The likelihood of finding a welcoming family in a world of blood, guts and zombies is slim. But for cosplaying Walking Dead fan Ben Nguyen and many others, that’s exactly what happened at Atlanta’s Walker Stalker Con on Friday, Oct. 28.
“I think that The Walking Dead gives all sorts of different types of people a home,” Nguyen said. “It’s easy to find a character to connect with, and then you throw zombies on top of that, and it gives you an idea of how to kill them.”
Cosplaying, or dressing up as characters from the show, is an outlet allowing fans like Nguyen to express their deep connection with the show and its characters. Nguyen chooses to dress up as Glenn (Steven Yeun), a character who was introduced to the show way back in season one.
“Being an Asian man myself, it’s kind of awesome having a hero in my demographic,” Nguyen said. “Glen started off as this meek little humble dude who delivers pizzas, and he just grows into this formidable storm of a person. I totally like that, and it’s an exemplification of what I want to be.”
Nguyen met some of his closest friends at the Walker Stalker Con in Atlanta. The convention has several different locations around the country and even in Europe. Walker Stalker has provided a safe place for superfans to mingle and feel accepted among their peers.
“For me, I think that these conventions give people an opportunity to live out a little bit of a fantasy,” The Walking Dead executive producer Tom Luse said. “It gives them a connection to the show itself. The fact that our show creates a world a lot of our fans deeply resonate with, and that makes the whole experience very visceral.”
Fans can live out their fantasies of being survivors from the show or even the walkers that terrorize them. Zombie makeup artist Lintu Holman helps turn that fantasy into a reality with the Walking Dead Experience and the zombie apocalypse laser tag.
“With the zombie makeup for the convention fans, honestly, they’re just happy to have blood put on them,” Holman said. “Just to be a part of it is what they love, so to go the extra mile and put on the prosthetics is really cool. When doing the makeup for the experience, you have to be more realistic to make it feel real, but the fans are just like ‘More blood, more blood!’”
The Walking Dead Experience is a full immersion attraction, where the fans can be dropped into the post-apocalyptic world. The attraction runs in groups of seven “survivors” as they try to escape the walkers and make it through alive.
“It’s enough just to get made up like a zombie for a day,” fan Jim Rodenbush said. “But it’s very interesting that a show that has no happy endings has enough popularity to inspire a whole convention. There is no other side for people to get to. It’s a continuous experience of people dying and things happening to your favorite characters. You see the characters grow emotionally, and I think that’s something people can relate to.”
One of the central parts of the convention is the meet-and-greets offered to the fans. They can meet their favorite actors from the show and then take pictures with them or get autographs. The price for selfies usually ranges around $40, and the same goes for autographs.
“I knew I was going to meet Michael Rooker and possibly some of the others, and I wanted to give them drawings as special gifts because I knew some of the other fans did that,” artist Robin Overton said. “They were so excited when I gave it to them, I decided to start selling them at conventions. Michael Cudlitz actually asked for me to make him one.”
Overton works as a vendor at the Walker Stalker Con and sells prints of the drawings he’s made for actors to fans. He’s known by the actors and fans as “the Black and White Guy.”
“The crowd at this convention is nuts,” he said. “The fans get so excited and involved with it. You get people in here sometimes that are so passionate, they can see a drawing of Daryl carrying Beth out of the hospital and they get teary-eyed. It’s so real to them. They can actually meet the actors, so that makes it even more real. Waiting in the lines is worth it because they make it personal for you.”
Walker Stalker has various other guests from other horror genre movies and shows. Among them in Atlanta was Robert Englund, the actor who portrays Freddie Krueger for the Nightmare on Elm Street movie franchise. Englund had a panel and meet-and- greet, but he was also working with Ink-Fusion Empire on a contest for the fans.
“Robert is going to draw a caricature of Freddie,” creator of Ink-Fusion Empire Marc Draven said. “Not a lot of people know that he’s actually a fine artist. After he draws Freddie, we are going to live tattoo it on the fan that wins the raffle for free. All the money we raise will go to a charity, and Robert is going to pick which one that is.”
Ink-Fusion Empire is the only tattoo group to work on live tattoos for the convention circuit. They are also the only organized tattoo group licensed by Lucasfilm. Tattoo artist Tori Robinson has been traveling with the group since its conception.
“We’re all big nerds, so we are in an environment that we love,” Robinson said. “The people at the cons seem to be so much nicer and sweeter, and I can relate to them, but I can’t do that with everyone that comes in my shop. I feel at home here. I could walk up to someone and probably have an hourlong conversation about something we have in common and never know their name.”
Ink-Fusion tattoos live at Walker Stalker and other conventions. They charge a $100 minimum fee for a tattoo, but the end price is determined by the size, detail and time. However, the group will tattoo autographs for only $80. “The show and convention are kind of in the mainstream horror genre,” tattoo artist Lauren JerZy Milner said. “You can get into the blood, the guts and the zombies. It has become more popular, which is super cool.”
Without the Walking Dead comic book series, neither the show nor the convention would be possible. Skybound Entertainment, founded by Robert Kirkman and David Alpert, publishes the series.
“This is a completely Walking Dead-centric show, which is unique because its only one fan base as opposed to Comic-Con,” Skybound Entertainment director of operations Daniel Petersen said. “Everyone is here and excited for the same thing, so it’s a more intense fan experience. It’s way more positive here. Everyone is happy to be here and to interact with actors.
“The Walking Dead fans are so much more creative with their cosplaying. Everyone here is so passionate, and that’s something that I don’t really see in some other fan bases. It’s very family like. Even when they disagree on stuff, they are still respectful of each other’s opinions.”