The line is hundreds deep, snaking around a dark parking lot lorded over by armed men in military riot gear atop the warehouse loading dock. One by one, they check IDs and tickets, then give attendees a gun and push them through the gates of hell.
This fully immersive experience is what Christopher Stafford, co-owner of the 13th Floor Haunted House in Denver, says a haunted house brings to entertainment that other mediums lack.
“You go and sit in a movie, you’re in the dark, but your mind isn’t 100 percent on the activity, whereas a haunted house is a 100 percent immersive experience,” says Stafford. “You’re creating a form of live entertainment that allowed people to fully escape the reality of their normal day-to-day.”
But for Zombie Apocalypse Live!, which will have its second incarnation Friday, Aug. 15 and Saturday, Aug. 16 at the 13th Floor in Denver, that immersion goes a step further. Attendees don’t just stroll through a haunted house, gawking at the horror show all willy-nilly. They are handed a military-replica machine-gun that fires lasers so they can gun down the zombies. A headshot triggers a flash of light and vibration from the sensors mounted to the actor’s heads and down they go; a body shot and they just keep coming.
“It becomes fully interactive,” says Stafford. “You’re now in charge of the story a little bit.”
In short, Zombie Apocalypse Live! is live theater for the video game generation. It works by making the viewer a character and then having them decide if they are the sort that runs screaming, or who straps up like Rambo and soldiers forward.
Stafford started working at a haunted house when he was 15 and never left, keeping it as a part-time gig through high school, college and a career in finance. And after 12 years in banking, he found himself in the position to make the leap and do it full-time.
“Some of my greatest teenage memories were working at the haunted house, and I thought that if I started one, then I could be sure that one day my kids would have those opportunities,” he says.
He started the 13th Floor and grew it to three locations, making sure to work at least one night per season as an actor. It’s a career that he says combines the business acumen he learned in banking with a creative element.
“I know this sounds cliché, but they say if you find something you truly love doing, you’ll never work another day in your life,” he says. “I truly feel I’m one of those people.”
But love it or not, the one problem with the haunted house industry is that it’s only really booming in October. Consequently, Stafford and his team were looking for ways to do more. They tried Christmas and Valentine’s Day events with some success. But then Stafford saw the weapons system at a trade show four years ago and loved the idea of a zombie apocalypse. Because of the logistics, it took a while to put the event together, and in the interim something happened that made zombies bigger than Stafford ever would have thought: The Walking Dead.
“I know so many people that watch The Walking Dead that are not horror fans,” he says. “They see these characters they relate to on an emotional level.”
And as a result, Stafford says, he is finding loads of people interested in shooting zombies that would otherwise have no interest in a haunted house.
It’s also probably why the line to get into Zombie Apocalypse Live! is full of people in full survival regalia. Different groups are wearing camo, gilly-suits and custom-made t-shirts. Their faces are smeared with blood and ash and they are strapped with ropes and canteens.
When we reach the front of the line and are handed our weapons, I ask the soldier training us how much ammo we have.
“Not enough,” he says.
From every nook and cranny they come, and despite the knowledge that no harm will come to us, the atmosphere and moment combine to make it feel real. The adrenaline rush is heightened when a soldier begins barking orders at us mid-maze, and we charge forward, firing single-shots to preserve ammo.
Our team is so absorbed in the moment that when we reach the end and a maze-worker appears to guide us to the exit, we fire over and over again at her head with no effect.
“Why won’t it die!” one of my companions says fearfully.
The employee rolls her eyes, and we are shown outside, back to the relative normalcy and safety of the parking lot, where we can feel the rush slow to a post-thrill buzz.
And then, as if on cue, a zombie lurches out the back door and toward an outhouse to take a pee break.