COLUMBIA — Every other Thursday, a group of students run around the basement of Rock Bridge High School with Nerf guns, dodging foam bullets and trying to keep from becoming one of the living dead — unless they're already zombies.
The Zombie Defense League, or ZDL as they call it, is a school club that meets weekly, either at Rock Bridge or at a Columbia park, for a live-action role-playing game based on a popular college game, Humans vs. Zombies.
- Zombies start upstairs while the humans assemble.
- If a zombie is shot, he or she must sit down and count to 10 before regenerating. Zombies do not die.
- If a human is tagged or "bitten" by a zombie, he or she is turned into a zombie.
- Be respectful of others.
- Stay alive as long as possible.
- When all of the humans have been turned to zombies, the game begins again.
Part of the current cultural fascination with zombies, the game features humans who try to survive a zombie apocalypse by shooting the zombies with Nerf guns to avoid being turned into one themselves. Meanwhile, the zombies try to tag the humans to turn them into zombies and increase their numbers.
It's a creepy version of tag. The game ends when there are no humans left.
"Zombies are an interesting topic," senior Aaron Rantz said. "Even if there is the slightest possibility it could happen, I want to be at least semi-prepared."
Everyone begins upstairs in sponsor-teacher Shawn Beatty's room where the club officers explain the rules and the humans prepare their guns and ammo.
"Basically, don't be a jerk, and you won't get in trouble," senior Josh Ware, vice president, tells the players on a recent Thursday.
Then, it's down to the basement. Fluorescent lights give a yellow cast to the windowless set of hallways as well as the players. Most are male. The attire of choice is jean shorts and T-shirts for bands such as Lamb of God, Rise Against and The Beatles; a few have wallet chains or wear animal hats.
An "armory," as they call it, of Nerf guns lines one wall so participants who don't have one can still play. Everyone clamors to get a good starting location before they divide themselves into humans or zombies. They usually play two or three rounds a week, and players can decide which side they're on.
Club president and senior Bradley Beckmann, nicknamed "Jesus" because of his brown beard and shoulder-length brown hair, is tasked with keeping the peace and making sure things run smoothly.
This doesn't always work. People duck, dive and run in every direction as packs of humans track the zombies. But as more zombies are created — they call it "spawning" — they unite to hunt the humans.
"No puppy guarding!" Beatty yells as a human stands watch over another human collecting spent bullets.
Beyond supervising the game, Beatty, who teaches Japanese at Rock Bridge, wants to have members learn first aid and raise money for a local charity; he wants to expand on the positive effect he thinks the club has on members.
"It gets these kids out of first-person video games and gets them to be social, which doesn't always happen," he said.
Beatty can be there to supervise only every other Thursday, so on off weeks the club members take their game to Cosmo-Bethel Park, rain or shine. But the attendance remains the same no matter where they are.
Of the nearly 30 people running around a couple of weeks ago, the ratio of male to female was about three to one.
"I love zombie movies, and during the game I like the chasing," said first-time player and sophomore Samantha Carlson. "I like the fear that they're going to catch you."
The club tends to advertise more to boys, club treasurer and junior Sam Cramer said. He thinks the guys are more likely to come because they are more interested in zombie films and in the physicality of the game — but added this was no comment on the female participants.
"We are like a big, happy family killing zombies. Most of my friends are guys and we're all nerds as well," sophomore Shari Grosz said. "It is a lot more fun with less girls because guys know what they're doing with the guns."
The Nerf guns are a large part of the game, and many players take pride in their weapons. Some have modified their guns to have more power or have purchased extra ammunition to carry with them. Still, they're shooting foam bullets, which don't hurt when they hit.
Senior Erik Miller carries two guns with him, the Vulcan and the Stampede. Both are what he called fully automatic and are battery powered. The Vulcan is belt-fed while the Stampede takes magazines.
"I have been playing for three years, and it lets me release some steam," Miller said. "When I have fun, I lose control and this game lets me show my true self."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.