Posted by Kurt
A strikingly beautiful young woman stands in an open field, with her boots drenched in dew and her arm thrust into the air. She holds an orange strip of plastic like a macabre trophy for all to see. She has big pale eyes and bright white teeth, which look even brighter when contrasted with the thick layers of dirt and sticky fake blood all over her face. She wears an outfit that is the kind of thing a pretty girl wears when she dresses down - boots, but they’re cute Uggs; a jacket and some flannel stained from copious amounts of fake blood, but they fit her very well. The look, whether she intends it or not, is “sorority girl goes on a wholesome family camping trip and gets infected by the zombie plague,” with the thick bloodstains around her mouth suggesting the fates of her family members. When she’s in character, stumbling around and groaning, she’s a very scary zombie, hitting you right in the “this could happen to anyone” place in your gut. Out of character, though, she makes funny jokes about “Lindsey Lohan on a good day” being her favorite zombie, and she drifts through the field of off-duty zombies with a cute friend from home, meeting people and enjoying the excitement of the morning.
At this moment, though, she has just withstood her first wave of potential human victims, and she has claimed her trophy. The orange plastic quivers a bit from her excitement, subtly evoking images of a ghoulish Statue of Liberty, and she shouts, “I’m not even a chaser, but that bitch was slow!”
This scene was one of the highlights of my morning yesterday working “Run For Your Lives!,” a 5K Zombie Obstacle Course on a wooded campground in a rural area of Maryland, just a few miles from the Pennsylvania border. The event is essentially a gigantic piece of interactive performance art, with runners sprinting through the forest while wearing flag football flags and hoping that the volunteers dressed as zombies don’t take all of their flags. There is a competition element - runners who finish with at least one flag intact are eligible for prizes - but I got the impression that most people were just there for the experience.
I applied to be a zombie volunteer, and while I wasn’t chosen as one of the important zombies who gets professionally-applied make-up and effects, I was allowed to be a Reserve Zombie. It didn’t sound like a great deal - if I was willing to put together my own costume and show up at the campground at 6:00, then they were willing to let me stumble around in the background somewhere for atmosphere and take about $40 off the price of registration if I chose to run the race after my shift ended (and even then, zombie volunteers aren’t allowed to win prizes, so the run would just be for the experience) - but my imagination had been captured by this event, and I agreed.
I chose a costume to represent “Grunge is Undead,” so I wore Doc Marten boots, ripped jeans, a copy of Kurt Cobain’s famous “Grunge is dead” t-shirt, a loose flannel shirt (from AberZombie and Fitch), a Kurt Cobain wig, and a blue knit cap. I practiced the costume in a dress rehearsal a week before the race, spreading on a base of gray and white face paint from a kit that I found at Target, then adding some dark circles around my eyes, some veins, and blood dripping from my eyes, mouth, and ears. (These pictures are from my dress rehearsal, when white face paint was still an acceptable option.) A few days before the race, the Reserve Zombies got an e-mail asking us not to wear grey or white face paint, as the vision for the event was more “infected” than “rotting undead corpse.” I was disappointed, but for the race day I was able to get close to the look I wanted with some black greasepaint under my eyes, fading down with a little subtle green, then a few tasteful blood lines at my eyes and mouth, a big bloody area at one side of my mouth like I had chewed off a hunk of flesh somewhere, and some black paint smudged around my forehead just to make me look dirty. At the site, the organizers shared their enormous bucket of fake blood so that we could all grab paintbrushes and take our costumes to that next shiny sticky level, and I quickly smeared some on my clothes and neck. My new zombie friend Lisa, who went all-out with a tattered bathrobe and pajamas and filthy bunny slippers and super-intense make-up, even down to brown paint on her fingers, told me my costume was "brilliant," and - I can share this with you, reader, since you already know I'm kind of a dick - I agreed with her.
I was posted at the first obstacle, and I loved it. As the runners in each wave bolted out of the staging area, they were directed to an open field with two large hay bale pyramids, maybe six or seven bales high, and about as wide. When they crested the pyramids, they were greeted by the vision of maybe twenty to forty zombies (depending on which volunteers were on break) lurching toward them, groaning and looking ravenous. As zombies, we knew that only a few of us were “Chasers,” given sanction to run after humans and pull their flags, and the rest of us were “Stumblers,” there to be scary. The runners, though, didn’t have this information, and even if they knew that only some of us would pull flags, they couldn’t know which ones were which. And their next step wasn’t clearly marked - an organizer stood between the haystacks, shouting to runners to climb over the hay and then head for the woods, but when people were focused and frightened, I don’t think many of them heard the instructions. They just slid down the pyramids, saw themselves surrounded, and let the panic take over.
Their looks of abject terror made the whole day worth it. In their rational minds, the runners surely knew that we were volunteers in make-up, not allowed to touch them, certainly not going to hurt them. In that first encounter, though, the sheer scale of the experience overwhelms the rational mind, and the reptile brain takes over - there are monsters right in front of you, and they want to eat you. I saw a few uplifting moments - one guy in his twenties stopped to collect his thoughts at the top of the pyramid to shout to the zombies for directions, for which he was rewarded with enthusiastic groans and dozens of rotting limbs rotating in the general direction of the trees. Mostly, though, I saw survival instincts taking over. I have idly warned my friends in the past that, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I will trip them to save myself, but at this race, the hypothetical became real, and I saw terrified people knock each other over and leap over their struggling companions. In the real world, people help each other up after falls, but on this day, I saw no fewer than four people knocked to the ground, and not one person paused to help anyone else off the ground.
At this point, I should admit that I was not exactly a very good zombie. I tried hard to stay in character - head tilted to the side, eyes wide, stumbling along with my left leg dragging, arms flopping around at my sides unless I was reaching for a flag (just to scare runners), groaning occasionally - but it was harder for me than I had expected. I kept laughing when frightened people did surprising things, I cracked myself up trying to figure out the difference between my “zombie groan” sound effect and my “moo-cow” sound effect (answer: none), and in the first few waves, I felt bad for the lost runners who really had no clue where they were supposed to go, and I would break character to direct them before getting my stumble back on. I also briefly tried to pick up two runners who had fallen flat on their faces. During one of our early breaks between waves of runners, my new zombie friend Lisa patted me on the shoulder and sympathized, “You’re not really feeling this whole zombie thing, are you? Would it be better if you were stationed closer to the woods?” As the day dragged on, I got better at my character, but I was not the natural I hoped to be.