This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
You don't want me on your team when a zombie outbreak tears down the walls of civilization.
I'm a physically weak, short-sighted reporter who's bad at camping, coordination and confrontations. So naturally, I volunteered for "The Walking Dead Experience."
The "Experience" is a touring haunted house that's making its comic con debut at FanXperience in Salt Lake City. The idea is that a group of "survivors" – that's you – are dropped into the world of the hit AMC show, "The Walking Dead." The paid event is a visceral half hour that knows how to push your fight-or-flight buttons, thanks to encounters with both the "walkers" and potentially dangerous humans, whose goodwill hasn't fared well in the toxic paranoia of a fallen world.
On Thursday, I joined a group of people who took their turn through the apocalypse, working their way through different rooms of the event like Dante working through the circles of Hell. At the start, "The Walking Dead Experience" labeled us "survivors." Not all of us would.
I made sure to chat up everyone in my group before we got started, in case this was the last we'd see a friendly, human face. Here's my group:
• Matt Tapungot, a horror fan and stay-at-home dad, and his 11-year-old son Matty.
• Shana Hamilton, an editor for a rival news agency, who was both nervous and excited.
• David Granato, who works at Fear Factory, a local haunted house. He was our ringer.
• Jeff and Brian, friends from Idaho. Jeff's a retail manager, Brian's a welder. They seemed unflappable.
• A woman in steampunk attire with a good sense of humor. I never caught her name, so we'll call her Goggles.
An "Experience" employee leads us up a dark staircase and into a dimly lit room, where she explains everything we are not supposed to do, in no uncertain terms. She reminds us that her boss is a lawyer. She is not messing around.
She then leads us into a nearly pitch-black room. When she shuts the door behind us, the lights flicker on and our waking nightmare begins.
As with many stories, ours begins with a dead body: specifically, the man splayed on a couch to our right with a gaping, bloody hole where his stomach used to be. Just as disconcerting is a woman handcuffed to the wall, hyperventilating and begging for help.
We're all frozen, but Matt – characteristically, I find – takes the initiative and follows the woman's direction to dig around the man's stomach for a key. But once we free her, the woman's tone takes a serious, sharp left turn and, oh boy, she has a big, shiny gun. Yep, there goes my adrenal gland.
Things are just starting to simmer down when the main attraction arrives: walkers. With the woman firing at them through the glass, we run for our lives.
By now, we're a lot jumpier. As we try to catch our breaths, we can hear a scream in the distance. It strikes me as a warning, like thunder as a storm approaches.
Matt and David are among the closest to the door when a man barges through it, frenzy with fear that we've been bit. But after we prove our vitality, the man proves to be the Vigil to our Dante, and we descend deeper into the bowels of this living hell. Specifically, we have to get past a room full of walkers.
Even though I know the zombies have an explicit rule against touching us, all kinds of internal alarms still go off as the hungry mob of moaning and gargling monsters move in on us in the dark room. We make our way one by one through the tangled web of danger, only to get dangerously cornered. After David and Shana toss cardboard boxes into a far end of the room to distract the sound-focused walkers, we make our escape.
Jeff takes point in the next, locked room, where we shine as a team to solve our way out. Matt shares a high-five with Matty, who proves to be an MVP in this room and the next.
And then our world takes a very dark turn, and I say that in the midst of the undead demise of civilization.
After reaching a weapons room, an armed woman barges in and demands, at gunpoint, that we line up against the wall. David doesn't listen, sticking by the locker. The woman has quickly had enough, the lights go out and gunshots ring out. When the lights return, David is a corpse. (At this point, I start to wonder if he was a plant, or just very good at playing along.)
The woman seems to be our newest, trigger-happy guide, until – well, I'll let you find out for yourself. Needless to say, the final chapter of our story was full of screaming, running, gunfire, hostile paranoia and monsters in the darkness. At some point in the chaos, we lost Shana.
And, in the course of 30 minutes, we had lost ourselves in a nightmare.