By Bob Calhoun
photographs by Rosemary Calhoun
I’m pressed up against the gates of Petco Park in San Diego, waiting for the 6 p.m. wave of “The Walking Dead Escape” to begin. I look over the crowd around me. I spot a few men older than me, but none fatter, and none are older AND fatter. I’m seemingly the most out-of-shape man at something that’s a part of Comic-Con, and it has to be the event where I’ll have to “climb, crawl, hide and slide (my) way through the evac zone,” according to the website.
Sure, I used to wrestle, but I was always a terrible wrestler. I could talk, which made people care about my god-awful matches for at least five minutes until they figured out just how bad I was. I did make two-stripe blue belt in Gracie Jiu-jitsu, but that was over a decade ago. I’m just one big piece of zombie bait—the fat guy who gets his intestines ripped out and chomped on while he screams for an impossibly long time after being disemboweled.
The rules of the obstacle course specifically forbid touching the walkers, so there goes my game plan of punching zombies in the head.
Another five minutes goes by. The blister on the middle toe of my left foot is radiating pain. I’ve already spent all day standing and walking around the San Diego Convention Center. There was about an hour where I was sitting down through the Neal Adams panel on the Holocaust, but the rest of my day has been spent hoofing it around the Gaslamp District. I also had a few slugs of something called “Wookiee Juice” at this “Star Wars” pets event thrown by Petco at a nearby hotel. The cocktail involved Vodka and some kind of strawberry fruit punch. It tasted good, and the Petco reps were feeding me drink tickets as I photographed Chewbacca and Darth Vader posing with puppy dogs.
And snapping pictures of pugs in Yoda ears actually made me miss the cushy press run through of the “The Walking Dead Escape.” If I wanted to cover it now, the woman at the media table told me I could either go to the spectator areas or run the course with everyone else. Unfortunately I’m the kind of writer who needs to actually do something (and usually something stupid) so I can write about it. Being at Comic-Con, where people are getting paid to write about flying dudes in blue spandex, makes me reconsider this literary choice.
Waiting there, I think of George Plimpton, the literary giant who went from founding “The Paris Review” to climbing into the ring with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Plimpton’s penchant for what he dubbed “participatory journalism” had him sparring with a man who fought Muhammad Ali and pitching to Willie Mays, and then writing very good books about his experiences as a “Mr. Everybody” in the world of sports.
Before joining the 1963 Detroit Lions as the team’s “last string quarterback” for a book project that would later become “Paper Lion,” Plimpton’s only form of preparation was to toss a football in a studio apartment “long enough to allow a throw into an armchair from twenty or twenty-five feet away.” And this was before Plimpton, a beanpole of a man who spoke in an accent that was too refined for both England and New England, went off to be tackled by 200-pounds of “Night Train” Lane in an NFL training camp.
If Plimpton wrote as the guy who went to bed at night “staring at the bedroom ceiling” dreaming of “striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees,” I was going to write for the Mr. Everybody who drifted off to sleep while planning how he’d survive a zombie apocalypse. After the success of “Walking Dead” and “World War Z” it’s likely that just as many people are fantasizing about shooting walkers in the head these days as they are striking out Derek Jeter. Running the “Walking Dead” obstacle course will be my George Plimpton moment.
Finally, a sparkplug of a man wearing camouflage fatigues and a black “Walking Dead” t-shirt emerges from inside the ballpark. He starts barking out instructions as if he were a real drill sergeant. San Diego has been overrun by walkers. There’s an evacuation team waiting for us. If the walkers touch you, you will be infected.
“If the zombies touch us, will you have to set us on fire?” I ask, through the gate.
The man cracks a smile for a second before regaining his militaristic composure. “We will not set you on fire,” he says, forcefully, “but you will have to be disposed of.”
The gates open. The man yells, “Go! Go! Go!”
I haven’t run in years, but I start running anyway. We are led to a triage area where zombies are rising from gurneys and attacking men in white lab coats with the word “FEMA” stenciled across the back of them. I don’t have much time to wonder why FEMA officials are wearing lab coats. The zombies start coming after the crowd. Men and women dressed in paramilitary gear start yelling and motioning at us to climb the staircase.
I charge up the first flight of stairs, but by the fourth flight, my thighs are burning. My already suspect knees start to go wobbly on me. One thing I discover on “The Walking Dead Escape” is that stairs are way scarier than zombies. I make it up six flights of stairs. My ribcage feels like it’s too small to allow enough air into my lungs for what I’m putting myself through. It’s barely been five minutes and I’m already wiped out.
I start running again. I don’t want to, but I do it because everyone else is. When I was five years old, my dad took me to one of those run-of-the-mill haunted houses. The thing scared the crap out of me, even though it was just a bunch of guys in those corny skeleton suits that John Entwistle of the Who used to wear and a strobe light. In fact, I probably knew this at the time since I remember it this way, but I screamed for my dad to get me the hell out of there anyway.
I am 44 now. I am not afraid of the people in zombie getups, even though most of them are way more convincing than those stoners in skeleton suits. What I am afraid of is being trampled into the concrete in front of a hot dog stand by the stampede of fanboys and geek girls that I am a part of. Fear of the crowd itself is what fuels the collective hysteria as everyone goes full-bore through the zombie obstacle course.
I’m a more old school, “Night of the Living Dead” zombie fan. I just want to hole up in an abandoned farmhouse somewhere, board up the windows, slam down some cans of Iron City Beer, and take the occasional potshot at flesh-eating ghouls through the slats. Rolling flaming sofas off the porch and onto slow-moving zombies is about as physical as I ever saw myself getting during an undead apocalypse. I never daydreamed of doing any kind of undead parcour while I was bored in my 10th grade biology class.
Now I have to get on the floor and crawl underneath a makeshift tunnel made from grating and aluminum bars while creepy, young girls in zombie makeup snap at me from above. The ground is covered in theater blood and rubber entrails. My knees already hate me after climbing all those stairs. Now I am pounding them on the pavement to make it though this obstacle. The guy ahead of me holds up traffic while he takes a picture of the creepy zombie girl with his phone. I wish she’d bite a chunk out of his neck. I just want to stand up again.
When I stand up, I jog a few feet and lean on one of the stands where they’d keep mustard and relish dispensers during a ballgame. I gasp for air. A younger dude asks if I’m okay. I motion him along, telling him I’m all right. I promise that if I keel over from a heart attack, I’ll come back as a flesh-eating cadaver. There’s always that. More bloody zombies shamble towards me. I have to run again. I can only muster a jog. The zombies swipe at me. I duck out of the way.
I make onto one of those switchback exit ramps that every ballpark seems to have. I can finally just walk for a while and catch my breath. It’s almost eight years after Hurricane Katrina, and here I am acting out a scenario where FEMA can’t handle a massive disaster, and refugees are packed into a stadium where things only get worse. The whole “Walking Dead Escape” is really eerie when you think of it this way. But at least the toilets aren’t overflowing here like they were at the Superdome during Katrina, and the zombies don’t go into the restrooms.
The lack of zombies on the walkway makes me think that obstacle course is over. I’m wrong. In the fenced-in area where the team busses can park without the fans hassling the players, they’ve erected a giant wooden slide that’s as big as a four-bedroom house. I look at the rungs on the structure. They’re really far apart. Even though I’ve caught my breath, I start breathing heavy and clutching my chest in front of one of the actors in SWAT team body armor. He lets me go around the slide through a tunnel that’s full of concrete blocks. A man in a paramedic’s uniform yells at me to let him through. He’s a real EMT. I get out of his way.
I think the slide may be the grand finale of the whole thing. I’m wrong again. The walkways are littered with beat-up compact cars and more zombies. I somehow navigate through those only to be confronted by another metal tunnel. This one is tall enough for me to walk through in a stoop, saving my knees, but moving the discomfort to my back. There’s also a lady zombie in a wheelchair in the tunnel. Her wheels make her faster than the walking zombies. I try to get into the tunnel with her. She snaps at me. I duck back out. I do this a few times until some other participants come jogging up the walkway. She takes off after them. I get through the tunnel.
I run past one of the spectator areas. My wife, Rosie, is there. She wants me to stop so she can take my picture. The zombies that are ambling around leave me alone long enough for her to take my picture with her phone. Once she’s gotten a couple of shots, the zombies start moving towards me again. I have to start running. “No matter what occurs, I will find you,” I tell her, quoting Daniel Day Lewis in “The Last of the Mohicans.”
I’m near the finish. Some oversized road crash barriers are in my path. There’s no way around them. I have to go up and over. My knees are filing for a divorce. One of the barriers starts to move when I get onto it, so I just push it open and walk through. A zombie is coming behind me so I push it shut again. I finally make it to the trailer where more community theater actors in FEMA labcoats are waiting “test” me “for contagion.” I am cleared. They let me go into the courtyard next to the ticket windows where I can get a free “Walking Dead” poster and a mass market paperback of the “Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor” novel by Robert Kirkman.
Rosie finds me. My jeans are covered in fake blood. I look like shit. She notices my Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull t-shirt. “You’re wearing the bull,” she says, “like the running of the bulls. That’s so Hemingway.”
“Holy shit you’re right,” I say, looking down at my “Hi, I’m an alcoholic from the 70s” shirt. That’s what I just went through. “The Walking Dead Escape” is Pamplona for nerds.
Bob Calhoun is the author of “Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor,” available from Obscuria Press on June 18th. You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.