There’s a gun pointed at my face. I’m backed against a wall and a deranged redhead, who I’ve just freed from handcuffs, glares at me from the other end of the pistol. I’m beginning to think setting her free was a bad idea. “Who sent you?” she demands. Then it clicks. “Uncle Joe!” I say quickly, as the prop gun gently touches my forehead. “Why didn’t you say so?” she asks, suddenly cheerful. “How’s he doing?” The card I had in my pocket said to tell her Uncle Joe sent us. It hadn’t said how he was doing. I stammer, “Great.” There’s no more script. I’m at the mercy of whatever plot has been laid out for me. A man lies dead on the couch. I’d grabbed the key to free the redhead from his gutted, bloody stomach. How long until he comes back as a walker? I keep wondering. Does he have a timer, or does he just lay there to scare us while we figure out what the hell we’re doing?
Even as a Walking Dead obsessive, I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Walking Dead Experience: Chapter 1, an interactive play I attended at Walker Stalker Con in New Jersey on Dec. 5. Neither did my friend, who has barely even seen the show. We both arrived expecting to scream, jump, and scramble our way through a haunted house-like attraction. We weren’t disappointed. When it was our turn to experience the Experience—a set of 11 escape rooms, which we hoped to survive along with four other people—things got legitimately terrifying very quickly.
Before we entered, we were each given a card with a number and a snippet of information. We were not to use or divulge our cues and tips to anyone until the precisely the right moment, which would present itself in time. For my part, I was simply told to say Uncle Joe sent us “when she asks.” After we’d gotten our cards and committed them to memory, we trudged one by one into a darkened room and stood where our handler pointed the flashlight. We had to face away from the door and close our eyes until we heard it close.
When the lights turned on, we’d met the redhead, handcuffed to a shelf and begging us to free her through staccato sobs. Obviously once we’d freed her, she turned on us for a while—but having been sent by Uncle Joe was apparently enough to placate her. After she had calmed down and stopped pointing the gun at us, we didn’t have much time to wonder about her story—or who Uncle Joe was. Walkers were banging on the windows, and we had to make a break for it. She held a door open as we bolted into a tunnel with ceilings so low even I, at 5’3, had to hunch forward. As I stumbled through the tunnel, pushed forward by the person behind me, a walker on the ground reached for my ankle. I screamed and hit my head on the ceiling as I bolted past her. As soon as the person behind me got inside, my friend shouted, “Close the door!” I kicked it shut and held it closed with my foot as the walker banged at it from the other side. We soon realized the redhead wasn’t with us. Then we heard her screaming. She was being eaten. Our collective response? “Oh, well.” She wasn’t one of us. She didn’t matter.
For a half hour, that was the game: Various actors chased us from one claustrophobic room to another, and another, and another. The further we got, the more the list of people I cared about shrank. At one point, a little more than halfway through, we narrowly escaped a roomful of walkers by wearing viscera-soaked vests. We bolted up some stairs into another room and slammed the door. As we caught our breath, my heart was pounding, and my throat was tight.
Several rooms and many corpses later, we ran out into the parking lot. We’d done it—we were alive. Of course, we were never in any real danger. But by the end, two of the women we were with were so shaken that they ran out of the last room before it was time—past some fake soldiers who were spraying bullets from some fake AK-47s and yelling, “Get down!”
There’s a reason we pay actors to do all the work: It’s exhausting, and they make it look easy. Also, fake blood is hard to get out in the wash.. But it’s clear why The Walking Dead Experience sold out the day we went: It was riveting—and existentially horrifying—to duck into that universe for a night and test out our own survival skills. When one of our party members shouted “Wait, where’s my sister?!”, and it turned out she hadn’t made it, I didn’t care. Maybe it was because I had been cornered in the previous room and no one had helped me until the last possible moment. Maybe I’m a sociopath. Or maybe I recognized it was just a game. But I was alive, my friend was alive, and that was all I cared about. For all my griping about his poor leadership and lack of concern for others, it turns out I’m basically a far less capable version of Rick Grimes.