Many times over the years I have found myself thinking about how I’d react in certain extreme circumstances. From wading through never ending, post-apocalyptic film releases and my obsession with The Walking Dead and most Xbox games that I own, I figure I’d be quite composed and resourceful.
The closest I would say I’d come to any real survival scenario, was during the weekends in my youth that were spend camping with friends in the Welsh mountains, building fires and exploring abandoned tunnels that ran for miles – although nothing had actively tried to kill me on any of these occasions. ‘Dropping’ a can of Lynx Africa onto the fire at 3am was as close to danger as it got! But that was all about to change!
For so long I was unaware of the fight that was being fought in the heart of one of our cities in the North until it came to me in the form of a ticket to hell, cleverly wrapped as a gift. For within the centre of Reading, hidden from plain view, amongst its many run-down buildings, lies a shopping centre engulfed in darkness.
Stood at an underpass that could only be found by the lost, were a group of eighteen others that I’d be joining for my deathly encounter. I started to size everyone up. No-one knew what they were actually heading into and even now I’m going to find it difficult to put across the emotions that I went through.
I sparked up a conversation with the girl next to me who came on her own. Considering everyone looked more than a little trigger happy, it was a good place to start. She seemed clued up, she even knew of places you can train to become an actual zombie. Formalities were ended as the almost invisible metal door in a wall clanged open and an officer took us inside a narrow tunnel. We sat as we signed away our sanity, promising that we were all of strong mental capacity. There was no turning back now!
The doors were slammed shut! A creeping fear of claustrophobia started to rise and knowing that even if I wanted out, how the hell could I ever bail in front of everyone else? I knew that everyone else was in the same place as me, and as soon as all the lights suddenly went out, the universal ‘I just shit myself’ moment somewhat united us all.
We were let down a corridor with sporadic flashes of torchlight. The door we had just entered took a pounding from someone or something, but there was relief as we entered our safe room. Chairs lined the centre and vests covered the wall, Grey Squad are front and centre breaking the news that the world has gone to shit.
Orders were given and we were to accompany the three surviving members to clear out the mall, with us currently being in the basement. Even the connotations of the word basement put me even more on edge. We then learnt about what we might encounter and how to deal with them! We learnt what they can do and how best to take them down, but most importantly we learnt how to survive in the dark.
We were armed with guns and handed vests that contained water and a finger-sized torch – literally, it was the size of a human finger. Although sadly the torches didn’t always work! We were trained up on the lingo so that we could direct others in a panic and hopefully not lose sight of people.
We opened up into a few huge rooms, sheets hanging ominously, breaking up the space. People either had their torch held at the end of their shotguns or were banging it furiously against their chests to make it work again. We had reached target practise! I was told that I had one of the shiny new guns, but my heart sank a little as some of the bb’s unexpectedly rolled out of the end after aiming.
The majority hit their target though and on heading back to the safe room, guns were collected and reissued whilst the tea calmed some more nerves.
Armed, we headed out into the rest of the basement complex and aimed to clear that, plus the next two floors. There were no real lights bar our own torches and the corridors were very narrow. Every doorway we passed, we got ourselves ready. It was the anticipation that was absolutely key to the whole experience.
We reached an end of multiple double doors and with my friend from outside next to me; we were all geared up to go through. Orders were given for some of the guys to storm in, but it’s the doors next to us which we should have been watching. Arms were wrapped around my friend’s neck and she was taken back into the darkness. Being the closest to it, I could only see the head of what took her and my first thought was to shoot her so that she wouldn’t suffer. Panic broke out and we were instructed to ‘fucking run!’
Being the last in a panic stricken line, with a faulty torch, just after your friend has been killed, is not a great place to be. Down corridors, door right, door left, stairs right, we find the control room. The monitors show us the upper floors as we search for a solution. Our hope is rekindled somewhat from what we can see happening, but quickly dissipates. What we do know is that we now need to find someone to help us figure an escape. Naturally, it’s time to split up the group.
Our group were tasked to clear the shopping centre. It’s a cold, cramped arcade with empty, dust filled shops, with full glass fronts that reflect back at you and your tiny torch. We moved like we’d done it for years, searching for the exits to make sure they’re boarded up. What would have been the main entrance is checked and the response from the other side echoes throughout the mall.
Death, luckily for us, could be cured back at the safe room. But the most concerning aspect for me, was when the group was asked if anyone had coulrophobia, a fear of clowns. After watching IT, I’m not sure there are many comfortable with that question.
It was the clown that killed me. He came out of the darkness, at speed, screaming. He took a very close range shot to the gut, but it was too late, he had already dug into my intestines and I died screaming.
Retribution was never an option, for we were finally being evacuated, but trying to find a specific point in such a maze took a while. Our evac point was a dead end and they weren’t ready for us, but all of the undead were. It was a thrilling climax of gunfire and bodies.
What struck with me most was how easy you can willingly accept your change of environment. I found myself acting so methodically and in such a staunch self preservatory way. These weren’t actors they were things I had to kill, or even not kill if posed little threat in order to complete a goal.
There were many other run-ins which I could write forever about in which I genuinely felt threatened. As I’ve mentioned before, the key here is to build up the fear and your imagination does most of the work before you even fire your weapon. The setting itself is fantastic and the little things, like failing torches work brilliantly with the plot to the experience.
I got to meet my killer after the event, plus my friend who was killed and in turn tried to kill me. The zombies themselves looked fantastic and how they behaved during the event was exceptional. The screams that cry out were nerve shredding.
The following few hours adjusting back to normality was a strange experience. Even now it’s hard to walk down any corridor without wanting to keep my back to the wall, bringing my gun up as soon as a doorway opens. For me, it was a mind bending, brilliantly immersive experience. I’ll be heading to The Manor very soon.
Check out the Zed Events website to find out more or to book your zombie experience. Will you stay alive?
Words by Justin Parry
Photography from the Zed Events website