It’s almost time for Comic Con in San Diego. The convention started in 1970 and now draws 130,000 plus attendees to the San Diego Convention Center. But I’m not going to talk about the madness of trying to get into Hall H, where all the premier panels happen, or squeezing past Predators, Steampunks, Captain Americas and scantily-clad cosplayers in the Exhibit Hall .
I’m going to share one of my favorite memories of recent years and it involved The Walking Dead. A few months before the 2012 Con, I was at my computer one morning and got an email proclaiming there would be the opportunity to “run with the zombies” in an event they were calling The Walking Dead Escape. You had three options: 1) Be a spectator, 2) Be a zombie and have Greg Nicoterro’s award-winning makeup team transform you into a “walker,” or 3) Try to make it through an obstacle course set up in Petco Park, our local baseball stadium, alive. Participants would get the 100th Comic of The Walking Dead.
Did it matter that I was out of shape and riddled with injuries? No! I had to do it and as a “survivor.” I told my then-16 year old daughter about it and she turned me down. Flat. No way was she going to participate. I was bummed, but it didn’t stop me from signing up right then and there.
My scheduled time to make the run was 6:20 p.m. I spent most of the day surviving the madness of Comic Con before making my way, already tired, to the bridge that took me to Petco Park. I began to think that the theoretical idea of participating was much better than the reality. As I waited for my daughter, who’d ditched me to do other things during the day, I watched as a “zombie” chased some of the participants along the viewable edges of the stadium. My first thought was WTF? I’d read the details about how zombies were supposed to act. They were supposed to shamble, lunge, stroll…but this one was flat-out sprinting after people. Would my bad knee and foot hold up if I had to run full-tilt away from a zombie who thought he was in the 28 Days movie instead of The Walking Dead?
When Kat caught up to me, she also watched people and zombies running along the edges of the stadium. I wheedled, I cajoled…and she agreed to give it a go with me. If I was going to “die,” I wanted a companion. I paid her fee, around $80, and we went to the staging area where we signed a thick manifesto of waivers that I appreciated as a lawyer. We were given a participants lanyard and a tracking device to wear, presumably so they could find us if we were dragged off by a zombie horde and eaten so they could return what was left to our families. The goal of the whole escapade was to make it through the run without being touched by a zombie and “infected.”
There were young, testosterone-fueled men who’d already ripped off their shirts and strutted about, bumping chests. There were couples, usually with one of them looking terrified so you know they’d gotten roped into it against their will. We talked to a college professor and his nephew who seemed fairly steady and tried to ignore the hysteria as our “wave” waited.
Finally, it was time. We were taken into an area surrounded by a chain link fence that had black material covering it so you couldn’t see out. Ahead of us were gates. To our right was a cage full of zombies and there was a zombie being paraded around by a “soldier” who held it by a pole attached to a neck collar. “Military personnel” used bullhorns to announce that there had been an outbreak, but everything was under control. Yeah, right. We’ve never been big believers in the government party line. I quietly told Kat “Let’s move to the side opposite where the zombies are.” I was pretty sure they were going to get out. So we did.
Little did I know, when the zombie being led by the collar predictably attacked the military guy and the zombies got loose, it wasn’t them I should have been concerned about. The personnel slowly opened the gates in front of us so we could begin our run to freedom, but people panicked (more accurately described as freaked the hell out) and the person behind me shoved me to the concrete floor with all their strength. Both my knees hit the pavement and ripped open, as did both my hands. I then had to get up and run for it, bleeding profusely.
Once through the gates, trailing along behind everyone else who was screaming and running, we pounded through a fog-filled room dodging zombies and came to some stairs that led to closed glass doors covered with ripped construction paper. There were personnel there who told people to wait as a group. They were letting 2-3 people out at a time. I found Kat and showed her my injuries. “Let’s let the mass hysteria movement go ahead of us,” I told her and she agreed.
A zombie peered at us through a rip in the paper, waiting to eat us just outside the door. Blood coursed from my hands and I wiped it on my shirt and tried not to think about what my knees looked like. Then a zombie came from behind us and there was nowhere to go. Fortunately, only a few of us remained so no one did something incredibly stupid and the group around us merely screamed. A soldier came in the nick of time and killed the walker.
Then it was our turn to run and we got out the doors, past the zombie and saw that ahead of us was a rope ladder to be climbed. Lucky me. Climb up, walk over a platform where zombies reached up from below then slide down mats to where a group of zombies waited at the bottom.
Here’s the thing about zombies. It’s all about timing and sacrificing other participants to the cause. Kat has a black belt in taekwondo and would fake one direction then turn the other way, slipping past zombies. I’m just old and crafty. However, despite our best efforts, Kat tripped on a curb and went down, injuring a hand and I had to jump away from another crazy participant and smacked my arm on the ground.
There was a “breather” area where participants walked up long ramps. No zombies were visible, but it was scary to think they might be waiting around the corner. Ah, mind games.
At the mid-way point, there was a water station and bathrooms. One teenage boy was throwing up from stress. An older man had wrenched his ankle so badly he could barely walk. I washed the blood off my hands and thought about those waivers we’d signed. As we continued our quest, my hands kept bleeding and so did Kat’s.
Our next obstacle had zombies banging bloody arms and legs on top of a place you had to crawl under. The problem was, neither Kat nor I could crawl given our injuries. We didn’t want to get infected in reality from dragging our cut hands along dirty ground. We had one option: Sneak behind the zombies. This was a dicey proposition since they could turn at any time and touch you and the space wasn’t very wide behind them. We made like ninjas, waited for their attention to be on other participants scrambling under and got past them.
Next up was a zombie horde area decorated with real cars, strewn suitcases and an opportunity to panic. I dashed in and ducked behind a car. A zombie saw me and turned in my direction, then it became a game of run around the car, watch out for the numerous other zombies and try to get out. After some starts and stops, I made it. I was really glad I didn’t see the fast-moving zombie.
Kat and I joined up between obstacles and made sure neither of us had been touched. Participants ran past us or strolled along drinking alcohol, not caring about anything. Camera crews went along with news reporters narrating the scene. Spectators watched while enjoying food and drink.
As we neared the end, we came to an area packed with zombies and about two feet to get past them. I waited. I watched. I timed it until they’d shuffle- turned away from the space I needed to speed by and flat-out ran. As I did, a zombie on the other side of a fence said “Great job!”
Finally, we neared the end. Climb up, cross a rope bridge where zombies lunged at you trapped in nets on either side and from below. We lifted ourselves up to avoid them by grabbing handrails and made it through, ducking and dodging. (Look under the A in the photo and you’ll see the bridge)
At the end of the run, we were taken into tents and scanned to see if we’d been infected. We weren’t. We’d survived. I heard later, if you’d been “infected,” you were taken into another tent and either “shot” or given the opportunity to flee and spread the plague across humanity. It was unnerving to learn most people fled.
After we picked up our comics and wondered where our survivor medals were, the adrenaline rush stayed with us. As we walked to our car we scanned the parking lot for zombies and jumped at every noise. We celebrated our victory by having Thai food for dinner where I discreetly blotted my still-bleeding hands with a napkin.
The Walking Dead Escape had 15,000 participants and I heard only 1% made it through as survivors. Most people that participated, survivor or zombie, got injured. It continues to operate every year, but I choose to let other people give it a try. Once was enough. The lesson I learned, though, is if there is a zombie apocalypse, it’s the people you have to be scared of. Choose your friends wisely.