Unpopular opinions: Halloween sucks, experiential strategy team activities are the most not-fun things ever invented, and the zombie apocalypse is actually a legitimately scary prospect and not entertaining in the least.
These three firmly held beliefs are precisely why I knew I had to check out the Santa Fe Playhouse's Halloween experiential zombie apocalypse team quest. Thankfully, my friend Stefani thought this sounded fun. I figured her enthusiasm would buoy me in my disdain, so I made arrangements for us to preview Santa Fe Dead and sent her a text. She promptly replied that she was out of town that day.
Awesome. Going great.
With Stefani out, I rang my friend Beckie. She, like me, dislikes Halloween, but she's a dependable ride-or-die when I ask her to do things that she, I, or we both hate. God bless her, she said she'd come.
When we arrived at the big empty warehouse in an overgrown lot just off Agua Fría Street, which the Playhouse has rented for the month of October, theater artistic director Vaughn Irving met us outside in the dark. (Irving conceived of the production with Rex Daugherty in 2014 in its East Coast iteration, DC Dead.) As we hashed out the details, he prepped us for how not-done the show was—it was, after all, more than a week before opening. He told us (paraphrased): "You'll be looking for supplies, which we don't have. There are journal entries you find along the way that tell the story of the apocalypse, and they aren't done yet. The guides will be using a lot of props that aren't there. The zombies will be hiding behind set pieces that we're getting in the next few days. There will be more walls, but we haven't built them. No one is really in costume. So … you're gonna have to suspend your disbelief."
Oh yeah. Going great.
Irving brought us inside the warehouse, dubbed Survivor HQ, and prepped us on the premise. The building used to be the last stronghold of humanity, but the undead have taken over everything except the lobby and the briefing room—and somewhere in the overtaken space lies a vaccine. You have to find it. There is an area to leave notes for your loved ones, in case they pass through after you; there is a Wall of Fame for teams that accomplish the route with great success. As you wait in the lobby, other teams' screams from the cavernous concrete building echo through the walls and ceiling. Not cool.
Teams of two to eight people will depart 14 times per evening for the 45-minute tour, led by guides in character, under the direction of Jerry Ferraccio and Matthew K Gutierrez. (The experience is recommended for ages 14 and up, or as young as 9 with an adult.) Beckie and I, on a team of other cast members for practice, were led by a John Shaft-esque gentleman dubbed Soul Train.
We were each given a Nerf gun with four darts—a head shot would kill an approaching zombie. Participants will also get a white T-shirt that will record how many times they get "tagged" (zombie hands leave marks; two tags and you're infected and must be left behind).
Having been briefed and armed, we set off into the danger zone. Narrow hallways, claustrophobic rooms, strange ambient light that created moving shapes behind hanging translucent tarps—yes, this is the actual worst. Beckie grabbed onto my arm. The group kept inviting me to open doors and go first into darkened rooms, and I quickly let them know that they were insane. After winding our way through a few rooms, we came upon a large landing with scattered tables and other shit I just knew some asshole was gonna jump out from behind.
I was right. Bodies popped up all around us and a melee of Nerf darts followed. We were all in street clothes and nothing was quite the way it was going to be by opening night, but it didn't matter. The adrenaline spikes, you panic and can't work the fucking gun, everyone around you is screaming though trying not to (zombies are attracted to sound, you asshole!), there's nowhere to run. We climbed creaky stairs and opened suspicious doors and eyed every last object we encountered with great suspicion (a small cardboard box in the corner was the most terrifying thing ever for a minute) and, when things would occasionally quiet down, another piece of the plot would emerge. A captive girl, pieces of civilization left behind, journal pages, hints to the location of the cure—bit by bit, the Santa Fe Dead world took shape.
At one point, in a second-story wood-paneled room that wouldn't have been at all eerie in any other situation, we were set upon by way the hell too many people coming out of way the hell too many doors. I couldn't get the gun to work (note: It functioned just fine) and as I tried to run to nowhere I barreled full-on into Irving while screaming, "This is the least-cool thing that has ever happened to me!"
So, in short: Sorry for what I said when I was scared, Santa Fe Dead. I panicked, you know? Beckie and I needed a drink pretty bad afterward, but shit, that was fun. And I already have tickets to come back with Stefani.
Santa Fe Dead
6:30 pm (missions depart until 10:15 pm) Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 19-22, and Wednesday-Tuesday, Oct. 25-31. $20-$25.
Santa Fe Dead Survivor HQ,
1400 Boylan Lane;
tickets available through the Playhouse: 988-4262 or santafeplayhouse.org