To Watson and other repeat zombies, something about the race jibes with an inner vibration. Run For Your Lives now boasts a subset of super-zombies, a devoted bunch who follow the race for the privilege of freaking out the squares. They even pay for the privilege to do so. Because each Run For Your Lives edition dolls up its zombies professionally with a small army of wardrobe and makeup artists, a turn costs $35. (That also gets you a T-shirt, a medal, snacks, drinks and entry to an on-site, daylong “Apocalypse Party” after your shift.)
“We really try to design a whole experience that’s a complete distraction,” says Derrick Smith, a 29-year-old who co-founded the series with his friend Ryan Hogan. “The ridiculousness of zombies is something people can get into and forget completely about their workweek and have fun for a Saturday. There are different levels of fantasy. There are people who are really attracted to being part of the show.”
Part of this may be because zombie lore, in particular, presents a blank canvas onto which fans can project any number of realistic worries, says Matt Mogk, the head of the Los Angeles–based Zombie Research Society and the author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies. “You never just see one zombie. One zombie equals 10 zombies, which equal tens of millions of zombies, so it’s synonymous with the end of the world,” he says. “The end of the world to you could be, ‘I’m out of college and I can’t get a job,’ or, ‘The ice caps are melting and my town’s going to be underwater in 10 years.’ Either way, zombies fit with that.”
What’s more, zombies as a whole can’t sell out as much as, say, vampires. “The catchall definition we use of a zombie is a relentlessly aggressive human or reanimated human corpse driven by a biological infection,” Mogk explains. That means there’s nothing potentially sexy about them, as opposed to the vampires of Twilight fame. But with the entire world order upended during a zombie apocalypse, it does leave a narrative premise ripe for gallows humor. Zombie comedies have, over the past couple of decades, formed their own special TV and movie sub-subgenre, represented in the mainstream by box-office hits like 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, 2009’s Zombieland and the upcoming World War Z, along with AMC’s small-screen megahit, The Walking Dead.
For proof of the undead’s comedic potential, any skeptic need take just one look at the getup worn by fervent volunteer zombie Ken Rajtar, a friendly 53-year-old IT professional from Atlanta. Rajtar has spooked runners at some five Run For Your Lives races across as many cities. He’s become something of a celebrity at these events. Fans instantly recognize him from yards away, though it’d be hard not to: His trademark costume features his own head between a zombie President Obama mask and a zombie Sarah Palin mask. (The zombie apocalypse will be bipartisan, apparently.) Thanks to an elaborate setup he built, his political cohorts’ eyes glow red and their mouths spit green water, courtesy of a massive lawn sprayer Rajtar hides under a size 5XL hoodie.
A devoted thrill-seeker and adventure racer, Rajtar first caught the zombie bug in December 2011, when he reserved zombie slots for himself, his son, his son-in-law and his daughter as Christmas gifts. The day of the actual race arrived after a particularly rainy week in Georgia. “There were six to 10 inches of mud everywhere, but once you got over the ickiness, it was a lot of fun,” he recalls. He soon found a reason for a business trip to Baltimore, where that city’s second edition of the race was scheduled. And so it’s continued, despite the fact that traveling with the costume is kind of a pain. “I have to pack it in the two largest suitcases [I can find],” he says.