staple on many of the "best of Comic-Con" lists for the past few years. I decided, "No more excuses!" I was determined to get chased by fake-Zombies this year, even if it killed me. And after three days of Comic-Con, it nearly did.
The Walking Dead Escape shares the same unanswered outbreak scenario as its television show (and comic book) namesake, but the entire theme of the event rests comfortably in every Romeroesque zombie film. The story, if there is one, is that everyone is making their way to a military controlled survivor zone located inside Petco Park stadium. Sounds pretty safe, right?
In the starting moments, all the runners of my group were corralled into a fenced area, all the while soldiers shouting for the crowd to move along. On the other side of the gate, I could hear the unmistakable sound of the undead walkers mucking about. As the ghoulish sounds got louder, it soon became apparent that the back of our holding pen had been breached by the infected, propelling everyone to press through the narrow gate into whatever danger lied ahead.
From there, it's all non-stop running and screaming. The course started off somewhat easy, with wide open spaces and plenty of room to maneuver between walkers. Fog effects and an endless droning soundtrack added atmosphere and confusion. In no time at all we found ourselves rushing up ramps and through corridors, making our escape only to find more areas occupied by the undead. Though off of this madness, people stopped for brief moments to snap selfies amongst the chaos.
As the course progressed, I found myself dodging through overrun survivor camps, gory medical triage centers, and past all sorts of sketchy characters. Messages from other survivors were plastered all over the walls, and the stadium monitors emitted a silent newscast loop that added realism that the world outside was all going to Hell.
The immersion of the experience was something I really enjoyed, whether it was trading snarky comments with some of our 'rescuers' or being forced at gunpoint to raise my hands when marching through a quarantine zone. What sets The Walking Dead Escape apart from a typical haunted house is that it all ties cohesively together. I've always had a hard time walking through a Halloween mansion filled with crypts, laboratories, and indoor cemeteries.
The walkers, I assume, weren't allowed to hold or bite us, but just grasping and taking swipes at me was effective enough to seem scary. I will mention that it seemed counter-intuitive not to grab something and defend myself, resisting decades of zombie movie training.
Fear The Other Survivors
What makes The Walking Dead so effective is the excitement generated by the shared social experience. Volunteers sign up to shamble around as walkers. Spectators pay for ringside seats, snapping photos as waves of survivors scream through strategically placed bottlenecks. Runners, like myself, are all thrown together to work out their own survival strategies.
As we made our way through the course, I ended up gravitating towards the same group of people. We cracked jokes, helped each other distract walkers, and occasionally shoved each other through very tight spaces to avoid getting grabbed. And just like in every zombie film, there was one or two idiots that nearly got everyone else pretend-killed. In my case it was a guy who not only attempted to get through the whole course "without being touched", but also insisted only on walking. Very. Slowly. Several times, many of us at the back of the crowd, with walkers hot on our heels, would find ourselves behind this guy, who strolled - fucking strolled - through tense chokepoints.
There was rarely time to focus much on our faux rage as we were rushed from one safety point to another, the possibility of bursting into a panicked sprint was just around every corner.
Only The Strong Survive
It wasn't until a few days later, when I reviewed all my photos and footage, that I noticed so many people in my group were wearing athletic clothing and running shoes. I think that my complete unpreparedness added much more realism to my particular role-playing situation. After three days of walking Comic-Con, and then suddenly running, jumping, and dodging relentlessly, I was miserable - or at least I should have been. It certainly wasn't news to me that I was in horrible shape, but soon the severe aching and extreme shortness of breath punctuated this fact quite clearly. Yet despite all of that I was having the time of my life. The excitement radiated off everyone around me as we made our way into the final stretch of the course.
A few of us lingered outside the disco light party, blasting from in the survivor zone, to shake hands and take photos before parting ways.
I have an overwhelming desire to run the course again, even dragging some friends along with me next time. However, after being so perfectly surprised and entertained, I'm not sure another run will live up to my first time.
My biggest takeaway from all of this is that I'm woefully unprepared for when the Z-Day arrives, but at least I have another year to prepare for the next pretend one.
Upcoming tour stops include:
TAMPA, FL - TBA - The Sun Dome
JACKSONVILLE, FL - TBA - EverBank Field
NEW ORLEANS, LA - TBA - Mercedes-Benz Superdome