Inside Zombie City: We tagged along with the people behind Louisville’s most theatrical and immersive haunt

Oct 16, 2015 at 5:10 pm
Inside Zombie City: We tagged along with the people behind Louisville’s most theatrical and immersive haunt

In a dark room, with the sounds of screams echoing off the wall, there is a crazy man in a cage, who wants to talk to you. He claims to be a doctor. He claims to be a scientist. He tries to warn you, and tell you the truth about Paragon Corporation, and what they are really doing here in Blackwoods City. He tries to tell you the truth, but the screams are getting closer.

"Here, take this security badge,” he says as his long fingers reach out to you from between the bars. "No one gets out of Blackwoods City without one. No one."

This would be a fairly standard scene in a video game, but you aren't all cozy and safe at home in front of your flat screen playing Resident Evil. No, you are in an actual huge dark room, with actual screams echoing off the walls.

Welcome to Zombie City.

The Asylum Haunted Scream Park, a local haunt that is bound and determined to grow until it is a theme park, continues to offer several successful attractions, but perhaps their most unique haunt is Zombie City, an experiment blurring the lines between immersive theatrical experience and haunted attraction.

This year the Asylum's head haunt-chos, Rick Teachout and Janel Nash, have invited a new director to the experiment. Joey Arena is a haunt veteran and founder of the Baxter Avenue Morgue, The Alley Theater and multiple blood-soaked and successful productions of “Evil Dead: The Musical.”

Arena invited LEO to come see what makes Zombie City special, with a backstage tour, a trip through Zombie City and a chance to suit up and join the action.


During business hours (8 p.m. to 4 a.m.) darkness hides the ugly backside of the Asylum. The rough mounds of dirt and construction equipment turn into foreboding, half-identified shadows, metal teeth and fresh graves.

At 6 p.m., call time for the haunt's cast, you see it for what for what it is: a backstage area and a work in progress.

It's not that guests are being given a half-finished experience, it's just that haunt people never seem satisfied. They always want to add just one more thing, not to mention the constant repairs.

"The only thing harder on the sets than the weather and the guests is the actors," Arena said.

When I found Arena, he was in "the hive," which is what the Asylum people call the tool shop/office/server room that is made out of a couple of retro-fitted shipping containers.

Arena was looking for super glue to repair the top half of a latex brain that is featured in a really important moment. He ends up using duct tape, the long time best friend of anyone who ever had to make something work in less than ideal conditions.

"It's funny, you direct a play, and it's like, ‘all right, play's open, my job is done.’ But this, you work five months, and then the days get even longer after you open," said Arena.

Throughout our conversation, questions and static burst forth from Arena's walkie talkie, and he made a dozen split-second decisions as he worked on that brain.

It got even more hectic when we exited the hive, with Arena walking and talking and answering questions, as we crossed back and forth through the horde of horrors awaiting sunset, when the haunt opens.

And what a horde. It looks kind of like someone went to each high school in the Louisville area and plucked out the five goth kids who are obsessed with horror films, then put them all in one place, with access to power tools and buckets of blood. While there are plenty of twenty- and thirty-somethings, and even a few older souls, haunting takes an incredible amount of energy, and the pay isn't great, so naturally, a lot of teenagers gravitate toward the work.

Throughout the entire backstage area, and with every smiling ghoul and joking serial killer, there is a festive feeling. This is Christmas to these people — the biggest, best time of the year, the month and a half that they get to dress up and scare people.

Time after time, I hear people refer to the group as their "haunt family."

Inside Zombie City

Zombie City has plenty of jumps scares, blood and guts, and chases. But make no mistake, the story and the interaction are what make this haunt special.

Just like the initial interaction with the doctor in the cage, there are various points where audience interaction is demanded. Zombie City wants to scare you, for sure, but they also want to tell you a story, and most of all they want you interact with the story.

The attention to detail is beautiful. A lot of the design elements revolve around The Paragon Corporation, the shady multinational that created the pandora virus and the zombie outbreak. They have labs, security guards and signage throughout the haunt. It looks realistic, from the switches in the laboratories to the insignias on the uniforms of the security guards, which makes it much easier to get lost in the immersive environment.

It's not the scariest haunt I've been to, but it's impossible to deny just how cool it is to be invited to participate in the action.

Time to Get Scary

After I enjoyed the Zombie City experience, it was my turn to scare. I made a quick trip through costume and makeup, and then Nash led me through the twists and turns of the haunt, carefully avoiding paying customers, until we arrived at a makeshift laboratory, where a scientist by the name of Dr. Night was conducting dubious experiments on the zombies of Blackwoods City.

I don't think it's much of spoiler to tell you that Dr. Night's experiments get loose. For a couple of hours, I was one of those experiments, and I chased scared customers from Dr. Night's lab, right into the next scene.

Chasing people while yelling your head off is amazingly fun, but it's also emotionally difficult. To really do a good job you have to stay in an almost constant state of frenzy.

"It's a unique acting challenge, doing the same three or four minute scene a hundred times a night, rather than a two-hour play," said Arena.

It's also incredibly physically draining. I was whipped after an hour and a half, and the actors keep it up for eight hours a night.

Towards the end of my time in Dr. Night's lab, Arena came through with a trick or treat bag. All the actors in my scene gleefully lined up to shove our hands into the bag and pull out some candy. Arena apparently knows feeding a little sugar to his ravenous hordes helps keep spirits high. Maybe even more important, Arena offered the actors compliments and encouragement.

While the set and costumes are impressive, Arena knows it's the actors that make the scenes come alive, and like any good leader, he's quick to give the credit away.

"I can build this amazing playground and these cool toys, but without good actors manning it, I've got a museum."

Zombie City and all the Asylum Scream Park attractions run Friday and Saturday nights throughout October, from 8pm to 2am, and sometimes later if there are still patrons in line. Find more info here.