On the morning of March 3, 2012, Ken Rajtar’s face was covered with fake blood, bruises and grayish skin. He adjusted his two additional heads – one on each of his Frankenstein-esque shoulders. Just after 6 a.m., he was ready for the day.
Setting off in drizzling rain, Rajtar staggered through 10 inches of mud to chase runners through mazes, over slopes and other obstacles in an effort to either “kill” them, or else turn them into zombies like him.
Rajtar has been a zombie in four “Run for Your Lives” 5K races – one of several increasingly popular zombie-themed adventure runs. The race started in October 2011 as a one-time event in Darlington, Md., created by Ryan Hogan, CEO of Reed Street Productions, to market his line of athletic apparel, WarWear. The 2011 event drew 10,000 participants, leading the company to expand to 12 cities in 2012 and 21 cities this year.
The race takes runners through a series of obstacles — typically set up in large outdoor areas like campgrounds — with designated zombies hiding on the ground, in water or behind trees. Racers, wearing a flag football belt, must find the fastest way to the finish line with at least one of three flags remaining to “survive.” Those who lose their flags are considered “killed,” but can finish the race anyway. In addition, eliminated runners who have registered for the privilege of zombiedom can then get their makeup done and chase the next shift of runners, with a new group starting every 20 minutes.
Hogan’s races raise money for the Baltimore-based Kennedy Krieger Institute, which helps children and adolescents suffering from brain disorders. But for Hogan, the zombie aspect itself is a therapeutic form of escape.
“If we could just for a fraction of a second have you think rethink reality, then we’ve succeeded,” he said.
Other zombie runs have emerged in the last few years. The Zombie Mud Run, started last year by Patrick Konopelski, owner of Shocktoberfest — a 30-acre haunted scream park in Sinking Spring, Pa. — is a similar 5K that has doubled this year from two to four cities.
At Run for Your Lives, most who register as zombies get their outfits and makeup done when they arrive, but Rajtar prepared in advance a special costume for his first race in 2012 with two extra heads and a lawn-sprayer under his sweatshirt that he uses to squirt runners with water or blood (red dye, actually).
He typically takes a break between being a zombie and a runner to stroll around in costume where participants and supporters gather.
“The best reaction is the incredible amount of people who want to take a picture with me,” Rajtar said.
The most recent surge in popularity of the zombie in pop culture began after 9/11, according to Arnold Blumberg, co-author of the book “Zombiemania” and professor of a “Zombies in Popular Media” course at the University of Baltimore. The 2002 movie “28 Days Later” was followed by the debut of “The Walking” Dead comic in 2003, and the “Dawn of the Dead” movie remake in 2004.
“As with all horror, zombies tend to peak in popularity at times of great stress, tension, struggle, and so on,” Blumberg said. “It’s no surprise then that at a time when the nation — and by extension the world — was consumed with fears of terrorism, the zombies emerged again.”
The creatures first hit movie theaters in 1932 in “White Zombie,” arguably a racist distortion of West Indian Voudoun traditions. Zombies were initially depicted as living humans controlled by a master, but they evolved into flesh-eating corpses, most notably in “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968.
Unlike past surges in popularity, the recent one is sustained, Blumberg added.
While Debby Murray and her boyfriend aren’t zombie historians or aficionados, they are fans of the “Walking Dead” television series. More than anything, though, when they heard about the 2012 race in Temecula, Calif., it “sounded like good, clean fun,” Murray said.
It wasn’t without challenges for Murray, a 52-year-old Northern California resident, who went home with scraped knees and bruises. She admits there were a few points where she was actually afraid, in particular when trying to get over one mud hill with no footing, with zombies gaining on her.
“I really had to dig my fingers in,” she said. Just as scary was the “Smokehouse Obstacle,” a tentlike structure with steam and shock-inducing electrodes overhead that she had to crawl through in darkness, without knowing whether the people behind her were zombies or runners.
“I did not survive,” she said. Still, she completed every obstacle in what was her very first 5K race. “I lost all my flags, which at the end was kind of a relief because then you didn’t have to run so hard.”
“It was pretty realistic, maybe what you would have to do during a zombie apocalypse,” she said. “If I can do that, I can do anything.”
In light of the Boston Marathon bombing, Hogan says that Run for Your Lives has toned down its social media, especially since a race is set for Wilmington, Conn., in July.
“With our New England event coming up, we absolutely must stay mindful,” he said. Hogan added that adventure runs like “Tough Mudder” and “Warrior Races” don’t have names that evoke some of the real horror that runners of the Boston Marathon experienced.
Still, according to Blumberg, the horror genre can provide a cathartic way to deal with real-world fears – “to enable us to laugh at the zombie and ourselves at the same time,” he said.
“People that dress up as zombies for charity walks, runs, pub crawls — these are all ways of co-opting the idea and making it a safe way to engage with these monsters, to be comfortable with them,” he said. “In the fiction of a zombie apocalypse, there may be no hope and no way to stop them, but here in the real world, the zombie works for us.”